Reaching Critical Mass: The Rise of Grassroots Groups and the Politics of Nuclear Accountability

Ong, Carah, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Milkis, Sidney, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Sabato, Larry, Office of the President, University of Virginia
Quandt, William, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Milov, Sarah, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the factors that contributed to the opening of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear weapons complex to environmental regulation and public participation and assesses the implications of shifts in regulatory politics for democratic governance. While acknowledging the importance and role of elite actors, this research places community-based grassroots groups at the center of analysis to contribute a better understanding of how a multidimensional regulatory framework structures interactions between communities, states and the federal government. It also evaluates opportunities for public participation in policy and decision-making processes at the federal, state and local level. While some scholars have bemoaned the decay of American politics and a decline in democratic participation, this study finds there is in fact sustained and informed grassroots participation in regulatory decision and policymaking processes. Even if it falls short of participatory ideals, communities are demanding a say in regulatory politics, and not just relegating decisions to administrators, contractors, experts, or national interest groups.

This research is based on analysis of hundreds of Congressional records, government documents, and news articles; materials produced by community-based grassroots groups; and interviews with government officials, and with leaders and staff of community-based grassroots organizations. This research concludes that even in a policy area as scientifically and technologically complex as environmental remediation of the nuclear weapons complex, community-based grassroots organizations have made significant contributions to the regulatory process by developing expertise, monitoring and participating in environmental remediation and waste management processes, advocating greater public involvement opportunities and mobilizing public participation. This research also finds that when community-based grassroots groups and the public are involved early and continuously in regulatory processes, there are better policy outcomes and decisions reached have greater legitimacy.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
environmental politics, interest groups, environmental regulation, regulatory politics, public participation, public administration, democratic governance
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