Ideology, altruism, and money: a brief history of the anti-nuclear movement

The White House is apparently set to eliminate the position of Director for Nuclear Energy Policy at the National Security Council. The civilian nuclear energy establishment in the U.S., as represented by some lobby groups and the technical society, are alarmed over this, and have sent letters to the National Security Adviser and Secretary of Commerce urging them to reconsider. I was at first tempted to think that it’s about time they got rid of a position whose existence serves only to reinforce the urban legend, so rooted in facile pop culture, that there is a connection between making electricity with nuclear energy and making nuclear weapons. There is no such connection, and there never has been.

The problem is, the position exists precisely to counter the myth, and cutting it will only further reinforce the mythical connection. This is because, without civilian industry representation during talks over, say, a civil nuclear agreement between the U.S. and South Korea, the professional handwringers in the antiproliferation bureaucracy in the U.S. will go unopposed in their determined effort to kill any and every such deal with hyper-scrutiny. That bureaucracy is as anti-nuclear as Greenpeace, and for the same reason: both have realized there is more money being anti-nuke than pro.

There are historical reasons for this. In the early nuclear age, in the west, being anti-nuclear meant being anti-bomb. For many who had survived the Second World War—the worst conflict in history, bloodier even than the First World War—this was an easy and understandable moral position to take. In reality, however, it was a highly problematic position, which required believing that

  1. The atomic attacks on Japan were the worst thing that happened in the war.
  2. Because the U.S. suffered virtually no home front destruction, and prospered after the war, it was guilty of starting it.
  3. Because the USSR suffered the worst destruction among the victors, its actions before, during, and after the war are blameless.

None of these beliefs was, or is, anywhere close to reflecting historical accuracy. The first requires the believer to either ignore the tens of millions of non-nuclear killings that occurred prior to August 1945, or to relegate them to a lesser rung on the ladder of atrocity. It also requires the believer to ignore the conduct of Imperial Japan during the war, which in the scale and depth of brutality in occupied China and Korea matched that of the Nazis in the USSR.

The second two beliefs are simple non sequiturs, which perhaps explains their popularity and persistence. 

But all three of these beliefs have figured prominently, from their inception to the present day, in what you might call the “socialist democratic” political worldview. When you sound out the opinions of western socialist democrats on the issue of the bomb and the Second World War, you can predict with confidence that they will articulate some version of one or all of the above three beliefs.

With some exceptions, the peace movement that emerged in the early postwar embodied these beliefs. It is the tragedy of mankind that the revulsion prompted by such a terrible event as the Second World War would mar people’s subsequent understanding of how and why it started, leaving them worse, not better, equipped to evaluate the policies of their governments, and in the case of the western democracies, participate in influencing the formation of those policies. Peace activists’ uncritical acceptance of the above three beliefs simply paved the way for the early takeover of the peace movement by pro-Soviet partisans who turned the movement into an instrument of Soviet foreign policy, working to slow, through public moral pressure, U.S.—but not Soviet—nuclear weapons development. 1 Their supporters in the western peace movement, whether they were aware of this or not, loyally toed the tendentious anti-Bomb line. Many of these loyalists paid a heavy personal price—in destroyed reputations, alienation from the non-communist peace movement, lifelong marginalization from legitimate political activity in which they might have had a real and productive influence in their own country, and ruptured relationships with friends and family members—when their benefactors’ true motives became clear. Their benefactors likely could not have cared less about this. Exploiting then disposing of useful idiots—their term—had long been standard operating procedure; that practice ended only with Mikhail Gorbachev’s public acknowledgement, in 1990, that the USSR, and not Nazi Germany as the Soviets had claimed, was responsible for the Katyn Forest massacre.2

Mainstream socialist democratic parties, like Canada’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the forerunner of today’s New Democratic Party) distanced themselves from the overtly communist-led peace movement, but could not and did not prevent the three beliefs from becoming features of their worldview. The beliefs made it easy for these parties to take an adversarial position on civilian nuclear energy, which had followed so hard upon the scientific and engineering breakthroughs that produced the atomic bomb that many conflated the two. There is, to my knowledge, not a single such party in any western democracy that does not hold at least one of those views today. This explains why all, virtually without exception, oppose civilian nuclear energy.

And because all have attempted with varying degrees of success to capture the environmental constituency, which itself grew out of the anti-Bomb movement, they remain anti-nuclear today. All mainstream environmentalist organizations oppose civilian nuclear energy. The ones that, like Greenpeace, started off anti-Bomb already had mailing lists of donors by the time civilian nuclear energy came into being. The simpleminded conflation of bombs with electrical watts kept the moralistic outrage high and donations flowing in. Those groups are as addicted to donations as their donors are to penance-through-payment.3

The energy behind the ban-the-Bomb outrage was, as mentioned above, tenuous from the beginning. It evaporated altogether with the demise of the Soviet Union. With that demise came a major agreement that resulted in the greatest beating of swords into ploughshares in all of history: the United States-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, a.k.a. Megatons to Megawatts, which turned thousands of Russian missile warheads into nuclear reactor fuel, which in turn, for a couple of decades, made about one-tenth of the electricity running through American grids. You would think that such a turn of events would be a cause for great celebration among anti-Bomb activists. You would be wrong. The anti-Bomb movement ignored Megatons to Megawatts; after a great amount of searching I have found exactly one mention of this agreement by an alleged anti-Bomb activist. That mention was on this blog, in a comment on an article I wrote about Operation Dismantle, a Canadian disarmament group for which I had volunteered in the 1980s.4

The U.S. bureaucratic opposition to civilian nuclear energy grew out of efforts to protect intellectual property in the early atomic age. Atomic secrets were regarded as exclusive to the U.S., in spite of the fact that many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were not American. As I have mentioned before this effort was an immediate and spectacular failure: within less than two decades of the Japan bombings five countries—three allies and two enemies of the U.S.—had successfully tested bombs more or less directly based on the Nagasaki design. However, the significance of this fact was not acknowledged then, and it still is not today. A government bureaucracy was created, therefore, in the early days of the nuclear age, with the express purpose of preventing nuclear secrets from leaking out. Because of the difficulties the Manhattan Project scientists and engineers had had producing plutonium and separating uranium isotopes (the critical problems that must be solved in any serious bomb effort), the early bureaucrats, and all bureaucrats since, assumed nobody else in any other country could possibly figure out how to separate uranium isotopes or make plutonium.

On this basis they felt that it was crucial to prevent others from getting U.S. secrets in that area. And because plutonium, and separated uranium, are present in most civilian nuclear energy programs, it was felt then (as it is today) that the mere presence of those materials in civilian nuclear energy is in and of itself a proliferation risk. Therefore, huge effort is expended within this bureaucracy in rooting out all manner of imaginary dangers inherent in this reactor or that medical isotope.

Few people acknowledge that all weapons programs since 1945 were developed in secret, and separate from civilian nuclear programs, and that for all the effort and handwringing not a single one of these bureaucrats has ever spotted a weapons program in any country before it was announced in the press. If these things were acknowledged, those holding the purse strings might wonder if the money spent keeping the bureaucracy afloat might be better spent in another government program, or not spent at all. Like mainstream environmental groups, bureaucracies are addicted to money.

That bureaucracy survives today, and its (appointed) leaders tend to reflect the prevailing views of the elected politicians who appoint them. It is not a stretch to say the current executive branch in the United States government is run by people of the western socialist democratic political stripe. Whatever the Administration’s view is on any or all of the three beliefs above, its position on civilian nuclear energy is squarely within that of the party it represents.5 So it is also not a stretch to say the Administration actually takes the bureaucracy seriously.

This is likely what is behind the move to cut the position of Director for Nuclear Energy Policy at the National Security Council. The person holding that position is likely to hear a lot of inconvenient truths about civilian nuclear energy. The civilian industry is too polite and politically circumspect to baldly state just how cockamamie are the central tenets on which the antiproliferation bureaucracy is organized and funded. Regardless of how diplomatically this case is put, the bosses of the person holding the position don’t want to hear these truths.

  1. The real purpose of the movement’s Soviet sponsors was less to rid the world of atomic bombs than to slow U.S. technological progress in order to help the Soviets catch up to the U.S. in bomb technology. The obvious pro-USSR sentiments of the World Peace Council, the most prominent formal organization in the early international peace movement, were why Bertrand Russell, in July 1958, withdrew his support from the WPC, and thereafter disavowed its public statements. See Lawrence Wittner, Resisting the Bomb, Stanford 1997, p. 93.
  2. For decades, the Soviets and their supporters and sympathizers in the west claimed that the Nazis were responsible for the massacre of some 15,000 Polish officers and citizens in 1940, in spite of overwhelming evidence that the Soviet NKVD was in fact guilty.
  3. The psychology of penance-through-payment has kept a lot of organizations afloat through the ages. Offering quick and easy penance-through-payment, by fanning the flames of moral outrage, is Greenpeace’s business model. This organization can and should be viewed as a multinational outrage generation machine, in a co-dependent marriage of convenience with affluent and pathologically guilt-ridden donors.
  4. As you can see, the author of the comment finds no joy in the permanent removal of many tons of bomb explosive from the face of the earth, something he co-founded an activist organization to achieve. Instead he segues instantly over to the new anti-nuke meme: the alleged danger posed by the waste products of nuclear power.
  5. The Administration has been forceful in stating its desire to rid the world of nuclear explosives, like plutonium. However, its absolute lack of interest in funding a facility to turn 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium, scavenged from the pits of thousands of ballistic missiles in the U.S. fleet, into clean, inexpensive, carbon-free electricity—thereby literally ridding the world of it forever—is evidence that the desire is more energetically stated than acted on.
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Jim Baerg
7 years ago

Isn’t there another reason for the ‘left’ to be anti-nuclear power?
The Soviet Union & later Russia has received a lot of income from selling natural gas to western Europe, a source of income that would be reduced by European countries operating nuclear plants.

7 years ago

Good article, only it super-intellectualizes the anti-civilian nuke issue. Today’s car buyers aren’t influenced by the plight of the Corvair or the Edsel. They are influenced by auto Ads TODAY. Nuclear energy’s bad name IS recoverable IF the nuclear community/industry takes the same track that fossils have expertly mastered promoting themselves even over catastrophes such as DeepWater Horizon and other deadly oil/gas refinery incidents that have occasionally wiped out whole neighborhoods. We are past the point in nuclear energy where you just can’t blame the antis for nuclear’s plight if you took zero measures to defend or promote yourself or educate the public in fighting FUD. Antis are just naturally filling a void where nuclear Ads and education long should’ve been. Just can’t get simpler than Darwin.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

7 years ago

Fossil Fuel has more money than there are stars in the universe.

That’s the difference between the nuke industry and them.

The Nuclear industry can’t finance one of those “Happy families and flowers” propaganda ads fossil fuel puts on millions of TV screens in America.

7 years ago

This ignores the founding of Friends of the Earth in 1969 with a single-minded anti-nuclear power mandate. The term renewable energy is first seen in print in 1971. Early 1970s is also the time the club of Rome, “limits to growth”, and widespread fears of the “population explosion”. Not just coincidences. Today, Neo-Malthusians continue to dominate the movement against plentiful energy.

Jim Baerg
7 years ago
Reply to  Mark Pawelek

Click on the name of the founder & funder to see where he got his money.

Malcolm Montgomery
7 years ago

For Immediate Release May 26, 2016.
MP Cheryl Gallant Hosts Environmental Presentation
Ottawa, Ontario… Cheryl Gallant, MP Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, was pleased to host Dr. Peter Ottensmeyer, (Professor Emeritus, Department of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto), and Dr. John Hilborn, (PhD Nuclear Physics, McGill University, Reactor Physicist, AECL, 1954-1991) for a presentation on Parliament Hill about the benefits of re-cycling used fuel from Canadian nuclear electricity power reactors.
“Parliamentarians were surprised to learn that less than one per cent of the energy available in a CANDU fuel bundle is used to generate electricity. The remaining 99.26% of energy is not used. It is time Canada changed direction by treating used CANDU fuel as a resource,” observed MP Cheryl Gallant. “CNL at Chalk River has a positive role to play to demonstrate the practicality of re-cycling. It would be good for consumers who are tired of paying ever-increasing electricity bills and it would be good for the environment. The current plan to bury used nuclear fuel in Deep Geological Repositories (DGRs) is like sticking one’s head in the sand. Radioactive material will still exist.”
“The technology behind fuel re-cycling has existed since the 1950’s through the use of Fast-Neutron Reactors (FNRs). One of the questions that came up during the presentation was why we had not gone in this direction in the first place. It is so logical in hindsight that fuel cycling through fast-neutron reactors should have been pursued on land, with inefficient water-cooled reactors requiring no oxygen to function being quite logical in submarines and on large ocean-going vessels.”
“What is really exciting about this proposal to re-cycle used fuel from a Canadian CANDU Nuclear electricity reactor using a FNR, is the rather short time required (a few decades) to actually eliminate the long-term (400,000-year) concern of our used CANDU fuel, when you bury it with over 99% of the energy not used. Re-cycling reduces the environmental hazard.”
“Canada needs to change its focus from burying this $75 trillion resource to recycling it to produce large amounts of non-carbon electricity for our transport, industry and residential sectors. Non-carbon FNR electricity from eliminating nuclear “waste” would be reliable, affordable, predictable, and as a “load-following” technology could even replace gas-fired generation.”
“It’s all good, for the economy and for climate mitigation, and does not require additional taxes or levies to start such a self-propagating process. Over $ 9 billion (and rising to $ 20 billion) has already been put in trust towards nuclear waste management using an unnecessary, unproven and unprovable Deep Geological Repositories, Those funds should be redirected into profitable nuclear waste management by recycling through Fast-Neutron Reactors, concluded Cheryl Gallant, MP.”
For more information contact MP Cheryl Gallant at 613-732-4404