by Ken Kelley
It seems unimaginable, several decades after accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, to hear people like President Obama tout nuclear power as a clean source of energy. Obama announced $8 billion in taxpayer subsidies last year to build two reactors in Georgia, despite the fact that—from the mining of uranium to the unresolved issue of disposal of highly toxic radioactive waste—nuclear power is the most environmentally dangerous way of generating electricity.
While the Georgia reactors will be the first built in the U.S. since the 1970s, there are over 60 new nuclear plants under construction worldwide, mostly in Asian countries like China, India, and South Korea. Talk of a “nuclear renaissance”—as if it were some kind of cultural reawakening—has brought me back to the heyday of the anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s, when it seemed that the industry was on the ropes and that nuclear power would soon be a thing of the past, leaving only its toxic legacy for future generations to deal with.
I remember one late afternoon on a hot spring day in 1977, as I waited with other members of the Clamshell Alliance to be arrested for the third occupation of the construction site at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. At dusk, a state trooper led me on to a school bus, packed with chanting protestors.
It felt exhilarating to be surrounded by comrades, singing old union songs, as we drove off into the darkness for booking and eventual housing. Over 1,400 people were arrested, quickly filling local jails, so for 600 of us—myself included—jail became the floor of Manchester National Guard Armory. Our numbers overwhelmed New Hampshire’s legal system, and since most refused to post bail, the state was forced to house and feed us, at one point sending out for McDonald’s Big Macs.
Following the occupation, groups with names like the Abalone and Palmetto Alliance formed to fight nuclear plants across the country. But as plans were made to return to Seabrook, splits developed in the Clamshell Alliance over tactics. One group of Quakers and pacifists felt civil disobedience was the only possible action, while more radical members wanted to take other measures to stop the nuke.
Weeks were spent discussing whether cutting fences to enter the plant constituted violence, and whether we should elude police instead of sitting down and waiting to be arrested. During one meeting, I happened to read news that the Basque separatist group ETA, had bombed a nuclear plant under construction in Lemoniz, Spain—a sign that for some, the fight against nuclear power had progressed beyond arguments about the morality of cutting holes in fences. In the end, the planned re-occupation never took place, but many of us, tired of the endless rules of the Clamshell, vowed to return to Seabrook at a later date.
And so in October 1979, several months after Three Mile Island, we returned as the Coalition for Direct Action to try again to stop the nuke. One morning before sunrise, several thousand of us trudged across the Seabrook salt marsh toward the fences surrounding the plant, a sense of excitement in the air.
As we reached the fence, we saw hundreds of riot police waiting on the other side. Immediately, members of our group with wire cutters began cutting it from the posts, while others used hooks and ropes to try to pull it down. Some with plywood tried to prevent police batons from punching through to repel people. Plastic sheets were used to block the mace that cops sprayed on us. When police launched tear gas over the fence, people cheered and threw the canisters back.
Despite our best efforts, the fences were not breached and we were driven off. The following day, we entered the site from an access road and temporarily blocked it with downed trees, until a line of riot police appeared, forcing another retreat. While sections of fence were taken down at night, the plant was never occupied, and work continued.
It was in May 1980 that we mustered a smaller group of 1,000 to try again to halt construction of Seabrook, now over half built. On the first day, it was clear the authorities were ready for us. Our attempts to cut down sections of fence in wooded areas were met with an instant response from police on the ground, aided by helicopters that tracked us from above.
Regrouping that night around campfires, we resolved to block Route 1, which ran by the Seabrook plant. While the cops tolerated us using trees and debris to block the plant entrance, they were intent on keeping the road open, and used force to break through our lines. Swinging their batons, they came at us as we locked our arms together. One cop delivered a smashing blow to my thigh, and I limped away in pain. We regrouped.
Losing all patience, the police descended upon us again, batons swinging. One directed his at the throat of a woman sitting in the road in front of me. I grabbed the end of his club, thinking I could yank it from his hands.
For a second our eyes met and I let go, realizing he was not going to. I turned to escape and felt his free hand catch hold of my collar. In panic I started running down the embankment, with the cop still attached.
Out of nowhere, a member of my affinity group, built like a linebacker, delivered a body block to the cop, knocking him down. Suddenly free, I looked around and saw my savior smile before he raced off into the crowd.
Such are the moments of humanity that characterize the continuing struggle against a system that puts profit before human life.
Ken Kelley is a marine biologist who has previously written on nuclear issues, including the effects of radiation on the marine food chain. He presently fishes for bay scallops in Nantucket, Massachusetts.