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The Rise of Nuclear Fear 

By Spencer R. Weart - Harvard University Press


For readers born since 1990, nuclear fear may be a concept hard to access. Thermonuclear war is something out of cheesy old movies or video games, and nuclear power is a running joke on The Simpsons. Even older generations that saw those movies without irony -- on any given day nuclear apocalypse was possibly just around the corner -- don't think about it much anymore. Even though the U.S. and Russia have enough hydrogen bombs still pointed at each other to set civilization back for decades.

But as Spencer Weart writes, "Sometimes the most powerful things in our heads are the ones we don't pay attention to." It takes just a few new events to resurrect fearful images: the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan, the specter of a mushroom cloud over an American city from a terrorist bomb from Iraq or Iran.

Those nightmarish images were created over many decades, and Weart produces a history of that imagery. At first it was extremely positive: The discovery of radium and early theories of atomic potential led some scientists and journalists to proclaim unlimited power for almost no cost, leading to the rich and gleaming White City of the future.

But even in the early 20th century the atom's equally immense potential for destructiveness was the subject of warnings and science fiction tales of total devastation: the Empty City. Then in 1945 came the reality. "With the news from Hiroshima sensitive thinkers quickly realized that doomsday was no longer just a religious or science-fiction myth, but as real a part of the possible future as tomorrow's breakfast."

Weart chronicles the oscillating hopes for utopia and fears of oblivion, and the highly instructive repressions, denial and numbing during the most obviously threatened decades from the '50s through the '80s. He does so in even greater detail (and with better sourcing) in his earlier book (titled simply Nuclear Fear), but in exploring what he calls the "Second Nuclear Age" (since 1990) in this book, he demonstrates how this imagery echoes -- for example, in the pictures of the Twin Towers falling and the devastation around Ground Zero, with their powerful reminders of the mushroom cloud and the Empty City of Hiroshima.

Weart also links nuclear imagery with more ancient and archetypal images, particularly of alchemy (as did some early atomic scientists). The failure of the climate crisis to inspire motivating imagery, he believes, is because it had not yet found that mythological depth.

While Weart suggests that nuclear fear may have helped prevent actual nuclear war, he sees more virtue in disengaging the imagery from the realities, especially when it comes to nuclear power versus fossil fuel pollution -- particularly from coal -- that has already killed and sickened millions. 

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  • By Spencer R. Weart - Harvard University Press


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William Kowinski

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