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. Sir Charles Says:

    Many thanks for this honest insight, Peter. By now we should know why Moore’s misleading film is a “freebie”. Very timely indeed.

  2. Craig Toepfer Says:

    I was there. Mary Sinclair single-handedly through tenacious activism is responsible for stopping the Midland Nuclear plant and inspired support from concerned university students throughout Michigan -,including me. Always armed with facts and powerful logic, Michigan should be immensely grateful for her dedication and accomplishments

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I think she would tell you she didn’t “stop” the plant, but she doggedly asked the questions about obvious glaring holes in the plan, which later became unsustainable.

  3. grindupbaker Says:

    Safety is inextricably linked to cost. There is no limit on the number of redundant systems that could be built in and each redundant system increases the safety by some multiplier. But each redundant system costs big extra money of course and no redundant system is required for the full normal operation (that’s what “redundant” means) so each redundant system is a total and utter waste of money, until something goes wrong. I did some work for 4 years on the North American elevator/ escalator prescriptive safety code A17.1 / CAN-CSA-B44. Redundancy, inspectability, maintainability & graceful degradation are the 4 safety requirements and all 4 are needed. Steel chains are stronger by weight than steel wire rope but steel chains can’t practically be inspected for hairline fractures. Steel wire rope is easily inspected and degrades gracefully and 40% loss of its original strength is estimated well with no fancy instruments needed and I’ve inspected thousands of them and written orders for replacement within 90 days. Nobody can determine that a $15,000,000 pump isn’t about to fail in 5 minutes. It just suddenly happens.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      that’s why we need systems that can fail gracefully, if they do.
      Maybe new nuclear designs can accomplish that at an affordable price, but it will be more than a decade before we have any idea.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        Aye, some engineers are so fixated on systems not failing, that they overlook the utility of designs that “fail gracefully”.

        The difference between a dam with multiple-level overflows and one that just collapses if it’s specifications are exceeded, can make a great difference in the loss of life and property.

      • grindupbaker Says:

        You haven’t to my knowledge included the area of Earth’s surface consumed by the power generation in “affordable price”. If you’ve done those calculations of surface areas and priced bits of planet Earth I’d be interested because I find that sort of logic and quantified assessment interesting. All I ever did on that was estimate that ~1,600,000 km**2 of solar PV panels at the 20% efficiency would provide all present human energy except that the area needs to be scaled up slightly (not much) to account for efficiency loss in making aircraft fuel from it. I did that in my head when that awful Artsy Fartsy unquantified movie came out that this is all about. Does that look about right to you or am I off by a factor of 10 or a factor of 1,000 ? Please put your price on the cheapest areas of Earth’s non-polar land available so I can ponder what pounds-monies an “affordable price” is for 99x the present safety and give your assessment of whether it factors as an extra $50,000,000 for each better nuclear fission plant or whether the land value is more like an extra $5,000,000,000 for each better nuclear fission planet. I think the humans with “economist” jobs call those “externalities” when it’s free stuff like bits of planet Earth is (such as its atmosphere the Common free dump site for example)..

        • grindupbaker Says:

          I did get that wrong doing it too quick, I used steam generating inefficiency on top of solar PV. It’s ~480,000 km**2 of solar PV panels at the 20% efficiency not ~1,600,000 km**2. What’s that land worth in pounds or dollars money ?

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    Wow, what a post!!

  5. Erica Gray Says:

    Bravo ~ Excellent article.
    Happy Mother’s Day Mary Sinclair and thank you for your unwavering commitment to health and safety.
    And thank you Peter for writing the article.

  6. redskylite Says:

    Many thanks for sharing that narrative, it must be sad & painful to relive some of those memories.

  7. Peter Joseph Says:

    Peter,

    MM didn’t actually make this movie, right? Jeff Gibbs did. Given that Moore’s other movies didn’t ignite a firestorm of criticism, one wonders why he put his name on it. I guess you answer that question here, and it’s none too complementary.

    It’s also tragically typical that so many issues get politicized beyond recognition. Neither nuclear safety nor climate change belong to left or right, yet that’s where both have wound up, and the shame belongs to both sides. It’s long past time for everyone to grow up, drop the ideology and bias to work together for the common good.

    As you know, I work with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which aggressively claims the far middle. It’s actually quite refreshing!

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Shame on you for blaming the left for what is entirely the fault of the far right–turning science into a political argument by lying about it for political and financial (and therefore ultimately psychological) reasons. CCL, whatever its claims, is an essentially conservative organization and its relentless insistence that we do everything through the magical market is right wing propaganda, as well as complete folly.

      The right of course, doesn’t believe it themselves, as any time a major corporate funder is about to suffer the inevitable consequences of failure in the market, it’s bailed out, or bribed into (more) subsidy bucks.

      It’s far too late for such incrementalism as a stand-alone carbon price, and in any case, while a carbon price is opposed by some on the left, an EFFECTIVE carbon price is fanatically opposed by the fossil-funded lunatic right wing. They might eventually allow a weak and slow carbon price to pass, because that would have no effect at any meaningful time scale and give them time to work on it behind the scenes, weakening it yet more while sucking what profits they could from it. (Car safety and mileage regulations are an example of the process.)

      We a massive, emergency, government-coordinated, Green New Deal.

  8. Barbara Guyton Says:

    Thanks for adding and clarifying the Nuclear Power Plant issues in Midland.
    Your family story is quite amazing and so is your Mother.
    Michael Moore is a muckraker. But his movies are badly needed because the media
    has been so worthless in the last decades.
    Both parties and all the mainstream media are culpable.
    There is little time left to join together and admit the Emperor (our US government)
    both Dems and Pubs have been disgraceful for a very long time. Especially beginning with Reagan.
    Thanks again for your comments.
    B

  9. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Did you and your sibs know the family photo would be on TV?

  10. Mark Says:

    Thank you for sharing the real history here.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: