Nukes’ Achilles Heel

The landmark 1977 Clamshell Alliance occupation launched a national grass-roots antinuclear movement and changed the public debate on energy.

Then-President Richard Nixon called for 1,000 nuclear plants by the year 2000. Just over one-tenth of that number were built, and none after Seabrook, which was, like others, so over budget that they bankrupted their owners. But there were faces behind the economic forces that helped fell nuclear power.

A citizens’ movement took aim at the industry’s Achilles’ heel: its dependence on public funding to pay for mushrooming construction costs. Clamshell and other activists won decisive battles involving billions of dollars.

A broad-based campaign ended Construction Work in Progress (CWIP) charges to electric customers for the Seabrook nuclear plant. Public outcry over CWIP drove then-Governor Meldrim Thompson from office in 1978. The new governor banned CWIP in 1979, and Seabrook’s financial crisis began.

Seabrook’s lead owner, Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH), responded with a plan to sell most of its stake in the project to public power companies including the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Consortium. The scheme met stiff opposition from many veteran Clams who were citizens of the affected towns. They blocked more than half of the purchase through grassroots don’t-buy-Seabrook drives through town meetings and local electric light boards.

Its bond rating in free fall, the company turned to the public purse again in 1981, a $500,000,000 bond authorization to be paid off by electric ratepayers. The measure had then-Governor Hugh Gallen’s backing, passed the Senate but was killed in the House by a 168–167 vote that left anti-nuclear activists cheering and company officials dazed. PSNH fell deeper into debt until the money ran out in 1984 and construction stopped. Laid-off workers lined up for unemployment benefits at the Portsmouth National Guard Armory, which had held protesters for two weeks in 1977.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 1988. Though Seabrook’s Unit 1 finally went online in 1990 (at a cost of $6.5 billion), Unit 2 was scrapped. Similar stories played out at nuclear construction sites and boardrooms across the country. Nuclear debt lingers on our electric bills today in the form of an anonymous “transition charge.”

In the 1970s and 80s the flood of public money to nuclear power swamped energy efficiency and renewables in a glut of electrical overcapacity. Blocking this funding stopped the nukes and let clean technologies emerge New nuclear plants would put this progress at risk at a crisis moment. Intense awareness of global warming and the energy crisis force the choice: nuclear or renewables.

Adam Auster, Clam staff from 1981-1983, now works for an energy consulting firm in Arlington, MA