Legacy of Seabrook nuclear protest debated via Boston Globe

Forty years ago, Renny Cushing led hundreds of protesters through the front gates of perhaps the nation’s most controversial construction site, sprawled across a stretch of marshland along the New Hampshire coast.

In all, about 2,000 demonstrators converged on what would become the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, preaching non-violence and carrying signs that read, “Split Wood, Not Atoms” and “Go Fishing, Not Fission.” 


Resulting in one of the largest mass arrests in US history, the standoff at Seabrook helped spark a national backlash against nuclear power that has reverberated for decades, playing a significant role in curbing federal ambitions to build hundreds of reactors across the country.


As demonstration projects in the 1950s and 1960s showed the viability of nuclear power to generate vast amounts of electricity, political leaders vowed to build as many as 1,000 nuclear reactors by the end of the century. 

That never materialized, in no small measure because of the anti-nuclear movement, crystallized by the occupation of Seabrook, said Tom Wellock, a historian at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was created in 1975 to oversee the growing number of reactors across the country.

“What happened with the Clamshell Alliance at Seabrook is that it really nationalized consciousness about nuclear power and inspired similar groups around the country,” he said. “Their influence on policy-makers certainly mattered.”


Robin Thompson spent 11 days in the National Guard armory in Manchester, N.H., eating canned peas and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Now 62, she doesn’t “have a moment of regret” about the protests, describing nuclear power as “outrageously dangerous.” 

Like many of her fellow activists, she’s also deeply worried about the impact of emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

“It does give me pause that carbon emissions are going up,” said Thompson, a 62-year-old who lives in Amherst, Mass. “But I still believe nuclear power is an absolute disaster waiting to happen.”

No one is known to have died from a radiation leak at a nuclear plant in the United States since an explosion at a test reactor in Idaho Falls killed three people in 1961. But radioactive waste from those plants will remain a threat to public safety for thousands of years, critics say. Much of that waste remains scattered at nuclear plants around the country, with no clear plan on how to dispose of it.

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