This post contains some thoughts about the history of the anti-nuclear movement and in particular the European anti-nuclear movement as a struggle for power and empowerment; it’s posted here for convenience and as a reference, and as a caution against interpreting the anti-nuclear movement simplistically, such as a movement that is being powered by fossil fuel interests. I’d also hope to illuminate why scientific facts are not enough to dissuade opposition to new technologies, and why those wishing to change the society should strive to understand the power relations, feelings of powerlessness, and empowerment of individuals.
The European and in particular the German anti-nuclear movement has a long and sometimes distinguished history. Fundamentally, the opposition to nuclear energy has been rooted in the perfectly understandable and commendable opposition to nuclear weapons, and the feelings of powerlessness felt by many Europeans during the Cold War.
The Cold War was a conflict waged by the two superpowers outside Europe proper, but it was also a conflict that would have turned Europe into a nuclear battleground and a radioactive graveyard had it turned hot. This was particularly galling to Europeans as until about the early 1970s, it was clear that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was predominated by relatively short-range weapons that could not hope to reach the continental United States, but could and would devastate densely populated Europe if a war broke out. (Remember that a major motivation behind the Cuban missile crisis was the Soviet Union’s desire to even the odds by emplacing some of its short-range weapons within range of the US mainland. One result from the crisis was a very much heightened Soviet emphasis on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit US targets, but until the 1970s anything the Soviets could do to American society was dwarfed by their ability to devastate the European societies.)
As a result, in Europe many concerned citizens felt more or less like helpless pawns in a great game of chess that was being played by forces they could not even begin to control. The end of the world was always only thirty minutes away, and there was very little the common people could do about it. I don’t mean to claim that the people in the United States – or in Eastern Europe for that matter – had much more control over their fates or less reason to fear, but it is clear that Europeans had even more reasons to feel powerless than the citizens of the superpowers, who at least in theory had some say about how the Cold War was being waged.
In my opinion, Spencer R. Weart has demonstrated persuasively in The Rise of Nuclear Fear that the origins of the anti-nuclear power movement were very much intertwined with the anti-nuclear weapons movement, and that the movement against nuclear power was to a large extent powered by a sort of displacement activity for people who might have been actually more afraid of the nuclear weapons, but felt they could do very little about the bombs or the risks of nuclear war. Weart’s book concentrates mostly on the anti-nuclear movement in the United States, but I believe its conclusions are even more applicable to Europe. After all, for most Europeans, there was almost nothing they could do about nuclear weapons themselves, aside from protesting against them and their deployment. However, in all European countries, citizens and politicians could oppose nuclear power.
So, the opposition to nuclear power was, to simplify a bit, very much a question of and a struggle for power. The people felt they had too little power over their lives and their future, and that they could feel more empowered if they opposed one concrete manifestation of the energy source that threatened their existence. As sociologists have long noted, power and empowerment are crucial concepts for understanding human social activity, and the sociology of the anti-nuclear movement is no exception.
Furthermore, this power struggle had another aspect besides the tie-in to nuclear weapons. To many people, particularly to those who came to an age during the late 1960s, the technocratic dreams of early nuclear proponents were just another manifestation of the authoritarian, top-down society controlled by almost unaccountable elites. These elites were seen to have been responsible for dragging Europe into two unimaginably destructive wars already – the ruins of which were still being cleared during the 1960s – and there were good reasons to fear that another, final war might break out soon. This alone was a reason for Europeans to feel skeptical about the wisdom of their leadership, but the matters were not helped in Germany in particular by the fact that the post-war political order all too readily accommodated even former Nazis. In this environment, the thinking that equated centralized power structures and political elites with authoritarianism and impeding fascism was, in my opinion, quite understandable.
Nuclear power provided one focal point for this anti-authoritarian criticism. The plans to construct very large centralised power stations (remember that most power plants at that time were very much smaller than they are today, and 400 MW power stations were often seen as excessively large ones) were by themselves seen to concentrate power into the hands of the elites, and the control and governance regimes that were seen to be necessary to contain the nuclear reactions and their waste products were seen in some circles as stepping stones to totalitarian control over the society. Particularly in German-speaking countries, there were influential books that argued that the proposed “plutonium economy” would require total government control and pervasive surveillance to ensure public safety and nonproliferation of weapons material; this is likely the reason why some older anti-nuclear activists in particular accuse modern pro-nuclear environmentalists as “fascists.” Today, the question whether these fears were justified or not is a moot point; the fact is that many people, particularly those of the “1968 generation” felt they were real, pressing issues, or at least symptoms of an outdated, destructive political-industrial complex that was seen to be stripping power from the people.
All this does not in any way diminish other motivations that powered the diverse anti-nuclear movement. By and large, the protesters were not (and are not) motivated primarily by some overarching grand ideological scheme, and local problems and debates were (and are) always at least as important as the broader societal questions. Furthermore, aside from providing an avenue for the struggle for and of power (even for empowerment), the anti-nuclear movement benefited from deeply rooted human dispositions to draw clear distinctions between “pure” and “impure,” and “natural” and “unnatural.” Up until the development of genetic engineering, nuclear power was the prime example of impure and unnatural imposed upon the people by shady powers beyond their control: nuclear waste was seen as the ultimate insult against purity (whether or not that was the reality), and splitting the atom represented concretely the unnatural, even if the first and the most memorable application of the technology hadn’t been in incinerating thousands and ushering in a new era of deeply existential fear about the future of civilization and life itself. In short, nuclear power was very nearly the perfect enemy, and matters were not helped by the grandiose plans and haughty dismissals of all critique by the early 1960s nuclear technocrats. The parallels to the behavior of modern renewable energy technocrats are too painful to list here.
The fact that all this also benefited a traditional, domestic European power source – coal – surely helped matters. However, it would be far too simplistic to interpret the anti-nuclear movement as a fossil-powered special interest group: the declarations that the anti-nuclear activists oppose coal as well are, in my opinion, genuine, even if the results of their activism all too often end up benefiting fossil fuel interests. Instead of such simplistic analyses, the understanding of the forces that oppose new technologies need to be analysed and understood through the one lens sociologists believe is essential to understanding how human societies operate: the question of power relations, the struggles for power, and the feelings of powerlessness or empowerment of individuals and groups.
If nothing else, I hope this note gives some insight into the question technocratically minded often struggle with: why the scientific facts and figures tend to fail in dissuading opposition to some particular technology? In my opinion, the main reason is not the oft-supposed “scientific illiteracy”; rather, it is that the technologies represent different things to different people, and opposing some particular course of action because of the values it or its perceived supporters embodies is – fortunately and unfortunately – a very human trait. No one should feel too smug about this: evidence suggests the “rational” model of decision making, where we first listen to the evidence and then decide our opinions, is simply not how things work out in practice. Instead, we all tend to look at evidence that suits our pre-existing opinions and values, and reject things we don’t agree with.