Critical Mechanisms for Critical Masses: Exploring Variation in Active Opposition to Low-level Radioactive Waste Site Proposals

Daniel J. Sherman, Environmental Policy and Decision Making, University of Puget Sound


Between 1986 and 1993, local activists in the U.S. organized more than 900 collective acts of public opposition to low-level radioactive waste site proposals across twenty-one counties. Yet, the number of such acts varied significantly across the counties. Both waste-siting professionals and social movement scholars have sought to identify factors of mobilization to explain such variation. An analysis of these cases reveals that a focus limited to pre-existing factors of mobilization—whether the demographic and economic factors favored by siting professionals, or the mobilization and political opportunity structures of the "classic social movement agenda"—badly misjudges mobilization. A paired comparison of two counties that differed dramatically in the number of acts of collective opposition mustered over the course of the siting process demonstrates the importance of social mechanisms that shape just how a community interacts with its political resources. The key differences between the two counties lie in the setting, sequence, and in the combination of the following social mechanisms: social appropriation, identify shift, and the attribution of threat and opportunity. To understand the assertion of local political power in an implementation process such as siting efforts, we need to understand not only the political resources available in a community context, but also the way in which human relationships shape the perception and application of that context.