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Daniel Pope

Nuclear power in the United States has had an uneven history and faces an uncertain future. Promising in the 1950s electricity “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power has failed to come close to that goal, although it has carved out approximately a 20 percent share of American electrical output. Two decades after World War II, General Electric and Westinghouse offered electric utilities completed “turnkey” plants at a fixed cost, hoping these “loss leaders” would create a demand for further projects. During the 1970s the industry boomed, but it also brought forth a large-scale protest movement. Since then, partly because of that movement and because of the drama of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, nuclear power has plateaued, with only one reactor completed since 1995. Several factors account for the failed promise of nuclear energy. Civilian power has never fully shaken its military ancestry or its connotations of weaponry and warfare. American reactor designs borrowed from nuclear submarines. Concerns about weapons proliferation stymied industry hopes for breeder reactors that would produce plutonium as a byproduct. Federal regulatory agencies dealing with civilian nuclear energy also have military roles. Those connections have provided some advantages to the industry, but they have also generated fears. Not surprisingly, the “anti-nukes” movement of the 1970s and 1980s was closely bound to movements for peace and disarmament. The industry’s disappointments must also be understood in a wider energy context. Nuclear grew rapidly in the late 1960s and 1970s as domestic petroleum output shrank and environmental objections to coal came to the fore. At the same time, however, slowing economic growth and an emphasis on energy efficiency reduced demand for new power output. In the 21st century, new reactor designs and the perils of fossil-fuel-caused global warming have once again raised hopes for nuclear, but natural gas and renewables now compete favorably against new nuclear projects. Economic factors have been the main reason that nuclear has stalled in the last forty years. Highly capital intensive, nuclear projects have all too often taken too long to build and cost far more than initially forecast. The lack of standard plant designs, the need for expensive safety and security measures, and the inherent complexity of nuclear technology have all contributed to nuclear power’s inability to make its case on cost persuasively. Nevertheless, nuclear power may survive and even thrive if the nation commits to curtailing fossil fuel use or if, as the Trump administration proposes, it opts for subsidies to keep reactors operating.


The development of military arms harnessing nuclear energy for mass destruction has inspired continual efforts to control them. Since 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa acquired control over these powerful weapons, though Pretoria dismantled its small cache in 1989 and Russia inherited the Soviet arsenal in 1996. Throughout this period, Washington sought to limit its nuclear forces in tandem with those of Moscow, prevent new states from fielding them, discourage their military use, and even permit their eventual abolition. Scholars disagree about what explains the United States’ distinct approach to nuclear arms control. The history of U.S. nuclear policy treats intellectual theories and cultural attitudes alongside technical advances and strategic implications. The central debate is one of structure versus agency: whether the weapons’ sheer power, or historical actors’ attitudes toward that power, drove nuclear arms control. Among those who emphasize political responsibility, there are two further disagreements: (1) the relative influence of domestic protest, culture, and politics; and (2) whether U.S. nuclear arms control aimed first at securing the peace by regulating global nuclear forces or at bolstering American influence in the world. The intensity of nuclear arms control efforts tended to rise or fall with the likelihood of nuclear war. Harry Truman’s faith in the country’s monopoly on nuclear weapons caused him to sabotage early initiatives, while Dwight Eisenhower’s belief in nuclear deterrence led in a similar direction. Fears of a U.S.-Soviet thermonuclear exchange mounted in the late 1950s, stoked by atmospheric nuclear testing and widespread radioactive fallout, which stirred protest movements and diplomatic initiatives. The spread of nuclear weapons to new states motivated U.S. presidents (John Kennedy in the vanguard) to mount a concerted campaign against “proliferation,” climaxing with the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Richard Nixon was exceptional. His reasons for signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Moscow in 1972 were strategic: to buttress the country’s geopolitical position as U.S. armed forces withdrew from Southeast Asia. The rise of protest movements and Soviet economic difficulties after Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office brought about two more landmark U.S.-Soviet accords—the 1987 Intermediate Ballistic Missile Treaty (INF) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)—the first occasions on which the superpowers eliminated nuclear weapons through treaty. The country’s attention swung to proliferation after the Soviet collapse in December 1991, as failed states, regional disputes, and non-state actors grew more prominent. Although controversies over Iraq, North Korea, and Iran’s nuclear programs have since erupted, Washington and Moscow continued to reduce their arsenals and refine their nuclear doctrines even as President Barack Obama proclaimed his support for a nuclear-free world.