Mom, Michael Moore & Me

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Peter Sinclair

Following the release of the steaming dogpile of a movie, 'Planet of the Humans'1, 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 errors2, anachronisms3, and boneheaded omissions4.

But, perhaps especially in light of the embrace the film has gotten from the fossil fuel lobby5, the climate denial media machine6, and the white supremacist right wing7, Moore felt he had to puff his environmental credentials in a recent op ed:8

"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.9

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 60 Minutes on CBS in 1985, in a story titled 'Mary & Goliath'.10

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 contradictions11 that are still killing nuclear plants today.12

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.13

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 in the 60 Minutes story.10

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 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.14

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.15

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.

AEC hearings

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 feature16 of nuclear projects worldwide.17

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.18

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 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'19 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.

A Michael Moore production, starring Michael Moore

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.

Three Mile Island threw gas on that fire, and Moore recognized the opportunity.

A month later, about 5,000 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.20

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.21

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

Peter Sinclair is an independent videographer specializing in climate change and renewable energy solutions. He is a winner of the 'Friend of the Planet' award from the National Center for Science Education.,,

Reprinted from