The Multinational Monitor


N E W S   M O N I T O R

Conference Targets Nuclear Industry

by Jeff Bentoff

The nuclear power industry may be ailing from the current halt in new reactor orders - but activists aren't resting on their laurels.

Over 400 activists and experts from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C. March 25-27 on the fourth anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident for "Critical Mass `83: A National Conference for Energy, Jobs, Security." Sponsored by the citizen group Critical Mass, the gathering offered an opportunity for networking and learning about nuclear power and weapons through more than 40 workshops and sessions. Lively discussions focused on organizing workers on anti-nuclear issues and the efficacy of a single-issue approach in realizing comprehensive social change. Keynote speakers included Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), Ralph Nader, authors Amory and Hunter Lovins, and Rosemary Trump, Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The conference took place at a time when new orders for domestic nuclear plants have virtually ceased. No currently active orders have been placed since 1974; and since 1964, 98 plants have been cancelled, 54 delayed and 15 indefinitely deferred. Activists at the conference were optimistic due to these statistics and their successes in halting new plants, waste disposal sites and rate increases. As a Mississippi organizer stated during an open-mike session: "To make it short: we're winning!"

There continues to be plenty to keep activists busy, however. Ralph Nader told the conference that Bechtel Corporation and the owners of Three Mile Island were "trying to slip through a quick and dirty clean up" of the reactor that was seriously damaged in the 1979 accident. According to Congressman Markey, Westinghouse's Salem reactor in New Jersey failed to shut down automatically, in February 1983, resulting in "the worst precursor incident since TMI" And the nuclear industry, as if to signal the anti-nuclear opposition that it is not yet dead, recently launched a $40 million media campaign through the U.S. Committee for Energy Awareness to "counter festering public misunderstanding about nuclear energy."

Panelists in several workshops and interviews ascribed the current decline in the nuclear power industry to two major factors: declining demand for electricity due to conservation and the recession, and a near doubling in reactor costs in the last ten years.

While the industry blames the increased costs on new safety requirements, Charles Komanoff of the New York-based Energy Associates attributed the price rise to profit gouging by engineers and "the utilities' failures to try to accommodate (safety) regulations ... which has magnified the direct costs and impacts of the regulatory requirements themselves." Over the lifetime of a new nuclear plant, the cost of electricity will be at least 50 percent to 80 percent more than that from a coal plant, Komanoff said.

The downturn in reactor construction has affected the multinationals in different ways, according to Komanoff. Architectural and engineering firms, hired by a utility for the design and construction management of a nuclear plant, are doing quite well. However, U.S. based companies in this category - which include Bechtel, Stone and Webster Engineering, Fluor Corp. and Ebasco Services - "are worried . . . that there aren't more plants" being sold, said Komanoff.

Reactor vendors such as General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse are not doing as well as the architectural and engineering firms "but they still are not losing money on [nuclear]," Komanoff said. "They are making enough on sales on reactors that they are still shipping out, and increasingly on the repair and maintenance and upgrade market." Komanoff said the reactor vendors are keeping their operations in a holding pattern "so that if there is either a growth in the overseas market or a resurgence in the U.S. market, they will be placed to take advantage of it."

Another panelist endorsed this view. Mark Hertsgaard, author of Nuclear Inc.: The Men and Money Behind Nuclear Energy, believes that the nuclear industry is "very confident that in the year 2000 they will be the victors. And their basic strategy is to outwait the opposition." If companies like GE chose to, "they could literally subsidize their nuclear losses ... for decades into the future" while they wait for nuclear to become profitable, said Hertsgaard.

Overseas sales are "absolutely crucial" to the industry's strategy to survive, according to panelist Lyuba Zarsky of the Nautilus Pacific Action Research Center. Zarsky noted that Westinghouse is building five of the eight reactors now under construction in South Korea, and hopes to play a major role in that country's plan to build 25 plants by the year 2000. Zarsky emphasized the role that the U.S. ExportImport Bank has played in nuclear power plant exports through the $6 billion in low-interest loans it has given to middle income countries buying reactors.

Several workshops at the conference specifically addressed job issues. With unemployment currently at record levels, activists realize that in order to widen popular support against nuclear power and weapons, they need to dispell the myth that these industries are important as job producers.

"Almost any other way of spending the federal dollar creates more jobs" than military spending, said Gordon Adams, author of The Policies of Defense Contracting: The Iron Triangle. Steve Daggett of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy estimated that $1 billion can create 45,000 jobs when applied to mass transit - but only 29,000 jobs if spent on defense. Adams also noted that jobs in the defense sector are declining due to the increasing capital intensive nature of defense work.

The job-producing nature of nuclear reactor manufacturing was also called into question by Lyuba Zarsky, who said that the nuclear industry has been thinking about relocating labor intensive manufacturing to Asia, a move which would eliminate American jobs. Furthermore, to pay for the U.S. reactors, newly industrialized countries expand their exports in order to earn foreign exchange. Many of these exports then enter the U.S., competing with American products and taking jobs from U.S. workers, Zarsky stated.

A lively discussion in the "Converting the Nuclear Industry" workshop focused on how to get support for a halt to nuclear power and weapons from workers who have jobs within those industries. Gordon Adams suggested that activists should view these workers as involuntary "hostages" to their industries because of their dependency on their jobs. "Just because they're working on weapon systems doesn't mean they're pro-war, or any different from you," he said. "To most of them, it's a job: It's what's available, it beats not having a job."

In discussing strategies for organizing these workers in nuclear industries, Joel Yudken of the Mid-Peninsula Conversion Project said that activists should first focus on the issues that these workers are concerned about. "You don't go in and try to sell them on your issue, you begin to find out what it is that's on their agenda -that's the key," he said.

The difficulty in organizing affected workers was reflected in the very low turnout of rank-and-file unionists at the conference, despite the prominence given to the jobs issue by the gathering's planners. One moderator, an Ohio unionist, was disappointed with the low union attendance at the conference, which he blamed in part on the failure to get rank-and-file workers involved in the planning of the conference from the start. Union support was demonstrated, however, by the participation of Rosemary Trump (SEIU) and George Robinson of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), and an endorsement by the IAM.

Activists raised challenging questions throughout the conference: Is the fight against nuclear power and weapons too specialized? Should the movement be focusing on structural and underlying issues instead? One participant warned that if broader issues such as full employment are not more fully addressed, "we're going to have a (new) society that's just as repressive and oppressive as the one we live in ... Are we talking about having a society that doesn't have nuclear and that's it period?"

No formal agreement was reached on these broader issues. Yet the discussions and workshops at the conference provided participants with a chance to gain know ledge and skills and strengthen the net work of activism, while reexamining the direction of the anti-nuclear movement.

Summaries of the remarks of workshop participants, as well as information from energy experts and grassroot activists, are available from Critical Mass at $15 per packet. Order from: Critical Mass `83 Conference Packet, Box 1538, Washington, D. C. 20013.

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