History of the Antinuclear Movement, Part 2b

The different and more diffuse class composition of the European antinuclear movement found visible expression in the tactics of the activists and the police, which were much more belligerent than in America. In Europe, antinuclear protesters carried out acts of sabotage against power-lines, railroad lines, construction sites, factories supplying nuclear plants, and installations of utility companies including bombs placed near nuclear construction sites or plants. Marches and rallies attracting upward of 50,000 were commonplace. Police responded physically against demonstrators, using tear gas, clubs, dogs, even grenades, causing hundreds of injured and even death (as in the case of Malville). Civil war-like street blockades, dozens of miles away from the demonstration-sites and at national borders were set up to block demonstrators. Compared to the small showings and relatively peaceful actions in North America, the European state of affairs was much more dynamic.

The movement against the nuclear plants was one of the biggest mass movements of the 1970s and 80s in Germany. After a slowdown since, it has reappeared now like a phoenix from the ashes, The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was a pivotal event for Germany’s anti-nuclear movement, following the event, the Green Party strived for the immediate shut-down of all nuclear facilities. The SPD pushed for a nuclear phase-out within ten years. Länder governments, municipalities, parties and trade unions explored the question of whether the use of nuclear power technology was reasonable and sensible for the future.

In May 1986 clashes between anti-nuclear protesters and West German police became common. More than 400 people were injured in mid-May at the site of a nuclear-waste reprocessing plant being built near Wackersdorf. Police used water cannons and dropped tear-gas grenades from helicopters to subdue protesters armed with slingshots, crowbars and Molotov cocktails. Starting from 1995, when the first transports of nuclear waste to Gorleben took place, there was a slow, but continuous new growth of resistance, with demonstrations and blockades of the railway.

In 2002, the “Act on the structured phase-out of the utilization of nuclear energy for the commercial generation of electricity” took effect, following a drawn-out political debate and lengthy negotiations with nuclear power plant operators. The act legislated for the shut-down of all German nuclear plants by 2021.

In 2010 the new government of Conservatives and Liberals decided another extension of life span for the plants. But when the respective plans were published, the result was a sudden and unexpected new uprising of the anti-nuclear movement: In April 2010 a human chain of 120 km length was formed between two plants in Northern Germany, 150 000 people took part. The blockades of the nuclear waste-transport in autumn 2010 were the biggest and most popular ones for more than ten years. And in March 2011, just one day after the disaster of Fukushima, another 60 000 people formed a human chain between two reactors in Southern Germany.

And the mobilizations became bigger and bigger. Throughout the country there were local and regional demonstrations, actions, vigils with altogether 160 000 people, and the result was striking: The Federal Government of chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to reinstate plans to shut all German nuclear plants by 2022, reversing the earlier decision to let them continue to run.

Of note is the difference in the number of protesters that are involved in Germany when compared to the United States; while small in numbers, U.S. protesters have won some major battles on the local front closing individual plants. The reasons for this have been attributed to several factors including poor turnouts during elections that favor single-issue voters, and indifference on the part utilities that are just as happy to sell expensive power as cheap, and the work of lobbyists from various competing forms of energy that are leveraging the protests to their own ends. General observations suggest that there is some truth to all these explanations. Clearly in North America, nuclear not so much suffers from having many enemies, as it does so for having few friends.Motivations in the antinuclear movement too have shifted. In the beginning it was an almost universal fear of nuclear war that drove protesters and activists, later the fear of fallout from nuclear weapons testing was added to the mix, but in general everyone was on the same page. Objections to nuclear energy proceeded from these fears at the beginning, and while many still play lip-service to the disarmament aspects, there have been a number of other agendas that have emerged in modern antinuclear activities.
While there is some overlap, objectors to nuclear energy fall loosely into the following classes:

Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) objections. As the name implies, these people may not necessarily object to nuclear energy as such, but for various reasons do not want to have nuclear related facilities built near them. Sometimes this is driven by general radiophobia, but more often than not the real concern, generally not directly stated, is worry over property values. This group in many cases has been the majority in local efforts to stop construction or to remove a nuclear facility. It is not unusual for there to be several prominent members from the community, as well as representation by those with considerable real estate investments in the area. Politically  shrewd, and able to provide funding for legal actions, this group has been very effective putting a stop to secondary nuclear projects such research reactors, fuel processing and the like. While not aligned ideologically with other antinuclear forces, they have been quick to co-opt the emotional appeals of the latter to hide their basically selfish reasons for action.

The Green/eco-activists, generally followers of one of the hard-line environmental NGO’s, seem to object to nuclear as a function of some comprehensive antinuclear policy that reaches back to the beginning of these organizations, but is often ill-defined beyond the broad collection of standard shibboleths typical to antinuclear philosophy. The continue to beat the drums of proliferation, waste management and the threat of accidents and such, oblivious to the fact that these issues have been addressed and viable solutions exist. Since it appears that the primary objective of these groups is to keep the flow of donations into their coffers as high as possible, they generally like to engage in high-profile actions with little regard for any overall strategy. Unlike the NIMBYs, there are only broad and ill-defined objectives, and even when there is a specific target for action, after putting on some spectacle, and garnering some attention in the press, there is rarely if any follow-up beyond a bit of rhetoric.  Thus as antinuclear activists, while loud and annoying, they are not too effective on a broad front.

Related, often with members from the above group, are the modern Luddites. Their major objection to nuclear energy seems to be that it works too well. They fear that unlimited cheap energy would be a disaster as it would render unnecessary the move away from a technology-dependent world back to some ideal low-tech, low-energy existence they think would be best for all of us. Mostly populated with disaffected urban middle-class failures, and those that believe that they would thrive in a less complex society, this group nonetheless contains a great many high-profile members that have published a great deal of nonsense on this subject. While not particularly active in North America the ideas of this group seem to have touched a raw nerve in some European cultures, and many of the protesters that turn up for demonstrations there are broadly from this class.

The next group that has issues with nuclear energy are the renewable energy supporters. Less doctrinaire than the preceding group they do share some of the same issues, mostly a distrust of centralization and what they see as the loss of freedom that comes from dependency on outside sources of energy, however they are not against technology – quite the opposite, in fact.  Their ideal is to take themselves off-grid, and they promote various schemes that involve gathering and concentrating energy from ambient sources such as wind and sunshine, as well as sharp restrictions on energy consumption. They believe that many of the systemic problems with their schemes could be solved if only enough attention were given them. They see nuclear energy as a competitor for research funds as well as a factor that will undermine their raison d’etre.  The primary way they have affected nuclear energy is by the success they have had selling their program to the public.  With the tacit support of the last group on this list, (fossil-fuels) they have managed to convince many members of the public, and through them, governments, that wind, in particular, and solar generation can contribute in a meaningful way to the energy supply situation. Their popularity seems to rise in an area very quickly, but then drops off just as fast when they fail to deliver on their glowing promises. However they have been cause for much delay in new nuclear builds in those countries that were otherwise intending to do so.

The final group that opposes nuclear energy is, as alluded to above, the stakeholders in fossil-fuels. Stakeholders, not just companies as this group includes unions, investors, and in some cases governments as well as the actual ownership. We do not need to invoke great conspiracies here to see that in the case of coal and natural gas, nuclear energy represents a serious and potentially fatal competitor. Each Watt of power generated by nuclear is one that is not being produced by using their product, and that is a threat to their core business. For years the fossil fuel industry is using their right to employ money-amplified free speech to persuade the world that man cannot possibly change the world’s climate and that continued use of their products is mankind’s wisest course of action. Coal miner’s unions have taken stands publicly that nuclear power is a direct threat to their membership’s jobs. As well gas and coal interests have taken positions in wind and solar projects, confident that their products will still be burnt for ‘backup’. Finally they have used their considerable political influence to spare their industries from the same environmental responsibilities that nuclear energy must shoulder by law.

As well In my opinion, two parasitic cultures have grown around nuclear technology, both artifacts of Cold War paranoia: first is the radiation protection industry and professionals working in the field that depend on the continued acceptance of the linear-non-threshold dose-response model, despite the fact that this model has been thoroughly discredited on multiple occasions; the second the nonproliferation bureaucracy. The latter having no more of an evidentiary foundation than the former, but is similar in that a host of people depend on its assumptions for their jobs. While these two groups are not antinuclear in any real sense of the term, they have perpetuated the myth that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous, and that those active in the field need constant monitoring lest they let the demon out of its bottle ether inadvertently or with malicious intent. They grant much more legitimacy to nuclear fears than they should by their self-serving desire to maintain their status.

Throughout its entire history the antinuclear movement has been composed primarily of white, middle class, in many cases of well schooled women and men, working in the nonindustrial sector such as education, the arts, the professions, the home, and in the alternative sector. The only notable exception has been the Native American movement that is nonwhite, poor and badly educated, and then only in issues surrounding uranium mining. In general other minority groups occupying positions in the lower part of the wage-income hierarchy have been more concerned about jobs than about nuclear power or the environment.
This demographic still serves at the local level, working to close existing plants and trying to prevent new ones from being built. The also form the backbone of NGO’s such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club, which has taken over the national and international stage subsuming an antinuclear position as part of their broader ideology. A number of high-profile individuals from this class have also arisen, nominally perhaps identifying with some organization (which they often lead) but by in large independent, who have taken a stand against nuclear technology. Paul Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, Joseph Romm and Helen Caldicott among a host of others, write, and speak publicly making their livings fanning antinuclear sentiment where ever they go. Not a leadership in the direct sense, rather the court philosophers of the movement and its paid agents provocateurs.

However there has been little outreach to lower socioeconomic groups, indeed there is a paternalistic attitude shown by most Western nuclear critics that manifests itself in handwringing over how poorer nations could be trusted with nuclear technology. The hubris extends to actively discouraging the development of uranium resources and calls to limit what factors of this technology sovereign states would be permitted to use within their own boarders, and to their own ends. Although much of this is rhetoric to cover other geopolitical agendas by Western governments it has served to slow the adoption of nuclear power in the places where it would do the most good.

The objective of those that believe in the antinuclear cause have not changed, but because of the philosophical differences between sectors, it is hardly proper to call it a Movement in the sense that the peace activists of the Ban-the-Bomb were. Thus we can see that the antinuclear movement is no longer homogeneous and really isn’t a movement at all anymore. This of course is true for any social movement as it matures. Nevertheless, supporters of nuclear energy should not make the error of lumping all of their opponents into a single category, or choosing a single strategy for dealing with them.


  • June 20, 2011 - 3:53 am | Permalink

    DV82XL – interesting and provocative series. I am surprised that you left out the Critical Mass Energy Project that brought together a number of the affinity groups that you described. In the US, at least, there was some rough coordination, sharing of talking points, and group training sessions that helped to spread the techniques far and wide.

    I also think that you let the fossil fuel stakeholders off too lightly. Without the resources and political clout that they provide, I believe that the movement would have achieved far less success. The antinuclear campaign would be about as well known and successful as the campaign to ban chlorine.


  • George Carty
    June 20, 2011 - 7:36 am | Permalink

    How effective is “manoeuvre the opposition into a kill zone” as a debating tactic?

    To give an example of what I mean, could the neo-Luddites be destroyed by educating the public on fertilizers and the Haber-Bosch process for example, thus showing that the neo-Luddite agenda necessitates massive reduction in human population?

    (The aim being to portray them as advocates of genocide, who should be crushed by any means necessary…)

  • DV82XL
    June 20, 2011 - 2:00 pm | Permalink

    @ Rod – Necessarily I had to leave a great deal out of this essay simply because the subject was far vaster than I imagined when I began. Almost every paragraph could be expanded into something almost as long as the work itself. Since my objective was to show how antinuclear activities have evolved and how the motivations of the players have changed I was forced to leave out much that would have been in a more complete history.

    For example I did not touch on Canada, Australia, the UK and Japan, among others, that have active antinuclear movements that have had an impact, nor did I expand on the European situation which is much more complex that I have shown.

    As for letting fossil fuels off too lightly, perhaps that is true; however I am unwilling to go into much more depth on any of the groups without providing reference lest I come off as ranting. Perhaps in another essay I will address this in detail, for the present I just wanted to name all the players and show what positions they have in the game, in depth analysis can come latter.

    Nevertheless we should not dismiss the others ether as to my mind, the group I identified as the NIMBY’s have punched well above their weight on many occasions, and I consider them to be very serious opponents.

  • DV82XL
    June 20, 2011 - 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The problem with the neo-Luddites is more complex than just ignorance, and it goes far beyond nuclear energy alone. Individuals who are critical of modern technology do not necessarily fail to understand technology; rather, they reject technology on philosophical grounds. Their arguments for the rejection of technology generally fall into one of two categories: those which cite the basic shortcomings of technology, and those which reject the very nature of technological progress. However, underlying these is a belief that technology has marginalized them in some way and devalued them as members of society.

    I recall when I was in high school, one older teacher decrying the fact that scientist and engineers had displaced practitioners of the liberal arts, as the cultures leading intellectuals, and this he say as a great tragedy. The neo-Luddites are cut from the same cloth. They imagine a past where they would have had status if it had not been taken by those who control technology.

    The fact is they dream of a past that never existed, and is constructed from 19TH and 20TH century fictional ideals. Their real danger to the antinuclear movement is that their minimalist philosophies touch a deep nerve in the Judo-Christian morality that the West has not fully shaken, and thus these ideas of reducing energy and doing without are granted much more ethical weight than they are due.

  • Andrew Jaremko
    June 20, 2011 - 4:53 pm | Permalink

    DV82XL – thank you for this excellent history and analysis of the opposition to nuclear power. I’m sure I’m going to be referring to it regularly. Your analysis of the different segments of the opposition may suggest ways of tackling each of them. I fear that tackling the public concerns will require getting people to recognize their confirmation biases, to think skeptically, and to use simple arithmetic to analyze things. That’s a challenge.

    NGOs and professional anti nuclearists are another matter, as are businesses and politicians. There’s a lot of work to be done.

    It’s also great to find another site where you and Rod Adams hang out. Thanks to you both!

  • George Carty
    June 21, 2011 - 1:01 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t talking about the ignorance of the neo-Luddites themselves, but the ignorance of the general public, who do not recognize the implications of neo-Luddism with respect to how it would affect the earth’s carrying capacity.

    As for your point about Abrahamic morality, I think we have to accommodate it somehow, because of the hold which the Abrahamic faiths have on so many people. One of the biggest historical weaknesses of the international Communist movement was its militant atheism – think “Pope John Paul II”, or think “Afghan mujahideen”. (The other was that it defined “proletarian internationalism” as virtually synonymous with “loyalty to the USSR” making it very easy for anti-Communists outside the USSR to portray local communists as traitors.)

  • Barry Sheridan
    June 22, 2011 - 12:31 pm | Permalink

    A thorough andcomprehensive summary with some excellent analysis. Well done.

    One addition you might like to reflect on with regards to Europe. The anti-nuclear movement attracts people because it offers the very real chance of contributing to change, even if this change is against the general interest. This is apposite within the EU because of the marked decay in democratic accountability, something seen in the way politicians behave, i.e. they no longer listen and most people know it.

  • DV82XL
    June 22, 2011 - 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank-you, I am gald you like it.

    Unfortunately there is nothing simple about antinuclear opinion. It is very true that it is opposed as a symbol almost as often as it is over fear of the technology itself. In my opinion this is because of the supposed link with nuclear weapons that hangs around nuclear energy’s neck like an albatross, particularly in Germany. Nuclear has taken such a bad rap over time that it is an easy target and that is part of the problem.

  • George Carty
    June 23, 2011 - 7:18 am | Permalink

    Indeed – “a tactical nuclear weapon is one which lands on …”…

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

    That’s getting too personal or did I miss something.

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