The Clamshell Alliance was the model for a movement that forced the nuclear industry to shelve its plans for new nuclear plants for 30 years. Some say its success was just a matter of the right people, time, place and issue. Others say the key to success was Clamshell’s structure — highly organized, but extremely democratic and decentralized to the point of anarchy. What can not be debated is that the Clamshell Alliance fulfilled Albert Einstein’s plea to take the issue of atomic energy to the village square.Petitions, town referendums, workshops, lectures, brochures all helped people realize this was important. And music, buttons, posters and massive, nonviolent citizens’ occupations of the Seabrook, NH, nuclear plant site gave color and drama to that debate. Taking its name from the clam beds in the marshes where the Seabrook, NH, nuclear power plant was to be built, the Clamshell Alliance lasted from 1976 until the mid-1980s. But its legacy lives on, in new movements for social justice , and in the lives of people who joined together under the Clamshell and other antinuclear banners to demand ‘successfully’ “No Nukes!”
Too important an issue for the experts
The Clamshell Alliance was formed in July 1976 by New Hampshire energy activists shortly after a construction permit was issued for twin 1150-megawatt reactors on the marshes of Seabrook, NH, and within sight of the heavily-populated beach resort community of Hampton, NH.
Inspired by successful antinuclear citizen protests in Germany and Western Massachusetts, the Clamshell was grounded in the belief that nuclear energy is too important an issue to be left to the scientists, utilities, lawyers and government. Through public education and nonviolent civil disobedience, petitions and picket lines, rallies and site occupations, the Clamshell Alliance put a spotlight on the issue of nuclear power.
Two Clamshell occupations of the Seabrook, NH, site in August, 1976 resulted in almost 200 arrests and generated headlines. Hundreds of people around New England organized local, autonomous groups. They carried out local events, but also helped plan Clamshell actions, making decisions through highly coordinated communications.
The Clamshell defended local democracy (repeated votes of Seabrook residents against construction of the plant had been ignored). It renewed a commitment to non-violent tactics of the 1960s civil rights movement. It pulled strength (and members) from feminist, anti-Vietnam war, Native American rights, labor, environmental and back-to-the-land movements, while quietly side-stepping the sectarian approaches of the ‘hard left.’
Structurally, the Clamshell promoted inclusiveness and equality, giving equal weight to every voice and eschewing appointed or elected leaders. It adopted — and eventually struggled with — consensus decision-making. It adopted a stance of complee openness with government and law enforcement officials as well as all its supporters.
Perhaps most important, the Clamshell Alliance served as an example that ordinary people had the right, the ability, and the responsibility to challenge and change the direction of energy policy in the United States.
The turning tide
On April 30, 1977, more than 1800 people from 30 states walked onto the site; 1414 were arrested and held for 13 days in six New Hampshire national guard armories. The incarceration garnered international media attention and energized the occupiers to go home and work harder.
Around the nation anti-nuclear alliances organized, naming themselves the Palmetto in South Carolina, the Oystershell in Maryland, the Abalone in California, the Sunflower in Kansas, and so on. All of these groups were rooted in the same non-violent direct action discipline, affinity group organization and consensus decision-making process as the Clamshell. Without them, the nuclear industry would not have been stopped.
In a complicated and controversial move, plans for another citizens’ occupation of Seabrook were changed to an on-site anti-nuclear rally, attended by 20,000 people June 24, 1978. Several hundred of those participants continued on to Washington D.C., where they occupied the sidewalks in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
That was the last large Clamshell action, but the organization continued into the late-1980s. It attempted to block delivery of the Seabrook reactor’s core vessel, supported acts of civil disobedience by small groups of people and developed creative and grassroots strategies for blocking a state-funded Seabrook bailout. A national non-violent civil disobedience action on Wall Street in 1979 was organized by former Clamshell members and led to the arrest of more than 1,000 people.
The nuclear industry subsequently shelved its U.S. nuclear plans indefinitely. No new construction permits were issued after 1978 and many of the projects underway in the mid-1970s were abandoned or blocked from opening. The nuclear power plant at Seabrook finally went online in 1990, half the size originally proposed. Even so, the Clamshell’s impact, both on the nuclear industry and those who participated, still resonates today.