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Seabrook anti-nuclear protest: costly weekend of futility

It was a costly Memorial Day weekend for the state of New Hampshire and the utility company building the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant. It is estimated that preventing anti-nuclear protesters from occupying the construction site cost as much as $750,000. The state had authorized $177,000 for handling the demonstrators.

And what did the protesters accomplish? Many anti-nuclear activists assessing the latest Seabrook protest wonder if it will have any long-term effect. Others, outside the "anti- nuke" movement, decry the attempt to occupy the plant site as rampant lawlessness.

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In terms of the stated goals of taking down fences, occupying the site, and halting construction, the "direct action" was a failure. State police and national guardsmen -- using guard dogs, nightsticks, fire hoses, pepper gas, and Mace -- had little difficulty thwarting the sporadic assaults of the protesters.

The numbers, too, were unimpressive. Some 1,500 participated in the first day's demonstration against the plant being built by the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH); last October some 2,500 participated in a similar occupation attempt. The number of participants in the May 24-26 demonstration dwindled each day. Some 40 were arrested, most on trespassing charges, and most were released on personal recognizance.

Many supporters of the anti-nuclear movement said they could not condone the storming of the Seabrook site, knowing it would very likely lead to reactive violence from law enforcement officials.

"I'm not sure whether such an action makes sense," admitted a woman helping in an attempt to block an access road but not joining in efforts to take down the fence and occupy the site. "We understand that it's motivated by people's fright, frustration, and deep commitment to the idea that the only way we'll survive is by getting rid of this technology. But [many wonder] if an occupation attempt is truly in accord with the nonviolent principles of the movement."

After watching the situation for several hours, New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gallen spoke harshly against law-breaking demonstrators, their attempted destruction of private property, and the inconvenience they had caused local residents. He also praised police and National Guard for their restraint in the face of verbal and physical abuse.

Rick Golden, a member of the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook, said he felt the demonstration was at least a partial success, and may have given the anti-nuclear movement a major boost.

"We failed in our immediate goal to occupy the site, but part of our goal was to build a direct action movement against nuclear power, and we feel we've been successful at taking another giant step in achieving that goal."

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But Eric Ferscht of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C., isn't so sure. He thinks the Seabrook action will have little influence on the 1,000 or so anti-nuclear groups throughout the country.

"There is definitely a faction which views direct action as the only way to address nuclear power. . . . I think, however, that the majority does not look upon it as the thing that's going to make or break nuclear's future."

Most groups are more "mainstream" and include working-class people and middle Americans "who are becoming increasingly aware and wary of nuclear power," he says.

"There was quite an outgrowth [of anti-nuclear sentiment] from Three Mile Island because of the numerous articles appearing in magazines like Redbook and Woman's Day which enlightened a whole new constituency to the dangers and questions about nuclear."

He says each time there is another accident, no matter how minor, new groups of people become aware of nuclear plants in their areas and the potential threat they pose. He says that such education has a much greater effect in charging attitudes than direct action such as that at Seabrook.

With this in mind, another anti-nuclear group, Mobilization for Survival, is sponsoring "Survival Summer."

"The idea is to bring the issues of nuclear power and weapons to a wide range of people in different communities," says Annique Caplan of the group's Boston chapter. "It's essentially an educational and outreach approach. . . . We might sponsor a march or a rally or have small actions, but we're really concentrating on speaking to people."

She says groups such as the American Friends Service Committee, Clamshell Alliance, and Physicians for Social Responsibility are already committed to helping out, and that the organization is working to get local community groups involved as well.

But pro- and anti-nuclear forces agree that finance is the biggest factor in the nuclear power issue. Many members of the financial community are becoming increasingly wary of nuclear power.

Public Service Company of New Hampshire knows. The Seabrook plant, scheduled to go on line in 1983, was originally projected to cost $1 billion. It now is pegged at $3.1 billion. Because of high interest rates, PSNH was forced in March to lay off 2,500 Seabrook construction workers. It has also not been totally successful in reducing its ownership participation from 50 percent to 28 percent, and a spokesman admits the company is more concerned with financing construction than with demonstrations.

Eric Ferscht says that orders for 10 nuclear reactors were canceled in 1979, and thus far in 1980 another 12 have also been canceled.

"It's hard to attribute causation in each case . . . [but] the financial community is beginning to understand that nuclear power isn't as cheap an option as they've been led to believe," he says.

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