Michael & Me

May 10, 2020

UPDATE: There is an epilogue to this, here.

Following the release of the steaming dogpile of a movie, “Planet of the Humans,”  a lot of people have been surprised to hear the details of Michael Moore’s reputational harakiri. 

Have to say, I was not.

But you see, I knew Michael Moore before he was, you know, Michael Moore.

There’s been a barrage of criticism of the film, much of it simply pointing out gross factual errors, anachronisms, and boneheaded omissions.
But, perhaps especially in light of the embrace the film has gotten from the fossil fuel lobby, the climate denial media machine, and the white supremacist right wing, Moore felt he had to puff his environmental credentials in a recent op ed.

“I founded the Huron Alliance, a Flint-based anti-nuclear group.  We organized massive demonstrations to block the building of the  Dow Nuclear plant in Midland, Michigan. Remarkably we were successful in its cancellation.”

Well, actually, that’s something I know a bit about, since I grew up in Midland, Michigan where I still live today, about 60 miles north of Flint.

There never was a “Dow Nuclear Plant”; however there was a project begun by the state’s biggest utility, Consumers Power, back in the late 60s – for a large, dual unit-reactor, sited inside the city limits.

It was my mother, Mary Sinclair, who raised questions about that plant, followed through on the hearing process, and pursued issues of nuclear safety and economics over almost 20 years, eventually profiled by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes in 1985. (above)

And actually, it wasn’t Moore, or any sign-carrying hippies, that got the plant cancelled, nor was it anti-nuclear efforts at all, but rather the same economic and technical contradictions that are still killing nuclear plants today.

Mom had technical chops honed as a researcher at the Library of Congress, where she had clearance to read and abstract classified Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) documents. She heard about the prospect of a new nuclear plant, knew there were issues, and started asking some questions. That lead to hearings, debates, and small town acrimony shocking in its intensity.

Ten years before Michael Moore showed up, it was my parents who got the midnight death threats, my Dad who had an attempt on his life, and his business almost destroyed, and my brothers and sisters who bore the brunt of being environmental pariahs in a small company town.

CBS got the broad outlines right.

Mom, with some of the garbage that regularly turned up on her lawn.

I was a teenager fascinated with the whole scientific and legal process, and spent as much time as possible making copies and getting coffee for attorneys, scientists, regulators, and engineers.

In June of 1971, the Xeroxed and hand-bound copy of Nucleonics Week, which was was our coffee table reading, carried a story that there had been a series of failures at the AEC’s Idaho test facility. The system that failed was a scale model of the emergency core cooling system (ECCS) that was then being built into nuclear plants all over the country.  

Not clear why they waited until dozens of power plants were already well along in the construction process to test the most critical safety system, but there it is.

We knew what this meant. The ultimate accident at a nuclear plant is what Fukushima experienced in 2011:  cooling failure, core melt, and devastating explosion. Although the “defense in depth” safety philosophy assured us that the massive containment buildings would be the final safety defense against such an explosion – that was, as we now know, a false hope. At Fukushima, those reinforced concrete barriers evaporated like tissue paper in the devastating hydrogen explosions that rocked the complex.

In our otherwise very much Leave it to Beaver household, that kind of nightmare is what we talked about at the dinner table. 

We also imagined a time in the future when irresponsible, unstable countries developed nuclear weapons from “peaceful” nuclear programs.  And when weapons-grade materials being produced in large quantities might be coveted by terrorist organizations.

In short, the time that we live in now.

To deal with the ECCS safety issue, the AEC scheduled hearings in Washington, in Summer 1972, in hopes of tamping down concerns, and cobbling together some kind of one-size-fits-all patch for the critical system.

The hearings brought nuclear construction to a halt all over the country, and nuclear critics got the blame for ballooning costs – a now-familiar feature of nuclear projects worldwide.

I sat in on portions of that hearing, as well as many others over some years, from Michigan to Chicago, all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Eventually, this and a series of self-inflicted construction snafus led Dow Chemical, Consumers’ major customer for the plant’s power and industrial steam, to file suit against the utility. In addition, other major industrial customers, GM, Ford, and Chrysler among them, joined in opposition to the expected massive rate increases that the crippled plant would lay on all ratepayers.

Concurrently, the OPEC oil embargo, and subsequent energy price jumps, caused a whole lot of companies to suddenly figure out they could do a lot more with efficiency than they ever thought possible. For example, between 1973 and 1975, Dow cut its energy use by 50 percent per pound of product. The postwar era of relentlessly increasing electricity demand was over.

By 1977 or so, those in the loop knew that the nuclear industry was essentially dead in the water as investors had fled, and utilities were already looking at the first wave of bankruptcies and re-organizations that would rock the industry through the 1980s.

When Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island (TMI) plant had its major malfunction, on March 28, 1979, the nuclear industry itself already in meltdown. Just a week before, Jane Fonda’s and Jack Lemmon’s movie “The China syndrome” had profiled a fictional accident scenario that came eerily close to reality.

In the movie, a scientist tells Fonda’s character that an explosion at the plant “could render an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

The resulting wall-to-wall media frenzy included a memorable SNL skit with Dan Akroyd in a deadly Jimmy Carter send up.

For several months prior, Michael Moore had become a semi-regular guest at my parent’s home. He was running an alternative paper, The Flint Voice, that had begun to cover the plant controversy, and was in the process of organizing demonstrations around the issue.  Mom was happy to get any kind of media coverage, and Moore had it. There had already been a small demonstration of 70 or 80 people, and now there were plans for a larger one.

TMI threw gas on that fire, and Moore recognized the opportunity.

A month later, about 5000 people showed up in Midland for a march, and Michael’s organization was in control.

The idea was to gather at Revere Park, walk down Main Street to the plant site, and then speeches and entertainment.

Apparently a decision had been made that this was a Michael Moore production, starring Michael Moore.  The program was designed to entirely focus on Michael, and a few selected friends, and not to allow local activists to speak, including Mary Sinclair, who many in the crowd were expecting to hear from.

When this suddenly became clear, I got very direct, loud, and profane with Moore about the obvious travesty, and members of the crowd overheard.  They surrounded Mom, and lifted her to the hood of a car, where she spoke briefly to cheers.

The march followed, and then Moore put on a performance that was, in retrospect, sadly and completely characteristic.

After waiting a dozen years for a moment when legitimate economic and safety concerns could be raised by a credible voice, when it was finally clear that there was an important conversation to be had, and when there was an opportunity for hundreds of local residents (many of whom were relatives and former family friends) to understand that concerns about our energy future were not just affectations for antisocial, scruffy, left-wing hippies, Mike stepped up to the podium and delivered to the crowd, and local media, exactly that: F-bombs, middle fingers to news choppers overhead, insults to the city and those that lived in it, and plenty of camera footage proving the stereotype for the evening news. 

In the months that followed, what most people remember as the “anti-nuclear movement,” the one with rock stars, Hollywood celebrities, and more demonstrations, played out.
But the industry had been moribund for years already.

The Midland units, it turned out, were very much a genetic twin of Three Mile Island, and the accident brought major design flaws to light that required extremely expensive correction.  Costs soared again, and five long years later, the project ground to a halt.

Now Moore claims credit for stopping a nuclear plant, but the truth is, demonstrations didn’t do it.  F-bombs, signs and middle fingers didn’t do it. Flawed designs, botched construction, market forces, and a business model inadequate to the changing times killed the Midland plant and a dozen other projects of that generation.

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, he removed the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof, and radically cut back research funding for renewable energy in favor of renewed emphasis on fossil fuels, oil, gas, and coal. An opportunity to change direction was lost.

Now, when we have a moment in history when we not only have the technology to take decisive action, we are confronted, perhaps, with the very last moment in which that action can make a difference and Moore has decided to make common cause with the greediest, most corrupt, most venal, most destructive industries that have ever existed.

I’ll let others judge for themselves why, but like I said, no surprise here.


33 Responses to “Michael & Me”

  1. mtpccl Says:

    A very apropos Mother’s Day post, Peter. I see where you get your tenacity and research skills. We owe you and your mom a great deal. Thanks.

  2. Check out this doco about Michael Moore, called “Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore” (2007). He’s not what he appears to be, or maybe that’s all he is, a narcissist with slightly left wing views.

    Full version:

  3. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Go Mary Sinclair.

  4. […] Michael & Me, Peter Sinclair, Climate Crocks of the Week, is a compelling discussion not of the film but related to Michael Moore’s claim in a movie promotion of a key role in stopping a nuclear power plant and, instead, the reality of the situation based on Sinclair’s mother being a key expert and activist in that specific fight. […]

  5. I’m of course a big nuclear supporter, but your history is interesting.

    I was wondering if the booklet at 5:30 has ever been scanned and posted anywhere?

    • greenman3610 Says:

      not aware that it has.
      Bentley Historical Library at U of Mich probably has a copy

      • Thank you. I haven’t seen anything where your mom said she was explicitly against nuclear power. It looks to me like she was worried about safety standards.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          the CBS piece spells that out as well.
          She told other people at the time that she was not sure she was against it, but there needed to be some standards in place, or better solutions for the waste problem.
          Possible that new designs today can address these issues, along with proliferation ( the big one for my money). However there are obstacles.
          See my video posted elsewhere here and check Netflix for “Inside Bill Gates”,
          episode 3.

  6. John Oneill Says:

    ‘At Fukushima, those reinforced concrete barriers evaporated like tissue paper in the devastating hydrogen explosions that rocked the complex.’
    No they didn’t. The hydrogen accumulated in, and blew out, the light gauge steel structures on the top of the reactor buildings, about as solid as a garden shed. The five foot thick reinforced containments were unaffected.
    The explosions gave good news footage, but were nowhere near as devastating as the massive steam explosion that lifted the two thousand ton lid off the Chernobyl number four reactor. They would also probably not have happened if the reactor operators had been allowed to vent the pressure when it reached the maximum allowed level. Instead they had to delay because the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, was micromanaging the event from Tokyo, and decided the neighbourhhod had to be evacuated first.
    With due respect to your mother, the Three Mile Island ‘disaster’, the worst in US nuclear history, didn’t actually kill anyone. Unlike, for example, natural gas, which kills and injures dozens of people every year, and is still being burnt instead of the proposed nuclear plant’s energy.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      you miss the point.
      Wall Street doesn’t care about body counts, ( they still invest in natural gas, right?) they stopped investing in nuclear because they were losing money. Everybody knew that by the mid 70s.
      Still true today.
      As New York Times described the abandonment of a massively cost overrun project in South Carolina, and its still-going twin in Georgia –

      “Construction began before Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba of Japan, had finalized its AP1000 design, and several safety changes had to be made midway through the process. Engineers struggled with the complicated, novel project, as various components needed to be reworked.”

      In the 70s, the industry waited till plants were already under construction to test systems, and that’s still happening today. It is a tragedy that nuclear power’s wounds are primarily self inflicted.
      Regardless of death count at TMI, the follow up investigation showed some fairly glaring engineering deficiencies that any reasonable regulator, engineer, or certainly investor, would insist be addressed.
      Maybe they can get their act together, but that’s been a hard slog as well.

  7. John Oneill Says:

    ‘Construction began before Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba of Japan, had finalized its AP1000 design, and several safety changes had to be made midway through the process. Engineers struggled with the complicated, novel project, as various components needed to be reworked.”
    The biggest change that ‘had to’ be made was the aircraft collision standard that NRC chairman Jaszco introduced when planning was already well down the track, leading to a year’s delay at least, and major changes to the design. The containment dome already had the mass of a safety water tank on top of it; adding significantly more mass meant many engineering calculations had to be completely reworked. The dome was already certified to resist a strike by a light aircraft, and it’s not as though it’s a soft target – five feet thick of massively reinforced concrete, with a steel shell on both sides of it. I’ve seen speculations that if a plane loaded with a tungsten rod about the size of a ship’s drive shaft hit the containment at right angles, it might be able to pierce the pressure vessel deep inside. More likely, it wouldn’t.

    In any case, no other industry, not even passenger aircraft, has to undergo such stringent oversight. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, was worrying about a natural gas pipeline exploding and possibly impingeing on the Indian Point reactors near New York. Does it have to be a nuclear incident before it’s worth getting ‘concerned’ about? Gas pipeline explosions, and rail fuel shipment accidents, kill more people every year than the US nuclear industry has in its entire existence.

  8. theazimechproject Says:

    Reblogged this on Resting Goth Face.

  9. […] You can read my own account of meeting Moore, long before he was “the”Michael Moore, her… […]

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