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Nuclear Energy in the Public Sphere: Anti-Nuclear Movements vs. Industrial Lobbies in Spain (1962–1979)


This article examines the role of the Spanish Atomic Forum as the representative of the nuclear sector in the public arena during the golden years of the nuclear power industry from the 1960s to 1970s. It focuses on the public image concerns of the Spanish nuclear lobby and the subsequent information campaigns launched during the late 1970s to counteract demonstrations by the growing and heterogeneous anti-nuclear movement. The role of advocacy of nuclear energy by the Atomic Forum was similar to that in other countries, but the situation in Spain had some distinguishing features. Anti-nuclear protest in Spain peaked in 1978 paralleling the debates of a new National Energy Plan in Congress, whose first draft had envisaged a massive nuclearization of the country. We show how the approval of the Plan in July 1979, with a significant reduction in the nuclear energy component, was influenced by the anti-nuclear protest movements in Spain. Despite the efforts of the Spanish Atomic Forum to counter its message, the anti-nuclear movement was strengthened by reactions to the Three Mile Island accident in March 1979.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    “Political opportunity structures are comprised of specific configurations of resources, institutional arrangements, and historical precedents for social mobilization, which facilitate the development of protest movements in some instances and constrain them in others” (Kitschelt 1986: 58).

  2. 2.

    While we can find some similarities between the protests in Europe and the USA, Japan represents a particular case. The bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the severe seismic conditions and the Bikini incident produced a complex and conflictive scenario around nuclear energy in Japan. The anti-nuclear opposition in Japan has been widely discussed by several authors, who have described the different facets of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement. For instance, Akaha (1985: 75–89) reports the influence of the anti-nuclear movement in the parliamentary resolution that has guided Japanese nuclear policy since the late 1960s, known as the “three nonnuclear principles”; while Higuchi emphasizes the environmentalist origins of the Japanese anti-nuclear movements against the centrality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki within this activism (Higuchi 2008). Nevertheless, there is a wide consensus about the major importance of the movement against nuclear tests in the mid-1950s, and more than one-third of the Japan population had signed a petition to ban nuclear tests by the summer of 1955 (Yamazaki 2009: 132–145).

  3. 3.

    Political, economic and labor representatives worked together to rebuild the national industry complex, and they agreed in the creation of a new electric utility (Electricité de France) and the atomic energy commission, strongly supported by De Gaulle (Hetch 1996: 486–488).

  4. 4.

    Wyhl, a small village in the southwestern corner of Germany, was proposed in 1971 as a possible site for a nuclear power station. In the years that followed, the incipient local opposition had little impact on politicians and planners. Official permission for the plant was granted and earthworks began on February 17, 1975 (Patterson 1986: 113). Just the day after, local people spontaneously occupied the site and the police used force to remove them two days later, on February 20. Television coverage of the rough treatment of the local farmers by the police contributed to turn nuclear power into a major national issue (Fach and Grande 1992: 20). Subsequent support came from the university town of Freiburg, when about 30,000 people re-occupied the Wyhl site on February 23. The Wyhl occupation and the subsequent demonstration in Freiburg generated extensive debate in Germany and, on March 21, 1975 an administrative court withdrew the construction license for the plant (Rudig 1990: 130–135; Mills and Williams 1986: 375–376; Gottlieb 2005: 237). The plant was never built and the land eventually became a nature reserve. The importance of the Wyhl experience in encouraging the emergence of local and regional grassroots activism has been highlighted (Mills and Williams 1986: 375–376; Rudig 1990). The growing protest after the Whyl conflict has been described as a prelude to the “sudden death” of the nuclear program in the late 1970s (Fach and Grande 1992: 20–21). Anti-nuclear success at Wyhl also inspired nuclear opposition in the rest of Europe and North America (Patterson 1986: 113; Gottlieb 2005: 237; Rudig 1990: 130–135).

  5. 5.

    The members of the AIF and the insurance companies pointed out that the risks associated with fuel production, reprocessing and waste storage were as great in the long term as those associated with the reactors. See Damian (1992: 606).

  6. 6.

    The Chair of this Committee cited the article “The nukes are in hot water,” published in 1969 by Sports Illustrated, as the first indication of this change (Balogh 1991: 264).

  7. 7.

    As it was put by Frank Shants, special project manager of the New Hampshire Public Service Company: “Instead of trying to arouse the public for nuclear power, we should change course and try to arouse the public against the antinuclear groups …” (Davidon 1979: 46).

  8. 8.

    Spain began its own production of uranium on an industrial scale, becoming the third country in Europe, after United Kingdom and France, with a pilot chemical treatment plant (Caro et al. 1995: 50–56).

  9. 9.

    The Spanish case shows the propaganda facet of the Atoms for Peace program to perfection (Weart 1988: 162–165). In July 1955, the USA and Spain signed an agreement in Washington D.C. for cooperation “concerning civil uses of atomic energy.” The agreement made it clear that the USA effectively controlled nuclear matters in Spain through the AEC. It also pointed out that “private organizations in either the USA or Spain may deal directly with private individuals and private organizations in the other country” (Ordóñez and Sánchez-Ron 1996: 195–196).

  10. 10.

    The favorable climate of opinion in the Conference, as well as the estimations for the consumption of electricity in the sixties, pointed clearly to nuclear power as a solution, even when its economic viability remained controversial (Weart 1988: 158; Barca Salom 2005: 163–181).

  11. 11.

    This model was based on linking together certain economic sectors, including infrastructure construction, electrical and metallurgical materials, and financing [banks, insurance]. It also reinforced commercial relationships with the United States (and to a lesser extent with Germany and France), which strengthened the military and geo-strategic position of Spain in the Western world (Romero and Sánchez-Ron 2001: 201; De la Torre and Rubio 2014: 2–3).

  12. 12.

    Expression used by Brian Balogh for the Nuclear Program in the United States (Balogh 1991).

  13. 13.

    Hispano Francesa de Energía Nuclear, formed by three electrical companies from Catalonia (Fecsa, Enher and Hidroeléctrica de Cataluña) and Electricité de France (EDF) (Anes et al 2001:47).

  14. 14.

    In the Boletines Informativos of 1966, periodicals edited by the FAE during that year, there is a total lack of references to the incident (Fórum Atómico Español 1966a, b, c, d, e).

  15. 15.

    As reflected in periodicals published during 1976 and 1977, which started to express the increasing worries of the sector (Fórum Atómico Español 1976, 1977a, b).

  16. 16.

    The attendance figures vary according to different sources, but the response was massive: between 15,000 and 50,000 people (La Gaceta del Norte 1976b; López Romo and Lanero Táboas 2010: 760).

  17. 17.

    Property damage was assessed at several hundred million pesetas according to sources close to Iberduero (La Gaceta del Norte 1978c).

  18. 18.

    The survey was conducted among five leading experts of the Spanish energy sector. These experts were Alfonso Alvarez Miranda, president of FAE; Emilio Sanz Hurtado, manager of the oil company Petroliber and member of the Technical Commission of the Minister of Economy for the drafting of the NEP; Roberto Centeno, manager of the energy company Campsa and also member of the Technical Commission of the Minister of Economy; Juan Alegre Marcet, president of Unesa (Association of Spanish electric companies), and Julio Calleja González-Camino, president of Hispanoil (another oil company). The survey comprised two questions: 1. Do you support nuclear energy? 2. Would you nationalize the sector? To the first question, all five answers were “yes,” and in a categorical manner. For the second question, there was a more nuanced response, with 2 “yes” and 3 “no” (ABC 1978c).

  19. 19.

    The survey was carried out during January and February 1978 by the consulting agency AGEUROP (Fórum Atómico Español 1978a: 8–10).

  20. 20.

    From 1963 to 1979, the number of reactors under construction globally increased every year except in 1971 and 1978 (IAEA 2012). However, following this event, the number of reactors under construction in the US declined every year from 1980 to 1998. Many similar Babcock and Wilcox reactors on order were canceled. Eventually, 51 American nuclear reactors were canceled from 1980 to 1984 (EIA 1983).

  21. 21.

    As a result of post-oil-shock analysis and conclusions of overcapacity, many planned nuclear power plants had already been canceled between 1973 and 1979 due to more stringent Federal requirements, more strident local opposition and significantly lengthened construction times (Hertsgaard 1983: 95–97).


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Sánchez-Vázquez, L., Menéndez-Navarro, A. Nuclear Energy in the Public Sphere: Anti-Nuclear Movements vs. Industrial Lobbies in Spain (1962–1979). Minerva 53, 69–88 (2015).

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  • Nuclear industry
  • Anti-nuclear movement
  • Spanish Atomic Forum
  • Franco regime
  • Spain