Making the World Safe for Coal

The History of the Antinuclear Movement

The following is an excerpt from Nuclear 2.0: Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, Mark Lynas’s most recent Kindle ebook, available now on Amazon.

The antinuclear movement

A dispassionate examination of nuclear power yields no a priori reasons why environmentalists should be against it; quite the opposite in fact. Indeed until the early 1970s many established green groups were cautiously in favor of this burgeoning clean energy source: the Sierra Club, for example, embraced nuclear power in California as a better alternative to flooding scenic valleys for hydroelectric power. But something later turned this lukewarm support from the environmental movement into implacable multi-decadal hatred.

We could speculate endlessly about what this was. The historian Spencer Weart, in his magisterial work The Rise of Nuclear Fear (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this area), suggests that opposition to nuclear reactors may have been a kind of psychological displacement effect, where suppressed fear of nuclear missiles found expression in activism against neighborhood reactors. Certainly many of the lifelong antinuclear power activists started out as antinuclear missiles activists, such as Helen Caldicott and Barry Commoner – moving seamlessly from campaigning about radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests to trying to ban nuclear power. As Weart writes about Caldicott: “When she moved to the United States [in 1977] and found nobody there interested in bombs any longer, she began to fight reactors. Entire organizations took the same path.”

The idea of the ‘China Syndrome’ – that a nuclear reactor faced with loss of cooling could somehow eject enough radioactive material to sterilize a huge area – was first promoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a green group originally founded at East Coast universities, and helped win the UCS national recognition and a host more members. Many people wrongly thought (and still do think) that a nuclear reactor can explode like a nuclear bomb, and the idea of a ‘nuclear explosion’ causing similar levels of devastation whether from a reactor or a weapon was a psychologically powerful one, however physically implausible it might be in reality. The heart of this opposition came from nuclear fear, specifically fear of radiation, as an invisible, cancer-causing ‘poison’ which could harm – so it was claimed – millions of people through the operation of nuclear power.

Early environmentalists thought that radioactivity was somehow uniquely dangerous and polluting. E.F. Schumacher wrote in 1973 that radiation was “the most serious agent of pollution of the environment and the greatest threat to man’s survival on Earth.” As the Clamshell Alliance, formed to oppose the construction of the Seabrook nuclear station in New Hampshire, wrote in its 1976 founding declaration: “Nuclear power poses a mortal threat to people and the environment.” A later ‘Declaration of Nuclear Resistance’ adopted in 1977 stated: “Our [antinuclear] stand is in defense of the health, safety, and general well-being of ourselves and of future generations of all life on this planet.”

Against this background, the Sierra Club’s initial refusal to campaign against California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant could not possibly continue: in a top-level bust-up which nearly destroyed the Sierra Club, executive director David Brower resigned in 1969 and went on to found Friends of the Earth as a ‘properly’ antinuclear environmental group. By 1974 the Sierra Club had abandoned any attempt to carve an independent path: its board of directors duly fell into line with the new antinuclear orthodoxy, and the organization has held to it ever since.

One of the most widely read antinuclear books of the time was The New Tyranny: How Nuclear Power Enslaves Us, published by the Austrian journalist Robert Jungk in 1977. Jungk used his personal history as an anti-Nazi resistance campaigner during the Second World War to draw moralistic parallels between Nazism and nuclear power. He speculated that nuclear scientists secretly dreamed of creating an “improved race of human beings who can tolerate huge doses of radiation”, and devoted a whole chapter entitled ‘Citizens Under Guard’ to the “ominous role nuclear power could play in converting a democratic nation into a totalitarian atomic state”. Jungk later stood as presidential candidate for the Austrian Green Party, and helped to instil a loathing of nuclear power which is still widely held in both Austria and Germany today.

Conspiratorial thinking about nuclear power was also rampant in the United States, where activists believed that power company executives would stop at nothing to contaminate and poison the population in the name of utility profits, fictional scenarios acted out in Hollywood movies like The China Syndrome and Silkwood. The extraordinary coincidence between the release of The China Syndrome and the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979 led to a national panic: few in the media or general public were prepared to believe ‘official’ reassurances about safety and containment – even though they later turned out to largely be true. (Only a tiny release of radiation took place at TMI, far too small to cause any health effects in the surrounding population.)

On one occasion, opposition to nuclear power did spill over into outright violence: on the night of 18 January 1982, five RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades (apparently sourced from Germany’s murderous Red Army Faction) were fired across the Rhone river in France at the unfinished containment dome of the Superphenix fast reactor, where earlier mass protests involving thousands had left dozens injured and one person dead. The perpetrator Chaim Nissim – who remained anonymous for two decades – later became a Green Party MP in Switzerland, and today works as a member of a Swiss think-tank promoting renewable energy. To date this episode is still the only terrorist attack to have been carried out against a civil nuclear installation in the world.

A world safe for coal

The success of the antinuclear movement in the 1970s guaranteed an increased use of coal for decades to come, as proposed nuclear plants across the Western world were cancelled and replaced by coal plants. There are countless stories with specific examples; one of my favorites is of the Austrian plant at Zwentendorf, a mid-size nuclear station. It was fully completed and then closed down in 1978 before it could generate a single watt after antinuclear activists narrowly won a nationwide referendum. Today, although Austria has 60 percent hydropower, it still burns coal and oil for a third of its electricity: had Zwentendorf and the other proposed nuclear plants been allowed to run by the nascent Greens, Austrians might have enjoyed carbon-neutral electricity for the past 35 years.

The Zwentendorf story has an irresistible coda: in 2009 it was ‘converted’ into a solar power plant. At the opening ceremony, backed by enormous Greenpeace banners declaring ‘Energy Revolution – Climate Solution’ and featuring Hollywood celebrities like Andie MacDowell, 1,000 new solar photovoltaic panels were inaugurated, having been installed at a cost of 1.2 million euros. “From radioactive beams to sunbeams – a global symbol for environmentally friendly and sustainable energy for the requirements of the future,” said the website. A quick look at the numbers tells a different story, however: average output from the solar panels will be 20.5 kilowatts (enough to run 12 hairdryers, according to one wag) whereas the 692 megawatts it would have generated as a nuclear station would have lit up Vienna.1

One can chuckle at that kind of foolish hype, but less amusing is the history of Ireland’s proposed Carnshore reactors, which were cancelled after protests, rallies, and concerts were organized by antinuclear groups in the mid-1970s. A large coal plant was built instead, at Moneypoint in County Clare. Moneypoint’s two chimneys, as well as being among Ireland’s tallest constructions, are now the largest single point source of CO2 emissions in the entire country. Some of Ireland’s electricity even comes from the only source worse than coal: peat. Peat is not only more CO2-intensive than coal, but is based on the shameful industrial strip-mining of large areas of fragile and biologically irreplaceable raised peat bog.

In Spain nearly 40 nuclear plants were proposed in the 1970s, but a strong antinuclear movement succeeded in forcing a national moratorium in 1984 and only 10 were ever built. Spain today has 18 coal power plants, supplying a fifth of its power. In Australia, perhaps the most coal-dependent country in the world (despite its abundance of both solar potential and uranium deposits) nuclear power is technically illegal, thanks to a thriving antinuclear lobby and a senate vote in 1998. Australia’s per-capita carbon dioxide emissions as a result are about 18 tonnes (20 tons), higher even than America’s, with coal supplying 85 percent of domestic power.

In some places, half-built nuclear plants were converted directly to coal: an example was the William H. Zimmer plant in Ohio, whose containment building was converted to house a coal boiler instead of a reactor following protests and cost overruns in 1984. As the nuclear historian Spencer Weart writes, “Ever since the price of oil spiked in the late 1970s, wherever people refused to build more reactors almost every new electrical plant had been a coal burner”. Each time this happened, determined antinuclear coalitions of thousands of environmentally-concerned citizens melted away overnight once the embattled utility had agreed to change its proposed plant from nuclear to coal.

Allens Creek, Texas; Bellefonte, Alabama; Cherokee, South Carolina; Erie, Ohio; Hartsville, Tennessee; Satsop, Washington… the full list of canceled US nuclear plants can be viewed on Wikipedia. At Shoreham in Long Island a nuclear plant was fully built, as at Zwentendorf in Austria, and then was immediately shut down due to enormous public opposition, much of it paid for and fanned by the efforts of diesel fuel delivery companies. Today it is a mausoleum – but had it been allowed to operate it would have helped make New York a carbon-neutral city for the last three decades. I calculate the total capacity of all the cancelled nuclear plants to be about 140 gigawatts; roughly half the entire current installed coal capacity in the US.2 More than 1,000 nuclear plants were originally proposed; had they all been built, the US would now be running an entirely carbon-free electricity system.

In the United States during the heyday of the antinuclear movement between 1972 and 1984, coal consumption by US utilities doubled from 351 million to 664 million tons.3 Although it is often claimed by greens that their antinuclear activities were less important than the 1970s oil shocks and economic slowdown in forcing the cancellation of planned nuclear plants, during the period 1972 to 1984 the US added 170 GW of fossil-fuelled capacity to its electricity grid,4 and consumed 74 percent more coal-fired electricity,5 hardly indicative of a major reversal in the growth of overall energy consumption. Certainly, the snowballing cost of nuclear plants was a major factor, but a significant proportion of those costs were being imposed by an ever-expanding nuclear regulatory burden, which slowed or stopped development of new plants and spent fuel repositories – even more than environmental activism did. Nevertheless, constant objection by vocal antis generated increasing political risk and nuisance lawsuits and thus caused years of delays.

That is not to say that the antinuclear activists liked coal. They said they wanted solar power, and the famous ‘nuclear power no thanks’ logo of course sported a smiling sun symbol. But just as they were spectacularly successful in stopping the growth of nuclear power, they were spectacularly unsuccessful in promoting the use of solar as an alternative. By 1984 the use of solar had risen from functionally zero to 0.002 percent of US electricity generation.6 The history of the antinuclear movement is therefore not lit by sunshine, but shrouded in coal smoke.

Mark Lynas is an environmental writer based in the United Kingdom. He is author of The God Species and winner of the 2012 Breakthrough Paradigm Award.

Photo Credit:

1. See for the links to German translations for the numbers.

2. This currently stands at about 310 GW. See Table 8.11c Electric Net Summer Capacity: Electric Power Sector by Plant Type, 1989-2011, from

3. Table 7.3 Coal Consumption by Sector, 1949-2011, from

4. EIA statistics are not disaggregated into coal and other fossil fuels until 1989. See Table 8.11a Electric Net Summer Capacity: Total (All Sectors), 1949-2011, from

5. Increase from 771 TWh/year to 1341 TWh/yr. See Table 8.2b Electricity Net Generation: Electric Power Sector, 1949-2011 from

6. See Table 8.2b Electricity Net Generation: Electric Power Sector, 1949-2011 from This gives a total solar generation of 5.248 TWh in 1984; total electricity generation was 329.788 TWh in that year.