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The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther

The Brothers Reuther. From left to right, Roy, Walter, Victor. Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.

It is fitting, on International Workers' Day, to pay tribute to Walter Reuther.

Reuther's biographer, Nelson Lichtenstein (The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, Basic Books, 1995) could have been referring to Walter Reuther's civil rights, social justice, and anti-war work as much as to his efforts on behalf of working people. And given that Walter Reuther, and especially his brother Victor, were very active internationally, perhaps they were also the most dangerous men in the world?

Less well known are the Reuther brothers' work for the environment and against nuclear risks.

Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers (UAW) took one of the very first high profile stands against nuclear power in the early 1960s, when it -- alas unsuccessfully, unfortunately -- attempted to stop the construction and operation of the Fermi 1 experimental plutonium breeder reactor in Monroe County, MI, just 25 miles south of Detroit. Between the Detroit and Toledo areas, some 500,000 UAW members lived within 50 miles of the big nuclear experiment on the Great Lakes shoreline. Even though the UAW did not prevail in its lawsuit against the Atomic Energy Commission at the U.S. Supreme Court (by a 7 to 2 vote), Reuther and the UAW would be proven right just a few years later. On Oct. 5, 1966, "We Almost Lost Detroit" (the title of John G. Fuller's iconic book, as well as Gil Scott Heron's ballad) when the Fermi 1 reactor core partially melted down. But it came precariously close to turning out much worse than it did.

Sasha Reuther, the grandson of Walter's younger brother Victor, published a documentary film in 2012 entitled "Brothers on the Line." Towards the very end of the film, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy is quoted as saying that Walter Reuther was green before it was even invented.

In Victor Reuther's 1976 memoir The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston), he documented his brother Walter's and the UAW's leadership in advocacy: as early as 1960, for U.S.-Canadian cooperation to protect the Great Lakes; in the early to mid-1960s, for nuclear disarment and end to nuclear weapons testing; and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to hold the UN's first world conference on the environment. Victor Reuther also documented the visionary efforts of his and Walter's older brother, Roy, who did groundbreaking work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, who also were environmental pioneers on the front lines.

Following in Reuther's early footsteps, it is Beyond Nuclear's mission to strive for the abolition of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, including working in coalition with U.S. and Canadian environmental allies to block the construction and operation of Detroit Edison's proposed new Fermi 3 atomic reactor, as well as to block the 20-year license extension sought for Fermi 2.

Fermi 2 is the biggest GE Mark I in the world -- identical in design to Fukushima Daiichi's melted down and exploded reactors, only, nearly as big as Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 & 2 put together. In addition, Fermi 2 has multiple times the amount of high-level radioactive waste in its storage pool than even Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 did at the beginning of the catastrophe. In fact, every nuclear fuel assembly ever generated at Fermi 2, since 1988, is still stored in the pool, some 600 metric tons worth!

And, 54 years after the Brothers Reuther first sought to protect the Great Lakes, another binational environmental coalition, that Beyond Nuclear is honored and privileged to be a part of, is watchdogging, and resisting, the "making a killing, while getting away with murder" shenanigans at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Kincardine, Ontario. Bruce is one of the single largest nuclear power plants in the world, with eight operable atomic reactors, on the Lake Huron shore just 50 miles across the lake from the tip of Michigan's Thumb.

After years of grassroots resistance, Bruce Nuclear gave up on its insane proposal to ship 64 giant, radioactive steam generators on the Great Lakes, to Sweden, for "recycling" into consumer products. Now the fight is on against Ontario Power Generation's insane proposal to bury all of Ontario's so-called "low" and "intermediate" level radioactive wastes, from 20 reactors, less than a mile from the Great Lakes shore at Bruce. Our environmental coalition has long warned that, as bad as this "low" and "intermediate" level radioactive waste dump would be, it could be but the camel's nose under the tent: several Bruce area municipalites are still in the running to "host" all of Canada's high-level radioactive wastes, from 22 reactors, in permanent geologic disposal (that is, a dump).

And as soon as that dump is stopped, our next challenges -- working closely with environmental allies on both sides of the Great Lakes -- will be to stop the incineration of all of Ontario's "low" level radioactive wastes at Bruce (which has been going on for four decades), as well as to shut down the eight still operable reactors there.