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The Rise of Nuclear Fear

The Rise of Nuclear Fear

Spencer R. Weart

ISBN 9780674052338

Publication date: 03/19/2012

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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.

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.


  • 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.

    —Gerard De Groot, author of The Bomb: A Life


  • Spencer R. Weart is Director Emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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