Published in


MAP Case Study: US Anti-Nuclear Movement


The following is adapted from Bill Moyer’s book (Doing Democracy) and essay. They are edited together for easier reference and relatability.

Movement Action Plan: Theory/Analysis

Bill Moyer (1933–2002) has been an organizer, writer, trainer, and strategist with social movements for over 25 years. He was staff with MLK Jr. and the SCLC’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign, director of the AFSC’s Chicago open housing program, national nonviolence trainer, and co-founder of the Movement For a New Society and its Philadelphia Life Center. He was involved in movements against intervention in Central America, nonviolent blockades of arms shipments to Bangladesh (1971) and Vietnam (1972), support for the AIM Indians occupying a trading post in Wounded Knee (1973), and a nuclear power plant blockade at Seabrook, New Hampshire (1977). Bill was the National Project Coordinator of the Social Movement Empowerment Project until his passing.

Movement Analysis by Joshua Kahn Russell of Wildfire & Ruckus Society; Graph from Movement Net Lab

The Eight Stages of the Movement Action Plan


How to Organize the Simpsons

Stage One: Normal Times (1940s-1960s)

The USA launched the nuclear weapons era in the 1940s to fulfill its new role as the dominant world power. This was followed within a few years by the nuclear energy era. Although it was given lots of media hype as the “peaceful atom,” there was virtually no public discussion and debate regarding the merits of the new energy policy. The public heard only the official policy that nuclear energy was a modern miracle which would provide clean, safe, and unlimited electricity that was too cheap to meter.

The operative policy was that the full government apparatus had to provide massive financial, legal, and developmental support to make nuclear energy possible. At the same time, all the information that nuclear energy was actually dangerous, expensive, unnecessary, and finite, was suppressed. The public was not told about the nuclear accident at Detroit’s Fermi reactor in 1966, for instance, which was similar to the later accident at Three Mile Island.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was the official governmental watchdog agency assigned to look after the public’s welfare. Instead, it promoted nuclear energy at all costs, overriding laws, rules, and safety.

A national consensus supported the powerholders’ dreams of a glowing nuclear energy future. Nuclear energy was not a public issue on society’s agenda.

Nevertheless, local opposition managed to stop some of the more outrageous plans, such as nuclear dumping in Cape Cod and a nuclear reactor in Queens. A ballot referendum even stopped a nuclear plant in Eugene, Oregon.

Stage Two: Prove Institutional Failure (1970-1974)

The nuclear energy era moved rapidly in the early 1970s. There were more than 25 new reactor orders each year. By the end of 1974, the number of operating reactors grew to 52, and the total number of reactors operating, ordered, and under construction leapt to 260. It seemed that the nuclear era was well on its way to achieving the government’s goal of 1,000 operating plants by the year 2000.

Public consensus supported the nuclear era’s official policies and objectives. The problems regarding nuclear energy were kept out of the public spotlight.

Though still relatively small and unnoticed, independent grassroots groups of local citizens challenged the building of reactors in long and laborious AEC licensing hearings, held both locally and on Capitol Hill. While these efforts were essentially futile, they proved that the AEC hearings were a “kangaroo court.” They documented the overwhelming negative aspects of nuclear energy, and they made experts out of local citizens. Hearings were held at local reactor sites. Statewide citizen initiatives were held. Although most of these initiatives lost by a 2:1 margin, they served to educate the public and build opposition.

Stage Three: Ripening Conditions: (1975-1976)

Tens of millions of citizens learned that they had become personally susceptible to the costs and dangers of nuclear energy because they lived within 50 miles of a new reactor. Local grassroots groups grew in size and number, increasingly frustrated as the AEC repeatedly violated its own rules and ignored reasonable citizen concerns in its support of nuclear energy.

The movement organized statewide referenda in 1976, and although they lost in seven out of eight states, the process again served to educate the public and to raise public debate. The Missouri referenda won by a 2:1 margin. This was a severe blow to the nuclear industry because it ended the state CWIP law, which allowed utilities to collect the costs for building reactors from ratepayers in their monthly electric bills. The movement then began getting these laws changed in most states, thereby undercutting the major means by which utilities were going to pay to build the hundreds of new reactors.

The temporary success of the occupation of the Whyl, Germany, nuclear plant site by 25,000 citizens modeled an inspiring nonviolent resistance. In the Spring of 1976, the AEC local hearing decided to license the Seabrook, New Hampshire, nuclear plant construction plans, ignoring the overwhelming legal arguments against it. A few weeks later, inspired by Whyl, Clamshell Alliance held the first civil disobedience occupation of a US nuclear plant. Clamshell announced it would organize another blockade next Spring

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 also made anti-war activists and networks available for a new movement.

Little noticed by either the movement or the public, there were only six new orders and over 20 cancellations of reactors already on order, dropping the total number of plants operating and under construction from 260 to 237. The government halved its planned number of operating reactors for the year 2000, to just 500. Still, the government and electric utility industry continued their operative policies of publicizing the glories of reactors, and in these two years 10 new operating reactors brought the total number of “deployed” reactors to 62.

Stage Four: Take Off (1977–1978)

Opposition to nuclear power turned into a social movement in the Spring of 1977. The arrest and jailing for two weeks of 1,414 Clamshell Alliance protesters blockading the Seabrook nuclear power construction site triggered worldwide media spotlight for weeks. Support demonstrations sprung up across the country while the protesters were still in jail. National media interviewed the jailed protesters daily, providing them with a platform for educating the public and becoming recognized as legitimate. By the end of the year, the Seabrook action inspired the formation of new local anti-nuclear groups and similar blockade actions across the country.

By 1978, local and state referenda went against nuclear energy in a number of places. Kern County, California, reversed the 2:1 vote of 1976, rejecting the planned Wasco nuclear plant. New Hampshire voted against CWIP and voted out pro-nuclear, anti-Clamshell incumbent Governor Thompson. Public opinion rose to about 50% against nuclear energy.

The nuclear industry appeared to be advancing nicely, as the number of operating plants rose to 71. The powerholders took a hard line in support of nuclear energy, warned of future blackouts and a weakened America, and attacked the new movement as violent, naive, and anti-American.

But there were no new nuclear reactor orders, and 21 reactors already under construction were cancelled, drastically reducing the total number of reactors operating or under construction to 195.

Stage Five: Perceived Failure (1978–1979)
Many activists believed that their movement was ineffective and dying. Not one reactor was permanently stopped by nonviolent blockades, and attendance at demonstrations dropped rather than increasing exponentially as was believed to be necessary. They did not consider their successes important, that in two years: nuclear energy was put in the public spotlight and on society’s agenda, a majority of the public questioned nuclear energy, the public was being educated, and they had created a new nationwide grassroots-based social movement.

These activists chiefly saw that reactors continued to be built and started up. They discounted that there were no new reactor orders, dozens of plant cancellations, and rapidly dropping number of nuclear reactors being built and on order. They judged that their movement was losing because it had not yet won, not by how many they were winning over.

Many activists, feeling powerless and despondent, burned out and dropped out. Others, still believing in the romantic myth that the nuclear energy era was to be stopped by forceful resistance, started “militant” groups such as the Coalition for Direct Actions. This strategy died, though, after several years.

Many of these activists joined demonstrations during later re-trigger events, such as the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, and most soon joined the Nuclear Freeze or non-intervention movements when they achieved take-off stage in the early 1980s.

Stage Six: Majority Public Support (1979-1992)

From 1979 to 1987, public opinion against nuclear energy rose. 78% of US Americans oppose building more reactors, and many local and state officials fought against starting up even completed local reactors and proposed waste sites. Similar majorities existed in Europe, where 50% of citizens favor shutting down operating plants.

The nuclear industry continued in sharp decline. Although the number of licensed reactors had increased to 98, the total number of reactors operating and under construction dropped from 195 to 123. There were no effective new orders for 14 years, and over 100 reactors orders cancelled — even ones that were 50% complete.

The secrets of the powerholders’ operative policies are now known by many. Nuclear energy is outrageously expensive, dangerous, and unnecessary. It is tied to nuclear weapons. Trigger events such as the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents also spurred opposition.

If the trend of no new orders and reactor cancellations continues, nuclear energy will die out this century as existing reactors come to the end of their 25-year life expectancy.

The federal government, both political parties, and the nuclear industry still promoted nuclear energy and wanted hundreds of operating reactors by the year 2000. The federal bureaucracy, for example, subsidized nuclear energy through tax breaks and outlays amounting to $56 billion in 1984 alone. Also, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tried to drop its rule requiring local government involvement in establishing emergency evacuation plans as a prerequisite for reactor licensing. This was in response to communities’ preventing the licensing of the completed Shoreham and Seabrook reactors by refusing to be part of the evacuation plans.

The pro-nuclear strategy is to streamline licensing nuclear into one easy step, develop new light-water reactors, respond positively to new accidents, develop a social and political consensus through propaganda, bail out threatened reactors, open waste sites, deregulate the utilities, develop space weapons that use lots of nuclear reactors, and regionalize electrical production to get around state controls.

The anti-nuclear strategy is to educate the public, respond to new trigger events with demonstrations and education, and counter the pro-nuclear strategies of saving the nuclear industry by opposing rate hikes, bailouts, rule changes, and so on.

The movement is advocating the soft-energy path of conservation, cogeneration, and solar power to replace the hard-energy path. Much of the movement’s efforts are now being waged by mainstream organizations and local groups, such as the courts, state utilities, legislation, referenda, and electoral politics.

Stage Seven: Success (1993+)
If present trends continue, nuclear energy will end slowly by prolonged decline of attrition this century. This will require continuous movement a powerholders’ against attempts to revive the industry. The central powerholders will continue to promote nuclear energy until nuclear energy becomes completely untenable economically or political.

Nuclear energy could also come to a showdown ending as the result of a major nuclear accident or other trigger event.

Both of these success options require that the general populace understands and accepts an alternative means for meeting the nation’s electrical energy needs. By that time, the movement must have educated and convinced the populace that the nation can switch to the soft energy paradigm.

Stage Eight: Continuing the Struggle
The movement will have to continue its vigilance and opposition indefinitely into the future, opposing the barrage of central powerholder efforts to revive the nuclear energy era, until there is a total social and political consensus for cancelling nuclear energy and switching to a soft energy path.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Pierce Delahunt

Pierce Delahunt

Social Emotional Leftist: If our Love & Light movements do not address systemic injustice, they are neither of those things