There is a growing expert consensus that scaling up nuclear energy is a promising path to creating a global energy system that supports high universal living standards and yields meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially critical in emerging markets, where almost all (about 95 percent) of the increase in the world’s energy demand through 2035 will originate.
Consistent with this need for abundant energy, a mini-renaissance has taken place of planned nuclear power plants across emerging markets. As of this writing, more than 30 “nuclear newcomer” countries have devised concrete plans to develop nuclear capacity in the next decade, and over 20 more have expressed serious interest in the technology.
A socially sustainable future for nuclear power in emerging markets will require successful public engagement. The history of international anti-nuclear movements attests to the importance of gaining public trust and furnishes plentiful instances of organized opposition contributing to the closure of nuclear plants and projects. Indeed, activism has played a significant role in the decision of many OECD countries to abandon their plans to deploy nuclear energy.
Despite their documented influence, anti-nuclear movements have been infrequently studied in a systematic way, and most of what is known centers on historical activism in the high-in- come countries. Overall, this research demonstrates how Western anti-nuclear sentiment was a part of broader social movements and ideologies. Anti-nuclear activists — especially national anti-nuclear campaigners —believed that nuclear power represented a failure of democracy and an unacceptable concentration of power among government, industry, and science.
However, little research has been undertaken on contemporary anti-nuclear activism in emerg- ing markets, and what exists is notably fragmented. The existing research consistently finds that anti-nuclear movements in emerging markets have played a significant role in constraining the growth of nuclear energy. In particular, researchers have found that local, grassroots opposition in emerging markets has been pivotal in almost every single case in which anti-nuclear groups have successfully lobbied for a project to be postponed or abandoned. Although multinational anti-nuclear NGOs may be involved in and even seed local activism, the role of local, community- led opposition cannot be overstated.
To date, no attempt has been made to comprehensively document the concerns motivating contemporary anti-nuclear activism in emerging markets. Given this important gap in the literature, we undertook research that drew on peer-reviewed academic papers, media reports, and semi-structured interviews with anti-nuclear activists in emerging markets and those familiar with them.
Our research was motivated by the following question: Does contemporary anti-nuclear activism in emerging markets mirror the ideological opposition among historical anti-nuclear movements in the high-income countries, or is opposition based more on the interests of local communities?
We found that, on the whole, anti-nuclear activism in emerging markets does not in fact spring from opposition to nuclear power per se — that is, opposition based on ideological grounds or firm beliefs about the unacceptable dangers of the technology. Rather, activism is shaped by local socioeconomic realities and national political cultures. In particular, we found that opposition is fueled by fears about new nuclear plants’ impact on local livelihoods, perceived lack of economic benefit to local communities, and concerns about governmental corruption.
Arguably, then, the closest parallel for anti-nuclear activism in emerging markets is opposition to other large infrastructure projects, including transportation and other energy infrastructure. Opposition to nuclear plants, in other words, has more in common with opposition to, say, new airports and hydroelectric dams than it does with historical anti-nuclear activism in the high-income countries. We believe this finding offers reason for guarded optimism that support for nuclear power can grow in emerging markets.
However, governments and other stakeholders must take concrete actions to improve transparency, deepen community engagement, and better understand and address — rather than ignoring or overpowering — activists’ concerns. To this end, we offer a general framework and illustrative list of initiatives for effective engagement with local communities.