THE RISE OF NUCLEAR FEAR

THE RISE OF NUCLEAR FEAR

SPENCER R. WEART
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hjfs
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  • Book Info
    THE RISE OF NUCLEAR FEAR
    Book Description:

    After the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant had a meltdown, protesters around the world challenged nuclear power. Climate change has never aroused this visceral dread. Weart dissects this paradox, showing that powerful images surrounding nuclear energy hold us captive, allowing fear, rather than facts, to drive our thinking and public policy.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06506-2
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. 1 RADIOACTIVE HOPES
    (pp. 1-10)

    Once there was a man who sought after hidden knowledge. The story says that he hoped to make human civilization more noble, and if there was an ugly, mad streak in him, as in all of us, he controlled it strictly. This man arduously studied not only modern science but also alchemy, and it was after pondering the arcane philosophers’ stone that he discovered the most prodigious secret of physics: the release of vast energy from within atoms. He knew at once that this energy would change the world. He feared vast explosions, but at the same time he hoped...

  5. 2 RADIOACTIVE FEARS
    (pp. 11-21)

    Would the future hold a White City or a desert of ash? Put another way, was the man in the nuclear energy legend good or evil? These questions stood in for a larger one that sophisticated people would debate with increasing passion as the twentieth century advanced: could science be trusted to take civilization in the right direction? At the base of the debate lay divergent beliefs about the role of all expert authority in a technology-based society. That debate is the subject of this chapter, and to some degree of the entire book.

    People only slowly came to see...

  6. 3 RADIUM: ELIXIR OR POISON?
    (pp. 22-31)

    If there had been no thought of ever releasing energy wholesale from radioactive atoms, radioactivity would still have impressed the public as a symbol of the powers of science. For the rays could transform living flesh, for better and for worse. When Pierre Curie carried a bit of radium around in a pocket, it burned his skin. Curie killed a mouse with a dab of the element, and announced that in the hands of criminals, radium could be a great danger. But he and other scientists emphasized that in the hands of experts who took proper precautions, the prodigious power...

  7. 4 THE SECRET, THE MASTER, AND THE MONSTER
    (pp. 32-44)

    Now I come to the core of the nuclear energy tales that proliferated in the first half of the twentieth century. Almost every story had a tremendous forbidden secret; a powerful authority who mastered the secret; and a device, often personified in a robot or monster, whereby the secret power caused harm. By the 1930s this cluster of themes had a remarkable hold on the public’s imagination.

    It started with the secret. Dangerous secrets were important in native traditions around the world; Western culture had Adam and Eve, Prometheus, Lot’s wife, Bluebeard’s wife, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and a thousand more...

  8. 5 THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS
    (pp. 45-54)

    At Christmastime of 1938 the fantastic images of nuclear energy began to enter the world of physical reality. European nuclear scientists found that when they bombarded uranium with neutrons, sometimes a nucleus would split apart into two altogether different atoms. One of the scientists, Otto Robert Frisch, sought a new name for this new process. The uranium nucleus, quivering and elongating until it broke into two pieces, reminded him of the mysterious central transformation of birth, the division of a living cell. A biologist friend told him what that was called: fission.

    Any physicist could calculate that when a uranium...

  9. 6 THE NEWS FROM HIROSHIMA
    (pp. 55-69)

    It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.” President Truman’s announcement shocked the world, for few had expected that atomic bombs would come in their lifetime. The statement itself sounded like something William Laurence might have written for a 1930s Sunday supplement. In fact the president had received the statement from a committee, which had adapted a draft forwarded by General Groves, who had got it from . . . Laurence.¹

    The public, like Laurence, could understand the news only in terms of what they already had in their heads. In the...

  10. 7 NATIONAL DEFENSES
    (pp. 70-78)

    Much of the talk about security in the 1950s was about “national security” in a specific sense: safety through military means. Surely the bombs, as physical weapons, could be countered with physical defenses? Generals, admirals, and other authorities up to President Truman insisted that every weapon must eventually meet its match. Attempts to stave off the bombs mobilized millions of citizens and billions of dollars. The effects on nuclear imagery were correspondingly powerful, but only left citizens feeling more insecure than ever.

    Although huge sums of money were spent on well-publicized fleets of interceptor airplanes and far-flung radar systems, polls...

  11. 8 ATOMS FOR PEACE
    (pp. 79-87)

    The island that held the device was over the horizon from the ships where observers waited, yet the explosion turned their tropical night to dazzling noon. A fireball heaved itself up from the sea, growing and growing, much larger than anyone had expected; sailors thirty miles away felt the heat sear their skin as if a furnace door had been opened; some scientists thought that this time they had finally gone too far, that they had set off the last experiment. Then the familiar cloud began to mushroom upward, but enormously larger than any atomic cloud ever seen. November 1,...

  12. 9 GOOD AND BAD ATOMS
    (pp. 88-95)

    Scholars studying fairy tales find that the stories can be classified, hundreds at a time, into one or another traditional pattern. In the same way, we can find much in common among the various Atoms for Peace productions: Our Friend the Atom, the American newsreel series The Atom and You, the corresponding newsreel by Actualités Français, the U.S. Information Agency’s Atoms for Peace film, the long Russian documentary by the same name, the scores of books in various languages, the exhibits, and so on. As a scholar might explicate the structure of a set of folktales, so I wish to...

  13. 10 THE NEW BLASPHEMY
    (pp. 96-109)

    The fireball heaved itself up from the sea, growing larger and larger; then it froze. At the base of the hemisphere of flame appeared tiny skyscrapers in silhouette. “The fireball alone,” said the narrator, “would engulf about one-quarter of the Island of Manhattan.” On April 2, 1954, the public was watching the Operation IVY film. American television stations played it repeatedly all day, and it was soon riveting audiences (including me) around the world.¹

    Since 1945 most people had shrugged aside warnings of nuclear Armageddon as fantasies of some fairly remote future. That future had edged closer in late 1952...

  14. 11 DEATH DUST
    (pp. 110-122)

    If bombs were bad, then why not stop testing them? This idea, like almost every idea involving nuclear energy, was raised first in the scientific community. Physicists argued that an international moratorium on testing nuclear weapons might forestall the development of usable hydrogen bombs. It would also serve as a first step toward mutual trust. In short, a test ban would raise both a practical and a symbolic obstacle against the spread of weapons.¹

    There was another argument for halting bomb tests. A few experts warned that fallout from the tests might cause leukemia or other proven forms of harm,...

  15. 12 THE IMAGINATION OF SURVIVAL
    (pp. 123-137)

    In 1961 President Kennedy delivered an address to the United Nations with his customary eloquence, declaring, “The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”¹ It was already a tired cliché that “If we don’t end war, war will end us”—a line from a 1936 movie inspired by H. G. Wells’s The World Set Free. But with the coming of hydrogen bombs, citizens began to suspect that the end of humanity was not a science-fiction story, but an imminent possibility.

    Starting around 1955 a few presumed experts began to say that a war with hydrogen bombs really...

  16. 13 THE POLITICS OF SURVIVAL
    (pp. 138-146)

    All the early active responses to the coming of nuclear weapons, from the atomic scientists’ movement to civil defense exercises, were driven by small elites—mostly people working for a government. Aside from Communist propaganda organs and a few tiny pacifist groups, organized public opposition to nuclear weapons was unknown outside Japan. But in 1957 the world’s newspapers began to show a few photographs of protest demonstrations elsewhere. By 1961 such photographs were appearing frequently, showing larger and larger crowds. As the news about hydrogen bombs sank in and governments pursued Atoms for Peace as an answer, ordinary citizens were...

  17. 14 SEEKING SHELTER
    (pp. 147-157)

    While the movement for nuclear disarmament was getting under way, people who believed in tough-minded logic and military strength laid plans of their own. In 1958 Eisenhower was taken aback by intelligence reports claiming that the Soviet Union was building missiles at a furious pace: it could soon have ten times as many as the United States! (In fact the early 1960s would see just such an imbalance . . . in the Americans’ favor.) The worst-case estimates quickly found their way into the press, and Democrats began to attack Eisenhower for allowing a “missile gap.” If the Soviets got...

  18. 15 FAIL/SAFE
    (pp. 158-171)

    What exactly had doomed the human race to slow death? According to Fred Astaire, playing a drunken physicist in On the Beach, it was “a handful of vacuum tubes and transistors—probably faulty.” In the book that inspired the film, however, the end of the world had begun with nations deliberately attacking each other. Between 1957, when the book appeared, and the 1959 film there began a shift of emphasis, not only in this story but throughout public thinking. The threat of catastrophe was beginning to seem less a question of international politics than one of technology. As Astaire’s character...

  19. 16 REACTOR PROMISES AND POISONS
    (pp. 172-180)

    In 1958 the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) decided to build a power station north of San Francisco at Bodega Bay. This was pristine coastline with immense vistas, ocean waves surging against a headland, fields of grass bending in waves of their own under the wind. In 1961 PG&E announced that the proposed plant would use a nuclear reactor—a bold step toward the clean and well-ordered atomic White City of the future. But already local residents were organizing opposition. They warned that any kind of power plant would “ruin the scenic value of Bodega” and “deflate real estate...

  20. 17 THE DEBATE EXPLODES
    (pp. 181-195)

    Thousands of warheads would slant down from the direction of the North Star. When they hit the upper atmosphere they would burn like meteors, drawing lines of fire pointing to their targets. Deep in caverns at the end of those lines the defenders would activate their computers and await the outcome; the next acts would be too swift for human reflexes. Electronically guided rockets would dart upward like meteors in reverse to thwart the attack, nuclear fireballs by the thousand would illuminate the air, and then . . . and then what? Nobody knew how it might end, this warfare...

  21. 18 ENERGY CHOICES
    (pp. 196-209)

    October 1973: the first oil crisis. Shortages and a huge leap in fuel prices stunned the world. Economies staggered as irate motorists idled their cars in long lines at gas stations. A few decades earlier, most advanced nations had been nearly self-sufficient in energy; now nearly all of them relied heavily on imported oil. As the flow faltered, governments laid frantic plans to safeguard national prosperity and security. These plans included ambitious long-range programs to build hundreds of reactors and make them a linchpin of the economy.

    The programs greatly stimulated controversy. Up to then the reactor debates had mainly...

  22. 19 CIVILIZATION OR LIBERATION?
    (pp. 210-227)

    When proponents and opponents of reactors stood up to debate face-to-face, forces long obscure came into the open, startling onlookers with their vehemence. Many nuclear opponents frankly displayed their anger and anxiety, and if advocates of reactors made a show of calm rationality, on that side, too, anyone listening closely could detect anxiety and anger. With growing exasperation each side accused the other of peddling disgusting nonsense—and sometimes of being disgusting people. In formal debates nobody seemed able to refute anyone else’s statements; arguments flew past each other almost without touching.

    The longer the controversy went on, the more...

  23. 20 WATERSHEDS
    (pp. 228-241)

    Immediately after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, daring Japanese newsreel photographers had filmed the consequences. The American occupation authorities had confiscated the films and hidden them away. Returned to the Japanese in 1968, the films were made into a documentary that showed doctors attempting to treat horrific wounds and vistas of streets paved by skulls. Excerpts appeared on television in a number of nations during the 1970s, while franker extracts played to audiences in colleges and churches. The audiences were stunned, scarcely able to speak after watching ten or fifteen minutes of film; some viewers fainted.¹

    For the first many...

  24. 21 THE SECOND NUCLEAR AGE
    (pp. 242-255)

    It was a new age for nuclear affairs, what some cultural historians have dubbed the “Second Nuclear Age”—radically separated in some ways (but not others) from all that went before. The détente at the 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting was confirmed by the fall of the Berlin Wall three years later. It was like coming into sunlight after four decades standing in the cold shadow of annihilation. Meanwhile the 1986 Chernobyl disaster settled many debates. Within a few years after the initial tempest of fears and protests, every nation where there was an effective opposition abandoned its ambitious programs. Deferring...

  25. 22 DECONSTRUCTING NUCLEAR WEAPONS
    (pp. 256-264)

    Whatever would they do with all that plutonium? By 2002 the United States and Russia had each agreed to dismantle nuclear warheads containing a total of thirty-four metric tons of the metal. Plutonium is so preposterously dense that thirty-four tons would fit in an ordinary closet—but there would be enough in each closet to make 13,000 bombs. What to do with it all? The stuff could serve as fuel for nuclear reactors, generating electricity as it turned into waste. The Americans designed a plant that would process the plutonium into an oxide reactor fuel that would be very hard...

  26. 23 TYRANTS AND TERRORISTS
    (pp. 265-278)

    It was only one bomb, small enough to fit in the trunk of a car. A band of fanatics stole it from the Israelis, smuggled it into the United States, and exploded it in a football stadium to kill tens of thousands. That was the centerpiece of a best-selling 1991 novel and popular 2002 movie, The Sum of All Fears.¹ Between the book and the movie the terrorist band changed from Palestinians to neo-Nazis while the stadium moved from Denver to Baltimore, but the details hardly mattered. In the many stories with a similar plot, bomb materials could be stolen...

  27. 24 THE MODERN ARCANUM
    (pp. 279-286)

    Another name for the philosophers’ stone was the Arcanum, the great secret. Alchemists surrounded this central mystery with lesser symbols—naked kings coupling with queens, a green lion devouring the sun, a thousand pictures whose meanings were concealed from the profane. In the twentieth century nuclear energy became the modern Arcanum, no less surrounded with images that most people did not fully understand. I will now survey the entire period since Hiroshima, to see how nuclear energy was addressed, not by journalists or politicians or movie studios, but in even more subtle ways. From obscure sources among the public at...

  28. 25 ARTISTIC TRANSMUTATIONS
    (pp. 287-300)

    How could we deal with this unimaginable force, nuclear energy? The symbols developed in popular thought scarcely answered that question, pointing only toward hazy and grandiose transmutations. Some writers and filmmakers rose to the challenge, creating works of high art that called for moral courage. But the message ran into difficulties that were only gradually understood.

    In 1947 the poet W. H. Auden characterized postwar times as the “Age of Anxiety.” A bleak mood had fallen upon the artistic and literary elites. Novelists, painters, social critics, theologians, all spoke of an anguished hollowness. Historians and psychologists reported that anxiety had...

  29. A PERSONAL NOTE
    (pp. 301-304)
  30. NUCLEAR HISTORY TIMELINE
    (pp. 307-310)
  31. NOTES
    (pp. 311-348)
  32. FURTHER READING
    (pp. 349-352)
  33. INDEX
    (pp. 353-367)