By Meredith Angwin
Right now, in the United States, citizens have become active advocates on many subjects. Ever since the last election, congressional phone lines have been swamped. The March issue of the New Yorker magazine featured an article that discussed whether or not phone calls to Congress are still effective. In this new context, how will an advocate get her voice heard? (If you are reading the New Yorker article…spoiler alert…write a letter to your representative instead of calling.)
However, the backlog on the D.C. phone lines is of little importance to pro-nuclear advocates. For pro-nuclear advocates, right now most of the action is not in Congress, but in the states. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, pro-nuclear advocacy has always been most effective at the state and local level. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill agrees with me. O’Neill’s most famous book is: All politics is local, and other rules of the game.
The New Yorker article describes an incident that exemplifies Tip O’Neill’s aphorism. A woman in Indiana decided to send a letter on immigration to every member of Congress. Soon thereafter, hundreds of identical envelopes, forwarded unopened, arrived at the office of the Congresswoman who represented the letter-writer. These envelopes contained the letters she had sent to other Congressmen, and their staffers had helpfully forwarded to the woman’s very own representative.
All politics is local.
Pro-Nuclear Advocacy in the Past
Politics is local, and politics is also about visibility. I strongly believe that pro-nuclear people must be visible advocates. When we are visible advocates in our own areas of the country, it can make a difference.
Who now remembers the successful pro-nuclear advocacy of 1988 in Massachusetts? Well, I sort-of remember, although I was on the West Coast and didn’t participate. My friend Howard Shaffer was an active participant.
Massachusetts held a referendum on shutting down all the nuclear plants in Massachusetts. (Let’s also note that 1988 was two years after the Chernobyl incident.) An article published a few days before the referendum noted that Massachusetts’ Governor Michael Dukakis was leading his state’s attempts to stymie the start-up of the Seabrook plant in nearby New Hampshire. However, the article also noted that the region was short of electricity, and New England had experienced 10 brownouts during the previous summer.
Nuclear won the referendum. Massachusetts voted 2 to 1 in favor of keeping its nuclear plants running.
To achieve this referendum result, the nuclear industry sponsored ads and encouraged nuclear workers to be active in opposing the proposed shut-down. As Howard wrote: Yankee Atomic Electric Co. empowered all employees to volunteer for the campaign to defeat the referendum. They were able to campaign on company time, while still completing their normal responsibilities. …(many employees) joined the “Community Liaison Volunteers” (CLVs). ….Volunteers were encouraged to be active in their hometowns because they are politically legitimate there and can’t be excluded or accused of being outsiders. For example, when a Selectman calls a (public) meeting … on the referendum….. An employee from the town was encouraged to attend, accompanied by another employee as a guest, for support.
Personal employee advocacy was vigorous and local, and it was backed up by more than $7 million in company support of the campaign. A two-to-one victory was achieved for nuclear energy.
Yes, it can be done.
Local Pro-Nuclear Advocacy
Can we do the equivalent today?
Let’s start with the fact that the American Nuclear Society is nationwide and world-wide, but it still manages to be a leader in local activism. ANS pioneered the Nuclear in the States Toolkit, which is updated every year, and provides information on policy questions on a state-wide basis. Some states forbid new nuclear plants, others need to support existing nuclear plants, still others have new nuclear plants coming on-line. The American Nuclear Society acknowledges that all politics are local, and it provides a toolkit for local advocacy.
However, comparing today with 1988, we must acknowledge that today’s nuclear plants are not the cash-generators that they were in the days of oil-burning power plants and regulated utilities. Therefore, it is unlikely that the plants themselves would support the sort of advocacy that led to victory in Massachusetts.
However, many local organizations have arisen to protect the atmosphere and encourage the continued operation of nuclear plants. Some of these organizations are strictly local, such as my organization of the Energy Education Project in Vermont (no longer operating), and the Californians for Green Nuclear Power (CGNP), which is fighting effectively to save Diablo Canyon in California. I am particularly impressed that CGNP has achieved intervenor status before the California Public Utilities Commission, and it has also applied for intervenor funding from the state of California. This type of funding has usually been given to anti-nuclear groups. However, the requirement for such funding is being a “citizens group” with standing on the issue, not “being anti-nuclear.”
There are many pro-nuclear organizations active today. The problem with listing these organizations is that I will be in trouble for not listing them all, but I will list a few of them. Environmental Progress was founded by Michael Shellenberger, while two other pro-nuclear advocacy organizations were also developed that are national in scope, but take local action: Mothers for Nuclear and Generation Atomic.
I was proud to be with the Environmental Progress group the day that it led a rally in Albany, New York. The rally celebrated New York State passage of its Zero Emissions Credit (ZEC) allowance. ZEC supports nuclear power with a subsidy, similar to the subsidy that renewables get, though much less per kWh. Also, the subsidy is in effect only when the kWh price on the grid is low. Still, with all those caveats, ZEC is making the difference that keeps upstate nuclear running in New York. ZEC was a real victory for clean air.
There are other organizations supporting nuclear power, such as Environmentalists for Nuclear USA, Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness of Aiken South Carolina, and Americans for Nuclear Energy, which is very active on Facebook.
Most of these groups have local activities, such as rallies, breakfasts, letter-writing campaigns, and so forth, although not all groups are equally active, and not all groups are in all localities.
Pro-Nuclear Advocacy Today
We are in a crucial time for nuclear energy. Merchant nuclear plants are having a hard time competing with low-price natural gas and subsidized renewables. However, many states are recognizing the role nuclear power plays in meeting greenhouse gas abatement goals. Therefore, we are seeing more and more state-level proposals to support Clean Air technologies, such as nuclear. Proposals similar to ZEC are becoming common at the state level. This is a very hopeful time for effective local advocacy.
I believe it is important for people who support nuclear energy to be visible in their nuclear support, and active in their local issues. For many years, anti-nuclear groups have been so visible that many people who support nuclear energy think that they are the only people who support it. As a humorous (but maybe sad example), my daughter was talking to a friend’s husband at a party. She hadn’t talked much to him before. He mentioned that he was working on a project that supported nuclear energy. She said something like: “Wow, that’s great, my mom is a big nuclear supporter, too.” He answered: “What is your mom’s name? Maybe I know her. There’s only ten of us, after all.”
He was joking, but indeed, it can seem that there are only ten nuclear supporters—because too many nuclear supporters are invisible. We must be visible in our support.
Visible and local. Because, when all is said and done: all politics is local.
Think global, act local. But act. Support nuclear energy!
Meredith Angwin is a member of the American Nuclear Society and a long-term supporter of nuclear energy, including leading rallies in support of Vermont Yankee. Her recent book, Campaigning for Clean Air: Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy, will help readers make their voice heard in the energy debate. Meredith hopes that her book will help more people work toward a clean-energy future.