The threat of a nuclear crisis in Japan has summoned pro- and anti-nuclear power debaters to the streets (over 200,000 Germans across the country participated in anti-nuclear protests last week), and to online outlets (“nuclear power” showed up in over 76 millions websites last week, compared to 1.87 million websites during the same period last year). Several countries, including Germany and China, have suspended plans for nuclear power expansion.

There is a striking amount of variation among countries in the use of nuclear power for electricity, and this variation does not simply map onto differences in resources and technological training: for example, France has 58 nuclear power plants while Germany has 17.

Status of Commercial Nuclear Power Plants Globally, data updated May 2009

The factors accounting for this variation are abundant, and enough to fill several volumes. One interesting variable, the indications of which have seen in Germany, is the presence and relative success of anti-nuclear social movements across countries. Various scholars (e.g. Samuel Walker in his book on the Three Mile Island crisis) have suggested that these movements have been important in shaping nuclear policy (for a more comprehensive account of how social movements effect policy across issues and countries, see Marco Giugni’s book, Social Protest and Policy Change; he argues that political opportunity structures, public opinion, and issue type shape the impact of a social movement on policy outcomes). So, why are Germans particularly organized against nuclear power at this moment? Why do we not see similar protests in the U.S., where there are over five times as many nuclear power plants?

First, some background on the use of nuclear power globally. As of January 2011, there were 442 nuclear power reactors in the world, almost one fourth of them in the United States, the largest consumer of nuclear energy in the world. Based on 2005 data, the U.S., Japan, and France accounted for 56.5% of all nuclear power used internationally (measured in terawatt hours). Nuclear power provides about 75% of electricity in France (a figure topped only by Lithuania, which derives over 76% of its electricity from nuclear, according to I.A.E.A. figures in 2010), and about 20% of electricity in the U.S. in 2009 . In contrast, there are only 6 nuclear power plants across all of Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

The anti-nuclear movement, unlike other types of social movements, has the feature of being periodically reinvigorated around extreme, potentially cataclysmic disasters such as at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In explaining the presence and success of anti-nuclear movements, a number of analysts have pointed to the importance of political opportunity in shaping the nature and success of those movements. Political opportunity (or political opportunity structure) theory has provided a central framework for understanding social movements broadly. This approach argues that the nature of social movements (e.g. what kinds of claims are made, what types of relationships between people or organizations are forged, what tactics are utilized) and the impact of a movement on policy depend on features of the political environment (e.g. the extent of state capacity, or the relative distribution of power in a political system) in which people are mobilizing.

Christian Joppke (in his book, Mobilizing against Nuclear Energy) argues that part of the difference between anti-nuclear social movements in the U.S. and Germany can be attributed to the political structure of the countries. The multi-level and fragmented nature of the U.S. political structure allows for new issues to arise, but often dilutes their strength, while in Germany, an exclusionary state structure facilitated a more unified movement. Koopmans and Duyvendak (1995) compare responses to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, where Germany was the only country with a substantial increase in the number of anti-nuclear protest events. They argue that the objective conditions (how much radiation the countries received after the disaster) had no bearing on anti-nuclear mobilization in the countries. Instead, the state of anti-nuclear movements and the political landscape in those countries at the time, in addition to the ability to control interpretation of events, drove differences in the response to Chernobyl. The authors conclude that political opportunities– especially the distribution of political power– determined the degree of success of anti-nuclear movements in the 1960s and 1970s, which influenced later movement mobilization.

The social movements literature reminds us of all the intermediary steps between complaints and successful mobilization to address those complaints. Political opportunity structure and control over the interpretation of recent events in Japan may be most important in determining what shape anti-nuclear protests in the U.S. take now.


Read more about political opportunity explanations of social movements in the Blackwell Companion to Social  Movements here.