History of the Antinuclear Movement, Part 1

by DV82XL
The antinuclear movement has always been in flux, changing its ideology as needed to maintain its stand, regardless of the flow of events in the world. This in and of itself is telling, saying much about this movement, and the organizations that are a part of it. In part one of this two part essay we will cover the period between Hiroshima and Chernobyl, the work of the first generation of antinuclear militants. In part two we will see how the Movement has changed with the new generation, and how tactics, strategies, and objectives have changed.

The public face of resistance to the development of nuclear power is the antinuclear movement and the militants that have kept it alive. While pronuclear supporters are convinced these people are delusional, there is little understanding of how this movement came about, and how it has changed over the last six decades. I believe that it is important that we understand the history of these groups to better understand the impact that they have had on the  public’s perceptions of nuclear matters, and how that impacts our efforts to promote the nuclear option. More to the point, they have succeeded in raising the price of nuclear power by forcing costs higher in several areas, which has scared off investors.

Early objections to nuclear technology can be seen as developing in two distinct phases. The first phase centered around nuclear weapons, the second later stage against nuclear power stations. It is interesting to note, that while there were protests against testing nuclear weapons, and deploying nuclear weapons, there was little concern over nuclear power, and in fact this period also saw the construction of most of the plants operation to-day. While indeed there were local opposition to nuclear power stations in a few places, it was only after international agreement to limit the numbers, testing and deployment of nuclear weapon, and the signing of several treaties to this effect, did antinuclear focus shift in a major way.

The Ban-the-Bomb Era

The roots of the antinuclear movement are found in the Ban-the-Bomb movements of the 60’s and before when the public became concerned about fallout from nuclear weapons testing from about 1954, following an extensive series of tests in the Pacific. Manhattan Project scientist, some of whom had opposed the use of nuclear weapons during World War II, organized the Federation of Atomic Scientists (which later became the Federation of American Scientists) and the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, with Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Rabinowitch playing leading roles in a crusade for nuclear disarmament. A burgeoning world government movement also warned of the menace of nuclear war, as did pacifist groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom. A Communist led antinuclear campaign, focused on the Stockholm peace petition, surfaced as well.

With the Soviet Union’s development of its own atomic bomb in 1949, American policymakers became increasingly concerned that such a weapon could be used on the United States, and pressed for more powerful nuclear weapons. To facilitate this, propaganda was used to instill fear in the American public fueled by lurid stories about thermonuclear Armageddon, exaggerating the potential effects of fallout and radiation, and portraying a Soviet surprise nuclear attack as an ever-present threat that could occur at any time. Later talk of “missile gaps” would be added to the mix all towards cultivating the belief that the only way to prevent an attack was to have the capacity to ‘out gun’ any potential opponent.  Nuclear war was presented as a normative threat, long before the arsenals of any potential enemy were capable of effectively prosecuting nuclear attack, propaganda designed to promote elevated spending. However the fact was, even in 1961, the year John Kennedy became President, after a campaign accusing Eisenhower of letting the United States fall behind in the arms race, the Soviet Union had only four missiles in its arsenal. With the deepening of the Cold War, American attitudes grew more hawkish and the protest movement dwindled.

Radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing was first drawn to public attention in 1954 when a Hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific contaminated the crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon. One of the fishermen died in Japan seven months later. The incident caused widespread concern around the world and provided a decisive impetus for the emergence of the anti-nuclear weapons movement in many countries. The anti-nuclear weapons movement grew rapidly because for many people the atomic bomb encapsulated the very worst direction in which society was moving. Peace movements emerged in Japan and in 1954 they converged to form a unified “Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs”. Centering on the hibakusha (atomic bomb victims) and their families and relatives, Japanese opposition to the Pacific nuclear weapons tests was widespread, and an estimated 35 million signatures were collected on petitions calling for bans on nuclear weapons.

Joining with British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Einstein issued a dramatic appeal to world leaders to halt the nuclear arms race. Subsequently, meeting in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, scientists launched the periodic Pugwash conferences of scientists from East and West to discuss nuclear issues, while chemist Linus Pauling began a scientists’ petition calling for an end to nuclear testing. In 1957, Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, and other nuclear critics organized the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (SANE), a group that placed antinuclear ads in newspapers, held public meetings and demonstrations, initiated petition drives, and soon had 25,000 members.  In 1957 SANE began pressing for a halt to weapons testing, with the help of prominent Americans like child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Established in 1959, the Student Peace Union mobilized college students against the nuclear menace and introduced Britain’s nuclear disarmament symbol in America. As concern mounted, citizens formed groups to protest. Women also played an important role in this early antinuclear activism. Alarmed by prospective dangers to their children, a group called Women Strike for Peace (WSP) founded by Dagmar Wilson and other concerned mothers, brought thousands of women into the streets, demonstrating for an end to nuclear testing and the nuclear arms race. Organizing a nationwide protest against nuclear testing and radiation on November 1, 1961 WSP supporters marched in several U.S. cities and New York City, managed a major turnout outside the United Nations building.

In the United Kingdom, the first Aldermaston March organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament took place at Easter 1958, when several thousand people marched for four days from Trafalgar Square, London, to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment close to Aldermaston in Berkshire, England, to demonstrate their opposition to nuclear weapons. The Aldermaston marches continued into the late 1960s when tens of thousands of people took part in the four-day marches.

In 1959, a letter in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was the start of a successful campaign to stop the Atomic Energy Commission dumping radioactive waste in the sea 19 kilometers from Boston. In 1962, Linus Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to stop the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and the “Ban the Bomb” movement spread. Antinuclear activists continued to pressure politicians, resulting in the 1962 ratification of the American-Soviet treaty banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, space, and underwater. In 1963, many countries ratified the Partial Test Ban Treaty prohibiting atmospheric nuclear testing. Radioactive fallout became less of an issue and the anti-nuclear weapons movement went into decline for some years.

One final thing from this period; while admittedly circumstantial, there is evidence that some of these organizations were funded and controlled by the USSR. This was more likely true with antinuclear groups in Europe rather than in North America and elsewhere, as it is well documented that there were active Communist cells answering to Moscow in most European countries during the Cold War. It is also a matter of historical fact that that the Soviets had issues with medium and short range nuclear weapons stationed in that region. Thus it seems plausible that they would use their assets in the form of these cells in support of initiatives to have these weapon systems removed. While Moscow’s concern with nuclear weapons on their doorstep is understandable, it may well be that Russian attempts to influence nuclear policy in Europe has not ended. More on this later.

Opposition to Nuclear Power Plants

Once the existential threat of nuclear war by accidental or deliberate nuclear strike ceased to be a pressing concern to the public the organizations that had grown around the weapons issue lost membership and income quickly after the signing of the Test Ban Treaties, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the beginning of the START process. Thus in the late 1960s through 1980s there was a shift in the antinuclear movement toward protesting the building of nuclear power stations.  Although governments, had advocated for peaceful uses of nuclear power since the development of the atomic bomb, little impetus existed for this new energy source, however with the energy crisis of the 1970s and increased public awareness of the environmental problems engendered by fossil fuels, the government pressed forward with the development of nuclear energy, ostensibly to reduce pollution and provide cheap sources of electricity.

The emergence of the anti-nuclear power movement was also closely associated with the general rise in environmental consciousness which had started to materialize in Western industrialized countries during the 1960s. Early anti-nuclear advocates expressed the view that affluent lifestyles on a global scale strain the viability of the natural environment and that nuclear energy would enable those lifestyles. By the mid-1970s anti-nuclear activism had moved beyond local protests and politics to gain a wider appeal and influence. Although it lacked a single coordinating organization, and did not have uniform goals, the movement’s efforts gained a great deal of attention. In some countries, the nuclear power conflict reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies.

The beginning of the opposition to nuclear power plants starts with the battle over Pacific Gas & Electric’s attempt in Bodega Bay to build the first US commercial nuclear power plant. This battle began in 1958 and ended in 1964, with the forced abandonment of these plans. Attempts to build a nuclear power plant in Malibu were similar to those at Bodega Bay and had the same fate. The difference was that, unlike Bodega, which was a backwater fishing village, Malibu was the home of movie stars and other individuals who wanted to protect land values and the lifestyles of the wealthy property owners. They saw economic value in the non-materialist enjoyments of the land. What these cases had in common was that they gave nuclear power the image of a dirty, soiled, dangerous force that could not be allowed into communities. Centered there at the time, the movement grew qualitatively in California between 1964 and 1974. It was not a smooth road. Controversies within the Sierra Club over how to lead this movement and disagreements over tactics in the Diablo Canyon battle, which ended in victory for the utilities, resulted in a split which led to the formation of Friends of the Earth. This signaled the transformation of the movement into “born-again anti-nuclearists,” the term used by David Brower, the militant environmentalist who established Friends of the Earth when he resigned from the Sierra Club

On the East Coast, Larry Bogart founded the Citizens Energy Council in 1966, a coalition of environmental groups that published the newsletters “Radiation Perils,” “Watch on the A.E.C.” and “Nuclear Opponents”. These publications argued that “nuclear power plants were too complex, too expensive and so inherently unsafe they would one day prove to be a financial disaster and a health hazard.

Several citizens’ groups emerged to confront nuclear power issues, raising concerns about adequate safety plans and the long-term effects of low-level radiation. Many direct action groups, environmental groups, and professional organizations who’s initial objective was nuclear disarmament, at the local, national, and international level, shifted focus to include opposition to the use of nuclear power. These included major anti-nuclear groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Greenpeace, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Others formed in direct response to nuclear energy. Chief among these were the Clamshell Alliance and the Abalone Alliance. Using civil rights protest methods, Clamshell Alliance organized the sit-in of thousands at the Seabrook power plant in New Hampshire, beginning in August 1976 and continuing through early 1977. The demonstrations reflected the impassioned debate over the plant and received considerable national attention, the project was finally shut down by the regulatory process and the efforts of the Clamshell Alliance. The Abalone Alliance mobilized pacifists and environmental activists in a protest against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California.

As militants raised alarms about the possibility of large scale nuclear accidents, based on nothing more than their overactive imaginations, the public grew concerned about the safety of nuclear power. This caused politicians to pressure regulators in most countries to tighten requirements for new licensees, and the operating rules for nuclear plants. Driven by antinuclear propaganda the public mood escalated and this process quickened. As a result the cost of new nuclear builds increased some 400%. This became known as ‘regulatory ratcheting;’ regulation increasing because of politics, not engineering concerns. Consequently, in much of the world, plans for new plants were shelved, and dozens of partially constructed plants were abandoned, unfinished.

Another tactic that was used to force cost higher was the participation of opposition groups in public hearings. Often one group would appear as several, filibustering by reading magazine and newspaper articles verbatim, and engaging in endless questioning of witnesses of little or no relevance to the licensing process. These and other legal strategies proved effective, and the delays to projects could amount to increased costs of a million dollars a day in some instances. These techniques mitigated to make the costs of new nuclear projects uncompetitive in relation to fossil-fuel fired plants.

In the early 1970s, there were large protests about a proposed nuclear power plant in Wyhl, Germany. The project was canceled in 1975 and anti-nuclear success at Wyhl inspired opposition to nuclear power in other parts of Europe and North America. Germany’s largest anti-nuclear power demonstration took place to protest against the Brokdorf Nuclear Power Plant west of Hamburg; some 100,000 people came face to face with 10,000 police officers. A protest against nuclear power occurred in July 1977 in Bilbao, Spain, with up to 200,000 people in attendance. In 1979, an anti-nuclear protest was held in New York City, involving 200,000 people. More citizens joined these types of organizations after the 1978 release of The China Syndrome, a film depicting a near-disaster at a nuclear power plant. A real accident, perceived as similar to the event presented in the film, occurred the following year at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania and caused the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes out of fear of radioactive contamination. Then in 1986 the Chernobyl accident provided these groups with what they considered a perfect example of the consequences of developing nuclear energy and the antinuclear movement was on it like a pit-bull on a Pekingese.

Vying with each other to produce the most horrific predictions of impending deaths, and raising the specter of latent cancers, antinuclear demagogues milked this event for all it was worth. Western media, always willing to side with the antinuclear position, assumed the worst. The British Daily Mail on April 29th 1986 filled half its front page with the words “2000 DEAD.” They further claimed that the dead were not buried in cemeteries but at “Pirogovo in the radioactive wastes depository.” The next day, The New York Post claimed that 15,000 bodies had been bulldozed into nuclear waste pits. Later, the Natural Resources Defense Council claimed there would be 110,000 post-Chernobyl cancers in Central Europe and Scandinavia. Several years later, on October 13, 1995, Reuters announced “800,000 children were hit by Chernobyl, as in a nuclear attack.” Over the following months, the BBC, Greenpeace and the numerous European dailies joined the bandwagon to claim that tens of thousands were dead or dying because of radiation. The exhibitions of photographs of deformed victims, (now exposed as fraudulent) raised millions of dollars for pressure groups and charities, in what has to be the nadir of manipulative propaganda.

Some may find it surprising, that many of the studies, overestimating health consequences of Chernobyl accident, came from the former Soviet Union, but motives are quite clear though. At first, heated interest in Chernobyl guaranteed foreign help and international scientific cooperation. Now, deeper motives are becoming obvious: puffing up Chernobyl hysteria has hindered advancement of nuclear power production in Europe, thus contributing to higher use of Russian natural gas.

The antinuclear movement succeeded in virtually halting the development of nuclear power in the West, and claimed to have influenced further nuclear weapons reductions, but as the Cold War had begun to wind down by the late 1980s, and governments on both sides wanted to reduce the expense of maintaining large nuclear arsenals, the contribution of these NGOs to this process is moot.

Modern Era

Three-Mile Island, killed nuclear power in its largest market, and Chernobyl buried it, India’s first nuclear test occurred on 18 May 1974, reinforcing the idea that nuclear technology was simply too potentially dangerous on every level, and that no sane person could possibly support it going forward. Or at least that’s what the militants thought. However nuclear energy refused to die, and shifts in geopolitics, the specter of climate change, and the failure of TMI and Chernobyl to yield the number of deaths that had been so breathlessly predicted, softened the public’s mood. Some began to call for a nuclear renaissance, pointing to France as an example of how a well-run program could benefit a nation. Caught off guard the antinuclear side was slow to react, however they have managed to regroup, and despite running up a few dead ends, have again adjusted their message to suit the times.

In part two we will look at the post-Chernobyl period to the present day.Part 2a cont.


  • katana0182
    February 5, 2011 - 1:24 am | Permalink

    “Using civil rights protest methods, Clamshell Alliance organized the sit-in of thousands at the Seabrook power plant in New Hampshire, beginning in August 1976 and continuing through early 1977. The demonstrations reflected the impassioned debate over the plant and received considerable national attention, the project was finally shut down by the regulatory process and the efforts of the Clamshell Alliance.”

    A correction – Seabrook 1 was completed and is presently producing power, though Seabrook 2 never was completed. You might be confusing Shoreham with Seabrook. Shoreham was the reactor on Long Island that was completed then immediately decommissioned prior to full power operation due to the antics of the Shad Alliance and the former governor of New York, Mr. Cuomo.

  • February 5, 2011 - 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks katana, it was Seabrook 2 that was canceled. The construction of Seabrook 1 was completed ten years later than expected, with a cost approaching $7 billion. The large debt involved led to the bankruptcy of Seabrook’s major utility owner, Public Service Company of New Hampshire. At the time, this was the fourth largest bankruptcy in United States corporate history.

    It was this long delay that I was referring to, when I wrote ‘shut down’, but clearly I phrased it poorly, giving the wrong impression.

  • atomikrabbit
    February 5, 2011 - 10:51 pm | Permalink

    “More citizens joined these types of organizations after the 1978 release of The China Syndrome, a film depicting a near-disaster at a nuclear power plant. A real accident, perceived as similar to the event presented in the film, occurred the following year at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania”

    Actually, the movie was released March 16, 1979, nearly concurrent with the TMI accident. I remember the gasps in the theater when the fictional “scientist” said the meltdown could “contaminate an area the size of Pennsylvania”.

    Good narrative DV8, looking forward to more.

  • February 6, 2011 - 12:36 am | Permalink

    The China Syndrome was released 12 days before TMI. I stand corrected again, thanks

  • May 5, 2011 - 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Good history DV8 – looking forward to the next installment.

    Hopefully your efforts here will be heavily linked and referenced. Personally I would not object to edits as required to fix/improve your original draft.

  • June 20, 2011 - 3:21 am | Permalink

    DV2XL – I also vote for edits to update the post. It is too valuable to be dismissed by some because of minor timeline errors.

    I have recommended that all Atomic Insights readers spend some time reading all three installments. I am now turning to part 2a.

  • June 23, 2011 - 12:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve read just the first section so far. This link is to a 2001 article by Marsha Freeman that covers other important aspects of the U.S. situation that should be included–in particular, the financial warfare against nuclear and the destructive policies of U.S. individuals like Schlesinger, and the deliberate paradigm shift away from progress.


  • June 23, 2011 - 3:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks Marji, I might add mention of this is part two when I do the rewrite.

  • Cal Abel
    May 16, 2012 - 7:03 pm | Permalink

    There was another part to the early movement and that had to do with the incorporation of genetic effects in radiation protection standards. Specifically it is the work of Herman Muller and Curt Stern on BEAR I that completed the end run on the NCRPM blocking the genetic effects.

    Muller was a signatory on the Russell-Einstein manifesto. I have to say your presentation of that era made it much easier to understand Muller’s motives in suppressing evidence of a threshold as it would eliminate much of the reason to not engage in nuclear war. I think he ignored the retaliation and losses of entire cities and causing the deaths of untold thousands from the explosions. I think this is what makes total war as what we saw in WWII highly unlikely in the nuclear age. Or perhaps he didn’t trust politicians and wanted to put a nail in the coffin with selective science.

    This has lead to a significant cost increase to nuclear power. Jazcko is using LNT and Fukushima to push for a 50 mile evacuation zone which would force the closure of all nuclear power plants because of the required infrastructure upgrades needed to make this happen. Silly regulations like even an unwarranted 10-mile evacuation zone add a non trivial cost to the construction and operation of nuclear power plants and limits such things as district heating using waste heat.

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