History of the Antinuclear Movement, Part 2a

Throughout the Eighties nuclear energy continued to be a subject of intense controversy, however the conflict had shifted to the local level where planned and unfinished nuclear projects offered manifold targets for attack. This period was typified by widespread changes in how the antinuclear movement was organized, and completed the shift from a concentration on nuclear weapons to that of nuclear power. So effective was this that when the Chernobyl accident occurred in 1986, the impact on public opinion was surprisingly small. Most people had made up their minds on nuclear power and entrenched attitudes are difficult to change. In part II of this series we will examine the paths that the movement took post-Chernobyl to the present dwelling on the various changes in structure and how it has impacted the movement’s agenda.

One of the greatest strengths of the antinuclear movement in North America and the bulk of the Anglosphere has been its autonomy—from business, political parties, and in most cases, the State. Thus the antinuclear power movement has been largely autonomous from partisan party politics. This autonomy from electoral politics has enabled it to escape the inevitable dilution of its demands that is characteristic of broad movements of this sort. This is quite different from what happened in Europe. In Germany the Green Party evolved directly from the antinuclear power movement, but was later able to tap enough support to elect several representatives to the Bundestag, while on the other hand France seems to have largely embraced nuclear energy, and the movement there is weak and disorganized.

Anti-nuclear forces in the Pacific region suffered two significant onslaughts in 1985. In April in Australia, an unholy alliance united to attack the young Nuclear Disarmament Party. In New Zealand, which was already in dispute with the US over nuclear ship visits, French secret service agents blew up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in July, killing photographer Fernando Pereira. The Rainbow Warrior had been engaged in a battle against French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Although most often seen as an initiative of the Left, the antinuclear movement has been independent of both the orthodox old Left as well as the new Left. Historically, the old Left ignored the environmental problems created by industrialization and embraced nuclear powers because it viewed technology as a way to more quickly arrive at a socialist society. On the other hand, New Left ideologists have been critical of the environmental movement on the grounds that it was elitist rather than populist. Nonetheless, the antinuclear power movement became the first major environmental campaign in which large numbers of rank and file Leftists participated in.

Even in Europe it was only after the movement had been successful in blocking the expansion of the industry that the Left climbed on the antinuclear bandwagon. By 1982 the Communist parties of Australia, Sweden, and Ireland, as well as the Labour parties of Australia and the Netherlands had become antinuclear after many years of supporting nuclear power. The Chernobyl accident accelerated that shift, especially in Italy where all political parties to the left of the Christian Democrats now oppose nuclear.

As the movement reorganized itself, in the wake of Chernobyl, its methods and organizational structures also changed. Prior to 1976, the movement had relied on regulatory hearings and the courts. Direct action methods such as occupations, sit-ins, pickets, marches, rallies, vigils were already being used by the Clamshell Alliance, but more importantly it introduced nonhierarchical organizational forms, such as affinity groups, which served as a model for movement as a whole. Patterned after the Spanish Civil War grupos de afinidad, affinity groups are small tight-knit groups composed of ten to fifteen individuals. All basic decision making is done at the level of the affinity groups. Organized on the basis of such considerations as previous ties, membership in other organizations, or concerns such as feminism or anarchism, they linked with other like-minded affinity groups. Thus there was no real central leadership permitting much flexibility, yet at the same time leaving open the option for broad calls for mass actions. However by 1986, Clamshell organizers were obliged to drop the consensus process in favor of a campaign organizing group that would chart strategy and make decisions. In the Nineties again national and pan-national organizations came to the forefront against nuclear energy however now there were several agendas at work.

In their early campaign against nuclear power, the anti-nuclear movement had been able to convince the public that the nuclear energy industry will necessarily harm a helpless general public. They did this through a series of articulations in which the entire nuclear energy industry was been inextricably linked to the twin specters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the “China Syndrome” as well as the poisoning of our future generations. These identifications nurtured a view of nuclear power that implies there exists an agency in the technology that cannot be completely controlled by its human operators. Thus anything that employs the “nuclear” adjective can be immediately linked to the horror of nuclear weapons, or the catastrophic possibilities of a meltdown, and the specter of radioactivity.

While it is difficult to blame the anti-nuclear movement alone for initializing the identification of nuclear power with nuclear weapons, by fallaciously cultivating a link between these two quite distinct applications of the radioactive nature of uranium, the movement has succeeded in attaching the near-unanimous distaste for nuclear weapons to nuclear energy. Much of the identification here is implicit; the more sophisticated anti-nuclear activists do not ever make the statement that nuclear power equals nuclear bombs, but the two technologies are often spoken of interchangeably, as if both pose the same hazards. It is this guilt by association that the anti-nuclear movement has exploited so often that nuclear weapons and nuclear power hardly seem to be separate in any way. However this idea has somehow perpetuated itself, despite the general reluctance to make the actual claim in print. This fear particular is the one of the chief causes for antinuclear feelings in countries with a poorly educated population.

As damaging as this implicit identification may be, there has been much more explicit associations as well. One was the linking of nuclear energy fuel with nuclear weapon fuel. This was exploited to cause two main concerns to emerge: a country with a nuclear power plant acquiring a nuclear weapon and a terrorist group stealing fuel from a power plant to construct a weapon. The first is known as the “proliferation problem.” There are many non-trivial prerequisites to the construction of a nuclear weapon: significant technological expertise, money, and, perhaps most importantly, perception of need. The second fueled the fire of paranoia concerning the likelihood of terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons. Nuclear power plants were portrayed as natural targets for any terrorist group with a physics textbook, and the public was led to believe that more reactors would lead directly to more renegades with H-bombs.

The second identification that has been carefully cultivated by antinuclear forces is that which has linked normal reactor operations with the inevitability of a meltdown. It is possible that a nuclear plant will have an accident killing or injuring a small portion of the general public, but the harm done the public by nuclear reactors, including the most liberal estimates of accidents, is much, much smaller than is being constantly implied. This tactic has been typified by the worst sort of exaggerations on the impact of the few nuclear related accidents that have occurred, including wild overestimates of latent casualties, and outright mendacity in the form of recycled medical photos purporting to be radiation induced birth defects. By avoiding any discussion of the probability and focusing on consequences, the anti-nuclear movement has been able to identify nuclear reactors with unthinkable tragedies, thereby striking an unreasonable amount of fear in certain members of the public.

If anything is to be concluded from the accident at Three Mile Island, it would seem to be that the safety procedures and containment structures are quite sufficient to protect the health of the public, even in the event of a serious mishap. And Chernobyl proved just how safe nuclear power is: it was a worse case event, there was no containment vessel, no coordinated emergency response plan, the operators were incompetent to a point bordering on criminal, yet there have been less that two hundred deaths cumulative that can be shown to be caused as a consequence of the breach.

On both occasions the anti-nuclear movement immediately adopted a “See, I Told You So” stance concerning their doomsday predictions. The movement reached its peak after the Three Mile Island accident, was in large part responsible for public worry about the dangerous nature of the technology and distrust of those responsible for its development” In short, by identifying the Three Mile Island accident with a major catastrophe and convincing America that many more meltdowns were sure to follow, the anti-nuclear movement was well on its way to instilling the American people with the belief that the nuclear power industry was out of control, and the only way to regain control was to stop the entire industry. Chernobyl only ingrained these feeling deeper, and of course was leveraged by the European branch of the movement as TMR had been by the American side.

The final misconception propagated by the anti-nuclear movement is that which morphs the nuclear energy industry into the manufacturers of an uncontrollable, unending poison: radioactive waste. This is probably the claim about which the activists garner the most emotion as it leverages the fear of radiation with its baggage from Cold War fallout, cancer, and birth defects. By identifying nuclear waste with certain cancer and death for the next billion years, they have convinced the public that there is no such thing as safe disposal. They have managed to equate any radioactive waste with moral reprehensibility; by invoking responsibility to future generations and claiming that the continued production of nuclear waste will spell certain death for them, the anti-nuclear movement has again produced a persuasive pathetic appeal.

Some American highlights from this period are: June 5, 1989: hundreds of demonstrators at Seabrook Station nuclear power plant protested against the plant’s first low-power testing, and the police arrested 627 people for trespassing; April 20, 1992: 493 anti-nuclear protesters were arrested on misdemeanor charges, as demonstrators clashed with guards at an annual Easter demonstration against weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site.; October 16, 2006: 26 people were arrested outside the Brattleboro offices of Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Nuclear; the demonstration drew about 200 people; April 2009: About 150 activists marched against the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant and to urge lawmakers to back development of clean energy sources such as wind power and solar power; the marchers had gathered 12,000 signatures in support of closing Vermont Yankee and on November 2, 2009 five protesters, including Jesuit Priest William J. Bichsel, S.J. were arrested for breaking through two levels of security at the Naval Base Kitsap to protest the nuclear weapons stored there. The protesters walked to a bunker where the weapons were stored and spilled blood hung posters and prayed.

Civilian nuclear power has become one of the most controversial issues in western Europe in the recent past.. The antinuclear movement has engaged a broad array of different groups with a wide range of social and political concerns. Their persistent opposition to nuclear power reflects more than just the fear of risk. The European movement has focused on the social and political properties of this technology – its effect on the forms of authority and power, the concepts of freedom and order, the distribution of political and economic resources, and the very fabric of political life. For those who oppose this technology nuclear power implies a kind of society with intolerable economic and political relationships. Indeed the nuclear establishment and its administrative apparatus have come to represent the social tensions and political contradictions of a technological age. As elsewhere, public concerns about nuclear power follow from the usual set of perceived technical issues: the low -level radiation released during normal operation of a power plant, the unlikely but catastrophic possibility of a large-scale accident, the routine environmental effects of heated effluents, the problems of radioactive waste disposal, and the potential military use of the plutonium produced as a by-product of reactor operation. But in Europe these practical questions of risk form only one dimension of the nuclear debate.

Beyond this background of fear nuclear power has been made to symbolize the major problems of advanced industrial society: the effect of technological change on traditional values, the gradual industrialization of rural areas, the concentration of economic activities, the centralization of decision -making power, and the pervasive intrusion of government bureaucracies. For many critics of nuclear power the development of nuclear is an important example of such problems; they talk less of nuclear energy than of a nuclear society, however these issues too seem as contrived as the technical ones, and appear to be constructs for manipulation public opinion, rather than real issues.

The passion underlying the debate, the ability to mobilize large numbers from a broad array of different groups to oppose government nuclear programs follows from the association of this advanced technology with such ubiquitous social and political concerns. Indeed, while much of the debate on the Continent continues to dwell on technical issues of safety, the challenge to nuclear power has assumed the character of a moral crusade. Part 2b cont.


  • June 20, 2011 - 3:39 am | Permalink

    Minor typo: You have a sentence that reads as follows:

    “Chernobyl only ingrained these feeling deeper, and of course was leveraged by the European branch of the movement as TMR had been by the American side.”

    I am pretty sure that you mean TMI (Three Mile Island), not TMR.

  • DV82XL
    June 20, 2011 - 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes I meant TMI, I used to live in Town of Mount Royal (TMR) and this is not the first time I have confounded the initials between the two.

  • June 23, 2011 - 9:30 pm | Permalink

    This is not necessarily to post, just a comment for you. In my own research into the subject a couple of years ago, I came across Albert Wohlstetter, the real Dr. Strangelove and advisor to several Presidents on Mutually Assured Destruction and strategy. After reading much of his verbose output (many tedious books), my conclusion was that he institutionalized the concept of a civilian nuclear reactor as a nuclear bomb, and reprocessing as a bomb. I wrote about this here:
    http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/2006_articles/spring%202006/Special_Report.pdf .

    In continuing to look at this, I suspected that Wohlstetter, then at Rand, and Amory Lovins (with whom he worked closely), were in large part responsible for California’s legislation banning any new nuclear plants until there was a national “waste” solution. I did some interviews with people in Calif. who were around in the late 1960s and early 1970s to probe on the question, but I have not been able to get back to this for a while. Another piece of this, is the two nuclear engineers who famously left GE in California and went on an anti-nuke trajectory, involving UCS. They were both recruits of a cult called Creative Initiatives, which I had started to look at. This was connected to Prof. Rathbun at Stanford. (I forget his first name.)

    My intention is to do more digging. As I think you well realize, there is much more dirt behind the more visible anti-nuclear front!

    On another track: When the Fusion Energy Foundation, which published Fusion magazine, was quite successfully organizing for nuclear, and exposing the anti-nukes in the late 1970s, a group called the Nuclear Club of Wall Street appeared, I think only to slander us and try to stop our effectiveness. (At its height, Fusion published 200,000 copies and was sold on newsstands.) We wrote about this “Nuclear Club” at the time, and I could look for this material if you would like to see it.

  • June 23, 2011 - 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Marje – The present work was written as an overview in an effort to show that what we in the pronuclear community call the ‘Antinuclear Movement’ is no longer a single entity (or as close to a single entity) as it was in the past. It has become a disjointed collection of (often) one-issue groups who are ideologically far apart on most everything else but this subject. I have no intention of expanding this into a detailed history spanning the last sixty years. I don’t think there are many that are all that interested, and I have nether the time, skills or resources to create a work of that magnitude.

    I will be rewriting the essay in the near future, but only to correct some mistakes, not to expand on it. So while I am sure that you could bring a great deal of valuable information to the table, I wouldn’t be able to use it effectively. Thus I thank-you very much, but please don’t make the effort.

    As for Fusion Energy Foundation’s Fusion magazine, I recall it from back in the day, and while it was certainly pronuclear, it was a bit of a laughingstock among my fellow science students because of the vast number of technical errors that found their way into the articles.

  • June 24, 2011 - 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I think you will find a lot of interest in your overview, as it is, so don’t underestimate the interest in the topic.

    It’s interesting that you remember Fusion. From my experience, what students called technical “errors” were usually differences in political views. For one thing, Fusion was not Newtonian in outlook, and this was a no-no for students who wanted good grades from their Newtonian professors. Unfortunately, the tendency “to go with the flow,” continued with most of those students, including those who went on to careers in the nuclear field. As I mentioned in a comment on Rod’s blog, if the nuclear community had listened to LaRouche back then, and opposed the anti-nuke groups and their founders and funders from the beginning, instead of impotently cozying up to them in hopes of lenient treatment, nuclear power would be in much better shape today.

  • June 24, 2011 - 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I am not going to debate the LaRouche perspective on physics, other than to say my objections had nothing to do with getting good marks. Frankly I found many of the ideas presented in Fusion silly to say the least. I do not accept the premise that there is or was some ideological conspiracy at work, nor did any of the theories presented hold up under scientific scrutiny.

    While the LaRouche movement may have been right on this issue, the fact is that even at that time the group had positions on several other matters that were very controversial (to put it mildly) and that marginalized them such that few listened to them anyways.

    As I said I do not care to cross swords with anyone on LaRouche or his ideas, so I will not be responding further on this topic.

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