Environmentalism at Wesleyan in the 1970's

by Roger Smith

Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Conclusion

Part 3.  The Nuclear Juggernaut and Conclusion


Anti-nuclear energy actions did not begin in 1977.  As early as 1973, Middletown residents and Wesleyan professors like John MacDougall (sociology) worked together to fight against a proposed nuclear power plant for Middletown, and formed an organization, People's Action for Clean Energy (PACE).  While public sentiment still generally favored nuclear power, the topic was not without controversy.  In Earth Action's publication, Earth Day - The Beginning, they included an article critical of the Atomic Energy Commission (which became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1974) because of its dual role of promoting nuclear energy and regulating the industry. It cited concerns by scientists like Linus Pauling (referring to atmospheric nuclear tests) that what the AEC classified as a tolerable dose of radioactivity could still cause genetic damage, and thus condemned nuclear power plants for their continuous "planned releases" of low-level radioactive materials into the atmosphere.[1]

Back in Middletown, PACE's mobilization against the plant helped convince its backers to select a different site.  In the end, the plant would never be built.  Even with its original goal accomplished, PACE did not dissolve, and protested against the Millstone plants with other Connecticut groups.  By 1975/6, PACE had eight chapters around the state, with John MacDougall as the head of the Middletown chapter.  PACE never had many student members, with two exceptions: Jack Gray and Paul Gionfriddo '75.  Soon after graduation, Gionfriddo would fight nuclear power as a member of the state senate and as the head of Middletown's PACE (succeeding MacDougall). 

An accident in Middletown in 1976 further paved the way for an anti-nuclear movement in Middletown.  In April, a truck carrying low-level radioactive waste from Millstone overturned on Washington Street in Middletown,  The waste had been placed inside a large crate for added protection, but the planners failed to account for its added height.  The crate struck an overpass, causing the accident.  The Department of Environmental Protection briefly considered evacuating the area (Middletown), but concluded that there had not been any radioactive leakage.[2] 

The next step towards mobilizing Wesleyan against nuclear power occurred at the October 23, 1976 demonstration near the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire.  A carload of Wesleyan students, including Jack Gray and Arnie Alpert '77 attended, and there they learned of a planned occupation of Seabrook the following spring.[3]  Seabrook, though hours away in New Hampshire, would become the first anti-nuclear action by significant numbers of Wesleyan students because it was organized by other, more experienced activists, and some Wesleyan students worried about taking actions against an operation nuclear plant.[4]  Alpert took most of the initiative in organizing an ad-hoc Seabrook Committee at Wesleyan, along with Bradley Hess '80, one of the future leaders of the Nuclear Resistance Group at Wesleyan, and Mark Roseland.  The Seabrook planning meetings were run by consensus, with concern for the input of all participants, reflecting the values of the organizers.[5]  On the regional level, the Clamshell Alliance (founded in 1976) worked to coordinate the actions of various local affinity groups.  It too operated by consensus, with statewide groups like Connecticut Clamshell (CT Clam) representing local groups like the one at Wesleyan.[6]

Wesleyan sent several busloads of students to occupation of Seabrook on April 30 and the rally on May 1, with 40 arrested during the occupation.  They were not alone- over 1400 other protestors were arrested along with them.[7]  In a letter to the Argus from 18 of the detained students who managed to stay together, "We choose to non-violently occupy this site because we feel that the dangers of nuclear power∑. would destroy much of the area's fishing resources, sacrifice the tourist industry, [and] threaten it with radioactive contamination[.]"  They then wrote of their ideals: "The spirit of love, cooperation and peaceful coexistence have been beautifully present throughout the experience.  The sense of collectivity of struggle, the depth of commitment to non-violence, and the principled effort to invoke non-hierarchical forms of democracy have demonstrated and created amazingly high levels of energy."[8] 

Nationally, public opinion was turning against nuclear power.  In May of 1979, between 65 and 120,000 people marched on Washington against nuclear power, including 50 people from Middletown.  The protestors included mainstream groups like the PIRGs, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.  As one participant explained, "After the Three Mile Island Crisis, the movement has 'mushroomed.'"[9]  Compounding the problems for nuclear power advocates, a movie about a nuclear accident, "The China Syndrome" had become quite popular before TMI, and coincidentally, uranium prices skyrocketed.  Consumer groups fought against the rate hikes needed to finance the building of nuclear plants, and groups affiliated with Clamshell worked to discourage investment in nuclear power, using tactics like taking over the board room of the Bank of Boston, and blocking the entrance of the New York Stock Exchange on the 50th anniversary of the 1929 collapse.[10]  Sixteen Wesleyan students took part in the NYSE demonstration and were arrested.[11] 



As the environmental movement approached its tenth year of existence, it once again fell into the shadows of a larger movement.  This time the movement was University divestment from corporations doing business in South Africa because of its racially discriminatory apartheid policy.  By the fall of 1980, NRG and the Ecology House were the only active environmental organizations on campus.

The work of student like Jack Gray, Laura Gibbons, and Mark Roseland in building connections between environmental and social issues persisted.  Many activists from the '77 Seabrook protest became involved with Professors Dick Ohman's Towards a Socialist America, and others worked on alternative energy projects like building a solar powered house with the CSiS program.  The philosophy of social ecology would continue with ECOS '81, and apparently the Student Budget Committee (SBC) felt it was important enough to fund it with money originally intended for Spring Fling.[12]

The first environmentalists at Wesleyan faced problems that would persist until the present.  These included making the university interested in issues of energy and waste reduction beyond short-term financial savings, influencing the behavior or more than a small number of students on campus, working with Middletown on issues affecting both students and local residents, and making environmentalism relevant to minority students at Wesleyan.  Their successes and shortcomings help present today's environmentalists with an understanding of the origins of the current situation at Wesleyan, and also illustrate trends in the national environmental movement throughout its first decade.  It is the challenge for environmentalists of the coming decades to meet these chronic problems with workable solutions, vindicating the hard work of past Wesleyan students.

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[1] John Goffman and Arthur Tamplin, "The AEC: Can We Survive the Peaceful Atom?" in Earth Day - The Beginning, ed. Environmental Action (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970), 126.

[2] Brian Shaw, "Nuke Carrier Crashes But No danger is Seen," Wesleyan Argus, 9 April 1976, 4.

[3] Arnold Alpert, telephone interview by author, December 1999.

[4] Laura Gibbons, telephone interview by author, December 1999.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Arnold Alpert, telephone interview by author, December 1999.

[7] Eric Menkes "40 Arrested at Seabrook," Wesleyan Argus, 3 May 1977, 1.

[8] "A Letter for Seabrook," letters to the Editor, Wesleyan Argus, 6 May 1977, 3.

[9] "Turning Point!  May 6th March on Washington," Hermes, 10 May 1979.

[10] Roy Morrison, "Clams in Action," Peacework, July/August 1996, 10.

[11] Tim Redmond, "16 Wes Students Arrested at Rally on Wall Street," Wesleyan Argus, 30 October 1979,1.

[12] ECOS '81 Budget Allocation sheet, WSA files 1981.