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Anti-nuclear in the age of Obama

COLUMN ONE

Longtime activist Lou Zeller struggles to generate opposition to the president's vision in a much different era, when jobs and climate change are bigger concerns than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

April 07, 2010|By Richard Fausset

Reporting from Shell Bluff, Ga. — Lou Zeller, veteran anti-nuclear activist, rolled into this out-of-the way east Georgia community on a Saturday morning in a Honda pickup sporting an Obama sticker.

Yet here he was, come to wage war on the president's vision for an American nuclear renaissance.

Zeller, 61, parked in a grassy lot next to Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church, a simple whitewashed building on a two-lane country road. Just over a ridge, two puffs of steam billowed from the cooling towers at the Vogtle nuclear power station.

The 23-year-old plant provides 10% of Georgia's electricity. Its owners -- headed by the Southern Co., the regional utility giant -- hope to double its capacity by adding two more reactors. If approved, the Vogtle expansion would be the first new U.S. nuclear power plant in more than three decades, and the first of a chain of new reactors backed by a $54.5-billion package of loan guarantees proposed in President Obama's 2011 budget.

Zeller ambled into the church's long, narrow fellowship room with a big flip pad, a felt-tip marker and a handful of fliers that declared the proposed expansion "unhealthy," "unjust" and "Not a Done Deal!" He was met by seven locals, all of them middle-aged or older.

If he was bothered by the small turnout, he didn't let on. If anything, he sounded almost cocky.

"I've been doing this for over 24 years," Zeller said. "Whether it's a Democrat or a Republican administration, they all love nuclear power." In either case, he added, "We've been able to turn back the drive to support it."

Despite its long turn out of the limelight, the anti-nuclear movement remains marked by a certain confidence, one built on a belief that Americans remain mistrustful of nuclear energy after 1979's partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

"There are enough people around the country who will say, 'We fought this war already and won. Are you guys nuts?' " said S. David Freeman, a longtime anti-nuclear voice and interim general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

But in the age of Obama, it is far from certain that the message of Zeller and Freeman will resonate the way it did when Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were fresher memories.

Concerns about nuclear safety now jostle for attention with the growing fear of climate change, and the desire, even among progressives like Obama, to find alternatives to fossil fuels. A Gallup poll in March found that 62% of Americans support the use of nuclear energy -- the highest percentage since the firm began tracking the issue in 1994.

Zeller, who makes his home in Glendale Springs, N.C., has made the six-hour drive to Burke County, Ga., numerous times in recent months. But his message has been a particularly tough sell here.

Over the years, Vogtle has avoided major accidents, filled local tax coffers and created hundreds of jobs for an otherwise sleepy farming area. George Deloach, mayor of Waynesboro, the county seat, wonders who wouldn't want more of those things in a recession.

"Any time someone makes an announcement they're going to build a plant with billions in investments," he said, "and create 3,500 jobs over a five-year period on construction alone . . . that's going to be well-received."

Still, Zeller was able to find a few worried souls. Today, it was a handful of preachers from local black churches, along with members of Fairfield Missionary Baptist, located just a few miles down the road from the plant entrance along the Savannah River.

Zeller joined the group as they clasped hands and formed a circle. Annie Laura Stephens, 64, who leads a Bible study group, prayed aloud that they might know God's will.

Then they sat down and turned their attention to Zeller, who reminded them that they needed to devise a plan to push back against Southern Co. "It needs to be based on the people most directly affected," he said. "And that's everybody here."

This, in essence, was how Zeller's group, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, started in the 1980s: in the living rooms of rural North Carolina, with a few people worried about a federal proposal to store high-level nuclear waste in the Appalachian Mountains.

Their opposition grew larger and more boisterous, and eventually, in 1987, Congress took the proposal off the table in a revision of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

"When I first became aware of the problem, I felt like those folks in Shell Bluff did -- that they're standing by themselves," Zeller said. "How could they fight the federal agencies that have all that money and all that power? It just felt like we were Lilliputians in the land of the giants."

With round spectacles and a bushy, graying mustache, Zeller looks like the kind of guy who might have been a conscientious objector during Vietnam, or played the jug in a hippie-era rock band. In fact, he was both. The group, the Last Great Jive Ass Jug Band, was a staple on the Atlanta scene in the 1970s.

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