The Rise of Nuclear Fear

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Overview

After a tsunami destroyed the cooling system at Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, triggering a meltdown, protesters around the world challenged the use of nuclear power. Germany announced it would close its plants by 2022. Although the ills of fossil fuels are better understood than ever, the threat of climate change has never aroused the same visceral dread or swift action. Spencer Weart dissects this paradox, demonstrating that a powerful web of images surrounding nuclear energy holds us captive, allowing fear, rather than facts, to drive our thinking and public policy.

Building on his classic, Nuclear Fear, Weart follows nuclear imagery from its origins in the symbolism of medieval alchemy to its appearance in film and fiction. Long before nuclear fission was discovered, fantasies of the destroyed planet, the transforming ray, and the white city of the future took root in the popular imagination. At the turn of the twentieth century when limited facts about radioactivity became known, they produced a blurred picture upon which scientists and the public projected their hopes and fears. These fears were magnified during the Cold War, when mushroom clouds no longer needed to be imagined; they appeared on the evening news. Weart examines nuclear anxiety in sources as diverse as Alain Resnais's film Hiroshima Mon Amour, Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, and the television show The Simpsons.


Recognizing how much we remain in thrall to these setpieces of the imagination, Weart hopes, will help us resist manipulation from both sides of the nuclear debate.

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Editorial Reviews

The Guardian

Published in 1988, just two years after the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl, Weart's Nuclear Fear remains a classic study of the way imagery has dominated the nuclear debate. This book is a slimmed-down and revised version of the earlier 550-page volume. Its publication is well timed. The threat of global warming has brought about a second nuclear age, with even some environmentalists now accepting that nuclear energy has a role to play in a low-carbon future. But the meltdown at the Fukushima reactors may undermine that—opinion polls show that fear of all things nuclear is back to pre-1990 levels. From scientists' fantasies of a utopian nuclear-powered White City, to anti-nuclear fears of radioactive mutated monsters, Weart reveals how our atomic dreams and nightmares form "one of the most powerful complexes of images ever created outside of religions." He argues convincingly that these potent images prevent us from facing the real issue: how are we to "improve world prosperity while burning less fuel?"
— P. D. Smith

Scientific American

[A] fascinating, insightful book...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...[An] important book.
— David Ropeik

Physics Today

[This is a] streamlined history accessible to the general reader...[It] is impressive, fusing a bold argument with deep erudition in history, politics, physics, psychology, economics, art, and literature...Any future history [of nuclear energy] will have to place Weart's arguments at the center...The Rise of Nuclear Fear is a fresh account of the nuclear age.
— Michael D. Gordon

Gerard De Groot
This is a wonderful book, which I can't wait to assign to my students. It's not a conventional history of the nuclear age, but something much more unusual and creative—an exploration of the images and emotions that nuclear weapons and power generation have inspired, from the dropping of the Bomb up to the recent crisis at the Fukushima reactor in Japan. The interplay of emotion and reason in the atomic debate of the past 100 years is handled with great sensitivity but also incisive criticism. Neither side in that debate escapes Weart's penetrating rebuttal of their wilder claims.
The Guardian - P. D. Smith
Published in 1988, just two years after the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl, Weart's Nuclear Fear remains a classic study of the way imagery has dominated the nuclear debate. This book is a slimmed-down and revised version of the earlier 550-page volume. Its publication is well timed. The threat of global warming has brought about a second nuclear age, with even some environmentalists now accepting that nuclear energy has a role to play in a low-carbon future. But the meltdown at the Fukushima reactors may undermine that--opinion polls show that fear of all things nuclear is back to pre-1990 levels. From scientists' fantasies of a utopian nuclear-powered White City, to anti-nuclear fears of radioactive mutated monsters, Weart reveals how our atomic dreams and nightmares form "one of the most powerful complexes of images ever created outside of religions." He argues convincingly that these potent images prevent us from facing the real issue: how are we to "improve world prosperity while burning less fuel?"
Scientific American - David Ropeik
[A] fascinating, insightful book...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...[An] important book.
Physics Today - Michael D. Gordon
[This is a] streamlined history accessible to the general reader...[It] is impressive, fusing a bold argument with deep erudition in history, politics, physics, psychology, economics, art, and literature...Any future history [of nuclear energy] will have to place Weart's arguments at the center...The Rise of Nuclear Fear is a fresh account of the nuclear age.
Choice - L. W. Fine
Weart originally published this work in 1988 as Nuclear Fear. This revision is a far more palatable working of a history that most people of a certain age will recognize as forging their lives. It is not only impressive for its illustrative range, from movies and magazines to abstract expressionism and Nobel science, it is a page-turning tour de force with power and relevance writ in memory of Japanese fishermen aboard the Lucky Dragon and recapitulated at Fukushima. Historically framed, this sobering fantasy of very real nuclear fears in 300 documented, annotated pages, with a personal update, time line, and, of course, that index, is a must read.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674052338
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 3/19/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,386,123
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Spencer R. Weart is Director Emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 23: Tyrants and Terrorists


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. 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 from Americans or Russians; the catastrophe could be planned for Los Angeles or Miami. What did matter were two familiar themes: the proliferation of bombs in nations around the world, and evildoers intent on blowing things up. These themes were becoming inseparably entangled. The Second Nuclear Age had begun with a decade of release from the anxieties of the Cold War, but by the

late 1990s nuclear fear was on the rise again.

From 1945 through the 1980s, when people worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons their main concern had been that nations would use the bombs in war. If Argentina or South Africa showed an interest in getting nuclear bombs, its aim would be to threaten, deter, or defeat neighboring states. These, it was presumed, would hasten to get their own bombs in turn. But it didn’t happen. Proliferation, as one scholar pointed out in 2009, proceeded “at a far more leisurely pace than generations of alarmists

have routinely and urgently anticipated.” And careful study showed that aside from the United States and the Soviet Union, the few cases in which a nation did get its own bombs turned out “to have had remarkably limited, perhaps even imperceptible, consequences.” Nobody was successfully threatened, deterred, or defeated by the bombs.

. . .


Traditionally people had a hard time imagining that any actual terrorist would wish to take lives not just a few at a time, but by thousands or millions: surely so dark a desire was not humanly possible? That hope was overthrown by events. The first serious blow came in 1995, when members of a large Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released poison gas in a coordinated attack on five subway trains in Tokyo. The gas killed a dozen people and harmed hundreds, but the cult had intended to kill far more; their ultimate

aim was nothing less than global apocalypse. If anyone still doubted that a fanatic group could mobilize the will and means to kill on a very large scale, they were answered by Al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks.

I think the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center had its deepest impact on people by showing that horrors of human intention that had seemed incredible must be taken as facts. As one nuclear authority put it shortly afterward, “The willingness of terrorists to commit suicide to achieve their evil aims makes the nuclear terrorist threat far more likely than it was before September 11.” A writer reflecting back on events went further: “The reason 9/11 was so traumatizing for all of us, I believe, is that

the vision we all had of the World Trade Center collapsing in a horrible cloud— for us it was effectively the mushroom cloud that we have been dreading for a generation.”

Many noted that the incessantly televised pictures of airplanes attacking buildings, billowing clouds of dust, and smoking wreckage resonated with familiar imagery of bombardment. Reporters immediately used the language long associated with nuclear apocalypse: “gates of hell,” “like a nuclear winter.” Within a few days the site of the New York attack was universally called “Ground Zero.” The phrase had originated in Los Alamos around 1945, reflecting the technical significance of the distance

in thousands of feet from the point directly below an exploding atomic bomb. In New York it stood for a more mythic zero: an Empty Zone of total destruction, as in the familiar photographs of Hiroshima.

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