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Raw materials: Renny Cushing and Kristie Conrad

Renny Cushing and Kristie Conrad were two of the founding organizers of the Clamshell Alliance, the grassroots movement that emerged in the mid-1970s to fight a proposed nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. 

Ultimately the plant was built; but only after 14 years of protests, delays, and court battles. And only one reactor was built, instead of the originally planned two.

The Clams became a model for nonviolent protest that "has been tremendously influential," according to Arnie Alpert, former Clam and current Executive Director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. It also inspired a wave of protests aimed at nuclear plant proposals, such as the Abalone Alliance in California, the Palmetto Alliance in the South, and the Sunflower Alliance in Kansas. 

These movements helped to blunt the momentum of nuclear power development in America. In 1973, then-President Richard Nixon had predicted a new nuclear age with 1,000 new plants in America by the year 2000. In reality, Seabrook was the last nuclear power plant to be built in the United States. 

In this excerpt from my interview with Cushing and Conrad, they talk about their lives before Clamshell and how the Alliance developed. At first, I was talking only with Cushing; Conrad joined us partway through. (Their answers are rendered in different fonts: Cushing in Arial, Conrad in Times New Roman.)


RC: I didn't go to college. I went to Winnacunnet High School. That's where my opposition to nuclear power was born; in 1968, PSNH proposed a nuclear plant, initially in Newington. That was rejected because of proximity to Pease Air Force Base; the plant would have been in the flight path of bombers carrying nuclear warheads. So they decided to look for another site. They got as far away from Newington as they could, and still be in New Hampshire and on the coast, and they went to Seabrook.  

I first did stuff with the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League (SAPL) in 1969. I testified before state site evaluation committee hearings in 1972, as a child of the Seacoast who thought the plant was a bad idea. 


What were you doing at the time? 

RC: I spent some time getting an education on my own, I traveled and worked for about four years, coming back once in a while. I lived in Canada, worked in a coal mine, a slaughterhouse, I picked grapes in Cal, oranges in FL, was the first white garbage man to work for Atlanta, Georgia in 1971. Then I spent time -- I would come back to do political work because the war was really heavy. It really affected me, because I'd see kids at high school go off to Vietnam and before a cycle of seasons, they'd be back in a body bag. It really bothered everyone from our generation. 

My brother and I walked two-boy picket lines in the center of Hampton, picketing the war. It'd be like, two boys, four police cars. 

I worked for McCarthy for President in high school knocking on doors. And then I'd work, I did all kinds of physical labor. I worked for the town as a garbageman, I worked at Simplex loading ships, my first strike, I was 17 and lied about my age so I could work on the docks, doctored my birth certificate. 

I traveled but I always kept coming back here because it was home, everything I ever wanted was here, but I had to check out a few things I didn't want. I hitchhiked to Panama, spent a year living in Central America, learned Spanish, learning a lot. 


When did you get involved in the Clamshell Alliance? 

RC: It was when people started it. I had moved back to the Seacoast, I was living in Dover working as a welder and doing some political work with a group called Granite State Alliance, a network of progressive groups in the state. We were trying to draw the connection between rate hikes and electricity. There were two things going on: in the Seacoast, there was concern over what the project was about, it was way too big. It was a symbol of change that wasn't appropriate. 

[With the Seabrook plan,] there was a regulatory process that was going forward, and you hoped that it would have some integrity. As it turned out, you would watch it unfold, and every time, it's not over till they win. 

...In the summer and fall of 1975, an informal network developed. Because people were challenging nuclear plants that were proposed for Montague, Mass, for Charleston RI, for Maine, and Connecticut. There was an awareness that we all linked together, and Seabrook was the next in line. We saw this machine inexorably moving forward, and we had to look for a creative response to this, because it's a rigged system and we have to change the dynamics of it. 

...And then in January of 1976, there was this first symbolic direct action, where this guy Ron Rieck climbed up a tower and built a platform, to draw attention to the fact that there was a project going on here. And on April 10th, 1976, there as the first public demonstration against Seabrook. 

Had the Clamshell Alliance been formed at that point? 

No, there was like an informal network. And then -- I remember where I was, I was dropping a friend off at the bus stop in Portsmouth, and I saw the morning Union Leader, and it said "Nuke Plant License Granted." And I thought, oh no. That's awful because it means we have to do something. That was June of '76. So the GSA called this emergency town hall meeting, to discuss whether there should be an occupation of the plant. This was in Manchester, and there was a ratification of that. 

And a few days later, a bunch of us met in Jaffrey to plot out how we're going to occupy this plant. We called this demonstration for August first. We wanted New Hampshire people, and we wanted to adhere to nonviolent guidelines. 


Your Clamshell colleague, Guy Chichester, said you wanted no outsiders in that first demonstration. 

Yeah, that was a political statement to have NH people. 

And we had this meeting, and the name came up, it was Guy's idea to call it the Clamshell Alliance. I was dismissive of it. I wanted "New England Anti-Nuclear Resistance League" or something like that. 


But the Clamshell Alliance caught on. 

Yeah, so it was good. So I was one of the 18 people [in the August 1 occupation], Kristie was one of them, my brother Michael was one of them.  

Then we had this... we'll do the next occupation, we'll try to do ten times the size. That was August 22nd. 

It turned out that one of the 180 was a member of the NH State Police. Undercover. It's the second demonstration, you think you know everybody, and one of them is a state cop. 


At this point, Kristie Conrad joined the conversation. 


Kristie, where did you grow up?  

KC: I'm originally from Milford, New Hampshire, so I'm a native. Grew up there, went to UNH, got a degree in sociology, which enabled you to do social work. I worked with the Head Start program on the west side of Manchester, and made connections with Kate Walker and Jeff Brummer and the Granite State Alliance (GSA). It was February or so of 1976 that the Alliance had a conference in Concord, focusing on women's issues. I went to that. There was also a workshop on electric rate issues and the Seabrook plant. That's where I got first awakening as to what was going on. And from there Guy Chichester convinced me to move from Manchester to the Seacoast and help staff an office for the Clamshell Alliance. The office was originally in his front room. But eventually we set up an office on Congress Street in Portsmouth. 

Between those times, I was attending more and more meetings of the People's Energy Project, which was a subgroup of the GSA. Participated in demonstrations in Mancheseter, at the various banks and investors for the plant. And I also began thinking about what it would mean to be a part of some nonviolent civil disobedience. As it became clearer and clearer to us that it was important that it be people from New Hampshire [in the first protest], I made the decision to participate in the first demonstration and to be arrested at that time. 


You and Renny were two of the 18 protesters 

KC: Yes, two of the 18 who went marching down the railroad tracks amidst piles of rubble and rock [the beginnings of plant construction]. 


When did the two of you get together as a couple? 

KC: Geez. It sort of evolved over time. We actually weren't married until 1989, almost a year after our first daughter was born. I don't know. 

RC: Probably like in the late 70s. 

KC: A couple years after the organization had formed, I would say. 


The Alliance forged some very intense relationships.  

KC: there are people I haven't seen in a long time but when I do see them, it's very much like I am at the same depth and intensity of friendship and relationship as I was back then. I think part of it was because, for many of us, new territory. To know the kind of intensity that's required, and the commitment that you need, was a really unique thing in life. It's the kind of thing that keeps you connected to people for a very long time. 


The Clams were very unified for the first couple of years, at least. 

KC: I would attribute that in part, to the affinity group structure. That was really interesting to go through. We used that model the first time, with the 18 of us doing some training together, and doing some role playing, what we would do, and how we dealt with police officers who were going to be there.  That model served us really well, as a way to create that sense of community. While we grew in size, we still had that structure.  We worked actively to promote women as spokespeople, we made sure there was dialogue and discussion. Painstaking in some cases, hours and hours of meetings, it was cumbersome at times, but it did create that singularity of purpose that helped us have the impact we did, not only on the Seacoast area, but it carried across the country. It spawned a movement. 

RC: The leadership of women was very powerful. 

KC: The thing that was important to me, when I became part of organizing on the Seacoast, was the issue of home rule. I'd grown up in New Hampshire, and had that sort of stubborn, "you don't tell us to do something that we don't want to do." 


Sort of the radical left meets philosophically with the New Hampshire tradition. 

KC: Exactly. 

RC: It was not a particularly ideological movement, in the sense that, I mean, Republicans were part of it. They saw this as an overreach of government. There was an irony in being labeled communists. It was a strong Libertarian bent, based on the idea that someone could have their trailer taken from them, to give to a private company to make profits for fat cats on Wall Street. It was working class roots in Seabrook, and the communities that really supported us. I mean, the people who took risks who went and got arrested, and also those who supported those folks. 


Do you think you could have succeeded in blocking Seabrook entirely? Seabrook 2 was never built, but Seabrook 1 was. Could you have won, or was the deck stacked against you?

RC: In the first place, I think we did succeed, in the fact that after August First, the first demonstration, there was never another nuclear plant that was announced and built in the U.S. Seabrook was the end. Seabrook became both a symbol and a symptom of the struggle about nuclear power in this country. It was a symbol for opponents and proponents. It was always a local struggle in NH, but it became more -- it was about an entire industry. And we stopped that. 


Henry Bedford, author of  Seabrook Station: Citizen Politics and Nuclear Power, wrote that if PSNH had been honest with itself, it would have realized that Seabrook was a mistake. 

KC: Well, it was the smallest utility to ever try to build a nuclear plant -- and two of them, t he size they were looking at? There were a lot of egos that became iunvested in this whole thing, and it had a life of its own. I think as we got into it, people who were opposing the plant became more savvy about the economic piece. The initial reaction had to do with health and safety issues, home rule issues, and as we made more connections with the nuclear disarmament people, and saw how the government has constantly subsidized nuclear power as a rationale for nuclear weapons, we started to get a sense of the power that was behind all of this. 

I'm not sure that Seabrook 1 could have been stopped; given the atmosphere and given the players, I don't know where -- 

RC: I think it was in the economic realm. The market turned its back on Seabrook, and the taxpayers, the government bailed it out. Basically it was brain dead, let's start selling junk bonds. At the end of the day, someone's gonna get paid off. But it was the government bailout. Seabrook turned out to be the biggest corporate welfare scandal ever in the state of New Hampshire. It dwarfs what the railroads did in the 1800s. The problem was, the corruption became so huge, it touched so much of the state, it became so big it became invisible. 


How did your experience in the Clamshell Alliance influence your lives since?

KC: For me it was extremely significant. I had the inklings of being a somewhat nontraditional kind of person when I was younger, but I think it helped me to look at and analyze things in a more critical way, to understand power structure, to be able to understand dynamics of gender and race and things that I, growing up in a homogeneous rural community, would not necessarily have thought about. And I think from all of that, it made me more conscious of my actions and of the responsibility of my actions. And it helped me clarify my values, and the things that are important to me. 

We always had this thing when we were preparing for a demonstrations. I was often on latrine duty, and I would have to go around building outhouses. We always wanted to make sure that when we left a place, we left it the way we found it or better. And that particular philosophy is really important to me, and that's one of the things that I can connect with the Clamshells, that we want to leave the planet in better shape than it was when we got here. So philosophically, it really has helped me a lot. 

And I'm still basically stubborn, I don't feel like I should have to move from a place where I want to live and raise my kids because there's a nuclear plant nearby. I resent the heck out of that thing. I know I'm seeing friends die of cancer, and I'm wondering how or if it's related. Those are all consequences that we still have to think about and deal with. It's ever present, it's still here as well. 

RC: Probably the greatest gift, the most enduring gift from being part of Clamshell are our three daughters and also my two nieces and a nephew, who are here because my brother and his wife were part of the struggle. 

On a personal level, there are people I shared the struggle against Seabrook with who are just -- there's a friendship, there's a bond there that just transcends any kind of time. I carry them around in my heart; the bonds are much deeper and more lasting than a lot of the friendships that have been formed since then.  


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