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.)