Nuclear Fears

Interesting review—by David Roepik—of The Rise of Nuclear Fear, by Spencer Weart:

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.”

Posted on June 28, 2012 at 8:50 AM14 Comments


Jesse June 28, 2012 10:04 AM

Notice how anyone who considers the dominant norms and institutions less than perfect merely holds an “anti-establishment cultural world view” – not rational and serious concerns about the realities on the ground, right?

bob June 28, 2012 10:21 AM

Being anti-establishment and considering the dominant norms less than perfect are the same thing.

“Dominant norm” is a good definition of anti-establishment.

Ben June 28, 2012 10:59 AM

Anti-establishment seems closer to a comment on the social structure. Whereas dominant norm seems more a comment on a behaviour or idea. The two can overlap but they’re not necessarily the same thing.

Clive Robinson June 28, 2012 11:01 AM

The 1970’s with the Vietnam war going badly and shown on US and world TV every night of the week. Race riots and student riots almost every week with “the Establishment” clearly seen as the agressors was a time of awakening of US eyes.

It has been remarked that the last great thing the americans did together was watch Niel Armstrong put his foot on the moon in 69.

The Sixties were over the hippy movment was getting strong and even the music was changing folk was becoming protest and the US flag got burned by it’s own people.

As with all dictatorships the end of the “Old Guard” politicos came hard and furious on the citizens with baton wielding thugs in uniform given Carte Blanche to put people back in their place.

With hindsight it is clear the politicos were scared of the people and the militias were called out…

Not good times and the faux economic boom of the 80’s and 90’s that followed caused a significant change, with easy credt being used almost as a narcotic to buy the people off and gave rise to the impossible to meet demands for growth that produced the likes of Enron.

Then in 2008 the end of the stupified dream and the cold turky of reality as the house of phoney futures and impossible to follow financial instruments collapsed, like one of cards caught in a typhoon.

The only thing stopping the US economy disappearing down the toilet was the US dollar happened to be the only currency used for international trading oh and the liquidity of the money laundering of the drugs cartels.

Not the reality the US politicians want the world to think on especialy as it’ss getting close to voting…

One of the most telling points in the above quote,

“reactors necessarily required high centralized power systems…

For those that have not worked it out, energy is the real money that buys work and the products of work. Currancy is just a lame paper token that has moved to digits in a computer and bear little or no connection to reality.

The nation that controls anothers energy supply, controls them as the Russian’s. have proved. Considerably more than half the saber rattling over non First wold nations having nuclear technology is to ensure they remain vassal states to have their resources plundered at will by the larger first world nations.

For those in doubt look at the history of “water rights” and the wars they’ve caused since pefore man could write through to the present day.

The time will soon come for many nations that the only way to get a clean drink of water will be buy the vast expenditure of energy involved with desalination, likewise the only way to grow crops will be with the energy bought water and energy bought fertilizer, some of which will of necessity be diverted to energy bought intensive farming to make protein, which humans need in handfull sized amounts every day to survive. Likewise all the energy bought materials to provide the machinery to plant and harvest and make homes and shelter…

Underpining our entire society is the currancy of energy and the access to it in cheap forms.

Which by the way is the main reason all eyes turn with envey to the south pole and Antarctica and it’s surounding seas as this is where oil is to be found in large quantities. Oh and one of the main reasons the Argantinians are demanding the Falkland islands and the US does all it can to stop nations develop nuclear technology it’s the new money and they all want to corner their slice of the action.

Fred P June 28, 2012 12:44 PM

“Along with contributing to the birth of the environmental movement…”

…but the environmental movement dates to the late 1800s, before any significant radiation fears; Radon wasn’t discovered until 1900. Perhaps he’s referring to the subsuming of this issue by the environmental movement roughly in the mid 70s?

Smoked Paprika June 28, 2012 3:28 PM

Also: “Throughout the book Weart emphasizes the powerful role images played in stoking nuclear fear.”

That’s an interesting point. There were increased fears when abstractions were transformed into perceived realities as access to disturbing images made available to ordinary Citizens also increased.

MingoV June 28, 2012 6:04 PM

Many people are technophopes. A century ago they would have been Luddites. Fear of nuclear radiation is only a small component of modern ludditism. Fear of chemicals is a major component and has led to an entire industry based on “proving” that targeted chemicals are toxic. This has had a more devastating effect on progress than fear of nuclear radiation. (Example: The worldwide banning of DDT is responsible for tens of millions of deaths from mosquito-borne malaria.) Fears of vaccines and genetically modified plants and animals are other components of modern ludditism.

Coyne Tibbets June 29, 2012 12:18 AM

Sounds like a cause and effect challenge to me. I think what did far more damage to science than radiation, was the endless lies.

“Sunshine units.” “Too cheap to meter.” “Reactors are safe.” Those come to mind right off, and are only from the nuclear industry. I could do the same for Vioxx, thalidomide, Love Canal, sodium NDTA, and dozens of others; there were probably hundreds of thousands of lies of this type.

Because profit was the watchword, and no matter what, we must be led to believe everything is good so that profit shall not be impeded.

“Trust us, we know what we’re doing.”

It was during this period that widespread trust in all our edifices was born. Trust is nurtured only on trustworthiness; and when companies, the government, and scientists demonstrate they aren’t trustworthy, trust must be starve and die.

H. June 29, 2012 3:16 AM

I was in awe and wonder when I was a teenager in the 80s, saw a bright future, welcomed new technology. In fact, I considered nuclear power a great thing, made a tour of a nearby atomic power plant and truly believed the engineers who told us that this a safe technology we can control.

Now that I’m 40, I’ve lived to experience several minor and two major nuclear crises. These two both happened in countries known for the quality of their science education and their top class engineering.

Yes, the Soviet Union / Ukraine was in decline back during Chernobyl, but honestly, so is the USA today.

Also, we’ve learned that you cannot shut down a nuclear reactor. It takes decades of delicate work by trained experts to dismantle these hellmouths. If you do not stick to procedure, you will spill radiation to the biosphere. As demonstrated in Fukushima in Japan. Again: Known as a high-tech country and a world-leader in engineering.

At the same time, we see developing countries building nuclear reactors, countries that cannot even keep their basic infrastructure running.

Of course I worry.

Autolykos June 29, 2012 4:15 AM

@Coyne Tibbets: That’s pretty much what I was going to say. Various failures in the nuclear industry (and, to a lesser extent, the chemical industry) have proven again and again, that (oh, shock!) you’ll always find “scientists” (well, people with degrees who should know better, at any rate) willing to lie and publish false studies if you’re willing to pay them enough. Now a lot of people don’t trust anything they don’t understand, especially if it’s claimed to be completely safe (like mobile phones) – and I can’t blame them.

My personal take on nuclear power (as a physicist – so apply doubt, I could be one of THEM) is that it’s implemented the wrong way, the current (solid uranium fuel, water cooled) reactor designs are inherently unsafe, and there’s no safe way to handle the waste products from the fission of the U-235/238 mix used in current reactors (mainly the transuranes with a half-life between 1000 and 100000 years).
This, however, doesn’t mean that the concept of nuclear power (or even fission power) is inherently flawed. There are some promising concepts (like molten salt thorium reactors) that never got built because nuclear powers wanted the plutonium for the bombs (and the others either lacked the resources to design and build their own nuclear infrastructure, or wanted to be ready to start a nuclear weapons program anytime they liked). This might change with the Chinese showing interest in that technology and India experimenting with the use of Thorium in conventional reactors (which might solve some of the waste problems, but sadly not the safety problems).

Sean June 29, 2012 9:22 AM

First Science was the amazing new religion and then it wasn’t as poor implementation of inadequately understood ideas or outright misuse lead to major backfires through environmental contamination (Minamata, DDT, Hiroshima, Nagasaki,

The space race was about proving military dominance, not expanding the environment that humans could live in and the ensuing bureaucratization of entry into space killed off the ability to go there by private enterprise. The social capital and dreams of the science fiction futurists has bled off till few would consider NASA, Space Exploration, etc. to be viable and worthy endeavors.

Nuclear power, for the longest time was an ancillary method to keeping a hold on military power by choices made to enable creation of weapons grade plutonium so that dominance could be maintained in the cold war, not the production of power by (viewed at the time) thorium processes that created useless byproducts (non-fissionable).

Scientists and those who they work for are some of the world’s poorest practicians of public relations and public education. Far and few between do you get someone like Dr Feynman who can explain complex ideas to a member of the laic class and incite in them a desire to know more.

The expansion of an underlying culture of the elegance of stupidity and coolness by ignorance hasn’t helped either.

Dennis July 1, 2012 3:29 PM

Our nuclear accidents sum up as:

Three Mile Island, which stayed contained and didn’t hurt anybody;

Chernobyl, a horrible design with no containment building and positive feedback (the reaction rate increased as the temperature went up, unlike modern reactors);

Fukushima, a 1970s plant hit with a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, which nevertheless didn’t kill anybody. And some 1980s-era reactors at Fukushima, faced with the same challenges, got through it all just fine.

Meanwhile coal kills 13,000 Americans every year according to the American Lung Association, but somehow people lack a visceral horror of coal emissions. And the worst dam failure in history, the Banqaio Dam in China, killed 25,000 immediately and another 150,000 in the aftermath, followed by a distinct lack of outcry to stop using dams.

That said, Autokylos has it right. Argonne turned off the cooling on their Integral Fast Reactor, and the reactor just passively shut down without damage. Molten salt reactors would do the same. Neither would generate long-term nuclear wastes. China is putting a lot of money into developing both.

Reader July 2, 2012 2:51 AM

Even irrational fear is real fear and needs to be considered in dealing with technology as a society.

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