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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

Not Everyone's Saying It

While the 1980s nuclear protests were largely white, focused on radiation accidents, and based on fearful predictions of the future, the modern anti-nuclear movement is largely based within the environmental justice movement (hereafter to be abbreviated as EJM). The environmental movement was formally launched at the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, and “The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice” were born from the delegates and have since served to guide and ground the EJM. The EJM was formed to address both the disproportional impact of environmental properties and low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, as well as the failure of the mainstream environmental movement to engage with these issue. The EJM has been a vocal opponent of the nuclear energy system because toxic waste dumps are sited overwhelming on Native American reservations (most prominently Yucca Mountain), because nuclear energy does not challenge standing unequal energy production, and because they argue that nuclear is not a zero-emission industry, as many Democrats and environmentalists are claiming. And they are not buying the mainstream environmental movement’s position reversal on nuclear. The Energy Justice Network opens its nuclear section with: “Nuclear power is an expensive, polluting, dangerous, racist, depletable, and now foreign source of energy.”

Nuclear resistance in the environmental justice movement has been tied to the health and land of the people, as well as who is living there. Nuclear fuel processors, power plants, and waste disposal sites are located where low-income or people of color live. According to a 2009 study by a team of professors from University of Notre Dame and SUNY-Stonybrook, there is a high concentration of currently-operational nuclear reactors in the Southeastern United States, and the reactors tend to be sited in low-income neighborhoods.[2] An Energy Justice Network factsheet from 2007 also notes the correlation between toxic waste sites and communities of color: “all of the sites proposed for “temporary” and permanent storage of high level nuclear waste (nuclear reactor fuel rods) have been on Native American lands.” Perhaps the most significant example of this is Yucca Mountain. A 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act designated Yucca Mountain as the national dumping site for high-level nuclear waste. Facing massive resistance from native and non-native groups, the site did not become active until Congress voted to begin funding it in 2002. In 2000, Native scholar and activist Winona LaDuke wrote, “It is to this mountain – at the heart of Western Shoshone Nation – a place of deep spiritual significance to Shoshone and Paiute peoples – that the federal government plans to send 98 percent of the U.S.’s radioactive waste generated during the entire nuclear period.”[4] LaDuke and other environmental justice movement activists and organizers believe that there is a strong connection between the historical marginalization and theft of land from Native Americans and the modern siting of nuclear waste sites.

Although many environmental groups and individuals (including those profiled above) are hailing nuclear energy for its low-emission, there are also studies that contradict that. According to a 2001 report from the Energy Justice Network, “93% of the nation’s reported emissions of CFC-114, a potent greenhouse gas, were released from the U.S. Enrichment Corporation, where nuclear reactor fuel is produced…some of the nation’s coal plants exist just to power the nuclear fuel facilities.” While there are certainly emissions advantages to nuclear power, claims that it is a zero-emission source of energy are only considering certain parts of the cycle.

Today, while many mainstream environmentalists are calling for the revival of the nuclear energy, environmental justice activists maintain their opposition. Native voices and the voices from other communities of color are once again called on to “sacrifice” something for the greater good. Now that climate change has created a “greater” threat to certain communities, some environmentalists are willing to create worse conditions for in some places in order to stop the impacts from climate change that will have worldwide consequences. It is no wonder that given the history of nuclear siting and waste disposal which Native activists and their allies would continue to oppose nuclear energy in an effort to preserve their lands, bodies, and communities.

[1] Mary Alldred, Kristin Shrader-Frechette. “Environmental Injustice in Siting Nuclear Plants” in Environmental Justice. June 2009, 2(2): 85-96. doi:10.1089/env.2008.0544.

2] LaDuke, Winona. “Nuclear Waste… and Native Land” in The Winona LaDuke Reader


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