Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Ian Welsh (2001) 'Anti-nuclear Movements: Failed Projects or Heralds of a Direct Action Milieu?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

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Received: 7/2/2001      Accepted: 30/11/2001      Published: 30/11/2001


This paper adopts a qualitative approach to argue that direct action social movements originating within the environmental and anti-nuclear milieu of the 1970s can be characterised by a process of capacity building. Capacity building adopts Melucci's argument that social movements are 'networks of networks'. The notion of capacity building is elaborated in terms of the mobilisation potential of movement actors and the diffusion of movement repertoires within the public sphere more generally. Empirically the paper draws on fieldwork covering 1970s / 1980s movement cross-overs in the UK and the conclusions are informed by recent ESRC sponsored work (R 000 22 3486) on the global 'anti-capitalist' movement.

Keywords: Anti-nuclear movements; Social movements; Capacity building; Networks; Qualitative approaches.


This paper revisits established approaches to anti- nuclear movements as a way of addressing key contemporary debates about social movements in an empirically informed manner. Empirically the paper draws on qualitative material gathered during a period of participant observation within the UK anti-nuclear movement between 1978 and 1980 and movement networks emerging from this 'node'[1]. Drawing on the work of Melucci (89, 1996) the paper develops a 'capacity building' approach to social movement. Capacity building emphasises the use of direct action repertoires by an increasingly diverse range social movement actors in an expanding number of sites (Welsh 2000). One consequence of capacity building is that social movement interventions are no longer primarily aimed at high prestige projects of modernity like nuclear power (Nelkin & Pollack 1982), but increasingly mundane technologies like the car (Welsh and McLeish 1996), social policy measures and the pricing of commodities (Bagguley 2000). The paper concludes by arguing that the 'movement society' postulated by Meyer and Tarrow (1998) is in effect arriving with major implications for formal politics and sociologically robust means of engagement with social movements.

The sociological importance of this work derives from the continuing efforts to find a conceptual vocabulary able to guide coherent analytical work within an increasingly diverse movement milieu operating in an increasingly global context (Castells 1997). A systematic review of this literature is beyond the scope of a single paper but the elements central the argument presented here can be formalized in the following manner. Existing conceptual vocabularies primarily address social movements as conflictual collective actors pursuing a grievance through the mobilisation of resources targeted at a national political opportunity structure (Tarrow 1994, Zald & McArthy 1987). One consequence of this is a tendency to analyse social movements in terms of their declared objectives with the 'anti-nuclear movement' and 'environmental movement' being prime examples of this tendency (Giddens 1990).

Resource mobilisation theory (RMT) and political opportunity structure (POS) approaches originated in America and pursue analytical concerns quite distinct from European social movement theory (Habermas 1981, Melucci 1989, 1996, Offe 1985, Touraine 1981,1983,1995). This distinction is widely addressed in terms of US work addressing 'how' questions relating to the means by which social movements advance particular grievances whilst European theorists address 'why' questions. American approaches thus tend to assume that any issue can become a movement focus given the deployment of the right resources whilst European writers emphasise the importance of social and cultural factors. Further, European approaches emphasise conflict over wider symbolic stakes, cultural reproduction as well as specific material stakes (esp. Melucci 1989).

Whilst attempts have been made to reconcile these approaches (Dianni 1992) it is argued here that it is important to maintain the distinction and recognise the primacy of cultural and symbolic stakes rather than focusing upon movement involvement within formal political agendas. One way to explore these widely acknowledged tensions is through a re- examination of one of the most extensively documented social movements from the 1970s, namely anti nuclear movements (Babin 1985, Bonanno, 1985, Flam 1994, Joppke 1993, Rudig 1990,1994, Touraine 1983, Welsh 2000). In particular, it is useful to revisit the issue of whether these movements succeeded or failed in their engagements with the state and nuclear industry in industrial societies. One established approach to this question involves the comparative analysis of nuclear movements 'success' in advancing their stance within the prevailing political opportunity structure of particular countries (Flam 1994). In these comparative terms, the UK anti- nuclear movement is generally regarded as a failure (Rudig 1994).

This paper argues that such analyses conflate the fate of a particular issue focus, representing the instrumental declaratory posture of a movement, with the fate of the underlying movement or movements. In other words, the identity of the engaged social movement is conflated with the domain of contestation (see Touraine's 1983). It is argued that Rudig's analysis of the 'anti nuclear movement' subsumes a heterogeneous direct action movement. Following from this it is argued that social movements are better regarded as a 'network of networks' (Melucci 1996) rather than discrete 'single issue entities'. A social movement is defined here as a network linking a number of quasi-autonomous groups and individuals through belief, values or common practices that engage in communication and exchange to negotiate a collective identity and opponent.

Failed Anti-nuclear Movements?

Rudig (1983,1990,1994), one of the most prominent analysts of British anti-nuclear movements and contributor to the comparative literature, describes the impact of the British anti-nuclear movement as 'negligible' compared to those of 'other countries' or 'the British peace movement' (Rudig 1994:70). This formulation illustrates the consequences of approaching an academic category, in this case 'the British anti-nuclear movement' as if it corresponds with an actual, undifferentiated collective actor (see Melucci 1989, 1996, Schmitt- Beck 1992). Rudig explains the weak showing of the British anti-nuclear movement through several key arguments that can be summarized in the following way. Compared to mainland Europe and the USA the 1970s British movement operated with:

  1. A lack of targets for opposition i.e. an absence of reactor construction starts.
  2. A sophisticated political state apparatus effective at issue management and legitimation rituals.
  3. A specific tradition of direct action lacking the confrontational dynamics and challenge to state power present on mainland Europe.
  4. A socio-economic structure lacking equivalents of key movement participants found on mainland Europe e.g. a residual peasantry.
  5. A centralised political opportunity structure offering limited 'portals of access' (Giddens 1990)

Rudig's argument is based on the limited UK experience of direct action against nuclear power that took place at Torness in Scotland between 1978 and 1980. This element of the Torness mobilization in particular is subject to severe criticism displaying a 'lack of confrontational tactics which even the most radical parts of the anti-nuclear movement contemplated' (Rudig 1994:81). In particular Rudig is critical of SCRAM, the main social movement organization (SMO) involved, for briefing the police on the intended direct action strategy and tactics asserting that this confined the impact to the symbolic level. The symbolic is effectively dismissed as having little material consequence in terms of the analysis of the conflict (ibid).

The anti nuclear movement's experiment with non-violent direct action thus appears as little more than a temporary foray into a mode of conflict that rapidly reaches the limits imposed by symbolic challenge. From this perspective direct action appears as a measure of last resort having exhausted all the available 'portals of access' available, serving to further undermine the anti-nuclear movement that is swept away by the second cold-war and the 'defensive' (Habermas 1981) movement response of a resurgent CND.

These are tendencies reproduced in a range of comparative studies addressing the ability of new social movement actors to progress a particular interest focus through existing political opportunity structures. Flam, for example, argues that new social movements ability to achieve success depends upon their ability to 'operate in state space' (Flam 1994). The idea of conflictual entities that breach the limits of the system and challenge primary codes of cultural and symbolic meaning operating within the state represents a major departure from European definitions of the classic new social movements of the 1970s (Offe 1985, Touraine 1983, Melucci 1989, 1996). Other comparative studies take the public declaratory posture of movements as reported in the mainstream press as an accurate representation of both a movement identity and purpose (Kreisi 1995). The argument presented here through a consideration of the British case reveals the limitations of such appraisals and thus has generic relevance to the field of social movements.

The UK Road to Direct Action

The post 1945, UK direct action milieu was shaped by CND. The most important elements here were the decisions to campaign purely against nuclear weapons, ignoring the systematic and substantive linkages between civilian and military nuclear cycles (Edwards and Durie 1980, Welsh 2000), and to confine the use of confrontational direct action to an elite constituted as the committee of one hundred (Parkin 1968, Skelhorn 1989). This limited the use of direct action to a small middle class group rendering it a special technique not widely disseminated even within the originating movement[2]. After first- wave CND non-violent direct action virtually disappeared from the public sphere within the UK until the mid to late 1970s when it re-emerged in the midst of the deepening public conflict over the putatively civilian uses of nuclear energy. This coincided with the rise of environmentalism and the prominent American social movement organizations (SMOs) Friends of the Earth (FOE) (Lamb 1996) and Greenpeace, which had roots in direct action against nuclear testing (Brown & May 1991).

In the UK, nuclear power engaged this environmental SMO sector giving rise to a number or specifically anti-nuclear groups. These included Lancaster Half Life; the Edinburgh based SCRAM as well as umbrella organizations such as Network for Nuclear Concern (NNC) and the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) based in the Netherlands. The UK movement milieu also included groups like the Political Ecology Research Group (PERG) specializing in the use of counter-expertise, underlining Yearley's point that environmentalism sui generis is not anti-science (Yearly 1991). These better known SMOs existed alongside a more diffuse range of groups advocating a range of direct action stances. These groups were both nuclear specific, like The Nuclear Reactor Vigilantes based in Somerset, and environmental, like London Greenpeace. Against a background of violent mass confrontations between protestors and riot police on mainland Europe (Nelkin & Pollack 1982) SMO anti-nuclear activity within the UK during the 1970s remained focussed upon the main 'portal of access' on offer, namely the public inquiry. The Windscale inquiry into the expansion of British Nuclear Fuel's operation through the commissioning of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) plant effectively absorbed activist's energies (Wynne 1982, Welsh 2000).

The release of the Parker Report, recommending that the THORP project be given the go-ahead, effectively split this coalition of environmental and anti-nuclear groups over the question of tactics and strategy. Whilst FOE continued to support constitutional means of opposing nuclear energy, pointing out the 'information gains' made at Windscale others, notably the editorial collective of The Ecologist and Peace News, began to call for direct action as the only remaining means to stop nuclear power. To FOE the adoption of direct action would completely undermine movement legitimacy and alienate public support and sympathy. Whilst direct action remained associated with violent clashes, such as those on mainland Europe, support for the tactic within movement networks remained limited. These mass actions had parallels in the USA where the form of direct action adopted resulted in less violent confrontations (Joppke 1993). The adoption of direct action against nuclear power in the UK emerged from a combination of specific historical conditions and interactions with, and perceptions of, European and American direct action repertoires. The crucial element here was the British portrayal of American direct action at Seabrook as successful (Welsh 2000:158-164). This 'mediated' (Thompson 1995) view ended movement reservations that mass direct action inevitably led to violence and reinforced the movements decentralist ethos.

The announcement of a new reactor at Torness, on the East Coast of Scotland south of Edinburgh, provided a concrete site around which direct action cohered. It is this direct action phase that Rudig in particular dismisses on the grounds of it's limited symbolic engagement with the conflict over nuclear power, the resultant failure to halt the technology, and it's failure to exert a 'precipitating effect' for local anti-nuclear opposition elsewhere' (Rudig 1990: 183).

Whilst the immediate instrumental aims and objectives of the wider anti-nuclear movement i.e. stopping nuclear power were not met the experiment with direct action neither ended at Torness nor failed in the longer term. Rather, Torness represented a particularly dense movement network node from which emerged a number of ongoing strands of engagement that had many intended and unintended consequences within the 'networks of networks' (Melucci 1996). Far from failing, the direct action movement produced a significant growth in the legitimacy and sophistication of repertoires of direct action, heightened public awareness of substantive issues associated with nuclear energy and increased participation in and support for direct action repertoires.

Anti-nuclear and / or Direct Action Movement?

Whilst FOE rejected direct action the Edinburgh based Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace (SCRAM), weary from participation in public inquiries, began to plan an occupation of the reactor site at Torness in 1977. This initiative coincided with an emergent direct action movement loosely organised around Peace News but with significant support within the 'alternative' or counter-cultural milieu. To this emergent movement nuclear power provided something to be non-violent about rather than a sole reason d'Ítre. The crucial point is that the direct action phase opened the anti-nuclear conflict to a more diverse constituency simultaneously broadening the movements, aims, objectives and aspirations. The anti-nuclear and environmental SMOs that shaped the anti-nuclear conflict could no longer exert the same degree of direction over a movement within which autonomy; non-hierarchical organizational forms and decentralization were central tenets. Numerous consequences flowed from the increasing hybridity of the anti-nuclear milieu. These ranged from the definition of knowledge domains challenging nuclear ambitions to the means by which such challenges were mounted.

Before demonstrating these points, I want to be clear that I am not arguing that there was a homogeneous, conflict free direct action movement within the anti-nuclear movement. Far from this, activist approaches towards direct action were as diverse in 1978 as they remained in the 1980s and 1990s and into this century. A principle divide here revolves around the definition of non-violence used. Pacifists and some feminists define non-violence as precluding harm to people and property whereas others define non-violence in terms of avoiding harm to people (see Sharpe 1973). Those defining non-violence purely in the latter sense included the Socialist Workers Party (who at the time supported nuclear power under workers control) and anarchist groups like London Greenpeace. In the eyes of such groups unless material damage was imposed upon the opponent to the conflict then no actual costs had been inflicted. This divide structured deeper disagreements about whether the means used to promote change within society had to be consistent with the desired end state or whether the ends justified the means. The key characteristics of the main actors engaged in the direct action at Torness are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Key Characteristics of the Networks of Networks at Torness
ActorPrimary FocusCompositionDecision
Torness Alliance
National Direct Action Coalition of autonomous local groups
Stop Torness by all Non-violent means necessary.400 groups inc. peace, anarchist, separatist, liberal, students, counter culture, SWP. Consensus
Affinity group
Peace News
Nonviolence Action
Resource Group
(NARG) National journal and resource group.
Promote and report non- violencePacifists -' young',
Global 'experts' via presence at Seabrook USA, Whyl Germany etc.
Full time Occupiers
Of reactor site cottage and founders of Dunbar Outreach Office. Full time activists
Stop Torness, live a non-violent life style (inc. non-sexist practices) Predominantly Women, children, few men, feminist. Consensus
National i.e. Scottish SMO
Stop nuclear power & Torness. Maintain SMO status.Circa 8 full time volunteer workers + membershipConsensus at public meeting

Direct Action and the Transformation of Discursive Challenge

The direct action phase had four quite distinct phases. An initial occupation of the designated reactor site with the permission of the landowner, a permanent occupation of a corner of the designated reactor site, the subsequent occupation of the enclosed reactor site and finally failed attempts to re-occupy a heavily policed site. Table 2 formalises these phases providing a choronology of key events within the relevant time line.

Table 2: Torness Time Line
DateEventMain Actors
1978 MayFirst Occupation of the Torness Point Reactor SiteSCRAM / Torness Alliance (TA) founded
1978 July & AugustNon-violent Direct Action Training Schools held by Peace and Conflict Research, LancasterPeace and Conflict Research Staff, Direct Action Trainers from Seabrook USA, UK nvda trainers, Peace News. Participants in May 1978 occupation at Torness from NW England, Nth Wales, SW England, Scotland.
1978 SeptemberHalf Moon Cottage Occupied by Torness Alliance MembersKey individuals from NVDA Summer Schools and members of TA
1978 NovemberHalf Moon Cottage bulldozed into North Sea following BBC Scotland Open Door broadcast. Mass Direct Action on reactor site mobilized using TA 'telephone tree'. Activists shift focus to Dunbar Campaign Office.SSEB, Contractors members of TA, Lothian & Borders Police.
Torness Alliance Groups, London Greenpeace, Socialist Workers Party, Anarchist, Pacifist, Environmental and Direct Action Groups.
1979 MayMass Direct Action on Torness Site Called, focusing on a festival site and mass occupation of construction site.Torness Alliance, SCRAM, London Greenpeace, Socialist Workers Party, Anarchist, Pacifist, Environmental and Direct Action groups.
1980 MayAttempted Third Occupation of Torness Point Reactor Site. Activists outnumbered by police. Torness Alliance, Anarchist and Direct Action Groups.
Selective Torness Time Line, sources, Patterson 1985, SCRAM Energy Bulletin Nos, 10 & 11, Safe Energy Nos. 86,87,100, Torness Alliance Newsletters, field notes.

The initial 1978 occupation took place on a festival site established by SCRAM. Those attending were grouped according to geographical region of origin in order to maximize local network building and solidarity. Whereas the UK nuclear debate had remained a predominantly technical one in the hands of the main environmental SMOs the festival site contained a range of discursive challenges reaching beyond the technical realm. Two in particular are worthy of note. First, there was the recognition that nuclear power had particular relevance for feminists (Nelkin 1981) due in part to its origins within patriarchal male science (Easlea 1983). Second, the link between the political rights of native peoples expropriated from their land by uranium mining or nuclear weapons tests was made explicit. This broadened the field of discursive contestation to include a range of non-technical issues of a moral, political, social and cultural nature.

This first phase resulted in 400 groups and individuals signing the 'Torness Declaration'. The Declaration committed signatories to 'all non- violent steps necessary to prevent the construction of a nuclear power station at Torness' (Torness Alliance 1979:4). Signatories received copies of the Torness Alliance Newsletter (TANL), providing a forum for debate on strategy, tactics and campaigning ideas. Compared to FOE's national response to the Parker Report, a march and rally in London that attracted around 10,000 people, the 4 - 5,000 attending Torness and the 400 signatures on the Declaration might be regarded as insignificant. This however, neglects the comparative network effect of each event.

The FOE rally effectively ended as people left Trafalgar Square where they had briefly gathered to hear speeches. The first Torness occupation created a relatively autonomous space prefiguring Bey's notion of a temporary autonomous zone or TAZ (Bey 1989). This TAZ however produced a comparatively durable network with a means of communication capable of negotiating meaning and constructing identity. In other words a much denser network multiplier effect flowed from Torness than from the FOE rally. This suggests that the preoccupation with the size of protest events as a barometer of meaning and significance within certain areas of the NSM literature require some caution if not revision (Kreisi et. al. 1995, Rootes 2000).

The Permanent Occupation - Network Density Building

The second phase of direct action began when a small number of activists establish a permanent presence at Torness with support from a local farmer and SCRAM. The mixed gender group including a number of small children began rebuilding a derelict cottage in the North East corner of the site in autumn 1978. The occupation became a focus for the wider Torness Alliance and groups from throughout the UK visited the site donating materials and labour. In this process the occupation and the occupiers became a particularly dense micro-node within the alliance / movement network. Visiting groups were diverse, ranging from Students Against Nuclear Energy (SANE), hybrid groups containing mixtures of FOE and anti-nuclear activists, anarchist groups to friends and acquaintances.

The intensity of interaction within such movement / network nodes is particularly dense producing particularly strong affinity, social bonding, definition of meaning and conflict. This particular network node was no exception resulting in particularly intense meanings and a variety of forms of interaction. These included proximate facework and textual forms producing a dense solidarisitc network with strong local and national links constitutive of an activist 'community' within which Torness informed the practices of local and regional groups[3]. In what follows, I am arguing that without a means of assessing the density of movement networks the act of mapping them is of limited value.

Dense networks have a potential and capacity to perform certain kinds of movement 'work' identified by Melucci. First, situated movement actors are media in their own right (Melucci 1996,Atton 1998,1999) and second they act as 'symbolic multipliers' in ways that enable them to 'declare the stakes' to wider elements of the surrounding society whilst declaring 'power visible' in the process. I am arguing three things in parallel here and it is important to keep them analytically separate. The first strand of argument is that the direct action phase did elevate the social awareness of a set of technical and expert arguments about nuclear power - the instrumental agenda. These included reactor safety, economic viability, low level radiation and waste disposal. Secondly, the direct action phase elevated the social awareness of issues relating to the practice of democracy by and within a technocratic society. Third, these democratic concerns became sedimented within a variety of 'communities' throughout the UK with significant implications for the state's ability to take and implement decision across a wide range of policy spheres. In other words in order to discern the diffuse power in movement ( Tarrow 1994) it is necessary to be embedded within the network of networks across a timeframe exceeding that associated with most studies (but see Lichterman 1996).

Local Actions as Symbolic Multipliers

The permanent occupation at Torness acted as a symbol multiplier for the Torness Alliance and SCRAM. The occupiers also played a role in reconstituting local community in the face of the apparently unstoppable 'juggernaut of modernity' (Giddens 1990). The most prominent symbolic multiplier was the broadcast of a BBC Scotland 'Open Door 'programme on the occupation. This produced 500 letters of support for the occupation and stimulated a round of self-referential media reproduction of the 'new' story. BBC Radio Scotland interviewed the Chairman of the South of Scotland Electricity Board who described the occupiers as 'anti-social', 'irresponsible' and a 'core of professional agitators' (SCRAM Energy Bulletin, 9,2). The local print media, where 'human interest' categories tend to dominate, also took up the story with The East Lothian Courier playing a prominent role. The SSEB chose not to tolerate this rising public profile and the symbolic resonance evoked by the occupation and had the restored cottage bulldozed into the North Sea. The occupation had produced a symbolic multiplier that the SSEB, a statutory undertaker with state support, could no longer tolerate. The Torness Alliance, SCRAM and the Lothian and Borders Anti-Nuclear Group responded immediately by calling a day of direct action intended to halt construction work on the site. The network density of the Torness Alliance resulted in several hundred members confronting workers, security personnel and police in an action that achieved it's immediate objective. A range of movement issues including the viability of decentralized, small, direct action groups confronting a large police and security presence were also raised. These internal movement issues are not what concern me here however, (see Welsh 2000) the important points relate to the local impacts of this direct action phase.

What is important is that the durable period of activist presence established a diverse range of social contacts with the local population within which there was a considerable transfer of 'techniques of self', repertoires of action and so on. In other words, elements of the social movement habitus (Bordieu 1986) were transmitted as transferable skills that were taken up within the community. Follow on interviews with two of the key permanent occupiers showed that even within the comparatively staid realm of local democracy the activist's actions had not gone without effect. Faced with a fiscal threat to close local leisure facilities elected councillors, had openly declared that any such action would be met by concerted direct action that would make recent events at Thornton Lock (the site of Torness) look like child's play. Whilst utterances such as this could be readily dismissed as mere rhetoric inspired by the heat of debate they also indicate an open recognition of the limits of representative democracy to preserve local interests. Such statements are also strongly suggestive of a willingness not to be bound by the identity of councilor and to adopt other identities when this was tactically necessary[4].

Such utterances are little public expressions of the willingness of elected members of a democratic polity to withdraw their allegiance to office in the face of a power that is perceived as monolithic. In this instance, the act of withdrawal is accompanied by a threat of conflictual action derived from a social movement. Such identity cross-overs were not confined to relatively high profile local figures such as councillors' but extended throughout the local community where they were expressed through groups such as Mothers Against Torness. There was in other words a significant change in the capacity of the local community in and around the town of Dunbar to both articulate and act in and for itself - to use a more recent idiom a process of empowerment had occurred. This is capacity building in two senses.

First, there is an enhanced local capacity to articulate and act for the local, but secondly there is also an increased public recognition of the importance and value of direct action within democratic society (Habermas 1985). By implication, there is also an increased public sense that the ability to undertake such action is something worth protecting. Some measure of the proximate impact of this wide range of affective social multipliers can be seen in The East Lothian Courier's 'plebiscite' on whether to proceed with Torness. Held in the summer of 1979 the poll found 90% opposed to any nuclear development in the area, 8% demanding further safety analysis and just 2% in favour of proceeding (SCRAM Energy Bulletin 12,1). The resultant call to abandon the station achieved some limited national media attention (The Guardian 5.7.79; 7.8.79, The Times, 24.1.80) but is perhaps most significant in terms of the transformation of local public opinion compared to the prevailing ethos of resigned inevitability at the public inquiry held in 1976.

This transformation in local public opinion about the desirability of nuclear power reflects the sustained presence of both the SMO SCRAM and a group of Torness Alliance activists engaged in a variety of direct action and community outreach activities. As public skepticism over the knowledge claims of the SSEB grew so did the sense that something had been imposed from the outside on far less clear cut grounds that those advanced at the public inquiry (Patterson 1985). This public scepticism was reinforced by the SSEB's destruction of Half Moon Cottage. Far from direct action destroying local support for the declaratory posture of SCRAM and the Torness Alliance, it was reinforced and amplified through a range of affective social relationships. In this process, the 'anti-nuclear' argument gathered social force that increasingly undermined local support for any form of nuclear development in the UK throughout the 1980s. Sociologically, durable, situated activist presence was one of the key factors in building this social force.

Terminating Torness: From Defence to Movement Diaspora?

Rudig considered that the direct action phase at Torness had 'no noticeable precipitating effect for local anti-nuclear opposition elsewhere' (Rudig 1990:183). The remainder of this paper questions this interpretation by tracing the network of networks that extended from Torness.

From 1980, elements of the Torness Alliance continued to attempt annual occupations but massive police numbers rendered the action futile. In an instrumental sense then, the campaign to 'Stop Torness' and the wider aim of brining an end to nuclear power did fail. However, in terms of the NVDA social movement the story is not so clear cut. Following Torness the movement placed decentralization at the heart of its strategy. The hundreds of local groups with regional networks, formed as part of the Torness Alliance, began to engage with the nuclear issue in a range of ways reflecting local conditions, national and international agendas. There were at least four elements of this diasporic spread.

The deepening cold war pushed nuclear weapons up the political agenda leading to resurgence in CND and the establishment of women's Peace Camps at Greenham Common. At the same time a new national SMO the Anti-Nuclear Campaign (ANC), opposing both nuclear weapons and nuclear power was launched. Consciously modelled on the 1970s Rock Against Racism, the ANC created a federalist regional structure with a national co-coordinating tier. Third, the ANC and Greenpeace both identified the practice of transporting nuclear waste to Windscale as a campaigning priority. In the dense urban fabric of the UK, this was virtually an inclusive 'local' issue affecting all the major urban conurbations. Finally, the announcement of new reactor construction projects produced new concrete sites of contestation in Northumberland and Cornwall. In each of these sites, the cultural capital accumulated at Torness was spread both by direct participation (discursive practice) of former Torness activists and their discursive expression within movement literature. The contribution of Torness to each of these post-failure diasporas illustrates the cumulative network multipliers originating from this particularly dense node.

New Reactors, New Opposition.

In December 1979 the Conservative government announced a programme of ten pressurized water reactors (PWRs). Earlier the same year the PWR at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania had held the world's attention when it suffered a partial core meltdown. The proposed sites included Druridge Bay in Northumberland at Druridge Bay and Nascuke and Luxullyan in Cornwall.

The social ecology of these localities could hardly be more divergent. As a county, Northumberland retains characteristics of both feudal and classic capitalism. Examples include the number of people living in 'tied' accommodation and the continuity in family lines constituting a capitalist class (Benwell Community Project 1978). At the time of the announcement, the county was the location of a major deep mined coalfield as well as significant opencast workings (Beynon et. al. 2000). Cornwall, by comparison, is a longstanding Celtic margin with a history of conflictual relations with London and ties with Breton nationalists. The agricultural economy of Cornwall lacks the estates of Northumberland. Tourism and fishing constitute major sources of income whilst tin mining continues to decline. The response to nuclear reactor proposals in each county took very different forms but had significant content in common.

In Cornwall direct action, including the occupation of the proposed site at Luxullyan to stop the accumulation of survey data, was undertaken[5]. In Northumberland, the residents of the village of Widdrington formed the Druridge Bay residents Association, eschewing alliances with 'radical' groups like Tyneside Friends of the Earth or ANC. The key point here is that despite such differences there was clear qualitative evidence of public concern over the ability of existing democratic process to represent local interests in the face of developments classed as in the 'national interest'. The sense of individual certainty and clarity over the need to intervene directly and the common expressions of concern over the democratic implications of the proposed reactor developments stand out as the statements of engaged actors[6]. Significantly, this evidence spans a wide range of class positions. It is worth citing some of this material here. The first three extracts come from interviews with participants at Luxullyan in Cornwall

This is a chance to actually do something to show my opposition to nuclear power and all it stands for (Milkman' interview with author 15.8.81).
This is a once in a lifetime occurrence and you have got to do your bit, the opportunity will probably never arise again . . . I know what I am doing and why I am doing it. (Smallholder interview with author 15.8.81)
We wanted this to be a protest not only over nuclear power as a technology but also over the abuse of democracy. (Full-time local activist interview with author 14.8.1986)

The last respondent and her sister shared the task of being chained (by the arm) to the bit of the developers drilling rig. Any attempt to use of the rig would have resulted in one of them losing at least an arm. The recourse to direct action in defence of the proposed sites forced the Central Electricity Generating Board to seek a court order instructing the Devon and Cornwall police to secure them access to the land. The Chief Constable, John Alderson, was extremely reluctant to exercise this underlining the importance of direct action within democratic society using this famous quotation

First, they took away the Communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, but I was not a Communist or Jehovah's Witness so I did nothing. Then they took away all the Trade Unionists, but I was not a Trade Unionist so I did nothing. Then they took away all the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did nothing. Then they came and arrested me and there was no one left to do anything. John Alderson Broadcast on BBC South West, 9.10.81.

Ultimately a High Court ruling by Lord Denning was required to overcome this reluctance to act, beginning the process of redefinition of breach of the peace and public order culminating in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 (Welsh 2000).

In Northumberland the managing director of a medium sized local firm responded to questions about his involvement in the following manner

I've never had particularly strong views about anything before. Its' quite good, for once I know the way I feel and I'll do whatever I can about it.
I'm absolutely amazed and shattered by just how difficult it is to fight the establishment. I mean I have no doubts now ... I know that they classed us - say as troublemaker, communist, anti-establishment, subversive. And I know, like all people that are branded that way . . . that you are not, you are doing something that you believe in very much.
As soon as you start to challenge the establishment you are branded and I think there is very little you can do about it. I think you just have to be strong and carry on.

Asked about participation through formal channels like planning inquiries the response was:

that's another thing you lose confidence in once you start reading about inquiries. It really shatters you when you think about democracy. You become, I think, anti-establishment, they force you that way. (Interview with author 14.4.81).

To underline the fact that their stance was not an example of the NIMBY syndrome the chair of the Druridge Bay Residents Association spoke at the national launch of the ANC. Increasing contact with anti nuclear activists eroded the Association's initial suspicions and the Association remains constituted to date. Partly through its efforts, the proposed reactor site was declared a nature park and has been developed by the Council for nature conservation and recreational purposes. This situated community maintains the capacity to act in and for itself that is a combination of its considerable reserves of middle class cultural capital informed by a diverse range of repertoires of action gained through network connection with the anti-nuclear movement. In this instance, there is a demonstrably enduring strengthening of the capacity of this particular community to formalise and act in pursuit of its interests.

A striking similarity in the interview data from these different locations is the emphasis on the impact of technocratic decision making on democracy. The existence of similar expressions of public concern in relation to reactor location decisions in the 1950s (Welsh 1993) suggest that these are durable public concerns that accumulate social force over time. In terms of the argument presented here the important point is that the direct action phase at Torness did feed into other expressions of local resistance to nuclear expansion rather than remaining an isolated case as argued by Rudig (1994).

From Torness to Greenham

At the final mass occupation of Torness in May 1979 the CND emblem was woven into the wire perimeter fence symbolically denoting common opposition to military and civil forms of nuclear technology. Accounts of Greenham acknowledge the importance of prefigurative anti-nuclear actions (Roseneil 1995) and the active rejection of the prevailing gender structure (Jones 1983) as a primary factor in women's' participation. The feminist critique of nuclear science and feminist habitus developed at Half-moon Cottage represent important examples of such pre-figurative repertoires that were transmitted via the network of networks typifying the movement milieu. Again, I would emphasize the point that there was no single homogeneous orientation towards direct action as a tactic, philosophy or life style. Each of the camps at Greenham's main gates had a distinctive character reflecting this diversity, for example (Harford & Hopkins 1984). For my present purposes the point of importance is that far from the women's' peace movement being a separate entity, it was informed both by the participation of women with experience from the Torness Alliance and their contributions on the gendered nature of direct action in debates within CND. There were thus direct and mediated inputs to the peace camps from the Torness experience representing a network linkage that had been in place throughout the rise of CND via common and multiple memberships. Rudig's treatment of the anti-nuclear and peace movements as separate categories neglects the common ground between them and the influence of the former on the latter.

From Torness to the ANC

The decline of direct action at Torness coincided with the founding of the ANC as a national SMO. The ANC had strong ties to sections of the Labour movement having been funded by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and influenced by the Socialist Environment Resources Association (SERA). The organization enjoyed the support of the Royal Town and Country Planning Association and was an attempt to forge a broad anti-nuclear church. The attempt to combine feminist inspired direct action repertoires and labour traditions quickly faltered. The first national meeting struggled to proceed beyond debating the appropriate nomenclature to address (variously) 'the chairman', 'the chair', 'convenor', 'facilitator' and so on (Personal Observation). Elements of the decentralist, libertarian ethos of the Torness Alliance permeated the fledgling SMO however, particularly the federalist structure incorporating significant degrees of regional and local group autonomy. Ultimately the ANC was submerged by the meteoric rise of CND.

Once again, CND's focus on nuclear weapons left the civil nuclear domain substantially unchallenged. Before its demise, the ANC was involved in campaigning work that utilized the local group networks forged through the Torness Declaration of 1978. The campaign against nuclear waste transport demonstrates how direct action repertoires, widely associated with middle class movement activism, dovetailed with more traditional working class concerns suggesting that the emphasis placed on middle class activism and social movements within theories of reflexive modernization may require some caution (Beck 1992).

Waste Transport - Movements and Class

From 1980 Greenpeace, the Green Party and the ANC all campaigned on the nuclear waste transport issue. The issue assumed a certain prominence in local newspapers throughout the country as editors discovered that nuclear waste was moving through their 'patch'. Similarly, local authorities and transport workers 'discovered' that they had statutory responsibilities in the event of an accident involving the release of radioactive materials. As the campaign gained a public profile, union members concerned about public health and safety at work issues, became increasingly important as sources of information relating to the routing and timing of waste movements. Such involvement was both overt and covert. ANC offices began to receive leaked copies of routing schedules for 'hot' shipments from naval dockyards to Windscale at a time when BNFL were denying any military linkages on public platforms around the country.

The depiction of new social movements as achieving an impact due to their middle class character within contemporary social theory (Lash & Urry 1994) neglects such important contributions from traditional working class locations. The combination of routing details from the inside and the availability of widely dispersed local groups capable of exercising citizen surveillance lay behind the national spread of this 'local' news issue. Union members provided details; activists spotted, photographed and put out press releases and editors did the rest. The nuclear industry found itself having difficulty defending its waste transport practices at packed public meetings throughout the UK just a few short years after the issue had been dismissed as lacking substance by Lord Justice Parker at the Windscale Inquiry.

Beyond this, Greenpeace also worked closely with the unions, particularly the seamen, in a successful attempt to end the UK practice of dumping radioactive waste in a deep Atlantic trench. The Severnside Anti-Nuclear Alliance, a direct action group prominent at Torness, contributed to this process by blocking a train carrying nuclear waste to Sharpness dock using a scaffolding tower. The strategic, but unstated logic, behind this campaign was the paralysis of the older nuclear reactors in the UK, as a temporary suspension of waste movements would have quickly filled the spent fuel storage ponds effectively preventing re-fuelling and resulting in their closure. The electricity boards took this so seriously that they spent £1.6 million staging an iconic rebuttal of their critics. Before the assembled national media, a train travelling at 100 mph was crashed into a waste flask. The resultant images were used to diffuse the situation, successfully undermining demands for a public inquiry despite failing to address many of the critics' points (Collins 1988). The cessation of sea dumping did however, make the location of a terminal waster repository a priority - albeit one that industry and government have failed to deliver upon to date.

The networks created through Torness contributed to this episode of activism that had within it the potential to force the closure of a significant proportion of British nuclear power stations. The industry's haste to produce a symbolically potent dismissal of their critics' case reflects both this potential and the increasing recognition that the issue was inflicting serious harm on the industry's image, particularly within local government (Welsh 2000). The numerous local anti-nuclear groups networked through the Torness Alliance contributed directly to the capacity to monitor and record the waste transport activities of the nuclear industry as they affected local communities.


The central objective of this article has been to question the notion of failure associated with the UK anti-nuclear movement by using qualitative data and a longer than usual time frame. By approaching the anti-nuclear movement as a network of networks rather than a single issue campaign I have argued for a process of movement capacity building that has multiplied the ability of both movements and local communities to act in and for themselves. A central feature of this process is the increasing use and tolerance of a variety of forms of direct action within British society and an increasingly diverse range of sites of contestation.

Lest this claim appear exaggerated, it is worth reflecting on survey work compiled by the Democratic Audit research organization (<>). After the May Day 2000 'Guerilla Gardening' event in London an October ICM poll found that 18% of respondents found anti-capitalist protest 'definitely justified' and 29% 'perhaps justified', 45% thought petrol blockades definitely justified'. Perhaps most interestingly the statement 'If governments don't listen, peaceful protest, blockades and demonstrations are a legitimate way of expressing people's concerns' gained 'strong agreement' from 49% and a 'tend to agree' response from 32%. Trust in government Ministers and their advisory committee's to tell the truth about safety of nuclear installations was just 18% compared to 75% with no trust and 7% abstaining. Irrespective of the limitations of such survey based measures of public opinion the scale of support for actual examples of direct action and the right of recourse to direct action within a democratic polity is striking.

The strong claim made here is that the late 1970s direct action movement, operating within the anti-nuclear movement, was influential in dispersing a range of direct action repertoires, philosophies and practices throughout the UK both within the movement milieu and across local communities with which there were durable periods of interaction. Within the resources at my disposal, I have suggested that the local communities around Torness, Druridge Bay and Luxulyan represent examples of this process.

These examples illustrate the importance of pre- existing local conditions for the capacity building argument advanced here. In the case of Druridge Bay a durable transformation of the capacity of a local community to act in and for itself stemmed from the announcement of a reactor location and the evolving interaction between a middle class community and the movement milieu. The Druridge Bay Residents Association became a feature of the local community. Capacity building thus has to be recognised as an uneven, varied and far from inevitable process. This is in line with Lichterman's findings in the USA where the social composition of particular local communities was found to be central in shaping both the form and content of specific campaigns (Lichterman 1996).

Competing notions of movement success have been central to this paper, which has counter-posed a movement capacity building argument with the issue success focus associated with political opportunity stances. Asked to reflect on this very issue, one of the founders of SCRAM wrote:

I sometimes think that, despite all the direct action, all the law breaking, all the arrests, we were not tough enough. We were just a matter of a few years, maybe only a few months, ahead of public opinion. If we had found the strength and energy to persist with serious direct action after the 1979 gathering, if we had found more ways of preventing work on the site, could we have forced a longer delay, long enough to lead to cancellation? (Edwards 1994:12).

In the context of the UK anti-nuclear movement's success or failure, the direct action phase significantly undermined the attempt at technical closure of the UK's nuclear debate via the Windscale inquiry. Amongst other things, direct action forced the waste transport issue onto and up the political agenda by capturing local media attention[7]. Countless public meetings rendered the 'power' of the nuclear industry 'visible' to a diverse range of publics with negative consequences in terms of public trust in 'the authorities'. As Local Authorities responsibilities for nuclear accidents and nuclear warfare became an area of tension between the local and national levels of the state, there was a marked shift away from automatic local compliance when confronted by appeals to the 'national interest'.

By the mid 1980s, the national associations of every branch of local government, including those dominated by Conservative majorities, became officially anti-nuclear (Welsh 2000). The more radical adopted Nuclear Free Zone policies, many of which opposed both civil and military uses of nuclear power. The hitherto unquestioned capacity of the state to implement nuclear policy became subject to trenchant criticism within a climate of hostility for the first time. Whilst this is not instrumental victory nor is it clear cut instrumental defeat - at the very least it signals a sea change in the public acceptability of nuclear power, which was virtually unchallenged before the 1970s engagement began.

The capacity building approach presented here has implications for academic engagement with the social movement milieu. Qualitative work in sites where movements occupy concrete locations for durable timeframes provides insights into how local communities respond to and are reconfigured by the micro-interactions with activists and their milieu. The numerous road protest camps that have endured for periods of time running into years at various locations throughout the UK during the 1990s have produced contemporary versions of the activist community / community interactions discussed here (Welsh & McLeish 1996). The long-term outcome of this networking will only become clear with the passage of time and the expenditure of qualitative scholarly effort. It is however, not too early to argue that the incidence and range of sites within which direct action is used as a means of contestation in Britain have multiplied markedly. The linkages between democratic process, local interests and technocratic decision making once made in relation to high prestige projects of modernity are increasingly made in relation to more mundane policy spheres by an increasingly diverse range of citizens.

In terms of the contemporary movement milieu where the global 'anti-capitalist' movement has realised a mass mobilization potential these reflections on a now distant phase of direct action are also significant in at least two senses. First, the need to continue tough, concerted direct action stances with all the associated difficulties, including a possible loss of public support, is clearly recognized even by 'liberal' commentators such as George Monbiot (Monbiot 2001). Second, amongst key new dis-organisations such as EF! direct action is not a tactic of last resort, rather it is a primary way of working to maximize their impact (Wall 1999, Jordan 1998). In the words of one long term UK activist interviewed on their involvement within this milieu:

This is why you don't work from the inside because you work - you know - if you work from the outside you can start now rather than waiting for your twenty years of apprenticeship. You start now and your effect is huge so you ask for revolution now and what they give you is the compromise that you would have got twenty years later if you worked from within. Twenty years later they might have started taking the formation seriously. We start doing this now; they do it straight away. (Interview 'A', ESRC Grant R000223486, 'Towards an Evidence Based Approach to Global Social Movement: The Prague IMF Action')

Second, as Tarrow argues, involvement in movement politics frequently produces a radicalisation of the rest of an individuals life course producing 'far reaching incremental changes in political culture (Tarrow 1994/5:184)', concluding that 'The effects of social movement cycles are indirect and to a large extent unpredictable' (Tarrow 1994/5: 186). The influential notion of movement cycle has implicit within it the notion that there are significant periods of movement inaction. By focussing upon the capacity of named movements to advance declared campaigning objectives through available political and policy structures most new social movement analysis subordinates the complexity of movements to the predictability of known institutional structures. Such considerations have lain behind the declared 'failure' of the anti-nuclear and environmental movements (Bramwell 1989). To such commentators the disappearance of mass movements in these areas and the absence of any new mass movement represents' an end. This is however, to expect the present and future to replicate the repertoires of the past.

Whilst analysing these complex developments lies beyond the scope of this paper (see Chesters & Welsh 2001,Welsh & Chesters 2001) the relationship between the local, the national, the global and the ability of established democracies to represent increasingly plural interests is clearly a central tension. Tarrow reminds us that the most liberal systems 'can be ferociously illiberal' to 'those who do not share liberalism's values' (Tarrow 1994/5:94). Chesters (2000)convincingly argues that the British state's attempt to contain the direct action diaspora sketched above through the passage of statute law has effectively united the movement milieu in a manner previously unimaginable. The state's attempts at transparency, accountability and inclusiveness in the aftermath of twenty years of neo-liberal ascendancy are apparently falling short of expectations. In this sense Touraine has written that these are 'ventriloquist states' i.e. states that claim to speak on people's behalf whilst in effect stifling inconvenient public voices (Touraine 1995).

It is possible that the spread of direct action reflects a growing public perception that political leaders have declared themselves powerless in the face of economic globalisation. If the global is determinate then political appeals to a 'national interest' become problematic. Further, the negative impacts of globalisation are spread across a range of local communities give rise to complex interests that are spatially dispersed but have significant numerical proportions within a nation state.[8] In democracies that are based on geographical constituencies, this produces profound problems in terms of interest representation, a factor that operates throughout Europe (Baker and Welsh 2000).

As these changing political structures struggle to integrate old SMO agendas from the 1970s in the name of 'bottom up' approaches[9] the rapid innovations that have taken place within the movement milieu during the closing years of the last century stand as a major challenge. The pervasive public concerns about 'democracy' within a technocratic society evidenced here in relation to nuclear power in the 1970s continue to spread. As governments attempt to reinvent civil society through the creation of new forums that enhance governance by giving voice to the grassroots attention to capacity building suggests that the accumulated demand for participation may be far greater and extend much further than envisaged. A major part of this challenge lies in the dispersed but collective demand that human agency, choice, and will, not be given away and subordinated to an economic determinism that penalises the poorest sections of society. Given the limited progress in establishing environmental and social justice issues at the center of the modern polity, Meyer & Tarrow's (1998)prediction of an emergent 'movement society' appears to being fulfilled.


1 This work included a two-year involvement within a social movement organisation (SCRAM) a national direct action network (The Torness Alliance), the Anti Nuclear Campaign (ANC) a national anti-nuclear organisation. Field diaries, network newsletters and follow-on narrative interviews with movement individuals represent an important source of material. A fuller treatment of methodological issues can be found in Welsh 2000.

2 Here I am differentiating between the mass Aldermaston Marches and non-violent direct action that unmistakably breached the limits of the system such as the sit down protests of the 'Committee of 100' that resulted in the imprisonment of high profile members of this select group.

3I am grateful to Alex Plows, Sociology Dept., University of Wales, Bangor, for supplying me with copies of the newssheets 'Sometimes' and 'The Pipes of Pan' that circulated such material in North Wales at this time illustrating the importance of such network multipliers.

4 In the mid 1990s Derek Wall found similar processes operating amongst councillors confronted with controversial road developments. Childhood memories were also given as an explanation for the initial activism of one of the founding members of UK Earth First! (see Wall 1999).

5 The presence of the editorial office of The Ecologist in the nearby village of Camel ford was significant in beginning the direct action with Teddy Goldsmith setting up his office in a field entrance. This initiative was quickly taken over by a range of local people.

6The idea of an engaged actor is used by Touraine (1995) amongst others to differentiate between individuals and those actively engaged in a conflict. The distinction has parallels with the difference between reflexivity and reflection in theories of reflexive modernisation (Lash, Beck & Giddens 1994).

7 This is not to overlook the continuing role of critical expertise, SMO and union involvement in this process. It is interesting to note the role played by local print media in this example, something that studies based on national press sampling cannot easily access (see Kreisi 1995).

8 Localities that have experienced the premature closure of prestige factories built via inward investment in South Wales and the North East represent one example. Farming communities challenged by BSE, milk and livestock price collapses, and changing subsidy practices is another. According to Tony Blair, unstoppable global restructuring resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs in the steel industry including the end of steel production at Llanwern. Local sources claim that a buyer existed for the furnaces at the plant but Corus did not want to sell to a competitor.

9 The erosion of the original Kyoto climate change protocols during the process of ratification stands as a stark example here. American intransigence and refusal to compromise a way of life with the highest per capita energy use of any society reinforces the sense of urgency amongst activist groups producing further innovations in means of intervention.


The piece is dedicated to the memory of Alberto Melucci (1943-2001) who pre-figured the arrival of a global social movement milieu and inspired generations of social movement scholars.


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