The CEO Who Chained Himself to a Bridge

His name is Petter Stordalen, and he’s a billionaire Norwegian property developer and the chief executive of Choice Hotels. In 2002,he chained himself to a bridge in Seascale England, demanding that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant be shut down. Here’s his photo, chained to the bridge, alongside an enormous banner reading “Stop Sellafied: . I try to picture Bill Gates chaining himself to something. Somehow I can’t quite see it.

Stordalen is one of numerous Norwegian business executives in the Neptune Network, which has been fighting for more than a decade to close down Sellafield. Why does the Norwegian government and the Neptune Network want Sellafield shut down? Studies of accidental and “operational” discharges of radioactive gasses and liquids show that air and water currents carry them directly to the west coast of Norway. The latter would definitely bear the brunt of a major accident, which grows more likely every month owing to the plant’s abysmal safety record.

Including, but not limited to

  • between 1950-2000, 21 serious incidents or accidents involving offsite radiation release. This includes the Windscale Pile disaster, when a large heap of radioactive waste that caught fire in 1956
  • a 1999 citation for falsifying quality assurance data between 1996-1999
  • in 2003 a study commissioned by the Minister of Health revealing an increased incidence of childhood leukemia and non-Hodkins lymphoma in local residents
  • in 2005 a plutonium leak that went undetected for three months
  • in 2010 three accidental releases, with a fourth in early 2011, that were concealed from the public until a whistleblower leaked the documents to the Guardian

Why Reprocessing Plants Are Especially Dangerous

Sellafield first went on-line as a nuclear power station in the mid-fifties. Its mixed oxide (MOX) processing plant was built in 1996 and went on-line in 2001. Its role as a reprocessing plant means it accepts nuclear waste (spent nuclear fuel rods) from all over the world and reprocesses them for reuse. This entails separating out plutonium and uranium from other fission products. MOX, one of the products that results, is used in thermal and fast breeder reactors. Sellafied’s reprocessing role also means that it accumulates massive amounts of “highly active liquor” (HAL), which requires constant cooling to prevent it from exploding.

The Norwegian government has been extremely concerned about Sellafield becoming a world dumping ground for unwanted nuclear waste. They, along with the government of Ireland (also downwind and downstream from Sellafield), have been pressuring the British government for more than a decade to shut it down.

Even CEOs Have Children

Most Americans have never heard of Sellafield, much less the Neptune Network and the Norwegian business executives turned environmental activists who are fighting to shut it down. The Neptune Network includes hundreds of activists who aren’t business executives. In fact, anyone can sign up (for free) at their website . At the same time the Network is relatively unique in the active role their executive director, long time businessman Frank-Hugo Storelv, plays in recruiting other Norwegian business leaders to play a leading role in the Norwegian antinuclear, toxics and sustainability movement. In this YouTube video, Storelv explains the urgent need for companies to operate more sustainably and be seen as good environmental citizens: . Here, as in all his public presentations, he repeatedly emphasizes the devastating effect increasing nuclear and chemical pollution will have on all our children and grandchildren.

Like Petter Stordalen, Storev and other business executives in the Neptune Network have been arrested numerous times for committing civil disobedience at Sellafield and at various contaminated sites in Norway. In April 2011 he and four other members of the Neptune Network were arrested (under the British anti-terrorism law) outside the gates of Sellafield for blocking a railroad shipment of new nuclear waste. Recently he and two other members of the Neptune Network lost an appeal to the Norwegian supreme court, after being convicted for a nonviolent protest against toxic dumping into the Oslo fjord. According to the website, they now plan to take the case to the International Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Victory for the Neptune Network

The MOX reprocessor at Sellafield closed August 3rd, after Japan (following the Fukushima disaster) announced they would cease buying MOX for use in its reactors. The same week the British government brought forward a new proposal to build a new MOX plant at Sellafield, which would produce fuels appropriate for the more modern MOX reactors. On December 20, Cameron’s coalition government backtracked and announced they would decommission and close Sellafield altogether by 2018. This historic decision, like the decision by German government to decommission their nuclear power plants, was clearly the direct result of massive public opposition.

Nevertheless the Neptune Network has no intention of letting up the pressure. According to Frank Hugo Storelv, the battle at Sellafied will continue, to ensure the UK lives up to their international obligations to clean up the massive stockpiles of nuclear wastes. As long they remain stored in open cooling pits, they continue to pose an immense threat to Norway. He predicts the clean-up at Sellafield will take at least 100 years.

What’s Wrong With American CEOs?

So what’s the major difference between American and Norwegian CEOs? Why is it so hard to imagine Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the Koch Brothers, George Soros (or any of our elected representatives, for that matter) chaining themselves to a bridge? They have children and grandchildren, just like Norwegian business executives. What’s more they all have enough educational background to understand that massive wealth won’t protect their offspring from the devastating health consequences of radiation poisoning.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths and deformed babies from nuclear accidents and releases, there is still no solution to the question of safely storing or disposing of massive quantities of radioactive waste. Surely they know all this.

A Deficiency of Moral Courage

I can’t think of a single American member of the 1% who has come out against nuclear technology. Other activists blame the inaction of the 1% on greed or opportunism. I don’t share this view. No one can be so callous as to condone policies condemning their own children and grandchildren to unimaginable suffering. In my opinion it comes down to fear, the overriding emotion that seems to drive most private and public decisions in the US. Americans are too afraid to speak out. This includes our millionaires and billionaires. They fear losing the confidence of their boards and stockholders, tarnishing their reputation if the media attacks them, and losing wealth and/or social standing. The more wealth and status they enjoy, the more fearful they are of losing it.

Why is this? What makes Americans so incredibly fearful in contrast to other citizens of the world? Does their spinelessness and lack of moral courage result from some commonly shared character defect? Has decades of material comfort spoiled them and made them too soft? Has the corporate-run media poisoned them with their constant fear-inspiring messages, along with the reminders to consume more and be more competitive and individualistic?

The Link Between Loneliness, Alienation and Fear

After puzzling over this question for many years, I have come to the conclusion that this pervasive fear is probably a natural outcome of current US social conditions. It’s no stretch to see a link between the pervasive loneliness and alienation so many Americans complain of and their general fearfulness. Both former presidential candidate Ralph Nader and Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, have spoken and written at length about alienation and other negative consequences of the collapse of civic engagement in the US. While most industrialized countries have undergone a decline in community and civic involvement, it had been far more extreme in the US. This surely relates to the distinction Americans enjoy as being the most overworked nationality in the industrialized world. Americans work such long hours that they no longer have time for their kids, much less their parents, friends, neighbors or other community members.

A Radical Solution

Theoretically the problem is fairly easy to fix. To avoid turning this into a self-improvement pitch, let me reframe this as a hypothetical: What if an American –whether from the 1% or the 99% – wanted to somehow find the moral courage to stand up for their beliefs? Exactly how would they overcome their fears and find the strength to do so?

If my hypothesis is correct about moral cowardice stemming from loneliness and social isolation, they would increase their level of family, social and community involvement. This is obviously what happened with the Occupy movement. Hundreds of thousands of activists came together, many for the first time, and found the courage to speak out against corporate rule and capitalism itself.

Another hypothetical: Let’s say long work hours make it impossible for someone to strengthen their relationships with family, friends and neighbors. What if they come home so burned out at night they have no energy for anything but a highly processed junk food meal, TV and bed. What do they do then?

This dilemma is more thorny. It leads to other hard questions, starting with the one I asked myself in the mid-eighties. Is a life totally devoted to work and devoid of strong family and social relationships worth living? My answer then, as now, is a definite no.

Three decades ago, I, like others in what became known as the voluntary simplicity movement, made a deliberate decision to cut back my work hours, live frugally and make do with less. Our goal was to involve ourselves more deeply with family, friends and community organizations that were important to us. These choices become surprisingly easy when made with the support and encouragement of friends. I consider it the most important decision I ever made.

Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.