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Nuclear futures: how 20th century atomic science played on our hopes and fears

Radioactivity is dramatic. You can’t smell it, taste it, or see it. You may be powerless to avoid it. Nuclear history is a story of dramatic contrasts, of hope and tragedy. Worldwide excitement over Marie…

Some of us learned to stop worrying and love the bomb; some of us didn’t. Tim Ireland/PA Wire

Radioactivity is dramatic. You can’t smell it, taste it, or see it. You may be powerless to avoid it. Nuclear history is a story of dramatic contrasts, of hope and tragedy.

Worldwide excitement over Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium in 1898 launched an era of optimism over the potential benefits of nuclear science. Not long after, H.G. Wells' imagining of atomic war in The World Set Free in 1914, the Radium Dial Trials of the 1930s, and the top secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic weapon in 1942 revealed a darker side to nuclear science. When atomic bombs struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it became apparent that humankind had created the means to destroy itself.

In the years following 1945 many of the world’s wealthiest nations believed they needed to commit themselves to nuclear research. For some countries, developing “Atoms for Peace” was seen as a key part of maintaining global prestige, and positive political visions of the future were seen to be dependent on technological success.

Nations that developed civil nuclear power deliberately fostered positive links between nuclear technology and national identity. Gabrielle Hecht argues this contributed significantly to post-war recovery in France.

Public knowledge of the destructive power of nuclear energy meant that carefully crafted “nukespeak” emerged from atomic institutions. Nukespeak constructed positive narratives about nuclear science, downplaying potential risks to human populations and the environment. It also served as a useful antidote to the build-up of nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s.

Nuclear states realised they had to educate and reassure their citizens. Those developing nuclear weapons invariably also developed civil defence programmes, leading to JFK’s letter to the American people in 1961, or Britain’s “Protect and Survive” in the 1980s.

These official nuclear narratives were not always trusted, and the rise of the anti-nuclear and environmental movements in the 1950s saw the emergence of increasingly articulate challenges to the government line.

A rise in nuclear-themed fiction and film bolstered this trend. Two science fiction films from 1954, the Hollywood film Them! and the Japanese Godzilla, with Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957) and Stanley Kubrick’s satirical comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964) are important anti-nuclear works. People who grew up in the era of The China Syndrome (1979), Threads (1984), in which the bomb drops on Sheffield, and Raymond Briggs' touching animation When the Wind Blows (1986) will attest to the power of cultural narratives to shape our opinion.

One thing seems clear: the twentieth century was, in part, a history of public uncertainty over the applications of nuclear science. The line between military and commercial applications of nuclear science is often blurred. The tension between official and unofficial nuclear narratives created space for emotional responses to nuclear technology in all its forms. Nuclear projects - civil and military - were shrouded in secrecy. Who could be trusted? Who was offering protection against this invisible danger?

The question of “irrational” popular responses to perceived nuclear danger is a point picked up by many scholars, most notably Spencer Weart in The Rise of Nuclear Fear. He argues that imaginary fears over nuclear science were commonplace in the twentieth century, giving rise to nuclear myths.

From my own study of Britain’s cultural history I have argued that nuclear fear is a difficult thing to pin down. How can historians uncover this emotional history? In 1950s Britain some newspapers presented fear of nuclear war as an inevitable part of everyday Cold War life. But it was to be resisted: to give in was weak and unpatriotic.

Uncertainty is a constant theme when analysing nuclear accidents. It is hard to predict them, and no accident will be identical. The three most infamous events, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, are often used as short-hand for an apocalypse waiting to happen, proof that we live on the edge of disaster. Anti-nuclear activists argue the long-term implications of nuclear disasters makes the use of nuclear energy irresponsible.

And it can be argued nuclear uncertainty reaches into the future. In 2012 Rob Edwards publicised a government report that twelve nuclear power stations in Britain are at risk of flooding and erosion within the next century. After Germany abandoned nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster it was suggested that nuclear credibility was at stake. But for most, the greatest uncertainty is the disposal of nuclear waste.

Education and evidence-based public debate are the only ways to break away from a polarised debate over the benefits of nuclear verses other forms of energy production. Historians cannot ignore past nuclear irresponsibility, but new and safer methods of harnessing the power of the atom could mean the twenty first century becomes characterised by nuclear optimism. Or perhaps not - we can’t be certain.

And it’s hard not to have an emotional reaction to that.


Part of our Nuclear Future series:

Tough decisions needed to keep Britain’s lights on

Renewables blossom in Germany’s post-nuclear vision

Thorium could be the silver bullet to solve our energy crisis

How 20th century atomic science played on our hopes and fears

Nuclear subsidies: a gamble on the price of gas

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