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The Rise of Nuclear Fear-How We Learned to Fear the Radiation

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I remember going to bed one night when I was 11, seriously afraid I would not be alive in the morning. It was October, 1962, and the frightening cold war between the U.S. and Soviet Union, constantly in the news but mostly abstract to me as a kid, had becoming terrifyingly real. I had watched a stern President Kennedy on TV revealing that Soviet missiles were being installed in Cuba and ordering a blockade of Soviet ships. There were pictures of the missile sites, and video of confrontations at sea. The world really was on the brink of nuclear war. I was viscerally afraid, and I wasn’t alone.

Such tangible at-any-moment existential fear can burn deeply into anyone’s mind, especially the mind of impressionable adolescents, as many baby boomers were back then. So it’s not surprising how far reaching and long lasting the effects of those Cold War fears have been. Fear of atomic weapons and nuclear fallout helped carve the dread of cancer deep into our hearts, and they put a man on the moon. They helped launch environmentalism, and laid the foundations for the anti-Vietnam war movement. They framed the phobia about nuclear power, leading to a coal-based energy policy which has killed hundreds of thousands of people from air pollution and threatens the very climate on which life on earth depends. Nuclear fears even gave birth to the modern skepticism of technology and industry, and of science itself.

There are profound lessons to learn, then, by looking back at the fear that peaked that frightening week in October of 1962, understanding where it came from, and examining what it’s done to us. Spencer Weart does a brilliant job of making those lessons clear in his fascinating, insightful book, The Rise of Nuclear Fear.

It’s a thoughtful look back at our emotional relationship not just with atomic weapons but with nuclear radiation generally, from its discovery by the Curies through Fukushima, a history of how radiation went from “Gee Whiz!” to “OH NO!”. It is also wonderfully entertaining, as Weart weaves his story around the way radiation has been reflected in popular culture. You’ll be familiar with some of the elements of the story, amazed by others. A few of those elements are offered here to whet your appetite for the richer details in this important book.

At the turn of the 20th century, as the scientific and industrial revolutions were bringing so much change and opportunity, radiation glowed with promise. Newspaper stories suggested a small amount of uranium could propel a steamship across the ocean, or light cities, or that a small bottle of radium could lift the entire British Navy several thousand feet in the air. The public clamored for radium-painted watch dials that glowed in the dark. You could buy radioactive mouthwash and toothpaste and skin creams.

Radiation was even seen as the Philosopher’s Stone, the legendary material the alchemists had sought that would give man control over matter. Ernest Rutherford (“The father of nuclear physics”) titled his book about nuclear physics for the general public The Newer Alchemy. A friend of Rutherford promised that radiation could “…make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden”. A newspaper headline about radiation declared “Science on the road to revolutionize all existence. No limit to man’s power over nature.”

But strange new powers tapped readily into excitable imaginations as well, and the spooky mysteries of radiation became a mainstay bogeyman in all sorts of popular media. In 1935 singing cowboy Gene Autry was killed with a ‘guided radium bomb’ by evil Queen Tika of the underground civilization of Maurania. He was then resurrected in the ‘radiation reviving room’. In the 1936 film The Invisible Ray, Boris Karloff used a radium ray to cure disease but a lab accident with the material made him glow in the dark and gave him the power to kill anyone he touched. The same year Flash Gordon sabotaged the ‘atom furnaces’ that powered the gravity-defying rays of Ming the Merciless’s Sky City, after Ming bragged that “Radioactivity will make me Emperor of the Universe” (add evil laughter here.)

Radiation and weapons were readily paired in all sorts of popular fiction. In the 1940 film Murder in the Air, a U.S. agent guarded the secret of an atomic ray canon that could shoot enemy planes out of the sky. The actor who played the agent was Ronald Reagan, who 40 years later as President would invest billions in just such folly with his Strategic Defense Initiative, prompting some to call him ‘Ronald Ray-Gun’. It’s a remarkable passage – one of many in the book – that reveals that the roots of Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, and even the play on words with Reagan’s name, go back further than most of us realize.

Despite these science fiction fears, though, the public’s attitude toward radiation remained decidedly positive. The news media carried regular reports of radiation’s benefits, particularly that radium could treat cancer. Weart found that between 1900 to 1940 three quarters of the headlines on articles about radiation in American magazines were either neutral or equally divided between positive - “Curing Cancer with Radium” - or negative - “Radium Poisoning”. But then The Bombs went off, and in a terrible flash our relationship with nuclear radiation exploded into the profound angst that has shaped so many aspects of world history and modern culture.

These were far more than just bigger bombs, and they triggered a new and special kind of fear. Newsreels about Hiroshima and Nagaski described these new super weapons with language like “cosmic power…hell fire…Doomsday itself,” evoking, just as military planners had hoped, far greater ‘shock and awe’ worldwide than did the destruction of Tokyo or Hamburg, cities that had been all but destroyed by fire-bombing earlier in the war. On the day of the Hiroshima blast, a radio broadcaster said “For all we know we have created a Frankenstein.”

The suffering of the survivors from the acute effects of exposure to high doses of radiation was quickly labeled “atomic bomb disease” and ‘mysterious, horrible…atomic plague”. Days after the bombings, Norman Cousins captured the unique terror of atomic weapons in a widely-read editorial in The Saturday Review; “The fear of irrational death…has burst out of the subconscious and into the conscious, filling the mind with primordial apprehensions.” Talk of the Apocalypse moved from the fringes of religious fundamentalism into the mainstream vernacular of the western world.

Throughout the book Weart emphasizes the powerful role images played in stoking nuclear fear. Film footage of the 1952 atmospheric test of a hydrogen bomb so dramatically depicted the awesome power of the new weapon that officials initially kept it secret. When the film was finally released, the world was shocked to see a fireball the size of Manhattan spread across the Pacific sky, a chilling image of the ominous threat that now loomed. Another atmospheric hydrogen bomb test named Castle Bravo several months later spread nuclear fear much further, literally and figuratively, when the fallout from the test fell far beyond the predicted exclusion zone, contaminating the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or The Lucky Dragon.

Crewmen got sick. One of them, Aikichi Kuboyama, died. His last words in a Japanese hospital bed were "I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb."

Millions of Japanese stopped eating fish, or letting their children go in the ocean. As the fine radioactive dust from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing spread around the globe, the word “fallout” entered the popular lexicon, and nuclear weapons now meant not only apocalyptic warfare, but the insidious global spread of carcinogens in our air and drinking water. The 1950s saw an explosion of fear of cancer in the U.S., for several reasons. Chief among them was fear of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing.

We went to school and were taught to 'Duck and Cover’ to survive nuclear attack. We built fallout shelters. A federal Civil Defense agency was created. In the decade since the atomic bombs were dropped, fear of nuclear weapons and radiation grew so widespread and deep that in the mid-1950s President Eisenhower, Weart writes, created the Atoms for Peace program not so much to develop peaceful uses of nuclear technology but as a propaganda campaign to try and put the genie of nuclear fear back in the bottle.

Eisenhower asked the UN in 1953 to create the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly to promote nuclear power. A massive White House promotional campaign promised “the Era of Atomic Power is on the Way.” The administration commissioned the Disney Studios to make the widely-viewed film Our Friend the Atom in which Walt Disney himself declares “the atom is our future.”

The propaganda worked, in part because it was well-received in a post World War II society with an already strong faith in the power and promise of science. X rays were commonly used to treat skin disorders or remove unwanted hair. Irradiation of seeds produced popular new fruit and vegetable varieties (many of which became the varieties of fruits and vegetables we eat today). Ford promised atomic cars. The chairman of RCA promised that by 1980 every home would have its own atomic power plant!

And despite the fear of nuclear war, three quarters of the people in a U.S. national survey in 1956 supported nuclear power. But at the same time, the world was learning of the birth defects suffered by the children of the atomic bomb survivors, who had been exposed in utero . Now, in addition to cancer, nuclear fallout brought an additional terrible risk, of genetic damage. Godzilla was awakened by an atomic bomb to rise from the Pacific and take his revenge on modernity and technology, spawning the genre of atomic mutant science fiction movies that was wildly popular through the 50s, and which thrives to this day. (If you were a kid back then you probably remember Them!, the wildly popular film about the giant atomically-mutated man-eating ants.)

Then, in the fall of 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the satellite that amazed us, but in the context of the Cold War also frightened us to realize that missiles could deliver nuclear holocaust literally in minutes. Heightened nuclear fear produced ‘the space race’, one outcome of which was man landing on the moon. Another result of Sputnik was to turn what had been a tiny group of liberal pacifists into the first truly global protest movement, championed by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, to “Ban the Bomb”. Tens of thousands participated in huge anti-nuclear/anti-war rallies in England and elsewhere. Many of the participants in these rallies, Weart reports, were young, and sociologists who studied them found the protestors “tended to translate the general anxieties arising from the dangers of nuclear war into a full scale critique of contemporary society.” Searing fear of nuclear weapons and fallout had sewn the seeds for the environmental movement, for the anti-Vietnam war movement, and more broadly, for discontent about the damaging effects of modern science and technology that would have increasing impact through the 60’s and 70’s, and is expressed in opposition to genetically modified food, industrial chemicals, vaccines, and nuclear power even today.

And then came the Cuban missile crisis, when Weart observes nuclear fear “reached a higher peak…than at any other time before or since”. Curiously, those frightening days ended up easing our fears of nuclear holocaust. The resolution of the crisis taught us that the defense strategy of MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction – actually worked. Neither President Kennedy nor Soviet Premier Khrushchev was mad enough to start a nuclear war. But by this point the fear of anything nuclear was so deep that as the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war receded, and as 1963 atmospheric test ban eliminated the risk of fallout, the fear was transferred to a new nuclear bogeyman, nuclear power.

The Atomic Energy Commission was created just after World War II to oversee all non-military nuclear programs, and Weart reports a long list of actions by that agency that undermined public trust and heightened fear of this new marshalling of man’s understanding of radiation. Rooted in the military nuclear program, the AEC was secretive. It’s Republican chairman, a Wall Street financier, helped self-interested private industry take control over what had been a civilian nuclear power program. Believers in nuclear technology, the agency dismissed public fears as hysterical and “used every available legal and bureaucratic maneuver to brush off anyone who questioned its decisions, converting modest skeptics into embittered enemies.” Even it’s mission fed mistrust. The AEC was in charge of both promoting nuclear energy and regulating the industry to keep it safe.

The nuclear industry responded to public concerns with glowing promises of ‘energy too cheap to meter’ but was also contemptuous of public fears. Weart reports that when that former AEC chairman told a gathering of nuclear scientists and industry leaders in 1963 that “unless the nuclear community became more open to criticism they might let loose a ‘wave of disillusion’ against all of science and technology, the audience booed him. To which the commissioner replied that “the louder the industry tried to shout down its critics, the more the public would wonder.” Prophetic words.

Weart notes that as the nuclear power industry was developing in the late 50s and early 60s, so was the environmental movement, which in fact arose in large measure out of concerns about nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout. Barry Commoner, a leader in the early days of the environmental movement, said “I learned about the environment from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953.” His organization’s influential publication “Environment Magazine” actually began as “Nuclear Information”. Rachel Carson wrote that in her early years she had clung to faith that Nature was “beyond the tampering reach of man.” It was radioactive fallout, she said, that killed this faith. In her cri de couer Silent Spring, she frequently emphasized the dangers of industrial chemicals by likening them to radiation. In her chapter on cancer, she wrote about a Swedish farmer who died after spraying his fields with pesticides. “And then there is the case of a Swedish farmer, strangely reminiscent of that of the Japanese fisherman Kuboyama of the tuna vessel the Lucky Dragon.” “For each man,” Carson added, “a poison drifting out of the sky carried a death sentence. For one, it was radiation-poisoned ash; for the other, chemical dust.”

Along with contributing to the birth of the environmental movement, Weart shows how fear of radiation began to undermine society’s faith in science and modern technology. He writes “Polls showed that the number of Americans who felt ‘a great deal’ of confidence in science declined from more than half in 1966 to about a third in 1973. A main reason for misgivings about science, according to a poll that had studied the matter in detail was ‘Unspoken fear of atomic war’.”

Even more, Weart suggests that nuclear fears have contributed to increasing mistrust not just in modern technology and the people and companies and institutions who control and regulate those technologies, but even in the societal structures that support them. He cites a widely read anti-nuclear book in the late 70s that warned that ‘the nuclear industry is driving us into a robotic slave society, an empire of death more evil even than Hitler’s.” He notes how strongly these underlying anti-establishment cultural worldviews informed a 1976 article opposing nuclear power by energy expert Amory Lovins, who wrote “reactors necessarily required high centralized power systems, which by their very nature were inflexible, hard to understand, unresponsive to ordinary people, inequitable (my emphasis), and vulnerable to disruption.” Weart observes that “people with a more egalitarian ideology who thought that wealth and power should be widely distributed, were more anxious about environmental risks in general and nuclear power above all than people who believed in a more hierarchical social order.” “By the mid-1970’s,” Weart writes, “many nuclear opponents were saying that their battle was not just against the reactor industry but against all modern hierarchies and their technologies.”

In 1979 nuclear opponents cheered for the film The China Syndrome which captured so many of these themes. It told the story of how greedy and dishonest nuclear plant operators threatened to cause a ‘meltdown’. The term was new to us back then, as was the phrase ‘China Syndrome’, which Weart reports the Union of Concerned Scientists had found in an obscure government risk assessment years earlier. Prophetically, the trailer for the film said of the term “Today only a few people know what it means…and they are scared. Soon you will know. “ The China Syndrome was released just 13 days before the first major accident at a nuclear power plant, at Three Mile Island.

By the time of the Three Mile Island accident, opposition to nuclear power, born out of nuclear fears with old and emotional roots, had already created legal obstacles and delays that had helped make nuclear energy so expensive it was no longer financially competitive. Then the Three Mile Island accident, and the alarmist news coverage about it, broadened and deepened the fear of nuclear power in the U.S. and around the world, and effectively ended the development of nuclear power, setting America and many nations on a more coal-reliant energy path which has done incalculably more harm to human and environmental health.

By essentially ending nuclear power development, Three Mile Island reduced public concerns about nuclear energy. But the fear of nuclear war, which had receded after the Cuban Missile Crisis, returned with Ronal Reagan’s presidency (Remember his famous aside before his Saturday radio address, when he thought the microphones were off…” My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.") The 1983 television program The Day After, reflected how strong nuclear fear still was. It depicted an actual war, and the nuclear bombing of Kansas City. It was watched in 1983 by one of the largest TV audiences to date. The network had to staff phone lines offering emotional counseling to viewers.

Weart caps his story with discussions about how the dissolution of the Soviet Union eased fears of nuclear war, but how disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have kept fear of radiation from nuclear power alive. Curiously, he devotes practically no attention to one key part of the story, the findings from the study of the atomic bomb survivors that have shown that the actual biological risk from nuclear radiation is surprisingly smaller than most people realize. The lifetime cancer death rate among those survivors went up less than one percent, and no biological effects at all have been detected among those who received lower doses (below 110 milliseiverts). No multi-generational genetic damage has been detected either. This omission is interesting, because Weart does not hesitate to argue that excessive fear of nuclear radiation is irrational and impedes development of nuclear power as one way to deal with climate change.

But it demonstrates how Weart has not written a pro-nuclear polemic. The Rise of Nuclear Fear is a fascinating, entertaining, insightful history, which offers an important lesson that reaches far beyond the nuclear issue itself. By illuminating the roots of our nuclear fears, and describing the vast impacts those fears have had, Weart offers an dramatic illustration of the affective/emotional/instinctive nature of risk perception in general, and a sobering lesson about how powerfully fear shapes the course of events.

A lecture Weart gave about his book is available here.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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