American Anti-Nuclear Activism in the 1970s

Lena Hong
June 1, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1:Anti-nuclear protest outside the AEC's Las Vegas Office (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Anti-nuclear protests grew out of the environmental movement and peaked in the 1970s and across political landscapes of the United States (See Fig. 1). The bulk of nuclear plants that were ordered in the late 1960s raised safety concerns and induced public fears of a possible reactor incident that would release a great amount of radioactivity into the environment. In the 1970s, the U.S. continued to maintain a program of ardent nuclear weapons testing. Between 1945 and 1992, a total of 1,054 nuclear tests and two nuclear attacks were conducted. Even after the acceptance of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1962, nuclear weapon testing continued underground and became more prominent. Toward the end of 1970s, the growth of environmental anti-nuclear activism coexisted with anti-war activism--prominent since the 1960s--that opposed nuclear weapons. Nuclear power proponents shared the view of the spokesman for the New England Power Company who said that "there is no more connection between nuclear power and the bombing of Hiroshima than there is between electricity and the electric chair," attempting to alleviate the anti-nuclear activists' concerns. However, such comments and attitude provoked the activists even more as the poor analogy failed to address the basic issues the anti-nuclear movement were trying to tackle: the possibility, of catastrophic accidents, the facilitation of nuclear weapons due to the spread of nuclear technology, the increased likeability of war due to increased numbers and kinds of nuclear weapons, and the negligence of renewable and abundant energy sources such as the sun, earth hear, wind and vegetation. [1]

The initial nuclear weapons program yielded higher costs than expected. The competition with the Soviet Union put more pressure on U.S. federal officials to "develop a civilian nuclear power industry that could help justify the government's considerable expenditures." The government encouraged many private corporations to build nuclear reactors which led to accidents at several experimental reactions and research facilities. In order to persuade private companies to participate, the Price-Anderson Act was introduced which "shields nuclear utilities, vendors and suppliers against liability claims in the event of a catastrophic accident by imposing an upper limit on private sector liability." [2] It was not before long that this protection of a potentially dangerous technology provoked environmentalists and anti-war activists. By the early 1970s, anti-nuclear activism had been dominated with concerns about safety and the criticism of the public policies that address very little for these concerns. Beginning with local level organizations, anti-nuclear power became a national interest by the mid-1970s with the rise of groups such as the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Critical Mass. [2]

The bomb tests of the 1950s in Nevada aroused great public interest in nuclear tests. Peace and environmental groups even tracked down military personnels. However, victims of nuclear tests gone wrong were not protected in any way. A Philadelphia judge ruled that the government had no obligation to warn all the servicemen of the possible side effects of the tests, and rejected an ex-serviceman's lawsuit of his radiation exposure causing birth defects of his children. [3] Eventually, Congressional pressure caused the Veterans Administration to provide additional death and disability benefits, but it was still too late for a lot of people. [4]

Another major area of environmental concern was nuclear waste management. The lack of a sustainable waste management facility became a large issue. When the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was split into two agencies in 1974, the management of the commercial nuclear power industry was under the hands of the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), while the production and research was done under the Energy Research and Development Authority (ERDA) which later became the Department of Energy (DOE). As the NRC operated as an independent agency, the commercial nuclear power industry operated independent of technical support, which eventually led to a conflict of interest and thus an unstable system of nuclear waste management. [5] In 1976, the California Energy Commission announced not to approve nuclear plants further unless the utilities could specify fuel and waste disposal costs and by late 1970s, over thirty states had passed regulation legislation dealing with nuclear waste. [2]

The Three Mile Island accident which was a partial nuclear meltdown that occurred in March 1979 was a turning point for anti-nuclear activists for it gave "some credence to the warnings and fears of nuclear power opponents." It shut down the nuclear power proponents' argument about how the activists' were misinformed and exaggerating. [1]

© Lena Hong. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. M. Davidson, "The U.S. Anti-Nuclear Movement," B. Atom. Sci. 35, No. 10, 45 (1979).

[2] J. Byrne and S. M. Hoffman, Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk (Transaction Publishers, 1995).

[3] "Ex-Soldier Gains in Lawsuit Against U.S. Over Radiation," New York Times, 22 Oct 81.

[4] S. V. Panangala, D. T. Shedd, and U. Moulta-Ali, "Veterans Affairs: Presumptive Service Connection and Disability Compensation," Congressional Research Service, R41405, November 2014.

[5] A. Buck, "A History of the Energy Research and Development Administration," U.S. Department of Energy, March 1982).