A Tale of Two Nuclear Opponents

By Howard Shaffer

So many people oppose nuclear power that it becomes easy to lump them all together as “the opponents.” Like any other group, however, the opponents actually have  various depths of commitment. The extremes are the Professional Opponent and the Concerned But Reachable Volunteer.

The Professional Opponent

A colleague once asked me, “Who is X?”  (X is used to conceal name.) The colleague had heard X introduced as a “scientist” at nuclear power plant public review meeting. My colleague looked on X’s organizational Web site, but could not find X’s qualifications. “Does anyone know anything about X? Does X actually have any technical background at all?” the colleague asked.

Yes, I explained, I know something about X, and no, X has no technical background.

Seabrook nuclear plant

I first met X sometime after I began working at the Seabrook plant in 1984. The Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear group, was holding public meetings and staging protests against the plant, and some of us from the plant attended the meetings. We always identified ourselves as plant employees, so as not to give ammunition to the charge that the plant was spying.  Of course, if we had been asked to leave, then it wouldn’t have been a public meeting! We held conversations, and always tried to be polite (which is often not easy), regardless of how we were treated (I must admit that my politeness sometimes slipped).

Even at that time, X had a usual-form activist history: Studied philosophy in college and dropped out, counseled draft resistors during the Vietnam War, joined the anti-nuclear protest movement shortly afterward.

Kent State protest

While I was working at Seabrook, after 1986, the protesters’ plans included scaling the fence around the plant site. I had met X by then, and knew that security regulations had expanded the specific rights of security guards. I wrote to X, who was active in the Clamshell Alliance, and included a copy of the guards’ rights, which specified the right to shoot in self-defense. I asked, “Please, no more Kent States,” referring to the Vietnam War college campus protest tragedy, where several students were shot, and one or more killed, the aftermath of a large crowd of students surrounding a small band of National Guard troops.

Thankfully, the Seabrook protest ritual had evolved to the point where the police would be on board, the media would be called, those protesters picked ahead of time would scale the fence and be arrested, and all would then go safely home. The media would have its footage and nobody would be hurt.

Vermont Yankee nuclear plant

I met X many times after that, as he moved from positions in one anti-nuclear organization to another. I saw him testify in Washington, D.C., and in Montpelier, Vt. Our last meeting was when he came to present to legislative committees on the Vermont Yankee tritium leak. He and his colleague egregiously said that the leak was unmonitored, and that this was not allowed! Shortly thereafter, we were on a plane together from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C. We sat together and talked.

X firmly believes that nuclear power must be done away with to ensure elimination of nuclear weapons. Of course, X also believes that “any amount of radiation is harmful.” X and his organization don’t have a transition plan, for how the United States and the world would keep going while we convert to their proposal of a nuclear-free existence.

X is a professional “anti-nuke,” making a full-time living at opposing nuclear plants. He represents a very few who are the hard core. One can learn how to counter his arguments, but one cannot hope to change his mind.

The Concerned But Reachable Volunteer

At the other end of the opponents’ spectrum is Y, an anti-nuclear volunteer. Several years ago, Y arranged a debate about nuclear energy and I was a panel member. Y had retired from urban life to live in the hills of the Connecticut River Valley. Once, we both happened to be at Vermont’s State House, in Montpelier, at the same time. Y came over to me to say hello.

Angwin at Vermont Yankee demonstration

I saw her again just a few days ago. On June 23, the Safe and Green Coalition held a demonstration in Brattleboro, Vt., outside the Post Office building, where the federal court was holding an injunction hearing, in the suit by Vermont Yankee against the State of Vermont. Meredith Angwin (who also writes blog posts under the View From Vermont banner) and I attended. Meredith had a poster with a picture of a child using a breathing mask, saying “Save the Children (from asthma). Yes Vermont Yankee.” Y was there on the sidewalk with a sign, along with 60 others. Y called to me as I walked along, and we again had a cordial conversation.

I could see in Y’s eyes some genuine concern about nuclear and a sense of doubt. There were no strident words, and no bubbling up of anger as with some of the others there. Y truly wants to do well by the children, and she sees nuclear as a major danger. In my opinion, she is not entirely dedicated to that belief.

Different strokes

Opponents are a mixture of people with a range of feelings. These feelings go from fear, anger, and “lie down in front of the bus” determination, to questioning and apprehension about nuclear power. Some such as Y appear to be unsure about the depth of their opposition.

The challenge for nuclear advocates is to find ways to communicate—that is, address the fears and concerns of those who are reachable. By doing so, we will bolster our supporters and convince the wavering middle ground in the electorate.

We do not have an easy job, because we are in an arena with the loud voices of the professional opponents. These professionals can be cordial, but will never be swayed.  Still, we can convince the concerned citizens.  Some high-profile former opponents have been able to see the light.

We must challenge the false statements of the professional, and we must keep working to engage concerned citizens by providing correct information,  acknowledging their fears, and speaking to reasons that matter to them.



Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 35 years. He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS committees, national meeting staffs, and his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow. He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults in nuclear public outreach. He is coordinator for the Vermont Pilot Project.

Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

13 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Nuclear Opponents

  1. Paul Gunter

    To the point, its no spin on fact that fossil and fissile fuels are still wedded at the corporate level. If there is an effort at deflection it has been to claim that a call for nuclear phase out is an endorsement of fossil fuel expansion. It is corporations like Southern Nuclear and their NEI lobby who have no intention to supplant their coal investments for nuclear power. The intent has always been to expand both. That what is still playing out in Germany I suspect.

    I don’t bet but I do subscribe to where the people lead, the leaders will follow. I’d say that is what is going on now in Germany and Japan, as well as elsewhere. This latest nuclear catastrophe has spurred more of such leadership to necessarily make a more aggressive move to renewable energy generation and energy efficiency.

    As for here in the US, I note that the preamble to the recently released NRC Task Force report on Fukushima’s impact on US nuclear oversight assumes that there will likely be more than 100 nuclear power stations operating in the US for decades to come—but no mention of the implications of regulatory upgrades on the “renaissance” and most certainly further ratcheting up of cost.

    So we each still have our work cut out for us— diametrically opposed as it is.

  2. Brian Mays

    Mr. Gunter – The skills that you have developed from a lifetime career of spinning news events are quite impressive, and obvious. The first rule is to deflect, perhaps with your own attack on a different front, is it not?

    As for “who will prevail,” I know where I’d put my money. It was only two years ago that Germany’s Environment Minister was pushing for the construction of “eight to twelve new coal plants if we want to get out of nuclear energy.” This minister (at the time), Mr. Sigmar Gabriel, is with the center-left Social Democrats, who were part of the coalition that instituted the phase-out of nuclear power in Germany a decade ago.

    I also wouldn’t bet on Japan’s current Prime Minister. This is a guy who was fortunate to survive a no-confidence vote in Parliament just last month. He is also someone who has promised that he will resign soon (a tactic that helped him survive the no-confidence vote), but nobody knows when.

    In other words, this is a guy who will say anything to try to hold on to his job. Not exactly the best “expert” to be consulting at the moment.

  3. Paul Gunter

    The editorialized headline aside, this says that there is still political wrangling to pay off the German nuclear industry by using funds for renewables to build coal plants. That’s no surprise given that coal and nuclear partnership is pretty long standin— pretty much globally. Didn’t big shot coal guy Tony Early, Jr. (DTE Coal) once chair the NEI board of directors?

    Anyway if you read this this beyond the headline it also says the payoff “idea” is getting a lot of resistance from the renewable and efficiency political camp in Germany. So given that the dust hasnt settled on the German nuclear phaseout, this comes as no surprise. Who will prevail is always the question. Right?

    Meantime, the July 13 Washington Post reports Japanese Prime Minister to say “‘We will aim to bring about a society that can exist without nuclear power,’ he said.’

    Hey, since when did this guy become an expert?


  4. Paul Gunter

    Well, Rod, since the conversation is about me and an still anonymous volunteer in the first place, I am happy to respond. But its funny, how this debate quickly turns to accusations, isn’t it?

    You can go to our website (www.beyondnuclear.org) to get the annual report to see that it is largely by philanthropy. Moreover, our organization’s entire annual budget is significantly less than any one of the nuclear industry’s CEOs. So in so much as working in the public interest I am afraid say there is not much of an “industry” there. By comparison—particularly given the tremendous nuclear industry lobby that I am aware of on Capitol Hill—-it has nothing to do with how or who funds my day to day work.

    Your arguments might be more persuasive if you didn’t have three GE Mark Is at Fukushima still fuming and leaking radioactivity now four months and still counting after the accident, or that 25 year-old expansive forbidden zone around Chernobyl, or maybe a 100,000 year plan for all that nuclear waste that has been generated and growing. That kind of resolution just might persuade our funders that it was time to give more to charitable garden clubs instead.

    My understanding of the nuclear phase-out and shift to renewables in Germany is that it is largely driven by maximizing energy efficiency and conservation, not a conversion to new coal facilities. I am happy to review any documents you might produce to the contrary.

    Its disingenuous to claim that Fukushima has not and will not result in a human health hazard and has so far a “zero death toll.” I am surprised by your statement that by assessing the decay rate for Iodine-131 everybody can go home, as if you missed the news that longer lived radioactive isotopes are in the soil and contaminated the food supply and likely migrated into the aquifer. Why are all those kids in Fukushima Prefecture now wearing dosimeters? Are you suggesting that that is a waste of money? The fact that 24 miles of the Japanese coastline will not be reconstructed from the earthquake and tsunami damage or re-inhabited by its former residents for the foreseeable future because it is radioactive is in itself enough testimony for most rational people. But don’t be surprised to see the exclusion zone to eventually grow even larger.

    How you or Howard look look upon me in judgement of my work is of no matter to me. This never was a popularity contest. I made a commitment long ago to treat those I disagree with civilly. But that’s my commitment.

  5. Rod Adams


    One more thing. Were you one of the people who cheered the Markey press release claiming that renewables produced more energy than nuclear without reading any of the details of the production report that showed that the popular power sources of wind, solar and geothermal produced just 370 billion BTU, only 16.5% of the claimed total for renewables? The other 83.5% was produced by big hydro, wood, municipal solid waste, and ethanol.

  6. Rod Adams

    Paul – since you have brought up history to claim how successful your efforts to shut down nuclear energy have been, it might be worth reviewing the production history of the embattled industry. Despite your lifelong active work against the technology – which, I have to grant, has been far more successful than I would prefer – nuclear generation has increased from zero in 1956 to the energy equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per day in 2010.

    For the world energy market, the development of nuclear electricity generation has been roughly the equivalent of adding a new Saudi Arabia PLUS a new Kuwait during a period of 55 years. For a variety of reasons, that total energy production ignores the 100 or so submarines, 10 aircraft carriers and 10 or so icebreakers that also do not burn oil as they operate with great freedom on the world’s oceans.

    You are proud of the proposed nuclear phaseout in Germany (actually just a reversal of a reversal initially pushed by Gerhard Schroeder, now a director at Gasprom and at TNK-BP, two huge fossil fuel companies that have a lot to gain from kneecapping their nuclear competition) but have you read about their aggressive plans to subsidize the construction of new coal and gas plants to make that phase out possible? Do you really believe that those fuels are safer than nuclear plants?

    Despite all of the hopeful anticipation by you and your friends in the antinuclear industry, Fukushima Daiichi still has a radiation related death toll of zero. There have certainly been people harmed by the event, but the vast majority of the people displaced by government edit would have been far safer to have remained in place. By now, long after all of the I-131 has decayed, they would be far healthier and more secure if they were simply allowed to go back home.

    Unlike Howard, I do not consider you any kind of colleague and I do not respect your choice to spend your life fighting against a technology with the very real capability to make life far more livable for billions of people.

  7. atomikrabbit

    “Granted that’s more about degrees of arrogance than education… but I hope you get my point.“

    The best point you make is Howard’s – that you are a professional, paid anti, a “Fossil Green”, who will never be persuadable because to change your opinion would not only require you to change your lifelong identity, but would cut off your source of income.

    Since you have decided to step into the conversation, maybe you could tell us just who does fund your paycheck, your travels, and your publicity machine? And I don’t mean the NGO, foundation, PAC, or “public interest” group that signs the check, but the real source? If it’s not the methane industry, you are missing a real opportunity.

  8. Paul Gunter

    Precisely my point, Brian. I won’t hold it against you for being too young to remember and likely not even born, or simply unstudied to know about Austria’s Zwentendorf nuclear power plant on the Danube… way back in the 1960s and 70s.

    It may just be history to you but it gets included in any full accounting of the ongoing phase out of nuclear power. Some ANS readers, including Howard, will recall the 1978 referendum against the start up of the Zwentendorf plant succeeded and it was democratically decided that the finished reactor would never be allowed to start. That said, this remains
    the safest nuclear power plant in the world as it was never allowed to be fuel loaded.

    The same technical risk taking rooted in “expertise” is recently revealed today where TEPCO cut 25 meters off the protective natural seawall around Fukushima to save on cost for pumping water above sea level. This cost savings was based on their technical advisors projections that a tsunami wouldn’t be over 3.1 meters. Granted that’s more about degrees of arrogance than education… but I hope you get my point.

    One big difference is that Adam and Brian have significantly less safety margin than Howard had.

  9. Brian Mays

    Paul Gunter’s reply provides an excellent example of how threatened and defensive professional anti-nuclear activists feel these days. Even if we leave aside the obvious errors (is Austria really phasing-out nuclear, Mr. Gunter? That’s surprising, considering that Austria doesn’t have any operational nuclear power plants), Mr. Gunter’s entire comment reeks of desperation.

    Why are you so surprised, Mr. Gunter, when you discover that people who are technically qualified to discuss a subject prefer to talk to other qualified individuals, rather than professional self-described “community organizers”? Whose community do you represent, by the way? Tacoma Park’s? Are you part of the local communities of Vermont or New York? What gives you the right to speak for these communities?

    Our code of conduct included an attitude of openness and respect for our opponents as well.

    Well, at least you’ve maintained your sense of humor through all of this. Good one!

  10. Paul Gunter

    I would guess that this is meant to be a topical discussion given that support for nuclear power is leaving by the droves around the world with the latest creation of another permanent sacrifice area around Fukushima, Japan.
    However, it is a little odd that Howard would choose this time to frame the opposition as individuals “x” and “y” as if they were isolated, well intentioned but naive voices. Where in this formula, do you assign State Legislators (“a”?), Governors (“b”?), national referendums (“c”?) or parliamentary rule for entire countries ( “c”?) ?
    Shortly after I met Howard in the mid-1980s at a nonviolent direct action staging ground for one of the many demonstrations at the Seabrook nuclear power plant construction site, I discovered that he was a “activist profiler” for the Northeast Utilities and nuclear industry, not that that made much of a difference in our now long standing relationship. Our code of conduct included an attitude of openness and respect for our opponents as well. I presume he is now volunteering from retirement for Entergy and their increasingly beleaguered Vermont Yankee and Indian Point nukes.
    Its is always surprising that Howard and others in the industry want to measure up those in disagreement by their technical background as if that would answer all the questions. More surprising that we might be reasonable to industry’s expansion point of view if we had gone to MIT for a degree in nuclear engineering or find the understanding why significant nuclear safety issues linger in paper chases from decades without resolution, waiting for that same issue to be demonstrated at places like Fukushima. Or, as if those who with the technical credential would have been able to convince those seven towns in New Hampshire, “The Granite State”, to turn over their family heritage and lands by forced relocation to the Department of Energy in 1985-1986 for its Crystalline Rock Repository Project to bury 70,000 metric tons of high level nuclear waste deep. The disappearance of the towns like Hillsboro, Henniker, Antrim, Washington, Lempster and Stoddard seems to ring a bell with roots for this nation’s founding principles. I don’t recall Howard at any of those town meetings or those in Maine as elsewhere in the US where the experts with their credential were told this technology is not compatible with democracy.
    Mr. Shaffer’s assessment of what makes an activist tick understandably leaves out much of the history on becoming a community organizer and the depth of my human rights activism. Both of these areas of training and commitment are fundamental to how I arrive at my position on nuclear power. Somehow, Howard sees or makes no connection between proposing more of these national sacrifice areas for nuclear garbage or the latest example of the inevitable nuclear catastrophe might be motivators to me and others.
    However, both Howard and Rod Adams comments are entirely behind the curve now that States like Vermont and New York are taking the initiative to shut down nuclear power plants and entire governments and societies, like Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, etc, etc, are accelerating the phase-out of the increasingly dangerous technology in a long overdue move away from both fossil and fissile fuels and into the 21st Century energy policy of renewables and efficiency.

  11. Rod Adams

    Howard, thank you for the stories and profiles.

    I could very well be wrong, but I think I recognize the professional career of X as the same man who told me at a public meeting about Calvert Cliffs Unit 3 that all the power Maryland needed could come from off-shore wind farms. Since I have been becalmed off of the Delmarva peninsula at least twice for a day at a time (while I was teaching seamanship to USNA midshipmen on board Navy – 44s) I was verbally skeptical.

    I told Paul Gunter (my guess for the value of X) that his opposition to nuclear would result in burning more coal, which supplies most of the power in Maryland that does not come from nuclear. I asked him why he fights so hard against nuclear and why he does not fight against coal. In a brief period of honesty (even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then) he said “because no one pays me to fight coal.”

    See, that is one difference between me and most of the people on the side of nuclear energy – I stopped being polite about the time I realized that the opposition to nuclear energy was putting my lovely little granddaughter’s future at risk. Besides – I live in a nice neighborhood with lots of recently posted “For Sale” signs. At least some of those homes are owned by Areva employees who were reassigned as a result of the almost total slowdown in the Calvert Cliffs unit 3 project that Gunter was fighting when we had our conversation. I blame him and people like him for fighting against employment for my neighbors as well as for fighting against clean air for the children.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  12. Bill Eaton

    Years ago down in Port Gibson MS, I attended a public hearing on the initial dry fuel storage project for the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. In attendance were two young men representing the local Green Party, there to present written comments into the public record. Their comments were tangential to the issue of storing the fuel at Grand Gulf using the technology of interest and mostly a recitation of boilerplate about the dangers of nuclear power in general. After the meeting a short get together of principles was organized to give the Jackson MS media access to the plant officials and any who might have media worthy opinions. I introduced myself and chatted with the Green guys for a few minutes. I asked if either if them had ever been in a nuclear power facility, or had delved into the technology at all, or had a technical background. All responses were to the negative. One was a baker and the other a dream therapist. I offered to give them a tour of the plant at any time and recommended some reading on the subject. I also recommended that they begin to educate themselves so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes in commenting about nuclear matters that they had made in their canned comments. I pointed out that their ability to influence people like the NRC was minimal as long as they had little technical credibility. They actually thanked me. I talked to one of them about a month later. He called and let me know that he couldn’t take me up on my offer because he was moving out of town to another job. I found them both extremely interesting to talk to and quite receptive to the notion that actually knowing something about the subject might be helpful.

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