We Just Can't Afford...

"We can't afford to be afraid any more."

That was the conclusion of a pro-nuclear advertisement on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. It told of the long experience the nuclear industry has had in providing safe, cheap, reliable power. It warned that we can't allow a tiny group of environmental extremists, who want to throw civilization back into the Stone Age, to worry us with their outdated fears about radiation.

Then came that inevitable twist in logic--you know, the one you always find in advertisements on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. It said that the industry was too young to have put a permanent solution to the radioactive waste problem into practice. But the best scientists are working on it, the ad said, so the problem is as good as solved.

It then complained that utility rate hikes are needed, and plants are being cancelled, because of costly delays in the licensing process. It said that nuclear plants could operate more efficiently (they presently run at about 60 per cent of their capacity) were it not for unreasonable environmental restrictions. It ended by saying that we all want solar power, but that it relies on a technology that's far in the future.

Twist 1: it turns out that nuclear power right now is neither safe, cheap nor reliable. Twist 2: we are asked to put our fears aside and have faith in the nuclear industry because of its long history, though we aren't to expect too much from it because it's really too young to have any of the real answers. Twist 3: we are told that environmentalists want us living in the Stone Age, but we don't have the technology for that yet.


Well, I was still afraid. I had read, though not on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, that .000001 grams of plutonium will cause lung cancer if inhaled, that each nuclear reaction produces about 200,000 grams of plutonium every year, and that plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. The record of America's 67 licensed plants is replete with accounts of major spills, leaks, material unaccounted for, and narrowly averted catastrophic accidents.

But aside from all this, I think most people are afraid because radiation, and the technology needed to bring enough radiation together to produce 1300 megawatts of electricity, are just plain scary. If most people were not afraid, after all, that ad, aimed at frightened people, would not have been put on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

Indeed, even the conservative insurance companies are afraid, for they refuse to insure nuclear reactors. And the government must be afraid, because it will insure reactors for only $563 million, 1 per cent of the damage that would be caused by the worst credible accident. Beyond that, there is no liability for accident damage. It is a simple fact of the nuclear world that we cannot afford to be unafraid.

But we can't afford to be just afraid any more.

On June 24 an estimated 5000-10,000 people will occupy the site of the proposed nuclear reactor in Seabrook, N.H., now in the initial stages of construction, and attempt to restore the site to its natural state. Seabrook has great personal importance for me. It is a vision of people living in safety, health and freedom. It is a chance to assert that vision through action. Seabrook is a way to afford the fear that we must afford.

The struggle to stop the Seabrook plant, to be located on the banks of an environmentally sensitive shellfish estuary, began with a barrage of litigation by local seacoast groups and national environmental organizations. But the courts were an unsuitable place for poorly financed public interest groups to take on the financial giants of the nuclear establishment.

Judges, after years of exposure to those advertisements on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, were not about to let local clamor interfere with the congressional mandate for nuclear power. No matter that the people of Seabrook voted the plant down twice--the referenda, after all, were non-binding.

So the message had to be delivered in other ways. The seacoast people joined with about a dozen other New England groups that had been fighting nuclear power in their own communities (New England has seven licensed reactors, one under construction, and eight more proposed) and formed an umbrella organization, the Clamshell Alliance. The name honors the first people to oppose the Seabrook plant, the clam diggers of Seabrook, in order to highlight the fact that the alliance gains its power from local working-class concerns about nuclear power's effect on the quality of life and the ability to earn a living.

The strategy would be that of mass non-violent civil disobedience and public education, a strategy that had proved successful in permanently halting the construction of a nuclear plant in Wyhl, West Germany.

On August 1, 1976, 18 Clamshell people marched onto the Seabrook site. They were arrested, but three weeks later, 180 followed. Last April 30 the marchers numbered over 2000. Of them, 1414 were arrested and put into New Hampshire armories, where a self-imposed jail solidarity kept hundreds for almost two weeks, until a mass release was arranged.