The Rise of Nuclear Fear
Natural energy for healing disease and lighting cities. That’s how people thought of radioactivity in the early part of the twentieth century. How is it, then, that so many now see radioactivity as an object of fear? Spencer Weart tackles that problem in his new book, The Rise of Nuclear Fear.
I haven’t read that book, but David Ropeik has and has written a long review.
The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was indeed terrifying. I was in the college infirmary with mononucleosis, and I felt miserable enough that when my roommate brought me the news, it seemed appropriate that the world might end. The logical culmination of my nuclear terrors throughout the fifties.
The previous spring, I had been at Argonne National Laboratory. One of the other students, male, brought me into his laboratory, where they were working on actinides, the elements from uranium on up, for a romantic evening seeing all the colors his solutions fluoresced. Very nice. He also spilled those solutions on his government-issued shoes a lot. It was one of the best times in my life. As I worked with radioactive materials, even after the scare of 1962 and my nightmares through the 1950s, I could recognize their hazards and replace fear with respect for proper handling.
Not everyone has worked with radioactive materials, and most of the population now has never held a watch with radium-painted hands or looked at their feet through an x-ray machine to see if their shoes fit properly. So radiation is a thing apart.
Spencer Weart provides a history of attitudes, particularly American attitudes, toward radiation, favorable and unfavorable. The world will need more electrical power in the future, as it will need carbon dioxide emissions to be brought down by less use of fossil fuel. Nuclear power should be able to fill that need, but public fear makes it difficult to get nuclear power plants approved.
The turnaround from radiation as a healer and provider of energy seems to have come with the nuclear weapons of World War II. By coincidence, Alex Wellerstein provides some of the political cartoons of that time, which show a wide variety of emotions.
Many strands were woven into the fear and distrust of nuclear energy: the destructive power of the bombs and fallout, the movements to ban the bomb, the intransigence and arrogance of the nuclear power industry.
But the hazards of various sources of electrical energy stack up in favor of nuclear, even when you include disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl.
If our concerns about, and media coverage of, nuclear power are shaped by longstanding narratives of fear and the links between nuclear electricity and nuclear bombs, will nuclear power ever supplant fossil fuels?
"Them" graphic from Cinema Knife Fight.