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Looking back, looking forward: Nuclear Monitor #1 ‒ May 1978

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Nuclear Monitor and the two organizations that produce it ‒ the Amsterdam-based World Information Service on Energy (WISE) and the US-based Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) ‒ are all celebrating our 40th birthday this year.

Over the course of the year we'll be looking back at early issues of the Monitor. On the European side, it was known as the WISE News Communiqué until WISE and NIRS joined forces to produce the Monitor in the year 2000. Early NIRS publications included Groundswell and the Nuclear Monitor (see box).

The very first issue of the WISE News Communiqué (actually it was called the WISE newspaper) was produced in May 1978. It was published in English, French and German (then as now, we couldn't decide whether to use English English or American English). Design and printing technology was pretty basic. Communication technology was pretty basic in general ‒ apart from snail-mail and phones, the WISE network communicated via 'telex' machines, precursors to fax machines.

Sales of merchandise with the Smiling Sun emblem part-funded some of the early work of WISE including the establishment of the WISE newspaper. Issue #1 talks about the origins (in 1975) of the Smiling Sun logo. Issue #1 also discusses the origins of WISE and the founding meeting in Amsterdam in February 1978, attended by around 200 people.

The 'Declaration of Intent' in issue #1 begins: "Opposition to nuclear energy is becoming a world-wide trans-national movement. It is the most advanced manifestation so far of a broad movement of opinion against a technocratic, centralised, authoritarian, undemocratic form of society." It goes on to note that the forces driving the nuclear industry operate at an international level and it "is therefore high time for the movement to organise a flow of information and experience that can enable its action to be more effective and better coordinated."

The front cover has a photo of a protest at the Seabrook nuclear plant in the US state of New Hampshire. Construction of Seabrook fell 10 years behind schedule, and the cost (US$7 billion) bankrupted Seabrook's major utility owner, the Public Service Company of New Hampshire. Public opposition and protests delayed construction and drove up the cost.

Issue #1 has an article on plans for the fourth occupation of the Seabrook site, scheduled for June 1978. Protesters planned to occupy the site, plant gardens, and set up safe alternative energy exhibits ... but none of that meant the attempted occupation "would be a garden party". An earlier (April 1977) occupation involved about 2,500 protesters ‒ over 1,400 were arrested and many were locked up for two weeks after refusing to pay fines. Their bravery and defiance "sparked the organization of similar direct action alliances around the United States".

The second of the two Westinghouse reactors proposed for Seabrook was canceled in 1978 when 22% complete ‒ echoes of the 2017 cancelation of two partially-built Westinghouse reactors in South Carolina.

The front cover of issue #1 also has a photo of an anti-uranium protest organized by the Movement Against Uranium Mining in Australia. The Australian government was negotiating uranium sales with the Shah of Iran ‒ a year before the revolution that deposed him.

Issue #1 also has a cover photo of the Tihange nuclear plant in Belgium, as well as an article on a January 1978 reactor scram at Tihange and a valve failure that led to 80 people being exposed to iodine-131. Tihange would return to the pages of Nuclear Monitor many times over the years ‒ last year alone, we reported on the 50,000-strong 'human chain' protest in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium demanding the closure of Tihange 2 and Doel 3 (NM #846); the decision of the German city of Aachen to start issuing free iodine tablets to half a million people because of the risks posed by the Tihange plant (NM #850); and a report about a protest against the German government's willingness to allow the Lingen nuclear fuel plant in Germany to supply Tihange even as the German government calls for the closure of Tihange (NM #848).

Promoting 'soft' or 'safe' energy (renewables) was an important part of the movement's activities, as reflected in the WISE newspaper, and the movement self-described as an 'anti-nuclear and safe energy movement'. Up to 35 million US citizens were expected to take part in the pro-solar 'Sun Day' in May 1978, along with people in many other countries.

Mass actions

The late 1970s was a period of mass anti-nuclear action, with countless actions, plans and proposals discussed in the WISE newspaper. A protest in the Netherlands (with a great deal of support from German campaigners) against a Urenco enrichment plant attracted around 50,000 people. (The design blueprints from Urenco's enrichment plant in the Netherlands were stolen by the notorious Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan. This was not public knowledge at the time but the proliferation risks associated with enrichment are discussed in issue #1.) The WISE newspaper mentions the 'deal of the century' ‒ Germany's plans to provide Brazil with reactors along with enrichment and reprocessing technology, despite Brazil's obvious interest in pursuing nuclear weapons.

Over 150,000 people ‒ "probably a record for single anti-nuke demo" ‒ protested on 12 March 1978 against a nuclear power plant under construction at Lemoniz, Basque country, northern Spain. Five days later, the militant Basque independence movement ETA claimed responsibility for a dynamite explosion that damaged the plant. "Because the authorities ignored precise advance warnings about the explosion," an article in issue #1 states, "two workers were killed and several wounded." A protester was shot during a December 1977 demonstration; a protester was killed in 1979; ETA planted a bomb inside the plant in 1979, killing one worker; in 1981, ETA kidnapped the chief engineer of the Lemoniz plant and later killed him; and in 1983, construction of the Lemoniz plant was abandoned after a change of government.

Issue #1 discusses plans for a mass anti-nuclear rally in Torness, Scotland on 6‒7 May 1978, and a 'no nukes week' across Britain with numerous demonstrations including one against reprocessing at Windscale (Sellafield). The planned actions would be "the first massive citizen action against an atomic power plant in the country which was the first to build them". Reprocessing and fast breeder reactors seem to have stirred public sentiment against the industry. According to Wikipedia, the May 6‒7 protest at Torness involved 4,000 people marching from Dunbar to occupy the Torness site. Many signed a declaration to "take all nonviolent steps necessary to prevent the construction of a nuclear power station at Torness" ... but the plant was completed a decade later.

Issue #1 reports on a successful legal action against the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant in Austria. The plant was completed but never operated due to a national referendum in November 1978 which narrowly supported a resolution to stop Zwentendorf as well as the construction of two other nuclear plants. The Zwentendorf site is now used for various activities such as festivals.

Issue #1 reports on the Irish government's decision to build a nuclear power plant at Carnsore Point in County Wexford, and notes that "an opposition front is already forming". Opposition prevailed and the plant was never built.

In Switzerland, over 500 people took part in a hunger strike over the Easter period, 1978. The fast gave anti-nuclear campaigners "a chance to discuss basic issues, like the role of women in the movement, defence against repression and to plan future action". On 1 April 1978, Swiss anti-nuclear groups met at Kaisersaugst to celebrate the third anniversary of the day they brought work on a reactor to a stop by occupying the site.

In July 1977, 60,000 people protested at Creys-Malville in France against the Super-Phenix fast breeder reactor. One protester was killed by police and two were "seriously mutilated". By May 1978, morale amongst campaigners was low after two years of intense campaigning. The WISE newspaper reported: "The local population are largely resigned to the plant's being built, or have a material interest in it. Those who say they are against are not prepared to act. The systematic police intimidation ‒ house searches, police at all meetings, personal check-ups ‒ has scared off lukewarm opponents. Faced with the French government's tough treatment of peaceful protest, there is a growing mood of violence among militant opponents."

Nonetheless, local campaigners were planning an action at the Super-Phenix reactor site in mid-1978 and a Europe-wide week of solidarity action. The reactor operated intermittently from December 1986 to December 1996 ‒ the first commercial fast reactor was a massive flop and a massive waste of money.

Issue #1 reports on R&D into a gas-cooled, thorium-fueled, high-temperature reactor with "bullet-shaped fuel elements". Researchers had been working on the concept for a decade already, and they considered sodium-cooled breeders such as Super-Phenix to be an "out-of-date concept". Forty years later, proponents of new reactor types are still promising much, delivering little, and slagging off at competing new-reactor concepts.

Issue #1 has an article on state repression of the anti-nuclear movement. In Australia, the planned Environment Protection (Nuclear Codes) Act would give the federal government power to fine anti-uranium activists or unionists up to A$50,000 for breaching regulations, or to jail them for up to five years. In Germany, Gerd Schulz was given a 22-month jail sentence for his participation in an anti-nuclear occupation ‒ he was one of 15,000 protesters who tried to occupy the Grohnde reactor site on 19 March 1977. Schulz was one of 14 protesters arbitrarily chosen for arrest and one of 11 finally brought to trial.

In the UK, a debate was unfolding over the restrictions on civil liberties that would be necessary to control terrorism if the country moved towards a 'plutonium economy' based on reprocessing and fast reactors. The WISE newspaper noted: "Britain's Atomic Energy Constabulary, 400 strong, carry arms at all times, and have far-reaching powers of pursuit, entry, and arrest on suspicion, granted in 1976."


An article in issue #1 talks about many protests in Australia, including a national Stop Uranium Action Day that around 25,000 people participated in. Australian campaigners and unionists tried, sometimes successfully, to stop uranium being shipped out of the country.

The 8-member WISE Council (elected at the founding meeting in February 1978) decided to prioritize the struggle against uranium mining. As WISE explained in issue #1:

  • uranium mining is vital to the nuclear industry;
  • it is organised world-wide, and run by the multinationals; because of the military and economic implications, the governments work with them;
  • the opposition is geographically dispersed: mining is going on or planned world-wide ...;
  • in Australia, the trade unions are playing a leading role in the struggle; they will need the support of unions (especially dock-workers) the world over, if boycotts are to be successful.

Issue #1 had an article on unions and the nuclear industry, which began: "In several countries workers have started questioning the energy-growth jobs link. They are beginning to realize that they are effectively terrorized by governments and energy monopolies with threats of mass unemployment unless atomic plants get built. The nuclear lobby may find this sort of blackmail less and less effective in the future. In some cases, links are starting to be established between the trade unions and the environmental and antinuke movement (previously regarded with suspicion), in an effort to find out the real relationship of energy to jobs."

Reprocessing and waste management

A report to the US government by a nuclear waste management task-force noted that the earliest date for an operating permanent high-level waste repository had been pushed back from 1980 to 1985 (!). The task-force was "reasonably certain" that a repository could be established between 1988 and 1993.

The Swedish anti-nuclear movement was planning a critical experts' conference on nuclear waste management to be held in June 1978 to discuss issues such as reprocessing, glassification, plutonium control, intermediate storage and storage in bedrock. The Swedish government had made further nuclear development contingent upon a satisfactory solution to waste management and storage, and decisions were looming as two applications to run nuclear power plants had been submitted. An Anti-Nuclear Parade was also being organized in Stockholm, as well as an activists' camp after the parade.

Issue #1 has long articles on reprocessing ‒ the state of play, divided opinions among nuclear nations (with the US opposing reprocessing after the debacle of India's Smiling Buddha 'peaceful nuclear explosion' in 1974), the connections between reprocessing and fast-breeder fantasies, the weapons proliferation risks, and so on. The WISE newspaper reported: "The German authorities cleverly call re-processing Entsorgung (literally, removing worries!) and the planned Gorleben complex, with re-processing, intermediate waste storage and "final" waste disposal underground, a "worry removal area" (Entsorgungspark)!!"

France, Britain and the German Federal Republic, according to issue #1, argued "that proliferation will happen anyway, so why should they accept empty sacrifices for the sake of Jimmy Carter's Puritan conscience."

A WISE commentary in issue #1 concluded: "Re-processing and waste disposal are the weakest link in the atomic establishment's defences. Dangerous waste is piling up (100 tonnes a month in the US alone), and it has to be either re-processed (which produces more waste anyway, plus stock-piles of plutonium!) or disposed of. There is no third possibility. And as a report to the Californian government has just rammed home, in neither case are the techniques ready, or even within sight of being ready. Ordinary citizens may still be sceptical about the dangers from atomic reactors (at least until one is planned where they live!), but there is a widespread fear both of nuclear waste (one word the technocrats forgot to neutralize!) and of plutonium. Not only the coming demos against re-processing, but this year's world-wide mobilisation against the nuclear danger, will help bring home the facts. For the foreseeable future, we face a world-wide build-up of dangerous waste. To get us to accept this, we are being offered a "choice" between theoretically safe disposal, and "re-processing" that will usher in the plutonium era."

Nuclear Monitor (WISE newspaper) #1, May 1978, is online as a PDF at:

Early NIRS publications

The late Michael Mariotte's 31+ year tenure at the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) was characterized by dedicated writing. He joined NIRS in February 1985 to write and edit Groundswell, the NIRS publication for the grassroots anti-nuclear movement which provided in-depth reporting and analysis.

NIRS had already established itself as the go-to source for information on reactor operations and capacity factors, which were calculated weekly by staff and published twice a month in The Nuclear Monitor. Prior to the internet, this publication was the only readily available source of good facts on nuclear energy performance, and lack thereof, for the financial and policy worlds.

Michael kept The Nuclear Monitor alive and expanded it when publication of Groundswell ended (circa 1989). By 2000, with a staff of seven, he was far too busy with other aspects of NIRS work to write as he had before. Indeed, hand-off of the publication of The Nuclear Monitor was a key element in NIRS's affiliation with the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) that year. WISE continues regular production of the Nuclear Monitor in conjunction with NIRS.