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Current Opinion: Beyond Seabrook
by Scott Schneider
After a year of preparation for the illegal “occupation-restoration” at the Seabrook nuclear plant on June 24th (the fourth occupation), New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson on June 12th proposed a four-day “legal demonstration” on the neighboring 18 acre Seabrook dump- and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame. Was the Governor’s offer a victory for the Clamshell Alliance in their struggle to stop the nuke? Or was it cooptation?
Most of the members and supporters of Clamshell had their hearts set on the civil disobedience of a nonviolent occupation; to many, the only way to stop the nuke seemed to be through such non-violent intervention. Yet for several reasons the Clamshell leadership decided to accept the offer to hold a legal rally. The local Seabrook residents – whose support was essential – harrassed by Public Service Company employees, threatened with tax hikes, and buzzed by state helicopters were becoming hostile to the occupation and less willing to cooperate. The occupation, by requiring a strong commitment and a willingness to risk arrest, was an activity that only a few could participate in. Some people even began questioning the effectiveness of occupation tactics.
Educating the public is an important task, and so even though the legal rally didn’t interfere with construction at all, it helped educate thousands and perhaps was what was needed now. Although almost everyone connected with Clamshell condemned the process by which the decision not to occupy was reached (because it was made by a small group of leaders rather than using the traditional Clamshell consensus model), in retrospect most seemed to agree that the decision itself was the right one.
Eighteen to twenty thousand people came to Seabrook, making it the largest anti-nuke demonstration this country has ever seen. The rally was a curious mixture of alternative energy fair, Woodstock, and political huckstering – as expected – but there was also a new emphasis on the political nature of the anti-nuke struggle. There was little doubt that people in the crowd had, after two days of speeches, discussions, workshops and demonstrations, firmed their resolve to stop the Seabrook plant and nuclear power in general. But perhaps what wasn’t as clear to the demonstrators was that the purpose of stopping the Seabrook plant should not be just to eliminate the very real hazards of nuclear energy or even to start decentralizing and humanizing technology. The real purpose should be to change the relations of power in our society. The pro-nuclear people know this. A pro-nuclear advertisement in the Boston Globe before the rally stated very explicitly, “For many the real goal is a major change in American society. Nuclear power is not a central issue itself, but rather the clamor against it is a tool, a lever to be applied in creating an upheaval of our social, economic, and political patterns of life.”
The potential impact of public action became clear during the sixties, when the Vietnam War met with widespread opposition. But the anti-war movement represented more than just opposition to one particular war. It was an attempt at popular control over foreign policy. And although it didn’t concretely change the relations of power substantially, it did change the consciousness of the entire country and of the world. People became skeptical of government and of our role in foreign political struggles. They became aware that we could not leave it up to the experts to make decisions for us, since the interests politicians were looking out for were not our interests but those of corporations with foreign investments and the elite which owns those corporations. The anti-war movement was a political education for millions of people, politicizing many of our generation. The anti-nuclear movement has similar potential.
During the complacent seventies, the anti-nuclear movement has become a major focus of radical activity. But more importantly it represents a growing mistrust of high technology and resentment against the arrogance of science. People are demanding a say in how technology is to be developed, which risks we should be willing to take, and at what costs. The movement has been gathering steam and gaining widespread support all over the country and from many segments of society.
The government’s response to the nuclear struggle has been predictably mixed. One week after the Seabrook rally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (following two demonstrations outside its meetings in Manchester, N.H. and Washington, D.C.) voted to halt the construction of the Seabrook plant until a safe cooling system could be devised or a better site found. Meanwhile, that same week the Supreme Court announced that “Congress’s concern for stimulating the involvement of private industry in the production of electrical energy through the use of atomic power” was sufficient reason to limit the liability of nuclear plants to only $560 million (the government’s own conversative estimates of potential damage from a nuclear accident includes $14 billion in property damage, 3,300 deaths, over 90,000 illnesses, 3,200 sq. mi. contaminated, and a dramatic rise in the cancer rate and a number of genetic defects.
The pro-nuke supporters feel threatened and have become more vocal, promulgating the usual lies about the movement being a threat to our standard of living and our jobs. In fact, this country can get along very well without nuclear power, even in the face of an energy crisis and oil embargo. The government recently estimated that our under-utilized hydroelectric resources could provide the equivalent of 85 nuclear power plants(2). Solar energy is feasible now and, according to the Energy Department, could be providing a very significant portion of our energy needs, especially for home heating(3). Co-generation of electricity from industrial waste heat could generate much of our industrial electricity, and energy conversion will yield us the biggest savings yet(4). We could have our energy cake and eat it too, by cutting waste, better utilizing our present resources, and using clean alternative sources of energy.
It’s also clear that nuclear power has not and cannot be a solution to the unemployment problem. The jobs it creates are too few and too temporary. Once nuclear plants are in operation, they require few operators, and the safety of jobs in the plants, given the serious effects of exposure to low-level radiation, must be questioned. In addition, the plants only last for 20-30 years, after which they must be shut down, and no one at present even knows what to do with them then (i.e., how to decommission them). Developing, producing and maintaining alternative energy technology would provide much more steady work for people.
The nuclear power picture looks even grimmer when we check the economics of the situation. It is very simply not economical anymore. Safety regulations, environmental safeguards, the cost of waste storage and decommissioning, the construction delays, and inflation have eaten into the profits to be had from nuclear power. The companies have tried to pass these costs on to the consumer, but rate hike battles are becoming commonplace. Who wants to pay more to get energy from a nuclear plant which is unsafe, unhealthy to live near, and unecological?
The power companies are thus under pressure from anti-nuke groups, governmental regulations, and skyrocketing costs to stop this nuclear nonsense and are beginning to come to their senses. Construction on many plants has halted, and currently there are far fewer new nuclear plants being ordered. As usual, economics prevails. The industry will only stop building and running nuclear plants when it can no longer profit from them. And that day is fast approaching.
The real question to ask then becomes: So after they stop, what do we do next? The anti-war movement, because it had one goal in mind – to stop the war – fizzled when the war ended. When the Clamshell finally stops the Seabrook nuke and eventually all nukes are stopped, then what do they do next?
In reality, the nuclear industry is merely a symptom of the more fundamental problem, capitalism. As rally speaker John Gofman, who worked on the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, pointed out: “Nuclear power is a symptom, albeit a very serious symptom, of societal disease … The disease is the existence of privilege and power.” As long as there are profits to be had, the industry will survive. And as long as it is “acceptable” and “healthy” to make profits without regard to the hazards and costs to the people, the problem will continue. People and the environment will continue to come after profits, and concerns for safety, environmental hazards, and dehumanization of work will be secondary.
And this is the reason that the anti-nuke movement has potentially such a broad appeal; it addresses people’s immediate concerns, their own welfare. By beginning to speak to people about their concerns, the anti-nuke movement could broaden its constituency and build ties with the rest of the movement on the left. And the anti-nuke movement is beginning to do that. By fighting rate hikes that result from nuclear power, by building alliances with those in labor who see through false threat of lost jobs and are concerned for the safety of workers and for long-term employment, and by cultivating the realization that a good clean environment is important and is not incompatible with creating jobs for people, we can begin to create the same skepticism that the anti-war movement and Watergate encouraged. This time, though, let the goal be to attack the problems at their roots rather than performing cosmetic surgery.