Since the dawn of the Atomic Age, nuclear activities polarized opinion. The splitting the atom also split the scientific community between the scientists who were awed by the power of fission, and those who were horrified by its military potential. Seeing science as a more noble activity than war, scientists typically lean towards pacifism and are appalled by military applications of their work. Horrified from the money armies paid him for his invention of dynamite, Alfred Nobel was motivated to donate it to fund prizes for peace and science. A Soviet scientist, Kurchatov was both proud to create the hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union, he simultaneously despised it as a weapon.

This profound horror of war and nuclear weaponry has shaken a tiny number of scientists to the core. A handful were so zealous that they have taken on a crusader mentality, and myopically only accept what reinforces their beliefs. Driven by a deep fear of nuclear danger, some scientists compromised their scientific integrity and exaggerate, distort or invent dangers to motivate the public to fight against this horror. This abhorrence is so deep that some falsify data or publish manipulated results in order to discourage any use of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The motivation is to create horror of all things nuclear. Though nuclear weapons are a clear danger, some make the allegation that nuclear power is an equally intolerable technology. Dr. Ernest Sternglass and Hermann Muller were driven and determined to deter all nuclear technologies, and believed that publishing distortions was justified in the pursuit of this goal. A number of prominent anti-nuclear advocates have been scientists and doctors, particularly epidemiologists and toxicologists such as Dr. Janette Sherman. Focusing on the toxicity of radiation, they campaign against it without weighing radiation risks against air pollution dangers.

Very early on, the lines of the debate were drawn around the dangers of low-level radiation. The debate centered on nuclear testing and fallout since there was no nuclear power industry. Opposition to nuclear testing was non-existent but gradually grew to become a powerful, cohesive movement. There was considerable dispute over whether the small exposure to fallout from nuclear testing was able to cause cancer and health problems. The concept of “fallout” was not well known but gradually became assimilated into general knowledge. In 1955, polls showed that 1/6th of Americans could explain what fallout was, but that increased by 1961 to 50% among the general public and to 80% among college-educated.

At the time, reactions to nuclear weapons were strongly linked to feelings about the Cold War, and attitudes towards communism and liberalism. In 1952, an American survey asked whether it was “fair” to use atomic bombs, and found that conservative Republicans were moderately in favor, and liberal Democrats were moderately opposed. During the Cold War, left-right divides paralleled dove vs hawk attitudes to the Soviet bloc and to war in general. Alignment about nuclear power dovetailed other issues, such as the immediacy of threats to the United States and attitudes to authority. Among the right wing, being pacifist or left-wing was sometimes seen as being a Communist sympathizer. The Cold War was partly fought via propaganda, as the United States and Soviet Union tried to demonize each other. Since the United States introduced nuclear weapons, the Soviets attacked this position as warmongering. The Soviet Union and their allies created the World Peace Council to call for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Though the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, they portrayed this as being forced on them by the American possession of nuclear weapons. The World Peace Council advanced Soviet interests by putting forward peace initiatives they knew would not be accepted but would embarrass the United States. The Soviet Union tried to retain a moral high ground by claiming they were the promoter of peace. In 1958, the Soviet Union put forward an announcement they would cease all tests, as the Supreme Soviet said testing meant “the poisoning of human organisms.” It was not long before they resumed testing.

Anti-nuclear activism moved from international diplomacy to grassroots activism and became a powerful and enduring movement. Political opposition and uncertainty blocked the development of nuclear power far more than economic considerations. Anti-nuclear movements vary in strength from country to country, yet are almost non-existent in some countries. Politicians of various hues represent the anti-nuclear movement, though opposition to nuclear power sometimes cuts across party lines when a politician feels motivated by local or personal concerns. Nuclear opponents tend to be younger and have less income than supporters. The anti-nuclear movement was energized by a youth movement against authority and elites, a movement that valued anything natural as inherently preferable to something artificial. Hostility to elites could translate into hostility to nuclear power, as nuclear power was only understood, administered and controlled by powerful elite groups. Furthermore, their perceived association with the military made them an integral part of the ‘military-industrial complex’ and worthy of opposition. A general distrust of government grew over decades, but the roots of this distrust extend over a longer period of time, across a broad range of countries. The uncertainty among the public about who to trust has grown in tandem with a phenomenon called “the decline of deference.” There is a growing tendency to be skeptical of the assertions made by elites. Statements made by industry, government and science are not accepted uncritically. What emerges is the importance over trust in elites and attitudes towards authority, as the key factor that seems to shape how people feel about nuclear power.

Public knowledge of nuclear power is low with 50% incorrectly believing the factoid that nuclear power causes acid rain. This factoid has spread more widely than the most well-known fact, that nuclear power is fueled by uranium (31%), and only 13% knew radiation came from both natural and artificial sources. Nuclear power supporters often try to portray anti-nuclear opponents as lacking education yet there are no sharp differences in education levels between supporters and opponents. There are highly educated people on both sides, though many highly educated people have little knowledge about nuclear power. The pro-nuclear side feels if the public better understood how beneficial nuclear power is they would support it, and the anti-nuclear side equally believes if people knew more about it they would oppose it.