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Jordan McGillis
16 Jun 2022

Atoms to Atoms, Dust to Dust

Nuclear energy is not utopian. But it is clean, powerful, and held back by an environmentalism that predates the climate crisis.

Atoms to Atoms, Dust to Dust

What Jack Huttner misses most is the feeling that he and his ragtag band of activists, the SHAD Alliance, “could do anything.” The SHADs – shorthand for Sound-Hudson Against Atomic Development – were among the more visible of the 1970s environmentalists that took energy modernity head on. In Shoreham, New York; Seabrook, New Hampshire; Avila Beach, California; and dozens of other sites across the country, the SHADs and groups like it channeled the passions of young adulthood to deliver a simple message: No nukes.

By the late-seventies, resisting nuclear power had become a cultural fever and at Shoreham, sixty miles east of New York City, the SHADs waged one of the era’s great battles. As The New York Times coverage from June 4, 1979 depicts, the Shoreham protest drew an estimated 15,000 people airing their displeasure at the building of a new nuclear power plant on the banks of Long Island Sound. From among the 15,000 demonstrators, police arrested more than 600 for breaching the construction site and, according to the Times, bombarding utility company workers with “dirt, stones, and soda cans.” At Seabrook, fifty miles north of Boston, similar scenes had played out in 1977 and 1978, with 10,000 protesters on hand and more than 2,000 arrested.

Emblematic of the cultural milieu from which the protests sprung, folk singers like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (Woody’s kid) were mainstays, enlivening the demonstrations with song. The anti-nuclear movement had by then become the rallying point for the counterculture – a magnet for activists without a cause.

As The Washington Post described amid the June 1978 Seabrook demonstrations, the core of the movement was “made up in part of antiwar activists who dropped out of middle-class life during the Vietnam war days and moved to the hills of New England and elsewhere.” One protestor told the Post the anti-nuclear movement was “a feminist and lesbian issue,” and that Laurie Holmes of Boston told the crowd at one point. “The struggle against the rape of our earth by rich, white males is the same struggle as the struggle against the rape of our bodies and the rape of our lives.” Another admitted that he joined the movement not on account of environmental concerns, but for the “feeling of camaraderie and good vibrations.”

Seeger’s lyrics offer a window into the cloudy thinking of the day. For Seeger and the activists he inspired, humans had gone too far along the path to transforming nature. Driven by greed and conformity (give “Little Boxes” a listen), we’d become in Seeger’s eyes detestable. To Seeger, nuclear power was something of a culmination of our worst bourgeois impulses, emerging out of the war machine and promising a future of ever greater consumption. Despite the fundamental differences in the technologies that enable them, Seeger slipped between opposition to nuclear weapons and opposition to peaceful nuclear energy without drawing any distinction. Splitting the atom, to Seeger, was a violation of the natural order.

Seeger’s perspective was consonant with that of academic Paul Ehrlich, who said in the 1980s that the achievement of nuclear fusion would be like “giving a machine gun to an idiot child” and of once-prominent environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin, who asserted that fusion technology would be “the worst thing that could happen to our planet.” Seeger, though, captured in his music the emotional foundations of nuclear resistance, invoking, if somewhat clumsily, both Hamlet and the Book of Genesis in his song “Talking Atom”:

The questions is this, when you boil it down:

To be or not to be!

That is the question

Atoms to atoms, and dust to dust

Victory Secured

Five decades on, it appears Pete Seeger and Jack Huttner’s SHADs have won the long game.

Though certainly an international phenomenon, 1970s anti-nuclear activism has had particularly lasting effects in the United States. Between 1970 and 1990, the US installed ninety-five gigawatts of nuclear power at plants in more than twenty states. But the eventual victory of the anti-nuclear activists had long since been sown. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), planned nuclear capacity additions began to slow in the late 1970s and were truncated further by fear surrounding the incident at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979. While the incident gave the movement wider visibility, it is crucial to note that it was in full swing well before Three Mile Island, as the Post’s 1978 coverage of Seabrook shows. By inculcating the American public with images of nuclear hellscapes, capitalizing on ignorance, and mastering procedural slowdowns, the movement ensured that the nuclear industry’s flowering would be brief. From 1979 through 1988, sixty-seven planned power plants were canceled.

In the twenty years from 1996, not a single nuclear reactor came online in the US In 2012, when there were 104 operating nuclear reactors, US nuclear electricity generation capacity peaked at about 102 gigawatts. Today, only ninety-three reactors with a combined generation capacity of about ninety-five gigawatts remain in operation. Despite ten percent of American reactors shutting down since 2012, nuclear has maintained a consistent share of total annual US electricity generation (around twenty percent) through uprating, i.e., increasing generating capacity at existing reactors.

Even with uprating and re-licensing, nuclear’s days could be numbered. US reactors average more than forty years of age and crucial plants are being retired each year. The examples include California’s Diablo Canyon, which makes up nine percent of the Golden State’s power but is slated for retirement by 2025. According to the EIA’s 2022 Annual Energy Outlook, nuclear’s contribution to US power generation will be 50 percent lower than today by 2050. It is a tragic and ironic denouement, considering nuclear’s now well-articulated energy advantages of density and dispatchability and its environmental advantage of being emissions-free.

The nuclear plateau and its subsequent decline is, one might argue, representative of the wider American economic stagnation. But far from being inevitable, as charges of “late stage capitalism” would suggest, the great stagnation as represented by the nuclear stall-out is a product of evidence-be-damned cultural impulses – vibrations, as the 1978 Seabrook protestor might say – aligned against human economic and technological advancement.

The SHAD-led action at Shoreham was perhaps the movement’s greatest triumph. Despite the investment of $5.5 billion and completion of construction and testing, Shoreham never opened. As The New York Times reported, “a lengthy dispute between the company and state and Suffolk County officials over emergency evacuation plans delayed issuance of a Federal operating license until April 1989. By then the company had agreed with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo to abandon the plant in exchange for rate increases and other financial compensation.”

The fate of the nuclear plant at Shoreham, the ruins of which can still be visited an hour east of the city, is an avatar of a persistent social plague.

From Anti-War to Anti-Nuke to Anti-House

While the SHADs concretized the movement with their siege of Shoreham, Connie Hogarth brought to the anti-nuclear fight a deeper philosophy, transcendentalism, that offered justification for the means. Like many of the anti-nuclear agitators, Hogarth earned her stripes in the anti-war movement, scoring her first arrest at a “die-in” outside of the White House. Just two years after the US was chased out of Saigon, Hogarth would find a more durable purpose waging what would become a life-long crusade against nuclear energy.

Writing in the Times in 1977, Hogarth compared her arrest for trespassing at the Seabrook nuclear plant to Henry David Thoreau’s imprisonment for tax evasion. There was a moral imperative, Hogarth argued, to disrupt however possible the nuclear enterprise. Like Seeger, she did not distinguish between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, writing, explicitly, that both “are storing up the unthinkable potential for creating hell on earth.”

Hogarth’s career as a provocateur would endure far beyond Seabrook, with transcendentalist motivations underlying much of what she would accomplish – or, more accurately, prevent others from accomplishing. In 1979 she was arrested and imprisoned for twelve days for trespassing at New York’s Indian Point plant. Another dozen arrests would follow as Hogarth acted out against a range of perceived injustices well into the twenty-first century. Though it would take four decades, Hogarth had the last laugh. Indian Point, which made up thirteen percent of the Empire State’s power in 2019, was shut down in 2021, a year before Hogarth herself passed on at the age of ninety-five.

Hogarth’s small-is-beautiful, back-to-nature, transcendental underpinnings continue to animate much of the anti-nuclear movement today, as they do the parallel social contagion which is commonly denoted as NIMBYism. While the fight against large-scale nuclear energy has come to a near close, broader NIMBYism has become yet more prevalent, and damaging.

The recent Times profile of Marin County activist Susan Kirsch delves into the not-in-my-backyard psychology. Kirsch’s activism, like Hogarth’s, began with opposition to McNamara’s war and has been in search of a big wave to surf ever since.

Kirsch, now seventy-seven, is David Brooks’ archetypical bobo – the bohemian-cum-bourgeoisie. She came of age when drifting from place to place railing against the powers-that-be didn’t preclude upward mobility. Once she’d had her fun, she settled into middle class comfort, buying a house in what is now an unfathomably expensive zip code for all but the wealthiest Americans.

From that amenable perch, she has made life miserable, in her own small way, for others. With her personal pressure group Livable California, Kirsch has almost single-handedly prevented the development of new housing in her neighborhood, blocking one project for eighteen years running.

As it was for Hogarth, smallness is a touchstone for Kirsch. “Using the language of centralized power is what charges me to do this,” Kirsch told the Times, “I think small is beautiful.” For Kirsch, unable to realize she’s no longer the scrappy underdog, the fight is against what she sees as the tyranny of powerful outsiders. She wraps her opposition to development, the Times explains, in a “small c” conservative philosophy that a local government is better and more responsive to its citizens than a bigger one further away. In this perspective, of course, there is a kernel of truth. It’s natural to feel loyalty to your way of life and to want to uphold your aesthetic experience against the central planner’s bulldozer. Indeed, Kirsch’s strain of conservatism is consonant with some of the themes championed by English philosopher Roger Scruton and his environmental philosophy of oikophilia. But approbation for Kirsch and her fellow travelers can only be but mild.

What began as a moral crusade to stop the napalming of villages and then channeled its attention against nuclear power has morphed into a banal, procedural battle to secure community stagnation and the comfort of a privileged few. The error of those like Huttner, Hogarth, and Kirsch, who have gummed up our twenty-first century economy, is that they have never trained a critical eye on their own beliefs. The anti-nuclear and anti-housing sentiments latent in today’s environmental movement are byproducts of Kirsch’s generation’s unbearable hubris. It is a generation that believes it never was, and can never be, wrong.

But wrong it is.

Stagnation’s Cost

Myopia, complacency, and a curiosity deficit insulate Kirsch and her fellow travelers from the reams of evidence that their pet causes have harmful consequences that, if ever acknowledged, could only bring them shame.

Rather than unleashing the “hell on earth” Hogarth presaged, nuclear energy has now established a half-century record of extraordinary safety. While generating one-fifth of US power and even higher proportions in countries like France, South Korea, and Japan, nuclear can be credited with reducing thousands of deaths annually that would otherwise have resulted from fossil-fuel-related air pollution and has caused almost no harm to human beings from the ostensible concern of radiation poisoning.

As Energy for Humanity explicates, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi meltdown caused by a tsunami has yet to show severe lasting harm in the population. No deaths have been attributed to radiation exposure, nor have radiation-induced changes in cancer rates surpassed the level required for statistical detection. 

The 1986 Chernobyl accident, conversely, was a genuine disaster. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, twenty-eight emergency workers died in the first three months after the explosion from acute radiation sickness; two workers died in the explosion itself and another emergency worker died of cardiac arrest. Lasting effects can be seen in Ukrainian mortality rates, which show that in radiation contaminated areas twenty-six people per 1,000 died in 2007, compared with sixteen for the entire country.

Recent research, however, allays some of the gravest fears surrounding the long-term effects of radiation exposure. A 2021 study analyzing the genomes of 130 children conceived between 1987 and 2002 by at least one parent who had experienced gonadal radiation exposure related to the accident found no new germline mutations. And, hearteningly, two of the three engineers who volunteered to drain millions of gallons of water from beneath the burning reactor (an act of heroism dramatically portrayed in the 2019 HBO series) are still alive today. The third survived until 2005. When considering the tragedy of Chernobyl, it is important to recall that the disaster resulted from poor governance, not any inherent flaw in the technology.

Three Mile Island, far from marring nuclear’s record, confirmed its safety. As the Institute for Energy Research’s Paige Lambermont has written, the 1979 incident sparked public fear, but, as monitoring has proven, it never posed a real threat. “Because of cancer concerns following the accident,” Lambermont explains, “the Pennsylvania Department of Health maintained a registry of people living within five miles of Three Mile Island when the accident occurred. The 30,000 person list was kept up until mid-1997 when it was determined that there had been no unusual health trends or increased cancer cases in the area immediately surrounding the accident.”

Yet to this day leading environmental groups like Greenpeace hold nuclear in the lowest regard possible. Greenpeace, in its own words, “has always fought – and will continue to fight – vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity.” The only solution, it argues, “is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants.”

But the strangling of nuclear energy directly causes innumerable problems.

On the energy side of things, it has cost states like California a dispatchable (i.e., you can use it when you need it) power source and made them overly reliant on the variable output that comes from wind and solar facilities, leading to grid instability. Environmentally, the loss of nuclear both perpetuates the use of more polluting fossil fuel power sources and eats into natural ecosystems, due to exorbitant land demands for dilute wind and solar. According to 2017 research from Strata, the nuclear sites in the US require an average of 0.901 acres per megawatt. Utility-scale solar, meanwhile, requires more than 8 acres per megawatt. California’s Solar Star facility, the largest solar power generation site in the US, takes up more than 3,000 acres to reach its capacity of 580 megawatts. The soon-to-be-retired Diablo Canyon has four times the capacity, yet is sited on just 1,000 acres. Moreover, Solar Star’s power only comes on when the sun shines, while Diablo Canyon’s can be relied upon day and night. Put another way, Solar Star disrupts three times more natural space than does Diablo Canyon, but can only generate a quarter of the power of Diablo Canyon in the best of circumstances – hardly an environmental bargain.

The California housing blockade, similarly, yields perverse land-use outcomes. While NIMBYs tout low-density as low-impact, the opposite is true. Because of the stifling of developments like those Kirsch opposes in Marin County, more families find themselves settling in the warmer inland areas of the state, using additional power to cool their homes in the summer and additional fuel to commute by car to the economic hubs in the Bay Area. Throughout Southern California, and indeed much of the US, the same story is playing out.

The issues have become so pronounced in the Golden State that even Governor Gavin Newsom, not one to regularly upset the progressive coalition, has suggested state energy regulators rethink the planned closure of California’s last remaining nuclear reactors and has directed ire against the anti-housing NIMBYs he says are “destroying the state.”

Compounding the environmental drawbacks of purging our grid of nuclear power, the alternatives bring dire geopolitical risks.

On this point it is instructive to look across the Atlantic to Germany. Germany, like the US, experienced massive anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s, but, similarly, saw nuclear energy grow in importance nevertheless. As late as 2011, Germany got a quarter of its power from nuclear reactors. Following the Fukushima incident, however, Germany’s anti-nuclear movement seized the upper hand. As part of the country’s Energiewende it has reduced nuclear power generation severely and plans to phase it out entirely by the end of this year.

But doing so has resulted in a paralyzing dependency on Russian natural gas. For the past decade, Germany has been the largest export market for Gazprom, a company in which the Russian state has a majority stake and effective control. Not exactly the position Germany would like to be in with Russia waging war just beyond NATO’s fringe.

The United States, likewise, could find itself dangerously dependent if nuclear energy isn’t a centerpiece of any planned transition to low-carbon energy. In the US case, China would be the most likely beneficiary, as it supplies the bulk of the key materials that go into batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. “The rapid deployment of clean energy technologies as part of energy transitions,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) wrote in its 2021 report on key energy inputs, “implies a significant increase in demand for minerals.” Across a wide swath of these so-called energy transition minerals, China sits in the driver’s seat. In the rare earths category, for example, China produced 60 percent of the world’s total and processes 90 percent. IEA describes China’s position vis-à-vis rare earths as “dominance . . . across the value chain.”

So, in addition to causing environmental harm by blocking nuclear, the ostensible anti-authoritarians like Hogarth and Greenpeace are playing the United States into the hands of some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Compassion for Kirsch, Hogarth, and their somewhat quaint outlook gives way to horror when one considers their human and environmental costs: that Californian childhoods are spent in the backseats of cars despite the blessing of the world’s most salutary climate, that families are being broken and scattered across the inland west for want of living space, that the state’s inland desert ecology is being paved over for far-flung housing and plastered with miles of metal-and-glass solar arrays.

The refusal to grapple with these issues makes anti-nuclear, anti-housing NIMBYism reminiscent of the set of concepts University of Cambridge researcher Rob Henderson has called “luxury beliefs.” Interestingly, the Post’s 1978 coverage of the Seabrook protest involved a similar angle, quoting a refreshingly self-aware recent Dartmouth grad who recognized that “It’s a luxury to be able to be concerned about nuclear power.” The way Henderson sees it, luxury beliefs are badges of identity that are worn by people who will never bear the cost of their implementation, but who can attain from them status among their in-groups.

Henderson’s characterization fits squarely upon the anti-nuclear, anti-housing outlook. For the bobos, performative transcendentalism remains en vogue. As Huttner’s longing for the good vibrations of the seventies, Hogarth’s obituary, and the Kirsch profile reveal, activism on these issues is a defining feature, perhaps the defining feature, of the activists’ senses of self. They display as feathers in their caps the successful disruption of scientific, economic, and social advances. For an aging property owner in idyllic, temperate Marin County like Kirsch, stagnation is all upside.

For the rest of us, however, a better course must be charted: an approach to energy, environmental, and local development questions that holds space for the proper love of home but that recognizes the evidence of NIMBYism’s costs and rejects the divine right of stagnation.

By the light of a reasoned oikophilia, the twin veto crusades against nuclear and new housing wilt. Though the vibrations may say otherwise, the legalization of nuclear power and of residential density are perhaps the two most crucial planks in an agenda for improving environmental outcomes, improving the daily experience of Americans on the economic margins, and preserving the best elements of our shared home.

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