Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Sarah Robey

Nuclear Power

Mirroring a nation-wide wave of commercial interest in nuclear power plants in the 1950s and 1960s, the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) and other energy companies in Greater Philadelphia jumped at the opportunity to develop relatively inexpensive electricity for the region. Nuclear power plants began servicing the region’s electrical grid in 1967. However, as was the case across the nation, planning for the Philadelphia area’s nuclear power plants often met significant resistance and concerns over public and environmental safety. Several nuclear accidents—in the region and elsewhere—contributed to ongoing public ambivalence about the region’s reactors.

[caption id="attachment_28229" align="alignright" width="203"]A black and white photograph of the PECO building, a modernist high rise with black cladding and a prominent electronic billboard atop it. PECO, Philadelphia’s utility company, constructed nuclear plants at Peach Bottom in York County and Limerick in Montgomery County. The utility’s headquarters at Twenty-Third and Market Streets was the site of demonstrations at the height of anti-nuclear protests. (Special Collection Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Following World War II, the federal government developed civilian nuclear power technologies as an extension of wartime nuclear weapons research. Nuclear power reactors, which used the same physical reaction as in a fission-powered nuclear bomb, were promising commercial investments: although nuclear power required high start-up construction costs, it had low long-term operational costs. In 1956, federal regulators made nuclear power technologies available to public and private utility corporations.

In 1967, after nearly a decade of planning, building, and certifications, PECO opened the first of three planned reactors at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Generating Station on the Susquehanna River in York County. At that time, construction was planned for several additional reactors in the region. PECO selected Limerick, Pennsylvania, about thirty miles northeast of Philadelphia, as a site for two additional reactors. Metropolitan Edison began work on two reactors on Three Mile Island, on the Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg. And Jersey Central Power and Light made plans to build a reactor at Oyster Creek, in Ocean County, New Jersey. In the next several years, it was predicted, these seven reactors—three at Peach Bottom, two at Limerick, two at Three Mile Island, and one at Oyster Creek—would generate enough electricity to power Philadelphia and the surrounding counties several times over.

Anti-Nuclear Activism

Plans to expand Greater Philadelphia’s nuclear power capacity, however, were slowed by anti-nuclear power activism in the late 1960s and 1970s. Across the nation, protests erupted in response to proposed plants. Activists cited the environmental impact of nuclear power plants, which, like many other thermal power plants, required the use of local bodies of water to regulate the plants’ temperature. Opponents of the expansion at Peach Bottom and construction of the Limerick, Three Mile Island, and Oyster Creek plants were concerned about the potential ecological consequences of local temperature increases in the Susquehanna and Schuylkill Rivers and along the New Jersey shoreline. Protesters were also deeply troubled by the possibility of radioactive contaminants escaping into the surrounding habitat. Their protests thus reflected the broader concerns of the global environmental movement.

[caption id="attachment_28230" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a group of protesters standing on stone steps. Signs read "Solar" and "No Nukes" The Keystone Alliance was formed in 1977 to protest the construction of Limerick Nuclear Generating Station in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The group, along with others of the same nature, argued that the potential for a meltdown accident and the environmental impact of hot waste water being released into the Schuylkill River were too much of a risk to local residents. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

While nuclear power protests delayed construction at some sites, during the 1970s several new reactors went online. During 1973-74, PECO replaced Peach Bottom’s original small reactor with two new reactors. In 1974, Metropolitan Edison began commercial production at Three Mile Island’s first reactor. Two years later, Public Service Electric and Gas opened the Salem Nuclear Power Plant on the Delaware Bay in Salem County, New Jersey. In 1978, Three Mile Island added a second reactor.

In response to what they believed to be shortsighted, runaway production, anti-nuclear power activists renewed their pressure on PECO and other local energy companies. In 1977, the Philadelphia-based pacifist organization Movement for a New Society formed the Keystone Alliance, a diverse group of antinuclear activists who coalesced around the construction of the Limerick nuclear reactors. Throughout the late 1970s, the Keystone Alliance held rallies and protests outside Philadelphia’s PECO offices and organized teach-ins, letter-writing campaigns, and marches across the region.

[caption id="attachment_28225" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of Three Mile Island showing four large cooling towers in the background and the Susquehanna river in the foreground. Panic surrounded the nuclear generating plant at Three Mile Island when it suffered a partial meltdown, starting on March 28, 1979. Unlike the accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, seven years later, Three Mile Island’s containment building remained intact and contained nearly all of the radioactive material released in the accident. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)[/caption]

The movement against nuclear power gained national attention on March 28, 1979, when an operational problem at Three Mile Island initiated a partial meltdown of its second reactor. The meltdown itself was contained by the end of the day. However, the accident caused significant damage to the reactor, and it was unclear to the public for several days whether associated dangers, such as explosions and fire, had passed. As technicians worked to eliminate the dangers, officials issued voluntary evacuation recommendations to protect local residents, and the nation watched to see if the accident would escalate into a more severe emergency. By April 1, experts issued an all-clear.

Although a catastrophe at Three Mile Island was averted—later studies concluded that the radiation received by local residents was less than that of one medical X-ray—the accident added significant momentum to anti-nuclear power campaigns. As hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in cities across the country, the Keystone Alliance redoubled its efforts in Philadelphia. In 1981, the Alliance, backed by a broad coalition of residents, environmental groups, professional organizations, and politicians petitioned the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to abandon the construction of the partially-completed Limerick complex. The Keystone Alliance also later filed suit against PECO alleging misappropriation of funds for a pro-nuclear public relations campaign.

Chernobyl Affects the Debate

The Keystone Alliance delayed, but failed to halt, the construction of additional nuclear production sites in the Philadelphia region: by 1990, both Limerick reactors, two additional reactors at the Salem County complex, and two reactors in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, had gone online. However, the controversies that predated and followed the accident at Three Mile Island significantly increased public criticism of nuclear power. In the 1980s, the New Jersey-based Sea Alliance joined the ranks of the region’s anti-nuclear power groups, specifically targeting the facilities in Salem County, one of the largest nuclear power sites in the nation. Such protest organizations gained further traction as Cold War hostilities increased in the 1980s and contributed to a broad antinuclear movement that called for abolishing nuclear weapons as well as nuclear power. The April 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine, the most severe nuclear accident in history, cemented public fears about nuclear power around the globe.

[caption id="attachment_28228" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a group of protesters in front of the PECO building. Most of the protesters lay on the ground as if dead. Two in the front hold a sign reading "Phila. Electric Co." with their fists raised in the air. Behind them, a large banner reads "Stop nuclear power" The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island sparked numerous anti-nuclear protests across the nation. This photograph, taken two days after the accident, shows a group of demonstrators at the PECO building on Twenty-Third and Market Streets. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the United States, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents contributed to increased regulatory scrutiny of nuclear power production. In 1987, the Philadelphia area’s nuclear power sites once again gained critical national attention when the NRC ordered the shutdown of the Peach Bottom power complex, citing employee misconduct, operational problems, and corporate negligence. As the national media reported, the official reprimand revealed that operators had been found asleep while on duty, among many other problems. Likewise, in the 1990s, both Salem County reactors were shut down for two years for emergency maintenance on malfunctioning systems.

After early 1990, when the second Limerick reactor began commercial production, no new reactors were added to the Philadelphia area’s electrical grid. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and local agencies continued to oversee the scheduled maintenance, repairs, and minor accidents of the region’s aging nuclear power infrastructure. Although the region’s nuclear power plants regularly appeared in the news for such reason, after the 1980s, protest largely abated.

As the region’s environmental advocates began to demand low- and no-emissions electricity in the 1980s and 1990s, some activists began to accept nuclear power as a clean energy alternative. Although nuclear power is not strictly renewable, because it consumes fuel in the form of fissile materials, it does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Thus the green energy movement created some new opportunities for the nuclear power industry. However, especially in Pennsylvania, traditional segments of the energy sector, including the natural gas and coal industries, remained fierce competitors and voiced critical opposition to the growth of nuclear energy.

[caption id="attachment_28226" align="alignright" width="300"]a color image of an artificial island with two nuclear power plants. To the left, a large cooling tower stands. In the foreground the Delaware Bay is visible. Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station (left) and Salem Nuclear Power Plant share an artificial island in the Delaware River off the coast of Salem County, New Jersey. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

In the 2000s, new concerns dominated public discussions about nuclear power. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, raised critical questions about the resilience and safety of nuclear power plants in the event of sabotage or attack. More importantly, the catastrophic meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in eastern Japan in March 2011 once again brought nuclear power under severe public criticism in the United States. The Fukushima accident was caused by a tsunami that followed a massive earthquake, which rendered the plant’s cooling system inoperable. The meltdowns, considered the second-worst nuclear accident in history, released a great deal of radiation into the environment and required the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents. For Americans, Fukushima served as a stark reminder that nuclear power production could be vulnerable to natural disasters as well as human and technological error. Fortunately, during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the reactor at Oyster Creek in Ocean County, New Jersey, was unharmed and continued to function normally, despite severe coastal flooding.

From the time plans began in the late 1950s, nuclear power production in Greater Philadelphia was controversial. For decades, residents, politicians, and businesses struggled to balance economic motivations and energy demands with concerns about public safety and environmental risk. In 2017, nuclear production facilities generated over one-third of the electricity for both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with nearly all of the plants located within one hundred miles of Philadelphia and in close proximity to millions of residents. The extreme tension between public safety and public benefits came to define the nuclear power industry in the region.

[caption id="attachment_28882" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A map showing Philadelphia and New Jersey with nuclear power plant locations marked. Charts and graphs show electric power generation by fuel source since the year 2000. Nuclear power plants generate a substantial number of megawatt hours in Pennsylvania, where they compete mainly with coal and, increasingly, natural gas plants. This map shows the location of nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. (Map by Michael Siegel, Department of Geography, Rutgers University)[/caption]

Sarah Robey completed her Ph.D. in history at Temple University and is an Assistant Professor of the History of Energy at Idaho State University. Her research explores American nuclear history through the lens of activism, public knowledge, and civic engagement. She has held fellowships at the Philadelphia History Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Air and Space Museum.

Civil Defense

Because of Greater Philadelphia’s position as a political, cultural, and economic hub, the region’s residents have often found their daily lives deeply affected by times of national crisis. Civil defense, generally defined as local voluntary programs designed to protect civilian life and property during times of conflict, has taken many forms: militia, home defense, civilian defense, civil defense, and in the early twenty-first century, emergency response. As the nature of conflicts changed, so too did residents’ roles in home-front defense, from colonial-era militiamen to the sandbaggers who confronted coastal storms.

[caption id="attachment_24524" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white illustration of a tarred and feathered man being paraded through town tied to a post while a large crowd of onlookers cheer and brandish canes. Pennsylvania's volunteer militia was activated during some of the nascent republic's earliest political struggles. During the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, President Washington assembled an army of over twelve thousand men, most of whom were volunteer militiamen from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to oppose tax resisters in western Pennsylvania. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

In the earliest days of European settlement in the Delaware Valley, colonists formed militias of able-bodied men to guard their settlements against other imperial powers, Native Americans, and pirates. However, by the time of Pennsylvania’s colonial charter in 1681, militia practices ran counter to the pacifist tenets of the region’s Quaker leadership, and militias mostly disbanded. Neighboring New Jersey and the Lower Counties of Delaware, however, continued to maintain permanent volunteer militias to be at the ready in times of crisis. By the middle of the eighteenth century, noting Pennsylvania’s inability to protect itself, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was instrumental in mobilizing Philadelphians to join “associated companies,” local voluntary defense groups. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Philadelphia’s associated companies and the Delaware Valley’s regional militias proved difficult to integrate into the Continental Army. In the first years of the war, state legislatures—including that of the formerly pacifist-minded Pennsylvania—passed legislation making militia service compulsory for all white men of fighting age, thereby streamlining military organization.

Like other states and cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Philadelphia region relied on local militias to preserve public safety during both peace and war. Often, the urgency of emergencies blurred the distinction between militia volunteers, police forces, and those enlisted or drafted into the armed services. As such, civil defense and active defense—or military defense—were often one in the same. In addition to participating in the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia-area militias played an integral role in smaller conflicts in the Early Republic, including the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-94), Fries’ Rebellion (1799-1800), the War of 1812, and the Nativist Riots in the Kensington and Southwark sections of Philadelphia (1844). However, in the relative peace of the antebellum years, militias also were important civic and social organizations, with individual companies frequently composed of men belonging to a particular trade, ethnicity, religion, or political party. Muster days—events held for roll-call and training—often included parades, games, and patriotic celebrations.

[caption id="attachment_24519" align="alignright" width="300"]A color illustration of Logan Square during a fair. Two large tents and several temporary buildings are shown, and a very large American flag flies over the grounds. In the background, the Cathedral Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul dominates the horizon. Even President Abraham Lincoln visited Philadelphia's Great Central Fair, a charity event held on Logan Circle to raise funds and material goods for the Union Army. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

During the Civil War, Philadelphia became central to the Union’s production effort, but invasion threatened the city only briefly when the Confederate Army led by Robert E. Lee (1807-70) entered Pennsylvania in June 1863. Fearful that Lee would march to Philadelphia, volunteer groups rushed to construct physical barriers to defend the city. However, the works projects did not last long; the Union’s victory at Gettysburg ended the immediate threat to Philadelphia. Still, throughout the war, Philadelphian civic organizations such as the Union League called for participation in home guards and home defense groups as part of Philadelphians’ patriotic duty. Generally, these all-male brigades and regiments assumed similar functions to past militias. Women and families contributed to the war effort through charitable efforts, such as Philadelphia’s 1864 Sanitary Fair, or women’s auxiliaries.

Twentieth-Century Civilian Defense

The United States’ early twentieth-century conflicts placed the Delaware Valley in an integral position in war industry and national transportation networks. As the Philadelphia home front became deeply involved in both World Wars I and II, the changing nature of war made new demands on Philadelphia’s civilian defense. New military technologies from both wars, including airplanes, submarines, and missiles, expanded the reach of a potential enemy attack to include the American mainland, beyond the geographic boundaries that once offered Philadelphia protection during ground or naval war. As modern war increasingly threatened the homeland, many Philadelphians grew concerned that the region could be a target.

[caption id="attachment_24515" align="alignright" width="212"]A black and white propaganda poster showing a cloaked woman carrying a slain girl in her arms. Text reads "Avenge This! Buy a Bond!" Civilians were encouraged to buy Liberty Bonds after the United States entered World War I to help fund the war and combat inflation. Philadelphians purchased over $400 million in bonds in the two years that they were sold. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

During World War I, some Philadelphian civilians joined anti-sabotage programs designed to maintain a watchful eye on suspicious activity, especially in military industrial plants. But civilian defense during the Great War was primarily a mobilization effort to support the military, including bond drives for Liberty Loans and draft rallies. Echoing Civil War home guards, citizens enlisted in organizations such as the Philadelphia Home Defense Reserve to assist local officials in the event of a home-front crisis. But the United States’ brief involvement in the war cut short the tenure of civilian defense activities, and most programs were dismantled shortly after the war concluded.

After the United States entered World War II, however, the region revived and strengthened many of its earlier civilian defense programs. While residents of the Delaware Valley once again participated in bond rallies, food rationing, and anti-sabotage campaigns, the preparations for an attack took on a more militarized focus. The Philadelphia city government, newspapers, and civic organizations printed millions of informational pamphlets that included air raid information, instructions for building shelters, and basic first aid techniques. Periodic blackout drills required residents to turn off outdoor lighting, cover building windows with dark curtains, and dim automobile lights in order to disguise the city from potential attacking aircraft. Citizens across the region learned to identify enemy planes, and along the region’s rivers and coastlines, residents volunteered to take shifts as submarine spotters.

Cold War Civil Defense

[caption id="attachment_24522" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph showing a class room with children crouching under the desks during a "duck and cover" drill. Another group of children sit against the wall with coats over their heads. Schoolchildren in Philadelphia learned to "duck and cover" in the event of a nuclear strike during the Cold War. Many local schools were also designated as fallout shelters. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

After the end of World War II, the region’s civilian defense underwent another transformation. Nuclear weapons, used by the United States against Japan at the end of the war and soon after acquired by the Soviet Union, presented a new threat to public safety. The power of nuclear weapons exceeded the destructive capabilities of earlier weapons of war by several orders of magnitude, endangering more civilians than ever before. Because of the Philadelphia area’s importance in industrial production, its critical transportation infrastructure, and its large metropolitan population, the region rushed to find ways to prepare and defend itself from attack. While postwar Americans looked to civilian defense methods from earlier eras, many saw activities such as victory gardens and bond rallies as anachronistic and ineffective for the Atomic Age. In Philadelphia and across the country, Cold War civilian defense became known as “civil defense” in part to distance new strategies from the legacy of outmoded programs.

As in many threatened American cities, Philadelphia’s leadership took an early active role in local civil defense planning. In 1951, Mayor Bernard Samuel (1880-1954) established the Philadelphia County Civil Defense Council, responsible for hosting educational programs and organizing a military-style chain of command to connect city residents with block wardens, neighborhood coordinators, city offices, and civil defense officials. Throughout the 1950s, the council ran citywide drills designed to give civilians an idea of the kind of destruction they could expect, and the actions they would need to take should a real attack occur. Notably, during 1954’s Operation SCRAM (Survival of our Citizens depends on Cooperation, Alertness, and Mobility), more than twenty-five thousand Philadelphians evacuated the blocks closest to City Hall to a muster point on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. With the assistance of federal civil defense funds, cities, counties, and states built a system of fallout shelters—identified by ubiquitous yellow and black signage—in many buildings, including Philadelphia’s City Hall and public schools.

[caption id="attachment_24521" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the road bed of Benjamin Franklin Bridge with no cars during an air raid drill The Benjamin Franklin Bridge was completely clear of vehicles just minutes after an air raid siren activated during a 1956 drill. Philadelphians had been participating in air raid drills since World War II. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

One of the most challenging aspects of the Philadelphia area’s Cold War civil defense efforts, however, was the relationship between its cities and surrounding towns and counties. Should an attack occur, the entire Delaware Valley region would need to mobilize to deliver supplies and transport millions of evacuees. Successful civil defense plans thus relied on coordination between the cities of Philadelphia; Trenton and Camden, New Jersey; and Wilmington, Delaware, as well as hundreds of towns and several counties. Because every municipality had different civil defense needs, and every state had its own civil defense legislation, regional and interstate coordination was a logistical problem that officials never fully resolved.

In the end, Philadelphia’s Cold War-era civil defense fell victim to the changing city politics of the postwar period. The Civil Defense Council had difficulty defending its budget and usefulness to reform Democrats, especially as nuclear weapons technology advanced well beyond the capacity of civil defense strategies. Moreover, civil defense was a hard sell to Philadelphians, who balked at rehearsing for such catastrophic war in a time of peace. By the late 1960s, facing significant public apathy and ridicule from critics, the region’s civil defense activities had declined drastically and emergency planning energy was redirected toward preparation for peacetime crises. In 1972, Philadelphia’s Civil Defense Council merged with the Fire Department to become the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP). The OEP relied on regional volunteers and local relief organizations during extreme weather, industrial accidents, and other disasters to assist in preparation and recovery efforts.

Throughout its history, Greater Philadelphia has relied upon its citizens to help keep the region safe. Whether compulsory or voluntary, popular or unpopular, civil defense has shaped the region’s politics and culture. Although the nature of crises and war has changed significantly since the seventeenth century, civil defense has remained a consistent part of civic life in the Philadelphia area.

Sarah Robey is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Temple University, where she studies American nuclear culture. She has been a fellow at the Philadelphia History Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Air and Space Museum.

[caption id="attachment_25014" align="aligncenter" width="575"]In the years after the 9/11 terror attacks, the public was again urged to play a role in the public defense. Especially in mass transit, signs such as this one on a PATCO commuter train reminded passengers to be vigilant. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia) In the years after the 9/11 terror attacks, the public was again urged to play a role in the public defense. Especially in mass transit, signs such as this one on a PATCO commuter train reminded passengers to be vigilant. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

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