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The Rise of Nuclear Fear

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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."

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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.

384 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2012

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Spencer R. Weart

17 books7 followers

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Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,489 reviews221 followers
August 10, 2012
This is the definitive history of the psychology of the atom, from the discovery of radium to Fukushima. Weart shows how nuclear science has since its inception blended together various hopes and fears, taking on various aspects of a universal narrative that could be summarized as "the scientist/alchemist unlocks immense secrets to build utopia, but due to his human flaws winds up corrupting nature and destroying himself instead." The concrete realities of the atomic bomb and the nuclear power industry provided an anchor for these fears, and other more primal fears.

This book is at its best discussing the psychology of the scientific aspirations of the 1920s and 30s, and the ways that public opinion swirling around changing nuclear developments from 1945-1980. For example, 'duck and cover' is commonly regarded as a grim joke, but it would have offered reasonable protection against the early 10-25 kilotonne atomic bombs. Only with megatonne+ fusion city busters did the 'winnable' nuclear war become truly insane.

Conversely, Weart is weak on the facts. Not necessarily wrong, I'm moderately well-read on Cold War nuclear strategy, and nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, and there wasn't anything that seemed out of place, but these complex topics are covered in only the most cursory ways. There's nothing to let you decide if, for example, there were in fact proper safeguards against an accidental nuclear exchange (we came too close several times), or if the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a better oversight agency than Japan's TEPCO.

One thing that may rub some people the wrong way is Weart's general pro-nuclear stance. He is of the opinion that nuclear power is the safest form of electricity generation, and certainly far safer than coal, and that most of the fears over the health risks of radiation are overblown compared to both natural background radiation and other toxins in the environment. I agree with him, but a committed anti-nuclear activist is probably going to throw the book aside. Weart attempts to build a bridge between the pro-nuclear technocratic community, and various anti-nuclear factions of environmentalists, libertarians, and pacifists, but he is definitely standing on one side.
Profile Image for Angie Reisetter.
506 reviews6 followers
May 31, 2014
This book by a cultural historian is, as he says in his afterword, not about our actual problems, but the things that distract us from them. And in that sense, I guess, I was somewhat disappointed in it. I was just hoping for some more scientific information. But it is what it is. And it's really well written. Lots of, well, cultural information.

But I wouldn't say it's balanced. He does characterize the two sides of the nuclear debate as the antinuclear movement and rational thought. It feels more than a little condescending. Every time he gets close to admitting that nuclear power does contain some little kind of threat, he is quick to point out that other industrial accidents have killed more. It's true. But not balanced.

But again, lots of scholarly info about the cultural context of nuclear energy in a scholarly, dry tone. Good if you're looking for a resource for this kind of thing.
Profile Image for John Lindberg.
1 review2 followers
December 18, 2016
Excellent book, masterful creation of a strong narrative that does lead the reader through the decades. A must for anyone interested in nuclear history, climate change or fear narrative creation
Profile Image for Pietro Monticone.
3 reviews4 followers
May 7, 2023
This is a comprehensive and thoroughly researched exploration of the history of nuclear fear and its impact on society. Weart's analysis is rooted in a deep understanding of the science behind nuclear energy and weapons, and he effectively communicates complex technical concepts in a way that is accessible to a general audience.

One of the strengths of the book is Weart's ability to situate the history of nuclear fear within a broader historical and political context. He traces the development of nuclear fear from its roots in the early 20th century, through the Cold War and beyond, and does an excellent job of highlighting the various factors that contributed to public anxiety about nuclear technology.

In addition to providing a detailed history of nuclear fear, Weart also does a superb job of exploring the various ways in which this fear has manifested itself in popular culture and the media. He shows how nuclear fear has been used to sell books, movies, and even products, and how it has shaped political debates and policy decisions.

Overall, "The Rise of Nuclear Fear" is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of nuclear technology and its societal impact. Weart's writing is clear and engaging, and his research is thorough and well-documented. This is definitely a must-read for scholars and students of science and technology, as well as anyone interested in the history of the nuclear age.
18 reviews1 follower
September 9, 2012
Masterly and balanced account of a crucial piece of modern history: how the discovery of the nuclear atom and subsequent developments of nuclear weapons and nuclear power came to take over pre-existing myths and fears already active in the collective psyche of humanity. This is of crucial importance for the future of humanity since it has led mass movements and even some populist governments (Germany, Italy, Switzerland ...) to irrationally spurn or retard the development (UK, USA, ...) the best hope of solving the now-pressing problem of global warming. Strongly recommended to anyone who cares about the future of our planet. Also, by the way, an excellent and fascinating read showing how psychology can affect history.
Profile Image for Jani-Petri.
148 reviews19 followers
July 2, 2012

Very balanced and well written book on the cultural history of how the fear of all things nuclear appeared. This book details how imagery of religions, alchemy, science fiction, Hollywood films etc. got mixed up with the fear and politics of nuclear weapons during the cold war. There is also a detailed discussion on the different mindset of "scientists" and "antis" which goes a long way in explaining why sensible discussion on energy policies has become so difficult.
Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews

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