From the Seabrook Occupation to the New Resurgence of Nukes

Clamshell Quilts made by members of "Sisters of Silkwood"
Clamshell Quilts made by members of "Sisters of Silkwood"

by Hayat Imam

On April 30, 1977, 44 years ago, 2000 of us sat in to protest the Seabrook, New Hampshire, Nuclear Power Plant construction site. Trained by seasoned veterans of civil disobedience movements, we were organized into dozens of small affinity groups, committed to preventing the construction of the nuclear plants through non-violent action. Every group picked a name for itself, and my group was called the “Karen Silkwood Memorial Brigade”, later to be known as “Sisters of Silkwood”.

Some clear-sighted New England anti-nuclear activists co-founded the Clamshell Alliance in 1976, jolted into action by President Nixon’s proposal to build 1000 Nuclear Power Plants by 2000. Hats off to Paul Gunter, Howie Hawkins, Howard Morland, Harvey Wasserman, Guy Chichester, Robert “Renny “ Cushing, and others. They put out a call for this mass action to stop the two planned nuclear power plants. And thousands of us responded from all walks of life, labor organizers, the women’s movement, Quakers, native tribes, and outraged civil society. We could say that many of us were in a state of radical disillusionment with government, and with the corporate interests who fuel the government. We had gone through the Vietnam War, Kent State, the lagging civil rights movement, assassinations of our best, and, in my case, the United States’ tilt towards Pakistan as it massacred the Bengalis of East Pakistan.

From start to finish, our commitment to non-violence stayed firm but we were outraged that crucial decisions, such as building nuclear power plants near densely populated towns, were being taken without a full accounting of our concerns regarding safety, radiation leaks, dangers of accidents, lack of evacuation plans, vulnerabilities to terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Most crucially, we were being asked to jump into a future without any solution to the problem of disposing of nuclear waste that would remain highly radioactive for hundreds, if not, thousands of years. The politicians and utilities were operating without consulting the citizens directly affected, and put in harm’s way by their decisions. For this principle, 2000 people occupied the construction site that April 1977, and 1414 people went limp when the police and National Guard arrived, allowing themselves to be carted off to jail.

I was not one of those arrested for two reasons. The action plan included some 200 of us whose task it was to be Support People for those arrested, providing the essential connections to family and resources, in those pre-cell phone days. We also served as spokespeople for media and links to legal assistance. A more personal reason for me to avoid being arrested with my affinity group, and my husband, was that I had not chosen to take up US citizenship yet, and feared deportation if arrested. (What does not always get flagged in the immigrant story is how emotionally difficult it is for many of us to finally give up our original nationality. And while I had been lagging behind in taking up US citizenship, this incident was a wake up call to get it done. I sometimes joke that I became a citizen so I could get arrested…)

The commitment of the 1414 people who got arrested was remarkable. They were brave but not aggressive. Most important they kept solidarity with each other and operated as one. No one accepted bail or release unless everyone got it. Within days, the problem of housing and feeding over a thousand people became a logistical nightmare for the New Hampshire administration. After about two weeks, all arrested were released on their personal recognizance.

This mass demonstration in 1977, was the largest organized anti-nuclear campaign in the United States, and it received the most media attention. But, the mass action was followed by continuing organizing against nuclear power. We held more rallies, conducted unceasing public education, many locally organized smaller actions, and media events. In 1978, I was an organizing member of the Boston to Seabrook Safe Energy Walk. After five days of walking, and connecting with groups on route, we joined up with the on-site antinuclear rally attended by 20,000 people. Clamshell Alliance burgeoned across the country as a model: in other parts of the US, we had the Abalone Alliance, the Crabshell Alliance, the Oystershell Alliance, and others!

Undergirding the antinuclear movement was our alarm at the paucity of our democracy; it was our lives, our safety, our taxpayer dollars, but critical decisions were being made, with no say from us. This conscious grievance gave life to an extraordinary level of equality and effort in the early days of our Clamshell Alliance decision-making. Everyone had a voice at the meetings. Local groups hashed out issues and then sent their representatives, called “Spokes”, to the main meeting with their positions. All final decisions were made by consensus. Women, the young, all received equal time. We watched in awe as our young cohorts, with their fire-brand self-confidence, took full advantage of the egalitarian platform: Jenny ably went head to head in a debate against the head of a utility company; Brenda stood on stage, before hundreds, as MC of a Holly Near anti-nuclear concert; 17 year old Diane facilitated difficult Clamshell Alliance meetings of dozens of attendees from New England, and held her own!

Actions by the Clamshell Alliance, and other groups, aided by the run-away costs of building and operating plants (recently, two Georgia plants being built were running at $10 Billion or more each), resulted in a 30-year moratorium on construction of new Nuclear Power Plants! Undoubtedly, the frightening 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania (remember “We all live in Pennsylvania”?) also added urgency to our work, and dramatically raised public awareness about the dangers of nuclear power. Four other mothers and I felt galvanized to write WATERMELONS NOT WAR – A Handbook for Parenting in the Nuclear Age. We hoped to support parents and children, show how nuclear power and nuclear weapons are flipsides of the same coin, and capture the extent to which this is a Faustian bargain. For short-term gain we cannot accept a reckless disregard for the future.

The devastating accidents at nuclear power plants in Chernobyl, Soviet Union (1986) and Fukushima Daiichi, Japan (2011), affecting thousands with radiation poisoning, have fully justified the move away from Nuclear power in the US.  Until now, that is. With the sympathetic Trump administration in office, the Department of Energy declared its intention of reviving the nuclear industry by constructing 100 new Nuclear Plants. It also proposed building a Uranium Reserve, and initiated an Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program for which Congress provided $230 million.

What about New Nuclear Reactor Designs?

Because public skepticism about nuclear power technologies is still very high, a new sleight of hand strategy has been to innovate reactors that are smaller in size. These are called Small Modular Reactors (SMR) and are being marketed as new and better generations of reactors. But according to Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, there’s nothing new about them as they are based on technologies from the 1950’s, which were discarded back then as impractical and risky.

A typical reactor cranks out 1 billion watts of power. By contrast, an SMR would produce just 60 million watts. The idea is to stack together 12 SMRs side by side (like beer cans in a six-pack) to form a “power plant”, producing 720 million watts together. A company called NuScale in Oregon has been paid by DOE to build an SMR by 2023. Normally before a prototype is built, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has to pass licensing reviews, which take years of careful vetting. But, it turns out, if the product is built on a DOE facility, it can be both licensed and constructed at the same time. Obviously, this means that the crucial tests that should have been done before the licensing of the prototypes, are being bypassed. Let’s also remember that the DOE’s interest in nuclear weapons is very real, thus, it’s fostering of SMR’s have much to do with interest in using portable nukes on the battlefield.

NuScale is already trying to cut costs and make little nuclear reactors at bargain basement prices. For example the company has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to eliminate the requirement for back-up electrical power, because it claims its reactors can shut down without power. NuScale also wants a waiver of the emergency evacuation zone, because it says there’s no risk of radiation spreading beyond its boundary. (Remember, you heard it here: NuScale’s radiation will refuse to travel beyond the perimeter of the factory!)

Another Small Modular Reactor news story is Bill Gates’ investment in the Natrium Nuclear Power Reactor through his company, TerraPower. This SMR uses liquid sodium as a coolant rather than the traditional water. This is being promoted as a supplement, for use during down times in renewable energy power plants, owing to weather or other conditions. It is being marketed as clean and green, a mitigation for climate change. Gates wants to build thousands of these small nuclear reactors in the US and elsewhere, as well as export the technology to countries that have never built nuclear power plants before. Red flags abound!

The first thing to point out is Chemistry 101: liquid sodium in the presence of water or air can catch fire. So what is being proposed is to use a potentially flammable coolant! This truly boggles the mind.

Furthermore, a standard commercial reactor burns fuel that is up to 5% Uranium 235, while the Natrium, with its salt based coolant, would need fuels containing 20% Uranium 235 – essentially this SMR would use 4 times more Uranium. First of all, the world is running out of Uranium, so this plan is not sustainable. Secondly the enriched Uranium could be targets for terrorist attacks because the enriched Uranium could be stolen for nuclear weapons use. When Bill Gates talks about thousands of nuclear reactors all over the world, what about accidents? What about radiation leaks? What about additional nuclear waste? Even if each unit creates less waste and leaks, the cumulative effect could be horrifying.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that smaller nuclear reactors do not make economic sense either. Larger reactors produce electricity at a lower cost due to economies of scale. SMRs would be less cost-competitive on a per kilowatt basis. And, let’s remember, all the years of development are being funded by huge taxpayer subsidies. If these dollars could be used to develop and plan a green economy, we would be far, far better off.

We, the antinuclear movement, were right in 1977 and we are still right. We need to continue to push against energy systems that are centralized, huge, and owned by small monopolies of energy companies. The hidden costs of nuclear power plants have not changed and still include waste, safety, decommissioning costs. We must still fight to shift subsidies from nuclear and fossil fuels to green technologies and renewable energies.

Lessons for Future Organizing

I end with a quick look at some lessons from the anti-nuclear movement that stay with me, and that could be applied to our organizing today:

  1. The brilliant strategy of creating affinity groups for support is a lifelong gift. My affinity group and I still support each other’s activism. This goes for my book-writing group, and the community of mothers who brought up our children under each other’s compassionate gaze.
  2. Affinity groups for mass demonstrations are a proven success. I believe the affinity group structure could be very usefully applied to our rallies today, especially those in support of Black Lives Matter. It would provide support and also be an important tool to prevent infiltration by provocateurs.
  3. I think we didn’t push our advantage after the gains of the antinuclear movement, by organizing harder for Renewable Energy, and other alternatives. Let’s look for this advantage today. It’s never too late, but more urgent than ever.
  4. The antinuclear movement would have had greater strength and flexibility if we had broadened our community and our vision. We’ve learned that peace, social justice and environmental justice are inseparable from each other – and will be powered or fractured together.
  5. Finally, we must expose the hype that nuclear power, emanating from large or small nuclear reactors, are a solution to the climate change disaster we face. The SMR’s are simply adding another ill-advised, rapacious idea to the mix. Let us, for once, listen to what the scientists are telling us, and have been since Einstein, humanity must shelve nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Let’s organize against this direction – as if our lives depend on it.