Georgians Against Nuclear Energy

Magazine cover with white text reading "North Carolina's bitterly contested 1984 US Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt will easily go down in history as one of the meanest, ugliest, and most divisive campaigns ever. North Carolinians could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or open their mail without being bombarded by political rhetoric, mudslinging, and pleas for money."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 1, "The Jesse Helms Machine." Find more from that issue here.

Energy activist organizations throughout the country have shared a common rite of passage in recent years, moving from a street activism consciously patterned on the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, through a time of retrenchment and refocus on public education, to today’s hard-bitten efforts to beat the utilities at their own games. Demonstrators evolved into watchdogs. The political environment that tolerated assaults on the security fences of nuclear plants seems a generation removed from the lawsuits and utility commission interventions that take place today. 

Georgians Against Nuclear Energy (GANE) is an apt example of this passage from the 1970s to the ’80s, and there was a critical juncture in GANE’s evolution when the Fund for Southern Communities recognized its work with a small grant that helped GANE try out its new role as watchdog of the regulatory process. The grant supported the production of educational materials documenting impending financial disaster caused by the Georgia Power Company’s nuclear Plant Vogtle and the dangerous repercussions thereby facing Georgia’s economy. 

But that came after five years of work by GANE on various other issues involving nuclear energy. In the spring of 1978 a prime target of anti-nuclear activists was the nuclear facility at Barnwell, South Carolina, where spent fuel from nuclear power plants was to be reprocessed for future use. Among the products of reprocessing is plutonium, the stuff of which nuclear weapons are made. (See S.E., Winter 1979.) A number of Georgians participated in a protest rally at Barnwell that year, and GANE grew out of their involvement. 

The Barnwell activities inspired efforts to seek local bans or controls on the shipment of nuclear waste. In Atlanta GANE did the legwork to support passage of an ordinance requiring that such shipments skirt the city or meet stringent regulations, and that work was part of GANE’s growing up — its transition from demonstrations and street actions to less showy but longer-term educational and political work. 

“We recognized that it was essential to have a statewide anti-nuclear organization,” says Dennis Hofferth, one of the group’s founding members. “It gave people all around Georgia a chance to be involved. And people that came into GANE have been a big part of what’s kept us going. We’ve had some of the most dedicated, hardworking people I’ve ever come in contact with.” Attorney John Sweet, who was the Atlanta city council member who introduced the ordinance regulating waste shipments, says that “GANE people have always been an intellectual group.” The work done to support his ordinance required that they “engage in a change-oriented, complicated, educational process” because, he says, “response to nuclear power is a learned response.” 

April 1979 brought increased importance to GANE, as it did to other antinuclear groups nationwide. As Atlanta artist and one-time GANE coordinator Carol Stangler puts it, “Prior to that we were a small organization. After the Three Mile Island accident, dozens got involved.” 

Hoffarth says that GANE played a crucial part at the time of Three Mile Island. “Because of our continuous efforts through our newsletter and forums, the public was alerted to some of the dangers of nuclear energy. Without that consciousness, the accident might have been swept under the rug. We helped raise the consciousness of the news media; because of us and others they recognized the need to react.” 

After that incident, GANE sponsored additional educational programs and also worked in the political realm, intervening in Georgia Power’s rate-setting cases. “One great victory,” says Stangler, “was against CWIP” — the charging of consumers for “construction work in progress.” In 1980 Georgia Power was pushing legislation that would have drastically restricted the Public Service Commission, which regulates utility rates in Georgia, putting CWIP charges in the rate base so the company could earn profits on plants not yet operating and implementing several other provisions that would have been costly to the state’s ratepayers. 

“Dozens of citizens, most of them turned out by Georgians Against Nuclear Energy, lobbied furiously against the bill,” says Tim Johnson, an Atlanta writer and organizer. The result: “Although versions of it squeaked through both houses of the legislature, it failed to pass both House and Senate.” By opposing such rate increases, particularly by objecting to the inclusion of CWIP as part of the rate base, GANE helped to take the profit out of building nuclear power plants. 

GANE was soon in the forefront of lobbying efforts in the legislature and raising citizen awareness of the Public Service Commission (PSC). “After all, that’s where the money gets decided,” says Danny Feig, a 1982 candidate for the State Senate opposing an employee of Georgia Power. Now GANE’s media coordinator, Feig says, “Whenever there are problems at Plant Hatch [an operating nuclear plant in Baxley, Georgia] GANE has made these known to the PSC. Our role is to keep the problems in the public view.” 

“After GANE pressed for it,” interjects Stangler, “the PSC had week-long nuclear power hearings, open to the public, initiated by Public Service Commissioner Billy Lovett. This was an unprecedented action by the PSC, especially since the hearings were held at night to facilitate citizens’ involvement. The impact on Atlanta was fantastic: the room was packed every night.” 

In the 1980s GANE has increasingly concerned itself with the economic problems facing electricity consumers in Georgia resulting from Georgia Power’s construction program. In January 1983 GANE, along with the Southern Regional Council and the Washington-based Environmental Action Foundation, organized an “Energy Strategy Conference” at a camp near Covington, Georgia. At that time, Neill Herring, an Atlanta carpenter and writer who has worked with groups opposing rate increases since 1971, said that “Georgia Power’s construction program is so out of hand that they have a choice between admitting they were wrong and cancelling some of their plants, or intimidating the state legislature into giving them more of the ratepayers’ money. And they won't admit they made a mistake.” 

The 1983 conference drew representatives of business, government, and citizens’ groups to examine six areas: the economics of power plant construction, alternatives to construction, organizing cooperatively owned and city-owned power companies, intervening in rate cases, the politics of electric utilities in Georgia, and organizing around utility issues in the black community. 

Particularly responsible for higher electric bills in the ’70s was the construction of nuclear power plants. By the end of that decade, electricity produced by new nuclear power plants exceeded the cost of electricity produced by burning oil. Or, as Danny Feig puts it, “It’s cheaper to burn money to produce electricity than to use nuclear power.” 

According to Stangler, GANE soon began to focus particular attention on Plant Vogtle — “because it is in our state and since it has such potential for affecting Georgia citizens on many levels.” Alvin Burrell, editor of GANE’s newsletter and one of its founders, says, “Plant Vogtle is an albatross. We agreed to focus on the economic aspects of Plant Vogtle, which holds much promise for stopping the plant. The cost of Vogtle’s electricity will be borne by virtually all electricity consumers in Georgia.” 

Burrell notes, though, that some of the vast numbers of GANE members have lost interest over the years, one consequence of the group’s turn to legislation, public hearings, and legal interventions. As John Sweet says, those who have continued their involvement are the committed, responsible, hard workers who are able to devote time and energy to an important cause without immediate gratification. “Not only that,” he adds, “GANE workers are regional patriots. In learning about GANE’s issues of concern, you learn about Georgia. And GANE’s work is crucial to our state.” 

A seven-page fact sheet and a question-and-answer brochure produced with support from the Fund for Southern Communities demonstrate the skills and technical knowledge acquired by GANE workers — and “together mark the most solid informational piece that’s come out of GANE,” according to Jim Kulstad, an Atlanta carpenter who has been active since the Three Mile Island accident. 

GANE volunteers mailed about 10,000 copies of the fact sheet on Plant Vogtle — “A Call for Cancellation: Saving Georgia’s Economy” — and brochure — “The Power Company Is Pushing Georgians Ten Billion Dollars Too Far.” These went to public officials, businesspeople, and others. But Kulstad would like to see another 200,000or more copies distributed. 

Meanwhile, 1984 marked another turning point for GANE, its first venture into advocacy at the federal level. GANE and the year-old Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia (CPG), which grew out of the conference on Georgia’s energy future co-sponsored by GANE, filed formal interventions with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in January of last year. The NRC had announced the previous month Georgia Power’s formal application for an operating license for Plant Vogtle. GANE and CPG opposed the licensing, citing the discovery of an earthquake fault by the U.S. Geologic Survey, drug abuse by construction workers which may have affected quality and safety, dramatically diminished growth in electricity consumption, unresolved waste disposal problems, and economic questions. 

The Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF), a nonprofit law firm, recently began providing legal help with the case. GANE members Stangler and Doug Teper, a long-time GANE activist and recent candidate for the U.S. Congress, coordinate their group’s intervention efforts. Says Teper, “The interventions come in the wake of numerous incidents around the nation which raise increasing doubts about the economic and technical viability of nuclear power.” 

In January the NRC ruled on the case of the Byron nuclear plant in Illinois, refusing for the first time in history to grant an operating license on account of safety concerns. Shortly thereafter, the Marble Hill nuclear plant in Indiana was abandoned after $2.5 billion had been spent on construction; the facility, like Plant Vogtle, was simply not needed to meet demand. And the utility building the Zimmer nuclear station in Ohio announced it would convert the 97-percent completed plant to coal — to save money. 

A hundred U.S. nuclear power plants have now been cancelled in less than 10 years. GANE and other consumer and environmental groups in Georgia urge Georgia Power to follow this trend, pointing to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which lowered rates by 5 percent and put more money into conservation and renewable energy sources after cancelling several nuclear facilities it had planned. 

“The nuclear industry is facing setback after setback around the country,” says newsletter editor Alvin Burrell. “Georgia Power’s Plant Hatch has been down for repairs on its cooling system most of this year, and there are intimations that the expense will be passed on to ratepayers.” 

Despite the trends in the rest of the country, the Southern Company, Georgia Power’s parent, has announced it will spend about $6.5 billion a year on construction, the majority of it in Georgia. A congressional study concluded that Georgia Power is the most overbuilt electric company in the United States in total dollar impact on consumers, and that spending $75 per second to build power plants we don’t need is foolish. “Sometimes you feel like you’re beating your head against the wall,” says Kulstad, comparing the Georgia Power increase in construction to what’s going on elsewhere. It is obvious that the need for GANE’s work is great. 

“It is hard to pinpoint actual accomplishments in work of this nature,” muses Dennis Hoffarth. “It’s not something that you can measure directly. But you can see that we have stayed active for nearly seven years as an all-volunteer organization and been involved in one of the most important things there is. And we’ve been found worthy enough by the NRC to raise contentions about Vogtle. That is a fight we’ve just begun and it’ll take years.” 

The Georgia Power Company recognizes the threat posed by GANE’s work, paying a consultant $20,000 to refute GANE’s “Call for Cancellation” fact sheet on Plant Vogtle. Not a single inaccuracy was to be found, however, perhaps because GANE volunteers used public documents from Georgia Power itself. A price must be paid for such success, however: being watchdogs over Plant Vogtle is an all-consuming task. As Kulstad notes ruefully, “You know, Vogtle is a huge undertaking. For Georgia Power and for GANE.”