Nuclear Power and Protest

The continuing disaster in Japan hasn’t closed the nuclear debate in the United States, even as many national political figures, including President Barack Obama, have been trying to invigorate the nuclear power industry.

This is a social movement story.

In the United States, opposition to nuclear power grew in the the 1970s, expressed mostly through local campaigns directed against new nuclear power plants.  The vital core of these campaigns was the Union of Concerned Scientists, which started in 1969 as a group of MIT faculty and students opposed to the war in Vietnam.

Activists who had cut their teeth in the antiwar movement burrowed into local politics, organizing antinuclear campaigns across the country.  Their issues were the same ones we point to 40 years later; they worried about the safety and cost of nuclear plants, about spoiling the environment even if nothing went wrong, and about disposing of nuclear waste.  They also worried about the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, warning about the proliferation of nuclear weaponry.

Activists engaged in large and small demonstrations and civil disobedience actions, most memorably at the site of a planned reactor in Seabrook, New Hampshire (Clamshell Alliance) and San Luis Obispo, California (Abalone Alliance), and an operating plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, which made weapons material.

A larger movement grew to coordinate these efforts and make claims nationally.  Activists planned to conduct a large demonstration in Washington, DC in May of 1979, and the reactor accident at Three Mile Island boosted the turnout, the urgency of their efforts, and the attention they got.  In the fall, Musicians United for Safe Energy [MUSE] (including Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen) held a series of “No Nukes” concerts in New York City to raise money (and visibility) for the movement, producing a record album (on vinyl!) and a movie in the process.  The same year, Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas starred in The China Syndrome, a thriller about a corporate cover-up of a nuclear accident, a movie that circumstances made perhaps more popular than its artistic merit might have warranted.

While activists didn’t exactly win–some, but not all, of the plants they protested were ultimately built–they pushed the federal government to work harder to ensure reactor safety, with more formalized approval processes and safety regulation.  All of this drove up the costs of building new plants–as did the protests.  It was harder and harder to make the new numbers work, even with large federal subsidies.

No new nuclear plant has been licensed in the United States since the reactor accident at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania.

Older, likely less safe, plants continue to operate across the country.  [The San Onofre plant (left), not far from here, sits next to a popular surf spot.  Waiting for waves, surfers sometimes joke about warm currents.]  The United States generates about 20 percent of its energy with nuclear plants–less than Japan, and much less than France.

This isn’t the outcome that anyone wanted.  The industry had far more ambitious plans for nuclear power in the United States, while activists wanted to shut down the more dangerous plants already operating.  Stalemate isn’t the same as satisfaction.

As the nuclear power stand-off took hold, many activists and organizations shifted their efforts to campaigns against nuclear weapons (President Ronald Reagan helped with this shift).

Some people, increasingly concerned with climate change, supported a shift to new (ostensibly safer) nuclear plants–which don’t generate greenhouse gases.  This includes President Obama–but not Al Gore, who reiterates the concerns raised by scruffy activists outside plant gates 35 years earlier (full disclosure: sometimes, including me).

John Hall, the lead singer and songwriter of Orleans, who had organized MUSE and the No Nuke concerts, and written the (insipid) antinuclear anthem, Power (clip), got into politics.  Elected to Congress from upstate New York in 2006, he was one of the Democratic casualties in 2010.

David Weigel reports that supporters of nuclear power in industry and government haven’t backed off that support in the wake of the unfolding accidents in Japan, but they acknowledge that their efforts will be even more difficult in the future.

After all, no one thinks that the Japanese would be less attentive to the dangers of nuclear power, less careful in construction, and less prepared to handle accidents than Americans (see Anne Applebaum‘s discussion.).  (Compare the response to the accidents in Japan, where stockpiles of iodine were available for immediate distribution, to the American response to Hurricane Katrina which, horrifyingly, was a smaller disaster.)

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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4 Responses to Nuclear Power and Protest

  1. Amy Hubbard says:

    David, as someone who was heavily involved in fighting nuclear power back in the late 70s and early 80s, I think you are quite correct about the local focus of these campaigns. One challenge that the anti-nuclear power movement faced was that we were organized around our local plant and it was more difficult to work regionally and nationally. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident changed that for a time but it was always a challenged faced by the movement. In contrast the anti-nuclear weapons organizers could focus more broadly on a national strategy such as the Nuclear Freeze Campaign.

    One thing to add though about the origins of the movement: The Union of Concerned Scientists were influential but I could count them among the groups that provided technical information and were engaged in administrative hearings — more like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service — rather than being engaged in supporting local organizing. What affected me most, as a young person living in Northeast Ohio, was hearing about the huge civil disobedience action by the Seabrook Alliance in 1977 at the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire. They were very influenced by the Movement for New Society folks (as I recall) so their meeting structure for example depended upon rotating leadership rather than an appointed or elected official. Back in Ohio we tried to put these principles into practice and for that reason our anti-nuke group never had an elected president — which has its advantages but also has its drawbacks as I was to learn later. At any rate, we looked to organizations like UCS and NIRS for technical and legal information. We looked to MNS and the Seabrook Alliance for how to organize.

    I should add that some folks argue that it was the TMI accident that stopped the new construction of nuclear power plants, not the anti-nuclear movement. While there’s a lot of truth to that, it was the anti-nuclear power movement that had developed the case against nuclear power and was prepared to shape the interpretation of events once TMI occurred. I’ll never forget Walter Cronkite discussing things like poor evacuation planning and the Price-Anderson Act (US legislation limiting utility liability in the event of an accident) on national TV. This was not news at all but it was the first time the general US public heard about it. That was the contribution the anti-nuclear movement made. We were ready for TMI.

    BTW, I should also mention that the problem of hydrogen being released by uncovered fuel rods has been around for decades. It was an issue back when the Perry Nuclear Power Plant was under construction in NE Ohio and they obviously haven’t solved the problem yet.

    Thanks for writing about this. There is much more to be said but it’s back to work for me now!

  2. y says:

    We need to start protesting were are the organizations to protest nuke power here in cali and u.s? We need to use this event to better the world! It is time to wake up ! We only have 1. Chance to save the planet.!

  3. Pingback: Movement influence: it’s not forever | Politics Outdoors

  4. Pingback: Crisis and opportunities: Superstorm Sandy and climate change | Politics Outdoors

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