Splitting The Atom Industry
ONE of the most hard-fought issues of ecology and development in the US is about to be resolved in the people's favour, and the overall ramifications of that victory could cut deep into how American society is run.
For it now appears that the long-term proliferation of atomic power reactors here is all but over. ‘Unless I miss my guess.’ say’s influential energy’ analyst Charles Komonoft ‘there will never be another order for a commercial atomic power plant in the United States.
Even hard-core nuclear supporters have been forced to agree. The pace-setting Wall Street investment firm of Merrill Lynch has advised American utilities to drop as many as 18 reactor projects, some of them far along in the construction phase.
In the 1960s, planners for the Atomic Energy Commission talked seriously of 2000 reactors here by the year 2000. In 1974, in the midst of the Arab oil embargo, Richard Nixon promised 1000. Today the number actually on line, under construction or firmly planned has shrunk from a peak of 225 in the early 1970s to less than 170, and many now believe the final tally could well be under 150.
The political ramifications of this turnaround are hard to over-estimate, both for the US and the world. Its economic and ecological effects will carry into the next century and the method by which nuclear opponents have won their victories against a $200-billion-plus industry will bear directly’ on the coming struggles against nuclear weaponry and for a sane program of economic development.
To begin with, developers of the ‘Peaceful Atom’ had to contend with the legacy of well-justified fears from Hiroshima. Nagasaki and the atomic testing days.
Back in the 1950s, when the Americans. Russians and Britain were blowing off bombs in the atmosphere at a fearsome rate. Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and America’s Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) helped drive home to the global public the dangers of atomic radiation. Nobel Prize-winners Linus Pauling and Andrei Sakharov estimated at the time that millions of people the world over would die due to the fallout. The issue of testing became a key debating point in both the 1956 and 1960 Presidential elections. By the time a Limited Test Ban Treaty- was signed in August of 1963, the well-justified fears of the invisible killer— atomic radiation — were deeply- planted in the human consciousness.
And though issues such as Vietnam and Civil Rights dominated the following decade, such fears did not disappear. By the early 1970s, as nuclear reactors began to appear around the American countryside (and the world) a nagging sense of discomfort about them inevitably- surfaced.
Indeed, as early as 1970 environmental lobbyists in Washington forced nuclear sites to be included in the National Environmental Protection Act signed by Richard Nixon. Since then an environmental impact statement has been required on all planned reactors.
And by then small hands of local citizens had begun fighting against plants being built in their areas. Few gave them much chance of winning. The US government had invested $40 billion in research and development of the Peaceful Atom, and power companies were in the process of investing upwards of $200 billion. The ill-funded, rag-tag opposition faced what many- thought were insurmountable odds.
But as the movement gathered momentun it took shape as a rather unique coalition middle-class professionals concerned about their families, back-to-the land refugees from the anti-war movement and a very strong strain of rock-ribbed conservative farmers and fishermen who feared radiation and environmental damage and who also bitterly resented the intrusions of large utility projects into their communities.
By 1976 precisely- such a coalition — the Clamshell Alliance— was staging mass non-violent occupations at a 2300-megawatt nuclear plant under construction in the extremely conservative town of Seabrook. New Hampshire. In April-May- of 1977 the confrontation burst onto the national media when the state’s irascible governor. Meldrim Thomson. insisted on locking up some 1400 occupiers in lieu of bail. The bizarre two-week confrontation that ensued served to publicize the growing opposition to the Peaceful Atom. By June of the following year, 20.000 people — most of them strait-laced New Hampshirites — had gathered to protest the Seabrook plant. And occupations had occurred at dozens of other locations around the US.
By- then, however, the picture of who was building atomic power plants and why was becoming much clearer. Nuclear opponents were also more sophisticated in their criticism.
For starters, it had long been known that nuclear reactors are extremely inefficient in converting to electricity- — wasting some 66% per cent of the energy they produce. This waste heat is in turn discarded into the environment in the form of steam and hot water, both of which can extremely disrupt the natural ecosystem. Indeed, one of the chief points of opposition for fishing people around Seabrook has been the plan to pour billions of gallons of water, heated to 90-F, into the sea, possibly damaging sensitive marine breeding grounds.
Nuclear opponents also point out that many of the reactors are being built on or near earthquake faults and that some are also located near underground aquifers, threatening drinking water for millions of people. Consistently sloppy-operating procedures (such as the 1976 dumping of 83,000 gallons of radioactive tritium into the Connecticut River by the Vermont Yankee plant) have done little to build public confidence.
But the real crunch has come in economics. The reactors were originally sold on the promise they would produce electricity’ that would be ‘too cheap to meter’. In fact, as the plants have come on line, they've proved far more expensive and far less reliable than promised. Plant alter plant has come in at two, three and four times as much as original estimates. Overall, they've operated under 60 per cent capacity-, despite early’ estimates that an 80 per cent efficiency’ rating was necessary to break even. As the Wall Street Journal has put it, ‘their unreliability- is becoming one of their most dependable factors’.
And as the balance sheets edged into the red, the search for alternatives took on new importance. The groundwork was laid in 1976 by- Amorx- Lovins and Barry Commoner, whose studies of the overall energy picture indicated atomic power was not only unsafe and unreliable, but also unnecessary and politically unacceptable. ‘We really need no big generating plants of any kind,’ Loxins told me in a 1977 interview. ‘We could be running the country with no central power stations. Electricity costs twice as much in many cases to deliver it as it does to generate.
Indeed, a primary political theme of the nuclear opposition became the charge that reactors were the cutting edge of a corporate thrust at monopolizing energy production. The capital-intensive, centralized plants are the power companies’ way of shutting out community competition and guaranteeing their own control over energy supply.
Each side, of course, has its own sets of facts and figures. But few have missed the basic political content of the argument. The utilities have pushed a model built on a yearly seven per cent rise in electrical consumption, feeding a highly centralized, corporate-controlled economy.
Nuclear opponents speak of an energy system built around the needs of the natural ecology, in concert with grass-roots democracy based on community- control of energy-. This ‘low tech’ solution to the energy crisis emphasizes jobs, community planning and individual initiative, with economic stability built around moderate consumption rates, renew-able resources and recycling rather than constant rapid expansion and waste.
Ironically, the basic dollars-and-cents economic trends have gone the way of the anti-nukers. In response to the drastic hikes in energy prices following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, Americans began conserving energy at a record rate. In fact, they cut consumption to the point where electrical use has held steady- in many areas for nearly a decade now.
With that change has come an erosion of the projections on which the power companies based their ‘need’ for new reactors. And with soaring construction costs due to rising material prices and long delay’s (many of them the result of utility- miscalculations) the power companies were forced to ask consumers for a long series of devastating rate hikes.
It is here that nuclear opponents have found the industry’s real Achilles Heel. Even citizens not particularly concerned about health or environmental issues have grown angry about paying inflated electric bills to support unreliable reactors. Thus, in fight after fight, power companies have seen their rate requests slashed by citizen opposition —with postponements and cancellations following inevitably in their wake.
By late 1978 it had become evident the industry was choking on a potent brew of rising costs, slumping demand, rate hike opposition and the growing political power of an anti-nuclear movement with a plan for solar conversion firmly- in hand.
So when the accident struck Three Mile Island Unit #2 on March 28, 1979. there was already serious doubt as to the long-term future of the Peaceful Atom. Coupled with the timely release of the Hollywood film The China Syndrome, the partial melt-down finally drove home the true dangers of atomic power. Within three years public opinion polls indicated a shift from roughly two-thirds support for new reactors to 58 per cent opposition. Significantly, a bare 51 per cent of the American public fax-ours allowing those plants already in operation to continue generating, A second Three Mile Island could result in such a public outcry the entire industry would have to shut down.
Indeed, new safety regulations have further escalated the cost of finishing those plants still under construction. Local opposition has stiffened, helping to chalk up some three dozen cancellations since 1979, with more apparently on the way.
Key plants such as Diable Canyon in California and Seabrook in New Hampshire continue to limp toward radioactivity. Though the local opposition has been fierce, the full power of the corporations is behind throwing those switches.
For, much as the corporations dislike the idea of community-controlled. decentralized energy, they like the idea of losing head-to-head confrontations with citizens’ movements ex-en less. In the wake of Three Mile lsland. numerous labour unions which were once pro-nuclear switched sides. Thus a broad-based coalition of ecologists. conservatives, trade unionists and local activists has put the power companies to rout.
In addition, the momentum now seems to be carrying over into the question of nuclear war. In the larger sense, the US anti-reactor campaign has served a double function, demanding decentralized energy while at the same time refining the public concerns about the health effects of atomic radiation. With a boost from the Reagan Administration, we now have simultaneous anti-reactor and anti-bomb movements carrying on at a nation-wide level.
There has been some concern that the new campaign to curb atomic weaponry might divert too much energy from the attempts to bury the reactors. But in fact the two campaigns seem to be supporting each other.
The United States was first with the atomic bomb, first with the hydrogen bomb, and second (behind the UK’s Calder Hall) with an atomic reactor. Now it may be the first to abandon the Peaceful Atom. And that may mean a significant shift in Third World energy planning. There have been strong campaigns here to cancel US exports of reactors to countries like the Philippines, Taiwan and Korea Hand-in-hand with those campaigns has come an attempt to further the acceptance of appropriate technologies in the Third World and to spread the message of an alternative, ecologically-based model for energy generation.
And not only in the opinion polls. The US now gets twice as much usable energy from firewood as from atomic power. The quiet but steady spread of solar water heaters, windmills and other solar equipment is indicated by frequent newspaper and television advertisements paid for by mainstream commercial firms selling them for profit. Though coal is being strongly advocated as an ‘interim’ fuel, more and more conservative economists are finding editorial space to ‘discover’ the potential of natural energy and conservation.
Of course, the corporations have been hastily building their own corner on the sun. While pushing nuclear and oil in public, Exxon, Mobil and the other multinationals have been grabbing up solar patents and preparing to jump in when they think the natural energy tide can no longer be resisted.
Where that will leave the vision of a decentralized, community-controlled solar economy is unclear. But many here feel the multinationals may have a very hard time keeping up with the backyard tinkerers — and that ultimately the sun and wind can not be monopolized.
That will be an interesting struggle to watch unfold over the next 50 years. But for the time being, it seems clear that an historic victory has been won by citizen activism. And that if we do survive the next half-century, those who have successfully opposed the American reactor industry will have the satisfaction of knowing they contributed significantly to our getting there — both by saying she natural ecology, and by breaking new ground for the ongoing campaign against a radioactive war-time holocaust.