The Clamshell Alliance Holds Nukes at Bay
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.”