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Environmental Studies

Nuclear Energy, Climate Change, and the Fission of the Environmental Movement

What They Used to Say
What They're Saying Now
Not Every One is Saying It
References & Links

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Laura Bartolomei-Hill

What They Used to Say

Anti-nuclear activism was a major focus of environmental organizations and the mainstream environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Following (and even preceding) the accident at Three Mile Island, citizens and environmental groups mobilized large protests across the country against nuclear power. At a rally at the Capitol five weeks after the accident, 65-75,000 people gathered to encourage President Jimmy Carter to shut down operational and planed nuclear plants. In front of the crowd, California Governor Jerry Brown called nuclear “pathological addiction," and Susan Cassidy, a pregnant woman evacuated from the vicinity of Three Mile Island told the crowd, "no one should have to live through what my family has experienced."[1] In June 1979, 500 were arrested at New York City protest[2] and 120 were arrested at a Virginia Plant[3] barely days apart. Over the next few years, protests in urban areas and at nuclear facilities frequently appeared in mainstream media outlets. Almost 2,000 were arrested over a two-week protest at the Diablo Canyon plant in California in 1981 led by the Abalone Alliance, and led to the revocation of the plant’s operating license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (a seismic fault had been discovered just two miles from the plant).[4] Although the license was later re-instated, it was only after the plant addressed major safety and structural concerns. While at the time, many articles considered the protests to be failures (few resulted in the immediate shut down of planned or operational nuclear plants), the environmental community and its anti-nuclear focus had long-term effects on the development of nuclear energy in the United States. There was not only a cohesive perspective, but also a very public position.

Key environmental groups and politicians (including the above mentioned Governor Brown of California) strongly influenced the American public’s imagination of nuclear disaster. From Jane Fonda’s nuclear disaster thriller The China Syndrome to the prominent featuring of pregnant women at protests and actions (see Susan Cassidy, above), the environmental movement successfully framed nuclear energy in the American public discourse. In a 1976 report by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the organization sets the tone of its extensive report with “nuclear power brings with it the chance of catastrophic accident”[5], which is quite exemplary of the sentiments of the environmental community at the time. This image projected by the united environmental movement became incredibly powerful and salient in the face of real-life nuclear incidents. The way the movement framed nuclear energy also shaped the way the public experienced nuclear disaster.

The successes of the environmental movement’s anti-nuclear mobilization were two-fold. First, leaders and key organizers quickly framed nuclear energy as a dangerous, expensive, and irresponsible source of energy. The images and ideas put forward by activists, both on the streets and in policy reports, evoked and cemented an image of nuclear energy as potentially catastrophic. These ideas remained powerful forces in both public policy and popular culture for decades after the most visible years of the movement subsided. Secondly, anti-nuclear environmentalists were influential in stunting the growth of the nuclear industry. Until recently, no nuclear reactor had been ordered in the United States since 1970. But new nuclear reactors are now being requested – and the environmental community is no longer united in its opposition.

[1] Paul W. Valentine and Karlyn Barker, “65,000 March on Capitol, Score Nuclear Dependence” in the Washington Post. May 7, 1979. First Section; A1.

[2] Reuters, June 4, 1979.

[3] Karlyn Barker “120 Arrested at North Ana Plant” in the Washington Post June 4, 1979. Metro; C1

[4] Newsweek “Diablo Canyon Loses its License” November 30, 1981.

[5] Jane Chinowsky and Tim Niles, Nuclear Power in Minnesota: the Illusory Bargain, Minneapolis: Minnesota Public Interest ResearchGroup: 1976), 

Figure 3:

Figure 4:

Nuclear Plant at Three Mile Island

Figure 3: Nuclear Plant at Three Mile Island

China Syndrome poster

A poster from the 1969 film The China Syndrome


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