Why the War on Nuclear Threatens Us All

Protestors at City Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, January 20, 1970.

Protestors at City Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, January 20, 1970.

by Michael Shellenberger

In the 1970s, air pollution in Ohio’s cities was so bad that people had to turn on their car headlights during the day to see through the smoke.

On particularly bad days, people had to brush soot off their cars, and re-wash clothes they had hung out to dry.

Everybody agreed something had to be done, and so Ohio’s electric utilities sought to build eight reactors across four different nuclear power plants, which do not emit harmful air pollution.

The people of Ohio knew they needed nuclear power if they wanted cleaner air. At a 1970 public hearing for the Beaver Valley plant, the initial uneasiness gave way to support.

“People just aren’t afraid of atomic energy anymore,” a gas station attendant told the Pittsburgh Press afterwards.

But not everybody felt that building nuclear plants should be up to the people of Ohio.

Nader Knows Best

Ralph Nader, who became an international celebrity in 1965, campaigned in Ohio against its nuclear plants in 1971.

"A nuclear accident could wipe out Cleveland and the survivors would envy the dead," Nader told the Akron Beacon on October 15, 1974.

An anti-nuclear professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Ernest Sternglass, published a sensational report purporting to show that 400,000 infants had died from radioactive fall-out from weapons testing, and crusaded across Ohio and the Midwest claiming that the proposed plants would kill hundreds of thousands more.

The San Francisco-based Sierra Club threw its full weight behind the Ohio effort, hiring lobbyists, twisting the arms of local politicians, filing lawsuits and frightening local parents about the shipment of used fuel rods.

Club lawyers, who are some of the best in the business, were secretive about their work. “We’re going to maintain our lawsuit and certain other plans that cannot be disclosed right now,” one told Ohio's Evening Review in 1971.

A secret memo written by the Sierra Club's executive director proposed a strategy of fear-mongering to make nuclear expensive. "Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power will supply a rationale for increasing regulation... and add to the cost of the industry," he wrote.[1]

There was no need for nuclear, Nader and the Sierra Club insisted. Energy efficiency and solar would obviate the need for both coal and nuclear.

Construction on the plants went forward, but was repeatedly halted by new lawsuits and interventions.

In 1974, Nader brought anti-nuclear groups from around the country to a Washington, D.C. “Critical Mass” conference to train them on his take-no-prisoners style of play.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, the state government had to issue 44 air pollution alerts in 1975 alone, as well as emergency orders to close power plants until the toxic air cleared.

None of that deterred anti-nuclear campaigners, who sought and received support from yet another powerful outside group: Hollywood.

The actor Jane Fonda produced “China Syndrome,” an anti-nuclear blockbuster that depicted nuclear accidents as apocalyptic and triggered a nationwide panic when a reactor in Pennsylvania melted down (hurting nobody).

Fonda's film showed parents speaking out at public meetings to halt nuclear plants — just as Nader and the Club were doing in Ohio.

In 1985, two more nuclear reactors set to be built at Davis-Besse were cancelled.

The anti-nuclear groups tasted victory. "Abolitionists knew that just one organizing convention would not eliminate slavery,” said one anti-nuclear leader. “We nuclear abolitionists will not back down until we are victorious."

A few months later a second reactor at Perry was cancelled.

Then — in one of the anti-nuclear movement’s greatest victories — the Zimmer nuclear plant, which was was 97 percent completed, was abandoned.

All told, anti-nuclear groups — financed largely by wealthy individuals and organizations located in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — killed six nuclear reactors in Ohio, locking in coal pollution for a generation.

This timeline shows how anti-nuclear groups halted construction.

This timeline shows how anti-nuclear groups halted construction.

“Gas-Lighting” Nuclear

Almost as soon as the anti-nuclear groups won they pretended as though they had nothing to do with the death of nuclear plants, like the guilty husband in the movie “Gas Light.”

Nuclear had died from “an incurable attack of market forces,” crowed Amory Lovins in 1981, who claimed energy efficiency obviated the need for nuclear.

The death of nuclear, insist the coterie of $100+ million per year anti-nuclear groups like EDF, the Sierra Club and NRDC, had nothing whatsoever to do with them. Ohio and other states, they insisted, simply didn’t need nuclear. 

On its face, the claim never made any sense. Even if you accepted the often-ridiculous claims about what energy efficiency can do, you still have to get electricity from somewhere.

Today, thanks to the work of anti-nuclear groups, coal still generates 59 percent of Ohio's electricity. Had the six cancelled reactors been built — and allowed to operate — Ohio would have seen its reliance on fossil fuels slashed, and its air quality improved — immediately.

Environmental Progress wanted to take a closer look at what happened to nuclear in Ohio, and so over the last three months we conducted painstaking archival research into the history of the war on Ohio’s nuclear plants. We had expected to find a lot of coordinated activity. But we were astonished by what we found.

Anti-nuclear groups hammered Ohio's nuclear plant builders from every direction for two decades. They were relentless, and well-funded. They used every tactic in the book: protests, lobbying, lawsuits and the hysterical fear-mongering that is the signature tactic of anti-nuclear groups.

Against the picture of anti-nuclear campaigners as harmless hippies, it's clear that the well-funded, anti-nuclear campaigners — whose ranks included Ivy League lawyers and marketing experts — played a decisive role in blocking plant construction.

Almost everything anti-nuclear groups have said about the cancellation of nuclear plants in Ohio turns out to be false.

Energy efficiency did not obviate the need for power. Per capita electricity consumption rose almost the same amount as it had in the 1960s, and the population of Ohio has increased by two million people since 1970. 

What about the economics?

They weren't a problem — until plants were faced with the relentless assault upon them.

“The economics are still there,” the utility chief said in 1979 upon announcing they wouldn’t build two new reactors at Davis-Besse. “But when you burden it with all the regulatory requirements and delays, it becomes pretty iffy.”

Ohio’s nuclear plants generate 90 percent of Ohio’s clean power, and could soon close prematurely because they are excluded from generous federal subsidies and state electricity mandates.

Ohio’s nuclear plants are especially vulnerable because they are smaller than normal plants, and thus less economical. (For example, nuclear plants that are half the size of normal plants require far more than half as many employees.)

Recall that the second and third reactor units at Davis-Besse and Perry were killed by the Sierra Club and Ralph Nader.

Today, EDF’s Dick Munson — who, like Nader, doesn’t actually live in Ohio — is openly rooting for Ohio’s nuclear plants to close, as is every other “environmental group”: NRDC, the Sierra Club, UCS, etc.

Health Impacts of the War on Nuclear

What was the impact of the war on nuclear in Ohio? The pollution equivalent of adding 14 million cars on the road, and — using methods from a major study published in the British medical journal, Lancet — 35,000 premature deaths.[2]

What will happen if Ohio’s nuclear plants close? Pollution will rise the equivalent of adding another 3.3 million cars to the road.

But does Ohio really even need the electricity from nuclear plants? Well, yes: last year Ohio imported one-fifth of its electricity from other states.[3]

But can’t Ohio just do more energy efficiency? That’s what Munson from EDF and anti-nuclear groups like NRDC and Sierra Club claim.

It could, but it's not clear what difference it would make. Funding for energy efficiency has been lavished on Ohio for decades and yet residential electricity consumption has continued to rise.

(Ohio can thank deindustrialization for the decline of industrial electricity consumption.)

The war on nuclear was waged in the name of health and the environment. Its victims are those most vulnerable to the impacts of pollution and climate change, like children, the elderly, the poor and the sick.

As such, what’s been happening in Ohio for the last 40 years is not mere “hypocrisy.” It is the greatest greenwashing effort in history.

The Biggest Environmental Story in the World

The war on nuclear is the most important environmental story in the world. Nuclear plants are dying, and if they go, so too go our chances to clean the air, and solve climate change.

The war on nuclear started with the effort to kill plants in the 1970s, and today takes the form of subsidies and mandates for solar and wind, but not nuclear.

One of the reasons Ohio’s nuclear plants are going bankrupt is because they — as reliable, 24/7 producers of power — are literally forced to pay the high cost of the grid absorbing electricity coming from wind turbines that have been heavily-subsidized for a quarter-century.

The big lie that sustains the war on nuclear is the claim that nuclear is not needed because we can power the world on solar panels — which generate only 15 percent of their rated capacity in Ohio — and erratic wind power.

But surely in our research we discovered that the “environmental” protests in Ohio were as strong against coal as they were against nuclear?

We didn’t. The anti-nuclear groups — Nader, the Sierra Club, NRDC and EDF — all gave the green light to the building of coal plants.

Hard to believe?

Consider that the following is the very first sentence of the Cincinnati Enquirer story from December 8, 1985:

“The cries of protest that rang out for years against a nuclear-powered Zimmer Power Plant,” the reporter wrote, “have quieted since it was announced the plant would be converted to coal power.”

“The cries of protest that rang out for years against a nuclear-powered Zimmer Power Plant,” wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1985, “have quieted since it was announced the plant would be converted to coal power.”

“The cries of protest that rang out for years against a nuclear-powered Zimmer Power Plant,” wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1985, “have quieted since it was announced the plant would be converted to coal power.”

[1] Wellock, T. R. 1998. Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978. Univ of Wisconsin Press.

[2] Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. 2007. Electricity generation and health. The Lancet370(9591), 979-990.

[3] U.S. Energy Information Administration. Electricity Data Browser. https://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/browser