Charleston Says No

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 4, "Tower of Babel: A Special Report on the Nuclear Industry." Find more from that issue here.

On June 26, 1979, the City Council of Charleston, South Carolina, passed an ordinance that bans the transportation of highly dangerous nuclear wastes through the city. The event signaled the growing opposition in East Coast cities to the importation of other countries’ wastes and demonstrated the effectiveness of a concrete strategy activists can adopt in organizing against nuclear power in Southern communities. 

The South is already the major crossroads for the transportation of nuclear wastes. Truckload after truckload of material travels daily to the South Carolina nuclear dumping grounds — the Savannah River Plant and the Chem-Nuclear low-level waste storage facility in Barnwell. In addition, some nuclear waste material from Northern power plants has been shipped down the coast, and then trucked inland to Barnwell and SRP. Domestic wastes, though, make up just one portion of the nuclear waste materials that travel through the South. 

Most of the material unloaded in Southern ports comes from overseas. Under the Atoms for Peace program, countries which have purchased experimental and materials testing reactors return the wastes to this country. These spent fuel rods contain highly enriched bomb-grade uranium and are considered too dangerous to leave in just anyone’s hands. So the materials are shipped to the Savannah River Plant for temporary storage until the construction of a permanent waste isolation facility. 

In the past, most foreign shipments arrived in Portsmouth, Virginia, and were then trucked to SRP. In the summer of 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposed a change in the routes these waste shipments take. The commission, in an announcement entitled NUREG 0561, proclaimed that because of the threat of terrorists, spent fuel shipments should avoid any communities with populations of 100,000 or more. That eliminated Portsmouth, and a great many other Southern Atlantic ports. Until the city council took its stand, Charleston seemed a prime target for these shipments. 

The Charleston ban followed a prolonged campaign by the Charleston Palmetto Alliance that included speaking before community groups, circulating petitions, researching legal issues, lobbying for the bill, and providing council members and the press with extensive research on the issue. Despite this work, a series of lucky coincidences proved crucial to the ordinance’s passage. Council member Arthur Christopher introduced the bill in 1978, but it made little progress toward a vote until the Three Mile Island accident in March 1979. 

In the excitement of those first frightened days, a local newspaper reporter called the city attorney to whom the ordinance had been sent several months before for research on the city’s authority to pass such an ordinance. The attorney found his draft opinion buried on his desk. It was uncovered, finalized, and then passed quickly through a city council subcommittee without a negative vote. The subcommittee chairperson complained, “If we had passed this when it was introduced, we would have looked like visionaries. Now, after Three Mile Island, we seem like reactionaries.’’ 

Despite that boost, the ordinance’s future remained uncertain until the week of the vote, when Charleston media discovered NUREG 0561 and NRC officials announced they would be in town that week to investigate Charleston’s potential as a nuclear port. The pressure of that visit was most helpful. 

The black Charleston council members took the lead in pushing the ordinance, and stood by it, for the most part, until the end. Their support came from a number of sources: a knowledgeable understanding of the dangers of nuclear transportation; the recognition that the neighborhoods around the docks, those most threatened by the shipments, were mostly black; distrust of the federal government’s close ties with the energy corporations; the dockworkers’ (in Charleston the docks are worked almost exclusively by blacks) criticisms that nuclear wastes would arrive in containerized packages, cutting down on employment. In addition, shortly before the vote, an article appeared in the local black newspaper commending the black council members for their “farsightedness” in endorsing the ordinance long before the TMI accident made nuclear safety a popular issue. Combined, all of these factors helped ensure a near-solid black vote. Even when two black ordinance-supporters were unable to attend the meeting because of personal conflicts, the black council members needed only to persuade two of the six white votes. 

Individual council members supported their pro-ordinance votes with their own personal experiences. One member, when shown a government film on the indestructibility of transportation caskets, shouted “Films! Listen, I was in the Army, I was in Vietnam, and I saw plenty of films! We saw films on the Ml6. They told us it was the best gun in the world, that it wouldn’t need no oil, that it wouldn’t need no work, and then we got over there and it jammed!” 

He suggested that the people responsible for the Vietnam War were behind nuclear power. Another council member reported privately that his concern about nuclear energy had grown when the Navy admitted a nuclear sub had accidentally released radioactive water near his favorite fishing hole. 

The city council vote followed a crowded, four-hour public hearing. Charleston Palmetto Alliance members and their supporters offered detailed information on the possibilities of transportation accidents, and the effects of one in Charleston. Alliance member Kit Gage announced to the council members: “If there were a minimal accident with a high-level nuclear waste shipment, involving a one-percent spill of solid materials, federal statistics show in Charleston there could be up to 115 deaths within a year, with 2,292 to 14,498 eventual cancer fatalities. If the accident happened during a business day, there would be an increase in early deaths up to 235, with eventual cancer deaths at 4,700 to 30,500.” 

The council members were convinced. They gave the bill its second and third readings that evening. 

Since the Charleston vote, the city councils of Garden City, Georgia (home of Savannah’s main port) and Morehead City, North Carolina, have passed ordinances similar to Charleston’s. An ordinance is being prepared for the city council of Portsmouth. The State Ports Authority of North Carolina has declared that no spent fuel will be allowed into any port in the state. And the Charleston County Council is now considering an ordinance that could block spent fuel shipped to the port of North Charleston. 

Transportation ordinances, however, need not be used only by coastal cities. With no other port easily available, the NRC has passed a temporary exemption to its 0561 ruling, allowing Portsmouth to receive spent fuel despite its large population. From Portsmouth, wastes are to be trucked hundreds of miles through dozens of inland Southern communities to the Barnwell area. And wastes from most American power plants travel only over U.S. highways to Barnwell. For each community on a waste transportation route, a local ordinance is one means of saying no to nuclear wastes and of raising issues of nuclear safety on a local level.