The anti-nuclear movement: an introduction

The ‘anti-nuclear movement’ is a broad term that can be used to describe one half of the nuclear power controversy.

In this post, I want to give a basic overview of the movement as a whole, and some of the impacts that it has had. In later posts, I’ll look at some key actors in this movement, as well as the ‘pro-nuclear’ movement and its key actors.

Much like the history of nuclear power itself, the history of the anti-nuclear movement has its roots in the development of nuclear weapons. The anti-nuclear movement changed its focus with the rise of nuclear power in the 1960s, although during the cold war, these two issues overlapped significantly. Perhaps this emotional connection to the cold war increased the negative emotions directed towards nuclear power.

In his book ‘Critical Masses: Opposition to nuclear power in California, 1958–1978’ (1), Thomas Wellock posits that the genesis of the anti-nuclear power movement was at Bodega Bay in California, in 1958, where Pacific Gas and Electric were attempting to build the US’s first commercially viable nuclear power plant, after a lengthy legal battle, the plans were abandoned in 1964.

Interestingly, many early anti-nuclear protesters openly acknowledged that the advent of nuclear power paved the way for clean energy in the future: this is what they had a problem with. Many believed that endless clean energy would only enable the increase and expansion in what they saw as ‘extravagant’ uses of energy by the affluent at the time, and used their anti-nuclear stance to campaign against development:

In fact, giving society cheap, abundant energy at this point would be the moral equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

— Paul R Erlich, 1975 (2)

… we also thought that as you provide societies with more energy it enables them to do more environmental destruction. The idea of tying us to the natural forces of the wind and the sun was very appealing in that it would limit and constrain human development

— Robert Stone, 2014 (in an interview about his earlier beliefs) (3)

The anti-nuclear movement also played a large part in the protesting of nuclear testing in the Pacific, and reflected the increasingly political slant of the movement. In their book, the ‘International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics'(4), Barry and Franklin draw a connection between the rise of anti-nuclear movement and the fortification of radical ecological movements that gave rise to the major players of today, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They also attribute this anti-nuclear movement with the development of ecological politics and the rise of ‘Green’ political parties in the 1970s and 1980s, with examples in Sweden and Germany arising from nuclear power explicitly.

The development of the movement through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s saw a transition from loosely distributed, local, public and open protest, into an increasingly political movement mainly run by large organisations.

In the modern context, there has been an interesting change in the arguments of the anti-nuclear lobby group. Initially, they were formed on a peace/health/safety frame, but as the debate over climate change has become more salient in the public sphere, the debate over nuclear power has become more about energy security, and moving away from non-renewable resources.  Although, with events such as the Fukushima disaster, the safety frame will probably always be present to a certain extent, and can be used to bolster the argument that suggest we move straight to renewables, rather than stopping at non-carbon non-renewable resources.

Say something controversial.








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