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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

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

by Laura Bartolomei-Hill


Nuclear energy represents many different things to different groups of people. To some, it is clean, carbon-free energy. To others, it is toxic waste and irresponsible energy development. But for decades, the environmental community agreed on what nuclear energy meant to them: an expensive, potentially dangerous, and ill-conceived source of energy. During the 1970s and 80s, the United States environmental community mobilized against nuclear energy. Fear of exposure to radiation, unpredictable consequences from complicated technological systems, and toxic waste topped the activists’ concerns. Citizen protests, as well as the exorbitant costs associated with building a nuclear plant, essentially halted construction of new nuclear energy power plants for two decades. As the Wall Street Journal recently put it, “by the end of the 1980s, the nuclear-power industry appeared to be heading for a meltdown.” But now, what was long considered not only bedrock of mainstream environmentalism but also one of the most powerful successes of the movement is now under serious re-consideration. Many key figures and organizations which were once leaders of the anti-nuclear movement are rethinking their stance and are the very forces calling for the revival of the industry they so fervently opposed; they are even re-framing it as an environmental solution to climate change.

   Through this website, I will examine the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s and 1980s, the re-framing of nuclear energy today by politicians and organizations, and the potential rifts between the environmental justice and mainstream environmental movements around nuclear energy. Increasing numbers of environmental groups and politicians are embracing nuclear energy as a solution to climate change even though they fought against it decades ago, because they have identified first and foremost the cause of climate change as carbon dioxide emissions.Climate change has been called the primary environmental problem of the twenty-first century. Concerns about energy production and carbon emissions have driven environmentalists and policy makers to search for new, cleaner, carbon-free technologies. The re-emergence of nuclear energy as a “clean and renewable” alternative to carbon-heavy fossil fuels such as coal and oil has enchanted some in the environmental community. Nuclear has the capacity to produce massive amounts of energy without producing global-warming causing carbon emissions. Over the past decade, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, prominent mainstream environmental organizations and politicians have embraced nuclear energy as a “green” technology and as a solution to climate change, an attitude which has been adopted most publicly and most viably by President Obama in speeches and directives beginning with his 2010 State of the Union address. As a burgeoning movement in the 1970s, environmentalism used nuclear energy as a rallying point to mobilize communities to action; decades later, nuclear energy has become a controversial issue not only outside of environmental circles but within them as well. Because President Obama has adopted the language of the pro-nuclear environmental groups and publicly committed to investing in the nuclear industry, the controversy and the power struggle between environmental factions to define the environmentalist perspective on nuclear has acquired urgent and contentious dimensions.


 Above (Figure 1): An Anti-Nuclear Rally and Below (Figure 2), a coal plant that may be eliminated with incresaed investment in nuclear energy

A Carbon-Emitting Coal Plant that could be eliminated by increasing investment in nuclear energy


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