Movement influence: it’s not forever

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to license two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, the first new licenses in more than 30 years.  Activists can’t count on social movement victories to be permanent, and activists that leave the field cede political advantage to their opponents.

The antinuclear movement in the United States, aided by a reactor accident at Three Mile Island, drove up the costs and difficulties of building new reactors so much that new licenses were so unattractive as to become almost unattainable.  (But most of the reactors operating in 1978 continued–and continue–to generate power and waste.)

Meanwhile:

concerns about global warming have undermined some of the opposition to nuclear power (which doesn’t generate greenhouse gases);

fears of rising energy costs have made nuclear power appear more viable economically;

an horrific reactor accident at Fukushima, Japan, has scared publics around the world;

and Germany has committed to end nuclear power within the decade.

It’s not clear how all this added up to licensing new plants in the US–and it’s completely unclear that the plants, estimated to cost the Southern Company another $10 billion–on top of the $4 billion it’s already spent–will actually be built and commence operations.

Much will depend on whether the antinuclear power movement, which has been mostly quiet in America for the past three decades–will re-emerge and mobilize.  The movement of the 1960s was led by local activists staging campaigns against specific plants.  We’ll watch to see who picks up its banner in Georgia.  Will Georgians organize to oppose the plant and the rising energy bills they’ll be saddled with?  Will national groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, give a campaign against nuclear power some space on its broad agenda?

The first step in a battle that will surely span many years will be a lawsuit, already promised.  Mass politics and mobilization will follow only when organizers think it necessary–a last resort.

Movement victories are generally partial, often ambiguous, and almost always reversible.

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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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