Last year German Chancellor Angela Merkel did a 180-degree turn on nuclear power for her country’s future. She went from proposing an increased reliance on nukes for electricity to giving up on them entirely. The U-turn was probably the result of a combination of the Fukishima disaster in Japan, more scientific information on hazards for Germany and, most of all, a mighty push from German environmental activists.
Last week, I talked with key organizers in the campaign to shut down the aging Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire. They find that the United States is still conflicted about its nuclear future. Campaigners are using civil disobedience to protest the extension of life of the plant, which is supposed to be retired but isn’t. One problem for the campaigners is the pro-nuke stand being taken by families of the plant’s workers.
On February 9, President Barack Obama permitted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve a license for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, the first new license in 34 years. To further complicate matters, some well-known environmentalists have come out in favor of nuclear power because coal plants have so much worse a carbon footprint.
Dr. Steve Chase, an environmental studies professor at Antioch University who’s been arrested in the Vermont Yankee campaign, says:
In my affinity group, the majority of us believe that we should rapidly phase out all nuclear power plants because of the unresolved health and safety risks of nuclear power. A minority of us, however, agree with NASA climate scientist James Hanson that we may need to keep some of the best designed and managed nuke plants around over the next 50 to 100 years as we transition to a low carbon economy. However, we all agree that we need to close nuclear plants like Vermont Yankee, which is an aging, poorly designed Mark I reactor that is leaking, accident-prone and mismanaged by an unethical and unreliable corporation that has gone rogue in refusing to follow Vermont State law. We all agree on that!
The Vermont Yankee campaigners I talked to were in wonderment that, for a change, they do have significant political leadership on their side, including Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who campaigned on a platform of shutting it down.
Because the state’s stipulation was that the power plant would be shut down by now, Vermont has quit buying the electricity. Entergy, the New Orleans-based energy company that owns the plant, continues to sell power to others. The debate about whether the plant must be retired is in the courts while the campaigners organize and fine-tune their direct action strategy.
The Vermont Yankee fight is just one more in a long tradition. The Global Nonviolent Action Database includes 20 anti-nuclear energy campaigns, from eight countries including Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Scotland and the Basque country of Spain. In Bulgaria in 1989, environmentalists ended up broadening their campaign to the point of overthrowing Communist rule!
The Germans pulled off what was arguably the largest construction site occupation in history at Whyl, with between 20,000 and 30,000 participants. Then, in 2008, they launched a three-year campaign to nail down their earlier victory. The 1975 Whyl occupation inspired people in the U.S. to occupy the New Hampshire nuclear site at Seabrook in 1977, resulting in 400 arrests. Thinking about today’s situation in the United States has me wondering if we should allow the Germans to inspire us again.
U.S. environmentalists won an amazing victory with a series of campaigns beginning with a win in 1962 in Bodega Bay, California. The U.S. movement was up against a staggering array of power: the utilities, the construction companies that wanted to build the plants, the big banks that wanted to finance them, the giant firms like General Electric that provided the hardware, the state governments and the federal government. Labor — usually a progressive force in the U.S. — was split because of the jobs at stake. How could a grassroots movement win against all that? (Occupy: take note!)
I’m grateful to the late Bill Moyer, a friend and a leading strategist for the anti-nukes movement, for revealing the secret of success in his book Doing Democracy. Of course, not every individual U.S. anti-nuke campaign was successful. Shoreham, N.Y., yes; Maine Yankee, no; Rancho Seco, Calif., yes; Limerick, Pa., no. It was vital, though, that those individual campaigns be fought hard and well, because they built a groundswell of national opinion against nuclear power.
The proof of how much of a difference a movement makes, for instance, is in the different reactions to Detroit and Three Mile Island. In 1966, there was a partial meltdown in the Fermi plant in Detroit and, as a book title later put it, We Almost Lost Detroit. Yet there was no significant public reaction to this near-catastrophe. Because of the hard work of tens of thousands of activists all over the country after 1966, however, when the Three Mile Island reactor melted down in Pennsylvania in 1979, the U.S. had a moment of truth. The public reacted. The environmentalist movement surged.
At that moment, a de facto moratorium on new nuclear plant orders began. The 1 percent lost the prospect of huge profits, and the 99 percent won. It’s hard for me to understand why most environmental leaders don’t tell this story anew to each generation.
Today provides a new historical moment. Since victories are never permanent, and the Vermont Yankee campaigners are already in motion, this might be the time to adapt the German scenario to U.S. strengths and particularities.
In 2008 Germans launched their new campaign — not in the capital of Berlin, please notice, but in the countryside — trying to prevent transportation of 123 tons of radioactive nuclear waste to a storage site in Gorleben. Some chained themselves to concrete blocks along the rail line, while others staged sit-ins on the track and others used 300 farm tractors to do the same. It was the first large-scale anti-nuclear protest in seven years.
The activists followed up with a series of blockades and other actions. Thanks to the government’s refusal to bend, and a deep commitment to organizing on the part of the campaigners, the actions escalated to tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands. On June 30, 2011, the parliament approved a law placing Germany back on schedule to be nuclear-free by 2021.
The larger meaning of the anti-nuclear campaigns is not that we nationally should all drop whatever we’re doing and organize around nuclear power. Maybe tar sands is more urgent for some this year, or mountaintop removal coal mining is the win most needed for others.
But I see two lessons. First, a sustained series of actions can accomplish what no One-Day Wonder ever can. Second, a well-built bandwagon enables the rest of us to hop on at critical points even though our main focus may remain on a different task.
The job of the anti-nuke organizers is to build that bandwagon well, which includes planning creative nonviolent direct actions that invite the allies to join. The good news is that today’s anti-nukers can build on a great — and winning — legacy.
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