The Clamshell Alliance Holds Nukes at Bay

The group's sit-in in Seabrook, New Hampshire, to protest a proposed nuclear reactor sparks a chain reaction

Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant Sparks Protests, Seabrook, New Hampshire, 1979 Credit: Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe/Getty

Late in the Seventies, when nothing remains of the protest movement of the Sixties or the fierce pushing and shoving of those years, a very different, and always polite, group of dissenters is beginning to make a lot of noise about a technology they believe is a peril to everyone. They call themselves the Clamshell Alliance. Their enemy is nuclear power. Maybe you saw them on the evening news a few months ago being arrested at Seabrook, New Hampshire. The scene looked like something out of the Sixties: protest signs, chanting, long hair everywhere, police dragging bodies off into waiting buses. Instead of STOP THE WAR the signs read NO NUKES and SPLIT WOOD, NOT ATOMS and GO FISHING, NOT FISSION And rather than cursing and screaming, the demonstrators were behaving like Gandhians, saying "yes sir" and "thank you" to the police.

"It's the start of a new Vietnam trip; it's gonna be bigger than Vietnam," says Harvey Wasserman, longtime political activist and a media expert of the Clamshell Alliance. "This is a movement of national proportion. Up to now it's been very much like the early days of the antiwar movement—very rosy and high. But," he adds, "we're at a crucial stage right now." Wasserman tried for months to get press coverage of the nuclear issue, but it took the spectacular event at Seabrook to convince people that the antinuclear movement is for real.

On April 30th, 2000 men and women came to Seabrook prepared for arrest and incarceration. Every one of them had been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience. Marching from four directions, carrying heavy backpacks, singing, yipping and hooting, they converged on the site of a proposed nuclear power plant and sat there for 23 hours. Six hundred media people had been invited; more than 400 came. In order to prevent violence, the Clamshell had informed the governor's office and the police of its every move in advance. The Clamshell's video crew recorded the event. On May Day the arrests began. It took state troopers from five New England states 15 hours to remove all the occupiers. Only a few suffered minor bruises. In all, 1414 people were arraigned on criminal trespass charges, one of the largest mass arrests in U.S. history.

On orders from New Hampshire's hardass governor, Meldrim Thomson, district court judges refused to release the prisoners on their own recognizance. They were taken to five National Guard armories, which they then occupied as they had the nuclear site.

Each building became a center of moral enlightenment and progressive recreation. "It was the best experience of my life," said one young reporter who was detained with the Clams, as they call themselves. Although about 150 people posted bail and were freed, most refused to leave. Meanwhile, it was costing the state about $50,000 a day to keep them locked up (1414 is three times the state's normal prison population). After five days, Governor Thomson appealed to the nation for financial help, telling the citizens of New Hampshire: "Our battle today is theirs of tomorrow." But the prisoners hung on, politicizing their jailers, the guardsmen, whom they treated as friends.

After 12 days an agreement was reached: the prisoners were released and their cases moved on appeal to a higher court. "If the state drops the charges, like they've done before, that's fine," Wasserman says. "If not, the courts will be clogged for months."

At issue in all this is a twin-reactor nuclear plant that the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSC) wants to build two miles from the ocean in Seabrook, a town of 5700. Nuclear reactors sit near bodies of water because they have to be cooled. The cooling system designed for Seabrook has two 19-foot-diameter pipes, each 3.5 miles long, running into the Atlantic. Every 60 seconds 824,000 gallons of ocean water will be sucked into one pipe, circulated through the reactor cores, then spewed back into the Atlantic 39 degrees hotter: almost 1.2 billion gallons a day, 39 degrees hotter. The company maintains that the discharge will have no significant environmental consequence. Residents of Seabrook, whose livelihoods depend on fishing and tourism, are skeptical. The antinuclear movement has absorbed the lessons of the antiwar movement and come up with something very different: "The Vietnam war was 15,000 miles away. The nuke is in our backyard."

All nuclear reactors present the hazard of low-level radiation leaks. Whether the leaks at Seabrook would be sufficient to cause cancer or genetic mutations is not known, but the possibility alarms many residents of the New Hampshire coast. In the event of a serious accident, everyone within a 60-mile radius would have to be evacuated. Although there hasn't been such an accident in any of the nation's 66 operational nuclear plants, there have been meltdowns and enormous fires. In addition, no one knows how to dispose of the millions of gallons of radioactive liquid waste that nuclear reactors produce.

"The real folly is that these plants will only be used for 30 years anyway," says Elizabeth Boardman, a white-haired Quaker in her early 60s and an important force in the Clamshell Alliance. "They develop metal failure after 25 or 30 years, and they are too 'hot' to dismantle. They'll just sit there for 400 years."

The Clamshell Alliance is a New England organization; one of its focal points is a 60-acre farm in Montague, in northwestern Massachusetts, where Harvey Wasserman, Anna Gyorgy, Nina Simon and Sam Lovejoy live with four other adults and two children. I visited the farm on a day when the vegetable garden needed a lot of attention.

"The farm has suffered a great deal since Seabrook," Nina Simon said as we weeded the beds.

"The Clamshell is a coalition of groups that came together last year after all legal attempts to stop Seabrook had failed," explained Anna Gyorgy. "Originally it was eight groups and a lot of individuals. Now it's 35 groups—little, local anti-nuke groups and energy coalitions."

A pleasant-looking woman of 30, Gyorgy, who worked for CORE, took part in the 1968 Columbia University strike and went to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, continued: "The press says we're radicals in search of an issue. I think we have a perfect answer to that: they're building a nuke four miles from our home."

Wasserman, 31, is a writer. In 1975 he traveled around the world on an $800 royalty check from his book, Harvey Wasserman's History of the United States (Harper & Row), and made good friends in the Japanese antinuclear movement. Knowledgeable on a wide range of energy-related subjects, he argues forcefully that solar energy—combined with conservation and "cogeneration," a means of reusing heat that would otherwise escape from buildings—could supply the country with all the energy it needs.

"We're not a negative movement," he says. "We're 100 percent for solar. Solar is feasible, right now, on a large scale. All you need are a lot of decentralized generating stations, maybe one or two in every community. The barriers are political, not technological. This is a much more disciplined thing than the antiwar movement. People have really grown up," he says. "The leadership of the antiwar movement was young because the basic problem was with draft-age men. There was sexism, machismo, wild ego-tripping. This is less of a power trip.

"Nonviolence is an incredible tactic. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn't have fought the war that way either. But here you don't want to mix nuclear fission with paranoia."

Gyorgy feels even more strongly: "Any violence would be an invitation to fascism."

Nina Simon, 31, knows a good deal about abnormal occurrences at nuclear plants. "Hot-water discharge at Oyster Creek—a plant in New Jersey—caused a shipworm epidemic. Really, shipworms are devouring all the pilings in the marinas. Giant sponges are turning up off the coast of California because of leaks from barrels of radioactive waste dumped near San Francisco. On both coasts we have 30- to 50-mile strips of ocean that are virtually dead because of radiation and pollution."

The movement's bona fide hero is 30-year-old Sam Lovejoy. In 1974, before there was an antinuclear movement, Lovejoy walked off the farm on the night of Washington's Birthday, loosened the brackets of a 500-foot weather tower on the site of a proposed nuclear plant in Montague and watched it tumble to the ground. ("Five hundred feet is nearly the height of the Washington Monument," says his buddy Wasserman with quiet pride.) A local judge acquitted Lovejoy on a technicality, and his deed was later celebrated in a 60-minute film called Lovejoy's Nuclear War. The film has become a valuable organizing tool. Lovejoy, a stunning character who hugs men and women he barely knows, is the movement's traveling pitchman who accompanies the film from city to city.

"When I did the tower, the left in America didn't understand the environmental movement, and the environmental movement didn't understand good leftist analysis of corporate America," says the red-haired Lovejoy. "I was ahead of my time. But within the next year there will be direct actions in Michigan, I guarantee it. Same with Illinois, Missouri…. You give me another year and I'll show you 25 to 50 direct-action groups around the country, all completely coordinated."

The label "radical" makes Lovejoy smile. "This is no radical issue, unless you call protecting life radical, and if that's radical I'm radical as a motherfucker," he says. "If you take a poll of the vast majority of Americans and say, 'Hey, if there was a safe alternative would you go for the safe alternative over the nuke?' they'd be on their knees crying for it. Right? All we need is a nut case to fuck with a nuke plant and you're gonna have a mess on your hands like no one ever dreamed."

In 1975, while Lovejoy's Nuclear War played around New England, galvanizing small audiences, the Montague people were making contacts in New Hampshire, where a 42-year-old carpenter named Guy Chichester and other coastal residents were organizing opposition to Seabrook. Contacts were also being made in Europe.

"In early 1975, 28,000 people occupied a nuke site on the Rhine in West Germany. They took turns holding it for a year and a half, and forced cancelation of the plant. In Denmark the movement forced the government to cancel all six of its planned reactors," says Gyorgy. Inspired by the Europeans' successes, the New England people began talking about direct action. In the bitter cold of January 1976 a 22-year-old apple picker named Ron Rieck camped for 36 hours in a weather tower similar to the structure Lovejoy had toppled. Cheering him on were Chichester and Renny Cushing, a young New Hampshire welder who has now been arrested three times at Seabrook. In April nearly 300 people walked onto the Seabrook site and spent a peaceful day there. "It was incredibly beautiful," says Gyorgy. Chichester calls it "the prettiest fuckin' demonstration you ever saw." Police stayed away.

In June of last year a three-man board from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission came to New Hampshire for public hearings on Seabrook. Halfway through the hearings it looked as if the board might vote two to one against building the plant. Then suddenly, mysteriously, the chairman of the board, Daniel Head, was offered a job in the Federal Energy Administration. He accepted and was replaced by a staunch pronuclear man. With the new member in place, the NRC board voted two to one in favor of the plant. Seabrook is the first split decision in the history of nuclear licensing. The NRC has modified but never rejected an application for a construction license.

In July, 50 people from throughout New England met at Chichester's house for a series of three all-day meetings. The group committed itself to a nonviolent struggle at Seabrook. Chichester suggested the name Clamshell Alliance, which provoked hours of humorous debate and then stuck. On August 1st, the Clamshell sent a small occupying force to the Seabrook site. Eighteen people were arrested. Three weeks later, the Clams returned. This time 180 were arrested. At an Alternative Energy Fair in October, the Clams set April 30th, 1977, as the date for the next occupation, determined to show up with 1800 people.

"It's cosmic," said Gyorgy. "We said we would grow ten times and we did."

Elizabeth Boardman, a central figure in the drama at Seabrook, had a major influence on the development of the Clamshell Alliance—and the style of the occupation. It was she the young demonstrators appointed to confront Governor Thomson in front of reporters and television crews, a part she played masterfully. Boardman and the New York writer, Grace Paley, were among a few people over the age of 50 arrested at Seabrook.

"There's a broad spectrum of political elements in this thing," Boardman said shortly after her release, sipping a beer at her home 20 miles outside Boston. "I have no trouble with any of the Clams, but I like to hang tight to the Quaker style. We Quakers bring another level of strength to the Clamshell—a serenity, a kind of unflappability. It was important to us that human dignity be kept at the forefront of the demonstration."

Accordingly, on April 30th, no one was allowed on the Seabrook site who had not received Quaker training (or its equivalent) in nonviolent civil disobedience. Training sessions, which had begun in March, consisted of four to six hours of discussions and role playing to teach the occupiers how to resist provocation by the police, press, agitators, judges and jailers. People who came to Seabrook untrained were given a two-hour crash course on the morning of April 30th by the Movement for a New Society, a Philadelphia-based commune devoted to higher consciousness. A Clamshell publication, "The Occupier's Handbook," reflecting the Quaker orientation, set forth seven principles of conduct: no drugs, no alcohol, no running, no movement after dark, no weapons, no destruction and no violence. To ensure that no provocateurs infiltrated the site, participants were issued armbands and divided into "affinity groups" of ten to twenty. These affinity groups can still be put together within 24 hours.

The Clams have lately been talking about a June 1978 occupation, this time with 18,000 people.

"I'm not sure I like the idea," Boardman said. "The important thing is not noise, it's not bodies. It's the power of nonviolence. Dignity. Decency. The power of the example. I'd rather see groups like the Clamshell operating in other areas. I want to see 18,000 people on various nuclear sites throughout America."

On a recent Sunday, the Clamshell coordinating committee held its weekly meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Some had driven as far as 200 miles to make it. They looked tired but happy. Few seemed interested in that morning's editorial in the New York Times which attacked them for their "emotional, almost theological, zeal."

"Their extremism must be resisted," warned the Times. Sprawled on the floor of a large room in 98-degree heat, the men, shirtless and shaggy-haired, and women, in long loose dresses or shorts, passed quarts of ice cream and orange juice, laughed, and looked at slides of themselves in action. For eight hours they talked—about mistakes and missed opportunities, about their legal situation, the small sum in the Clamshell bank account, the rock stars they wanted for benefit concerts and the actions they would take on Hiroshima Day weekend, August 6th–9th. The quality of the discussion was far from dazzling, but the Clams live according to an ethic which distrusts fancy talk as it distrusts all things foisted upon people in the name of progress, modernity and corporate profit—from nuclear energy to indoor plumbing. They see themselves very clearly.

"Ours is a calm, rational radicalism, rooted in very traditional American ideas," said a 28-year-old Clam named Eric Wolfe. "We're radical in the sense we're not afraid to take responsibility for our lives."

To date, the Clamshell has taken only one official position beyond stopping the Seabrook nuke: a commitment to the idea of public ownership of all power utilities. But it is clear that the people most deeply involved in the Clamshell feel themselves to be the vanguard of a movement that will sweep the nation. On the day of their own mass occupation, the Clams pointed out, antinuclear groups in ten other states held demonstrations and sympathy rallies. A month later, about 100 or so Californians officially launched the Abalone Alliance, a West Coast counterpart of the Clamshell.

During his campaign, President Carter spoke critically of nuclear energy, calling it a "last resort" and saying that its use should be minimized. In the White House, however, he has formulated an energy policy that calls for rapid construction of light-water reactors like those proposed for Seabrook.

"If Carter wants to make himself into the next Lyndon Johnson, that's his problem," says Wasserman.

The Clams have clearly absorbed the lessons of the antiwar movement and come up with something very different. For one thing, they don't believe in superstars. The people who appear to be determining much of the Clamshell's tone and direction only grudgingly acknowledge that they could be thought of as leaders.

"One of the problems of the antiwar movement was that we didn't have much of a base at home other than college towns. The movement always cut off its nose to spite its face by going to Washington and ranting," says Lovejoy. "It's good to go to Washington and rant a bit—that's important for a movement—but you also have to go home and revolutionize on your parents and on your neighbors, and that's what's happening here. That's the difference between the war movement and the nuke movement. The Vietnam War was 15,000 miles away. The nuke is in my backyard. That whole line about bringing the war home is here, and it's here in a way that no one ever anticipated. It's the environmental movement. It's the nukes. It's a freak-out."

Anyone interested in contacting the Clamshell or donating funds to help with legal or organizational expenses can write to Clamshell Alliance, Box 962, Seabrook, NH 03874.