US anti-nuclear movement

From Anarchy In Action

In the 1970s and early 1980s, anarchists and other anti-authoritarians in the US antinuclear movement created what David Graeber calls "the first appearance in North America of what we now consider standard anarchist tactics and forms of organization: mass actions, affinity groups, spokescouncils, consensus process, jail solidarity, the very principle of decentralized direct democracy." Two groups stood out, the Clamshell Alliance in New Hampshire and the Abalone Alliance in California. Both organized massive direct actions that brought heavy publicity to the dangers of nuclear power.[1]

Along with steep costs and the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster, the anti-nuclear movement was perhaps a factor in the nuclear industry's decline since the 1970s. In the late 1960s, the industry planned to build 1,000 nuclear power plants in the US by 2000.[2] Today, there are only 62. After 1974, no new nuclear plants began construction. From 1977 to 2013, no new reactors were built at existing power plants either.[3]

Clamshell Alliance

The Clamshell Alliance (sometimes known as The Clams) was a spokecouncil-based alliance formed to stop the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire in the 1970s. According to historian Barbara Epstein, Clamshell “represented the first effort” in American history other than the early civil rights movement “to base a mass movement on nonviolent direct action.” The Alliance operated non-hierarchically, and “many—probably most” Clams identified as anarchists.[4]

In February 1974, organic farmer Sam Lovejoy "took a crowbar and knocked down a tower erected by Northeast Utilities as part of a projected nuclear power plant. Lovejoy then hitchhiked to the Montague police station and handed the police a written statement explaining and taking responsibility for the action." He saw his action as a way to get the New Left to start focusing on local issues and connect their existing concern about nuclear weapons to the local threat of nuclear power plants. Lovejoy went to a nine-day trial and was acquitted by the judge on the grounds that the charge was pressed as “destruction of personal property” whereas it should have been “real property”. Jurors later said that they would have found Lovejoy innocent even if he had not been acquitted on a technicality.[5]

In 1976, after the Public Service Company of New Hampshire obtained a license to begin building the Seabrook nuclear power plant, a small group of activists began planning a campaign to stop the plant's construction. The group named themselves the Clamshell Alliance after the clams that lived on the coast near the Seabrook plant site. They quickly committed themselves to nonviolence and consensus-based decision making.[6] People organized in "affinity groups", but these were usually ad-hoc action teams as opposed to the long-term affinity groups that were used by the FAI and advocated by Murray Bookchin. In theory, the "Coordinating Committee" members were not empowered to make decisions against the mandate of their affinity groups.

On 1 August 1976, the Clams held their first occupation of the construction site. 18 people were arrested. On the 22nd, they held a second occupation. This time, 180 were arrested. Many nonviolence trainings were held that winter, in preparation for a planned mass occupation the next spring.

On 30 April 1977, some 2,400 people convened at Seabrook. No one was allowed to participate unless they belonged to an affinity group. When a drunk showed up and demanded to join, the participants nonviolently “hugged” him out. Entering the site, they set up different “villages” where clusters of affinity groups camped. Each village had its own spoke-council, comprised of one member from each affinity group, designed to quickly reach a consensus-based decision once the police arrived. The next morning, the participants woke up to see the National Guard watching them. The governor arrived by helicopter. Activists were informed that they would be given twenty minutes to leave, after which anyone who stayed would be arrested. 1,401 people remained and were arrested. Each affinity group had agreed that no one would pay bail, and the protesters were released two weeks after their arrest. In most cases, the charges were dismissed. The action “put the Clamshell on the front pages of newspapers, especially in New England.”[7]

The Clams decided to hold another mass occupation in June 1978. This time, the fence surrounding the construction site was likely to be locked.

A heated debate emerged within the Clamshell over whether or not to bring wirecutting tools and cut through the fence. The “Hard Clams”, which included the anarchist Boston-based Hard Rain affinity group and the Vermont-based social ecologists, supported cutting the fence in order to get onto the site. The “Soft Clams”, which included most of the group's original founders and many pacifist-leaning anarchists, opposed fence-cutting on the grounds that it would alienate supporters in local communities. During contentious discussions, Hard Rain blocked any agreement that would preclude cutting the fence. Frustrated, the Soft Clams proposed modifying the decision-making process to require an 80% consensus instead of a full 100% consensus. Many middle-ground participants, who opposed fence-cutting, were suspicious at the Soft Clams' attempts to exercise control and saw modified consensus as an unfair way of shutting out the Hard Clams' opinions. The modification never passed, and the Clamshell never reached consensus about whether they'd cut the fence.[8]

In the spring of 1978, the attorney general and governor proposed that the Clamshell hold a legal demonstration on the Seabrook site on an agreed-upon weekend. The Clamshell's “Coordinating Committee”, a spoke-council that “was regarded as simply expressing the accumulated will of the various local groups—violated the consensus process in order to agree to the legal demonstration and preclude fence-cutting. Through an 'armtwisting type of consensus,' the Coordinating Committee put spokes under heavy pressure to vote against the will of their affinity groups. Epstein writes that “the Clamshell as a whole was crumbling”. About twenty thousand people attended the legal demonstration. In Washington D.C., Clamshell held a sit-in at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which ended with an announcement that the construction would be temporarily halted.[9]

Disillusioned by the Coordinating Committee's betrayal of the affinity groups, a number of anarchists, including Murray Bookchin and the Vermont-based social ecologists, formed a caucus called Clams for Democracy and organized a conference at Hampshire College to propose a new constitution for the Alliance. The proposed constitution, drafted by Bookchin, eliminated the Coordinating Committee's power over affinity groups, declared a general opposition to social hierarchy, and rejected the pacifist dogmatism that prevented cutting the fence. Social ecologist Brian Tokar recalls, "We said, ‘We’re going to cut the fence.’"[10] They were unable to persuade the Alliance as a whole.

The Hard Clams and other anarchists formed a group, Clams for Direct Action at Seabrook (CDAS). Two thousand people showed up to their first attempted occupation. Police stood inside the fence waiting for them to cut it. Some demonstrators did cut the fence, but no one dared to enter. Instead, protesters circled around the fence and then left. Five hundred people came to CDAS' second attempted occupation.[11]

Public Service Company finished building Seabrook's first unit in 1986, and the plant became fully operational in 1990. Construction costs approached $7 billion. During construction, the company incurred a large debt, leading to its bankruptcy. Today, NextEra operates the plant.[12]

Barbara Epstein argues that the Hard Clams underestimated the strategic importance on symbolic protest and middle class support. The Hard Clams' own militant strategy would have required a much larger movement, like the one in Germany. Epstein contends that the Soft Clams understood this, but could not implement it without violating the Alliance's consensus process. Epstein compares Clamshell unfavourably to the Abalone Alliance in California. Abalone modelled itself Clamshell, but it also fostered a much deeper cultural commitment to revolutionary nonviolence, thanks chiefly to the group's anarcha-feminists. As a result, it avoided the kind of divisive debates that tore apart Clamshell. [13]

Abalone Alliance

Modelled after the Clamshell Alliance, the Abalone Alliance formed to prevent construction of PG&E's Diablo Canyon plant on the central Californian coast. Abalone lasted much longer than Clamshell did, and Abalone's 1981 occupation coincided with (and possibly contributed to) a multi-year delay of the plant's construction. Epstein attributes the alliance's success to a strong movement culture of revolutionary nonviolence and feminism:

The Abalone sustained itself better than the Clamshell partly by adopting some changes in the consensus process, but chiefly because it created a much more explicitly defined movement culture linking nonviolence and revolutionary aspirations through commitment to feminism and prefigurative politics. It was the anarchist contingent in the Abalone Alliance, the activists who called themselves anarcha-feminists, who were most responsible for developing this culture[...]The argument that feminism required revolutionary nonviolence gave nonviolence a legitimacy that was hard to challenge and that undermined the association between revolution and a willingness to engage in violence.[14]

Abalone made decisions by consensus, and at a statewide conference in 1981, Abalone modified its process. From then on, a “block” could not come from an individual but only from a group, and only if the group reached consensus internally.[15]

Like Clamshell, Abalone organized a series of escalating actions at the construction site. On 7 August 1977, some 1,500 people rallied at Diablo, and 47 people, most of them locals, were arrested for occupying the site. On August 6 and 7 of the next year, 5,000 people rallied and 487 were arrested. Abalone had been planning a rally for April 1979, when the Three Mile Island incident occurred a few days before. Some 25,000 people attended the rally. Abalone grew quickly, reaching sixty local groups. 40,000 attended a the alliance's rally at Diablo on June 30.[16]

2,100 protesters began a blockade of Diablo on 15 September 1981. Some stayed by the gate. They were arrested immediately. Others hiked through the woods trying to get to the plant itself. In some cases, they avoided arrest for several days. Other protesters arrived by a fleet of ships, and they were arrested when they landed at the shore. Meanwhile, at the main camp, people did support work and rested. Some got out of jail, rested at the main camp, and then went back to join the blockade again. Two weeks into the blockade, over 1,900 arrests had been made. On September 27, the camp packed up. As the camp ended, a plant supervisor noticed a flaw in the blueprint. Certain pipes were duplicates and should have been mirror images. The reapirs would be costly, so the plant's operation was put on hold. Many protesters attributed the blockade for the supervisor's double-checking.[17]

The Abalone Alliance faded away after the September blockade. Some went on to work with the Livermore Action Group, which campaigned against a nuclear weapons-producing facility. The Diablo Canyon plant finally opened in 1985.


David Graeber, in “The Shock of Victory,” argues that even though Clamshell and Abalone failed to stop their specifically targeted power plants from being built, they nonetheless succeeded in destabilizing the entire nuclear power industry. Graeber contends, “The actions did delegitimize the very idea of nuclear power – raising public awareness to the point that when Three Mile Island melted down in 1979, it doomed the industry forever. While plans for Seabrook and Diablo Canyon might not have been cancelled, just about every other then-pending plan to build a nuclear reactor was, and no new ones have been proposed for a quarter century.”[18]

In Strange Victories, the autonomous Marxist group Midnight Notes argues that the US anti-nuclear movement should have reached out more systematically to the urban poor and focused on energy prices in addition to ecological issues. Anti-nuclear struggles in Europe, they observe, involved a much greater proletarian participation and thus had more of a direct effect on the nuclear industry. The authors credit the anti-nuclear victories of America and Europe in part to cultural shifts and a decline of workers' discipline in the 1960s and 1970s:

The high capital-intensity and the centralized existence of nuclear capital require stable, socially settled “family men”, “militarily” disciplined workers, truly “scientific” Stachanovites of the second-half of the century[...]The sixties and the seventies put this “new” worker in crisis. Wives, mothers and lovers no longer produced stability and discipline, the universities didn't produce reliability, while academic unemployment ruined the “pride” of these workers. As this disillusioned, cynical, unstable intellectual proletariat emerges, the future of such capital-intensive industries like the nuclear industry is endangered.[19]

  1. David Graeber, “The Shock of Victory” in Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination (New York: Autonomedia, 2011).
  2. Midnight Notes, Strange Victories: The Anti-Nuclear Movement in the U.S. and Europe, 1979,
  3. Wikipedia, "Nuclear power in the United States,"
  4. Barbara Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 59, 64, 69.
  5. Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution, 61-62.
  6. Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution, 63-64.
  7. Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution, 68.
  8. Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution, 69-70.
  9. Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution, 75, 77-78.
  10. Janet Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), ch. 9.
  11. Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution, 79-81.
  13. Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution, 88, 95, 250-251.
  14. Epstein, 'Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, 95.
  15. Epstein, ibid, 102.
  16. Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, 99-101.
  17. Epstein, 'Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, 103-104.
  18. Graeber, ibid.
  19. Midnight Notes, ibid.