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Technology and Culture 42.1 (2001) 141-143

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Book Review

Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978

Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978. By Thomas R. Wellock. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Pp. xii+333. $19.95.

Thomas Wellock's Critical Masses is the latest salvo in a controversy over resistance to civilian nuclear power in the United States. Social scientists and historians have been debating a number of questions for which there is conflicting evidence, and one of the contentious issues concerns the reasons why the United States nuclear industry declined only two decades after its birth. According to some parties to the debate, it was because banks and other financial institutions withdrew the enormous resources necessary to [End Page 141] bankroll new plant construction. Others suggest that state and federal regulators made decisions so unfavorable to the industry that ultimately its further expansion became impossible. Yet another explanation is that localities became increasingly unwilling to host nuclear plants after being made aware of the myriad risks and costs. Wellock focuses, instead, on the central role of the antinuclear movement and its political and scientific allies in raising critical questions about nuclear technology and safety, and in resisting new facilities.

A former nuclear engineer, now a historian at Central Washington University, Wellock traces the history of the antinuclear movement in California, a crucial front in the battles over atomic power. His main thesis is that an evolving coalition of local activists, critical scientists, and sympathetic politicians changed regulatory policy by aiding and abetting the values underlying what Harry Boyte has called "the backyard revolution" of the 1970s: the populist revolt against technocratic and centralized power in the United States.

Wellock is careful to stress that many of the problems bedeviling civilian nuclear power--unwarranted technological optimism, poor management, volatile demand for energy, competing reactor designs--were wounds self-inflicted before the mobilization of the antinuclear movement. But the movement gave concrete form and clear voice to the "postmaterialist" values (in Ronald Inglehart's term) that contributed to the social changes--distrust of experts, skepticism about risky technologies, greater emphasis on the quality of life--that led to the decline of nuclear power in the United States.

The antinuclear movement emerged from the tumult of late 1960s and early 1970s opposition to the war in Southeast Asia and environmental destruction at home. Nuclear power came to symbolize much of what was wrong with "the establishment": too big, too inaccessible, too arcane and technocratic, positively dangerous. To oppose nuclear power was to strike a blow for the little guy, and for local neighborhoods and ecosystems, against absentee utility executives and faceless bureaucrats. Activists were able to make good use of voter referenda, legislative and executive lobbying, and savvy media campaigns. Wellock believes that the California movement's greatest accomplishment was to embed its postmaterialist values into the very structure of the state government during the Jerry Brown administration, and he thus confirms the findings of Theda Skopol and other "institutionalists" about the importance of state actors in fostering social change.

My technical quibble with the book concerns its lack of a bibliography. My main substantive criticism concerns its nearly total innocence of social-movement theory. Key concepts like framing, coalition building, and consensus mobilization might have served Wellock well, and saved him from the assertion that "the antinuclear movement vanished in the early eighties" (p. 15). Rather than disappearing, anti-nuclear power activists joined [End Page 142] with other movements to rally against nuclear war, the arms race, and official support for murder in Central America. The campaign against expanding nuclear power having been won, these activists were able to move on to new concerns and bring their experience with them.

A lesser criticism is that Wellock relies on Samuel Hays's Beauty, Health, and Permanence (1987) for background on the environmental movement. He also cites Robert Gottlieb's Forcing the Spring (1993), but never confronts the very different theses of these two books. Critical Masses is nonetheless an excellent study...


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