The University of Wisconsin Press

American History / Environmental Studies / Politics


Critical Masses
Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958–1978
Thomas Raymond Wellock

The grassroots battle against nuclear power, told by a historian who did time on both sides

The nuclear industry was selling the “peaceful atom,” but people in California weren’t buying. Using vivid detail and first hand testimony, Critical Masses tells how the citizens of California—from the tiny town of Wasco in the Central Valley to the vast suburbs of Los Angeles—challenged the threat of nuclear power, transformed the antinuclear movement, and helped changed the face of U.S. politics.

Popular misconceptions of the antinuclear movement attribute its success to economic and institutional powers. But Thomas Raymond Wellock, drawing upon interviews, activist papers, and state and federal documents, shows that it was local grassroots activism that actually brought about great change, bringing to bear a powerful array of new social values. Post-World War II affluence and education created public demands for a scenic, safe, clean environment and greater personal freedom. Wellock reveals how these values energized the antinuclear movement, revised the terms of scientific and public debate, and brought environmental and democratic ideals to state regulation. Appealing both to progressive environmentalists and to populists who responded to the movement’s anti-federal rhetoric, the antinuclear movement spread as the authority of public officials declined.

One of the best researched books I have ever seen. Geographically, Wellock is on the scene—whether it is Bodega Bay, the Central Valley, or Frank Fat’s opulent dining room across from the capitol building in Sacramento. Politically, he seems equally at home in the archives of the Sierra Club, interviewing New Left activists and interpreting memos buried deep in the bowels of the California state bureaucracy. . . . His ability to capture complicated technical, bureaucratic, and cultural developments in easily grasped images and stories punctuated by humorous detail should win him a broad audience.”
—Brian Balogh, University of Virginia, author of Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power

Wellock’s finely documented study of the antinuclear movement will complement history courses on California, the environment, and twentieth-century politics.

Thomas Raymond Wellock is assistant professor of history at Central Washington University. He was formerly a nuclear engineer for civilian and navy nuclear reactors before earning a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaching at San Francisco State University.

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The cover of Critical Masses is green and purple, with a black and white photo of a protest scene.

May 1998
LC: 97-037754 HD
346 pp. 21 b/w photos 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-299-15850-7
Paper ISBN 978-0-299-15854-5

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