It was a scene right out of the 1970s anti-nuclear scrapbook. On Saturday afternoon, nearly 1,200 protesters -- armed with signs, songs, and sentiment -- marched to a churchyard across from the gate of the embattled Seabrook nuclear power plant. An hour later, after a short rally, 83 protesters blockaded the gate with their bodies -- and balls of tangled string. Four and a half hours later, as clouds let loose a downpour, 74 demonstrators were arrested and dragged away by police.
Not since 1980 has Seabrook been the site of such large-scale activism. All across the United States on Saturday, in fact, the dormant anti-nuclear movement rumbled back to life with events at 35 different sites. It was all part of the National Day of Nuclear Protest, a loosely coordinated response to the accident at the Soviet power plant at Chernobyl.
So far, the US has not been seriously jarred by the Chernobyl meltdown on April 26. Like the cloud of radioactive material that has floated across the globe, the political fallout has been delayed and diluted on its way here. Both West Germany and Britain have been rocked by anti-nuclear protests. And now, in the US, Chernobyl's effects are beginning to be felt -- not as a tidal wave but more as a series of ripples in the anti-nuclear movement, in various political races, and in the nuclear industry itself.
In the past few years, the nuclear-power debate in the US has simmered into a coldly rational cost-benefit analysis. Chernobyl has reactivated the safety concerns that fueled the movement in the 1970s. But the resurgence does not just mean that old anti-nuclear protesters are bouncing back onto the bandwagon.
``Chernobyl has made nuclear power a more mainstream issue,'' says Philip A. Tymon of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which helped coordinate the day of protest. ``We are seeing a lot of new activism in places where we've never seen it. The question now is: How long will that level of interest be maintained? If it remains an issue through the November elections, it will have a significant impact.''
Indeed, the real test will be how much political energy the Chernobyl accident will generate -- especially on the national level. Some observers say it could help define the 1988 presidential election. Their reasoning: Since the New Hampshire primary kicks off that campaign, Democratic hopefuls will be forced to take a stand on nuclear power.
In the halls of Congress, the Chernobyl accident has already shaped the tug of war between environmentalists and the nuclear industry over the Price-Anderson Act, which limits the accident liability of the private nuclear industry. A critical vote on renewal of the act was postponed in the immediate wake of the accident. Last week, however, it was reported out of committee, because of a compromise that leaned slightly in the environmentalists' favor.
``It made it easier to reach a compromise because of Chernobyl,'' says one source close to the Price-Anderson action. ``But there were no great conversions,'' he says. ``I don't think the accident changed people's minds. It galvanized people's views, but it certainly hasn't changed them.''
But Chernobyl's primary political impact has been on areas with some of the 15 nuclear power plants -- from Commanche Peak in Texas to Watts Barr in Tennessee -- that are complete or nearly complete, but not yet licensed for full power. For example:
On Long Island, N.Y., where the completed Shoreham plant has been stalled by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's refusal to submit an evacuation plan, even Republicans are turning anti-nuclear. Rep. William Carney (R) announced last Thursday that he would not seek a fifth term. The decision was pressured by local GOP leaders who felt his support for Shoreham evacuation plans made him a likely loser.
In New Hampshire, where the 99-percent-complete Seabrook I reactor is stuttering through its evacuation planning process, the heat is being turned up on pro-nuclear Gov. John H. Sununu (R). Democratic challengers are trying to show that it's inconsistent for him to oppose a nuclear-waste repository in their state and support nuclear power. Considering the health and wealth of the state, ``the Democrats don't have much choice,'' says David W. Moore, chairman of the political-science department at the University of New Hampshire. ``Nuclear power is the only issue he's vulnerable on.''
In Massachusetts, a liberal state that has much at stake in nuclear power, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) is dealing with the issue very carefully. Two weeks ago, he watched the Pilgrim plant get shut down because of poorly executed safety procedures. And for several months, he has quietly refused to submit an evacuation plan for the Seabrook plant, which lies just north of the Massachusetts border.
``Now [nuclear power] has become part of the campaign dialogue,'' says Harrison Hartman, a Washington-based consultant with 25 clients running for election across the US. ``People who have been critical of the nuclear industry now have a credibility they haven't had in several years,'' he says. ``A candidate can talk about nuclear power without being thought of as a kooky ultraliberal.''
But while anti-nuclear candidates can be less cautious, Mr. Hartman says, ``there's not going to a big shift in this country.''
At least not compared with Europe. In West Germany, the accident has created a surge of support for the anti-nuclear Green Party. In England, Chernobyl has intensified opposition to the troubled nuclear-power industry there. It has even had side effects in France, where citizens are proud to rely on nuclear power (65 percent), more than any other country.
The reasons that Americans won't turn anti-nuclear are complex, Hartman says. But it's not just that they are further from Chernobyl. It's also because ``Americans generally assume their technology is superior.''