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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.

Praise

  • 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, The Guardian

Author

  • 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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