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Nix the Nukes: Dispatch from the Frontlines of the Texas Energy Wars

Lara Cushing
Date Published: 

On October 29 of last year, two dozen community leaders found themselves banging against the boardroom door of their public utility, City Public Service (CPS). The board, which includes the mayor, was poised to approve an initial $206 million investment in two nuclear reactors – the first in the country in nearly 30 years. CPS had already quietly applied for a license along with its private partner, NRG Energy. We’d petitioned and been granted time to speak, but instead faced police – though they failed to shut us out.

Southwest Workers’ Union (SWU) recognized the nuclear proposal as a pivotal point in San Antonio’s energy policy, and a critical moment to intervene in the good ole’ boy system of dirty energy development, which planned to build a new power plant every four years. As a multi-racial, intergeneration, membership-based organization representing 2,500 local school workers and low income families – all CPS ratepayers –we felt we had to take on the nukes and demand a transparent CPS that prioritized efficiency and renewable energy as a matter of social justice.

While CPS likes to boast of its low rates, utility bills are high here because our low-income homes waste more energy than in any other large city in the South. The dirty plants that produce that energy are located in the same communities. Meanwhile, CPS’s conservation programs give rebates to folks that can afford to buy new appliances or solar arrays – leaving the majority of families out. A 2004 study commissioned by CPS found that San Antonio could save almost as much energy as it would gain from the nukes through efficiency programs. That goal was never implemented. In our campaign, we champion retrofitting and local renewable installations as vehicles for green job creation to lift working families out of poverty and lower utility bills at the same time.

As the debate on federal climate change policy finally heats up, most of us doing grassroots organizing anywhere but the coasts find ourselves left out in the cold. Restructuring our energy systems to combat global warming is an opportunity to take on larger issues of poverty and inequity, but only if we ensure that the green economy isn’t just a new emerging market for big business. Models for harnessing the green economy from the Bay Area or New York won’t necessarily work in poor communities like San Antonio, with a small tax base, few resources, and less political will. Nevertheless SWU is pushing to land climate justice on the ground locally in Texas in a way that lifts up working families of color and can serve as a model for similar communities around the country.

Hostile territory

We are in some pretty hostile territory. The Gulf Coast is a stronghold of the energy industry – home to 57 refineries and 60 percent of the US oil refining capacity. Texas generates more electricity from coal than any other state, and leads the nation in mercury emissions. If it were a country, Texas would be ranked number seven in greenhouse gas emissions. Ten new coal plants are in the works since Governor Rick Perry ordered fast-tracking of the permit process, shutting out community participation.

In San Antonio, CPS started building its third coal-fired power plant in 2005 after a long battle with the local community. Mercury- and smog-forming pollution from these plants blows towards the overwhelmingly Mexican and African-American side of San Antonio. Someone in nearly one in four households there suffers from asthma.

Now CPS wants to build two nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project, calling it “clean” power. But the communities living along the nuclear life cycle know nukes are anything but clean. We still have no way to safely dispose of radioactive waste. The federal government continues to push for the development of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, despite concerns over contamination of the water relied upon for drinking and by dairy farmers; regular earthquakes; and the presence of a volcano in the area.

Yucca Mountain is part of the Western Shoshone Nation’s traditional lands, and was recognized as such under treaty with the US government in 1863. The development of Yucca Mountain as a disposal site is desecration of Western Shoshone sovereignty and values. A resurgence of interest in uranium also has south Texas communities scrambling to resist mining permits in their sole source of drinking water. None of the drinking water aquifers subject to uranium mining in south Texas have ever been successfully restored.

SWU has a long history challenging environmental racism with the ultimate goal of community empowerment. Through grassroots organizing and direct action, we forced CPS to hold public hearings on the nuclear proposal. We shared the true story of energy alternatives in popular education sessions to develop the leadership of our members to advocate for themselves. We forged strong alliances with South Texas communities fighting expanded uranium mining to build statewide grassroots pressure.

Home-grown solutions

Mayor Hardberger said the nukes were a done deal. Though Texas has the most wind and solar potential of any state, CPS said we were crazy to think renewables were the answer. City Council never wanted to talk conservation, because one third of the city’s budget comes from selling power. The newspaper editorial board said it was nukes or back to the Dark Ages.

So it was a major victory when, instead of rubberstamping their request, City Council voted down a rate hike to finance the reactors, giving CPS 3.5 percent when they wanted 5 percent. In fact, eight months after banging down the board room door, $40 million more is on the table for renewables, CPS committed to doubling its energy conservation goals, and Mayor Hardberger said the phrase “green collar jobs” – count ‘em – five times while unveiling the framework for a city-wide sustainability plan that includes weatherization. It was a huge shift in the debate here in the belly of the dirty energy beast.

Of course we’ve got a long way to go. There is still a lack of transparency and no real vehicle for public participation at CPS, and the nukes are only delayed. The city’s sustainability plan lacks any real teeth. Instead of taking on proactive weatherization programs, CPS is funding ads to turn televisions off and thermostats down when most homes use window units. Local solar programs are getting pennies, while ratepayer money is spent to found Nuclear Energy for Texans and lobby against transmission lines for wind power.

SWU is committed to seeing this battle through and making energy policy a central issue in the upcoming mayoral election. Only with the environmental justice movement in the forefront of the battle will those in the shadows of the dirty fossil fuel and nuclear regimes get solutions to climate change that will benefit our communities. While we keep fighting, SWU is modeling the changes we want to see happen in our community with the organic Roots of Change Community Garden food security project and by retrofitting and solarizing our building. In the process we hope to create home-grown solutions that can act as models in low-income communities across the country.

Lara Cushing works with the Southwest Workers Union, who is celebrating 20 years of grassroots organizing in South Texas this year. Visit SWU at