Anti-nuclear in the age of Obama

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.

That was after an honorable discharge from the Navy, where, while training to operate big onboard guns, Zeller had told his commanding officers that he couldn’t fire them, and that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam. Thoreau and civil disobedience, Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” -- these had been abstract principles for Zeller until he was faced with a war that he believed to be unjust.

He rode out his four-year enlistment treating the sick stateside and at Guantanamo Bay. After training in Atlanta as a physician’s assistant, Zeller moved to rural North Carolina to work in a health clinic.

The Cold War dragged on. Zeller joined a group advocating nuclear disarmament. On June 12, 1982, he was part of a million-strong ban-the-bomb rally in New York’s Central Park -- an event that many see as the pinnacle of the American anti-nuclear movement.

A couple of years later, the nuclear waste storage plan emerged in what seemed like his backyard, and after months of volunteering, he was hired by the Blue Ridge group as a full-time community organizer. He has waged numerous other environmental battles in out-of-the-way, impoverished pockets of the Southeast, relying on tactics Obama once deployed on the streets of Chicago.

You hold a meeting. You listen. Then you work up a plan for a bigger meeting. At some point, you hope the meetings are big enough that important people listen.

The seven who had gathered at Fairfield church were worried about the effect the radiation was having on their health, and not just the radiation from Vogtle. Stephens’ brother, Charlie Howard, noted that the Department of Energy cranked out nuclear weapons materials for decades just across the river at its Savannah River site.

“Since the two plants came on the scene, you’ve had a lot of people die of cancer,” said Howard, 52. “But the two plants are said to be within the regulatory guidelines.”

One of Zeller’s fliers cited a 2007 study his group commissioned that suggests Vogtle may have been responsible for increased cancer death rates in Burke County. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group, has derided the work of the study’s author, Joe Mangano, as “dross.”

Zeller didn’t mention such complications. He started by laying out the numerous legal challenges that groups like his were mounting to the expansion.

Claude C. Howard, 61, Stephens’ other brother, said the promise of jobs for this poor community made the expansion seem like a done deal. Down the road, the big machines were already moving dirt around.

‘They’ve already persuaded people in their minds with a few dollars,” he said.

Zeller nodded, and wrote POOR COMMUNITY on his flip chart.

Hazel Slayton, 52, was frustrated that it was Obama they had to fight. “How can you fight that power that’s so high up?” she said.

Howard said, “No matter how big they are, we can make them fall. The power is in the hands of the almighty God.”

Zeller wrote FAITH.

“We need to pray for President Obama and the ones in authority, that they will do the right thing,” said Elizabeth S. Barnes, 60.

The Rev. Willie Tomlin, 64, of Waynesboro’s Thomas Grove Baptist Church, said they should forget about the White House and focus on organizing at the grass roots. But he feared it wouldn’t be easy.

He said if he stepped into his pulpit and used the word “tritium” -- a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is a byproduct of the nuclear process -- few would know what he was talking about. “Some of those guys are going to say, ‘Shoot, Reverend. I caught some fish out in the Savannah River last week, and they tasted pretty good to me.’ ”

Zeller wrote down SAFER ALTERNATIVES, and steered the conversation toward green-energy alternatives, like wind and solar power. But the discussion soon turned to jobs. The county unemployment rate is in double digits.

“I look at the generation of young black men, and most of them are on drugs or have a criminal record,” Stephens said. Zeller wrote SOCIAL PROBLEMS TO BE ADDRESSED.

The discussion continued. One of the pastors excused himself. He had a funeral to officiate.

The rest stood, formed a circle once more and clasped hands. Stephens prayed again, and then Zeller’s voice rang out, alone and a little awkwardly, with an old protest song:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.

“C’mon -- you know this!” he said.

Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none.

The other voices joined in, but tentatively. Perhaps they were having a hard time remembering the song. Or perhaps they didn’t know it at all.