"I am become death, the shatterer of worlds." Robert Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb, muttered these Hindu words after the initial successful test of the new weapon during the summer of 1945. Although Oppenheimer's scientific expertise produced the bomb, he grew increasingly uneasy over its application and destructive power. Oppenheimer became the first of a long line of antinuclear activists and scientists to protest nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
In the early 1950s, the United States began testing an even more powerful nuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb, in Nevada and the islands of the South Pacific. This testing came in the wake of the cold war, a struggle for power and survival between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II. With the Soviet Union's development of its own atomic bomb in 1949, American policymakers became increasingly concerned that such a weapon could be aimed at the United States, and pressed for more powerful nuclear weapons. A thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the hydrogen bomb also showered huge amounts of radioactive elements, called fallout, into the atmosphere. This debris affected the entire globe, falling with precipitation, and entering the food chain when absorbed by plants and eaten by animals like cows and humans.
As concern mounted, citizens formed groups to protest. In 1957 the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) began pressing for a halt to weapons testing, with the help of prominent Americans like publisher Norman Cousins and child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock. Women also played an important role in this early antinuclear activism. Alarmed by prospective dangers to their children, a group called Women Strike for Peace (WSP) organized a nationwide protest against nuclear testing and radiation on November 1, 1961. In New York City, for example, WSP supporters marched outside the United Nations building. Antinuclear activists continued to pressure politicians, resulting in the 1962 ratification of the American-Soviet treaty banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, space, and underwater.
The late 1960s through 1980s saw a shift in the antinuclear movement toward protesting the development of nuclear power as an energy source. Although the government, through the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), had advocated for peaceful uses of nuclear power since the development of the atomic bomb, little impetus existed for new energy sources. With the energy crisis of the 1970s and increased public awareness of the environmental problems engendered by fossil fuels, the government pressed forward with the development of several nuclear power plants, ostensibly to reduce American dependence on oil and provide cheap sources of electricity.
Several citizens' groups emerged to confront nuclear power issues, raising concerns about adequate safety plans and the long-term effects of low-level radiation. Chief among these were the Clamshell Alliance and the Abalone Alliance. A coalition of New England activists formed the Clamshell Alliance in 1976. Using civil rights protest methods, it organized the sit-in of thousands at the Seabrook power plant in New Hampshire, beginning in August 1976 and continuing through early 1977. The Abalone Alliance mobilized pacifists and environmental activists in a protest against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California. More citizens joined these types of organizations after the 1978 release of The China Syndrome, a film depicting a near-disaster at a nuclear power plant. A real accident, strangely similar to the event presented in the film, occurred the following year at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania and caused the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes out of fear of radioactive contamination. A far more destructive nuclear power plant accident occurred in the Ukraine in 1986 at Chernobyl. In this catastrophe, radioactive waste spewed from a reactor explosion, and over 130,000 people were forced to leave the area. The contamination greatly increased many of their chances of developing cancer.
The antinuclear movement succeeded in virtually halting the governments' development of nuclear power, and also influenced further nuclear weapons reductions, especially as the Cold War began to wind down by the late 1980s. Government officials, however, continued to search for ways to deal with the problem of the radioactive waste produced by the nuclear power plants. Despite citizen concern in the 1990s over the inherent dangers of transporting nuclear waste, over the summer of 2002, President George W. Bush authorized the development of a site at Yucca Mountain, a hundred miles outside of Las Vegas, to store nuclear waste. Scheduled to open in 2010, the Yucca Mountain site will store, in one place, waste that is currently scattered around the country. Also during the 1990s, increased information about radiation's health hazards led to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, which attempted to compensate some of the cancer victims of 1950s nuclear testing.
Renewed concerns about nuclear power plants have also surfaced in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. With rumors of possible terrorist attacks on nuclear power stations, access to plans and information has become more limited. The Yucca Mountain Web site, for example, removed the plans for its facility in the hopes of preventing terrorist attacks.
see also Activism; Industry; Politics; Public Participation; Radioactive Fallout; Radioactive Waste.
divine, robert. (1978). blowing on the wind: the nuclear test ban debate, 1954–1960. new york: oxford university press.
price, jerome. (1990). the anti-nuclear movement. twayne's social movements series. revised edition. boston: twayne publishers.
nuclear regulatory commission web site. available from http://www.nrc.gov.
yucca mountain project web site. available from http://www.ymp.gov.
sierra club, nuclear waste issues. available from http://www.sierraclub.org/nuclearwaste.
Elizabeth D. Blum