Atomic Age

An early nuclear power plant that used atomic energy to generate electricity.

The Atomic Age, also known as the Atomic Era, is a phrase typically used to delineate the period of history following the detonation of the first nuclear bomb Trinity on July 16, 1945. Although nuclear science existed before this event, the following bombing of Hiroshima, Japan represented the first large-scale, practical use of nuclear technology and ushered in profound changes in socio-political thinking and the course of technology development. Nuclear power was seen to be the epitome of progress and modernity.[1]

However, the Atomic Age largely failed to live up to expectations and instead nuclear technology has produced a range of social problems, from the arms race, to the disaster at Chernobyl and near-disaster at Three Mile Island, and the unresolved difficulties of bomb plant cleanup and civilian plant waste disposal and decommissioning. The "nuclear dream" has also resulted in the marginalization of democratic forms of governance.[2]


World War II

The phrase "Atomic Age" was coined by William L. Laurence, a New York Times journalist who became the official journalist for the U.S. Manhattan Project which developed the first nuclear weapons.[3] He witnessed both the Trinity test and the bombing of Nagasaki and went on to write a series of articles extolling the virtues of the new weapon. His reporting before and after the bombings helped to spur public awareness of the potential of nuclear technology and in part motivated development of the technology in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union.[4] The Soviet Union would go on to test its first nuclear weapon in 1949.

In 1949, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission chairman, David Lilienthal stated that "atomic energy is not simply a search for new energy, but more significantly a beginning of human history in which faith in knowledge can vitalize man's whole life".[5]


The phrase gained popularity as a feeling of nuclear optimism emerged in the 1950s in which it was believed that all power generators in the future would be atomic in nature. The atomic bomb would render all conventional explosives obsolete and nuclear power plants would do the same for power sources such as coal and oil. There was a general feeling that everything would use a nuclear power source of some sort, in a positive and productive way, from irradiating food to preserve it, to the development of nuclear medicine. There would be an age of peace and plenty in which atomic energy would "provide the power needed to desalinate water for the thristy, irrigate the deserts for the hungry, and fuel interstellar travel deep into outer space".[1] This use would render the Atomic Age as significant a step in technological progress as the first smelting of Bronze, of Iron, or the commencement of the Industrial Revolution.

This included even cars, leading Ford to display the Ford Nucleon concept car to the public in 1958. There was also the promise of golf balls which could always be found and nuclear-powered airplanes, which the US federal government even spent US $1.5 billion researching.[1] Nuclear policymaking became almost a collective technocratic fantasy, or at least was driven by fantasy:[6]

The very idea of splitting the atom had an almost magical grip on the imaginations of inventors and policymakers. As soon as someone said – in an even mildly credible way – that these things could be done, then people quickly convinced themselves ... that they would be done.[6]

In the USA, military planners "believed that demonstrating the civilian applications of the atom would also affirm the American system of private enterprise, showcase the expertise of scientists, increase personal living standards, and defend the democratic lifestyle against communism".[7]

The reality was that the Shippingport reactor went online in 1957 producing electricity at a cost roughly ten times that of coal-fired generation. Scientists at the AEC's own Brookhaven Laboratory "wrote a 1958 report describing accident scenarios in which 3,000 people would die immediately, with another 40,000 injured".[8]


At the peak of the Atomic Age, the US Federal government initiated Project Plowshare, a program for using nuclear weapons for “peaceful nuclear explosions”. The Project “was named directly from the Bible itself, specifically Micah 4:3, which states that God will beat swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks, so that no country could lift up weapons against another”.[9] Proposed uses included widening the Panama Canal, constructing a new sea-level waterway through Nicaragua nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal, cutting paths through mountainous areas for highways, and connecting inland river systems. Other proposals involved blasting underground caverns for water, natural gas, and petroleum storage. Serious consideration was also given to using these explosives for various mining operations. One proposal suggested using nuclear blasts to connect underground aquifers in Arizona. Another plan involved surface blasting on the western slope of California's Sacramento Valley for a water transport project.[9] However, there were many negative impacts from Project Plowshare’s 27 nuclear explosions.[9] Consequences included blighted land, relocated communities, tritium-contaminated water, radioactivity, and fallout from debris being hurled high into the atmosphere. These were ignored and downplayed until the program was terminated in 1977, due in large part to public opposition, after $770 million had been spent on the project.[9]

In the Thunderbirds TV series, a set of vehicles was presented that were imagined to be completely nuclear, as shown in cutaways presented in their comic-books.

Some media reports predicted that thanks to the giant nuclear power stations of the near future electricity would soon become much cheaper and that electricity meters would be removed, because power would be "too cheap to meter."[10]

The term was initially used in a positive, futuristic sense, but by the 1960s the threats posed by nuclear weapons had begun to edge out nuclear power as the dominant motif of the atom.

1970 to 2000

The abandoned city of Pripyat with Chernobyl plant in the distance

French advocates of nuclear power developed an aesthetic vision of nuclear technology as art to bolster support for the technology. Leclerq compares the nuclear cooling tower to some of the grandest architectural monuments of western culture:[11]

The age in which we live has, for the public, been marked by the nuclear engineer and the gigantic edifices he has created. For builders and visitors alike, nuclear power plants will be considered the cathedrals of the twentieth century. Their syncretism mingles the conscious and the unconscious, religious fulfilment and industrial achievement, the limitations of uses of materials and boundless artistic inspiration, utopia come true and the continued search for harmony.[11]

In 1973, the United States Atomic Energy Commission predicted that, by the turn of the century, one thousand reactors would be producing electricity for homes and businesses across the USA. But after 1973, reactor orders declined sharply as electricity demand fell and construction costs rose. Many orders and partially completed plants were cancelled.[12]

By the late 1970s, nuclear power was faced with economic difficulties and widespread public unease, coming to a head in the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, both of which affected the nuclear power industry for decades thereafter. A cover story in the February 11, 1985, issue of Forbes magazine commented on the overall management of the nuclear power program in the United States:

The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale … only the blind, or the biased, can now think that the money has been well spent. It is a defeat for the U.S. consumer and for the competitiveness of U.S. industry, for the utilities that undertook the program and for the private enterprise system that made it possible.[13]

After 2000

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, the worst nuclear accident in 25 years, displaced 50,000 households after radiation leaked into the air, soil and sea.[14]

In the 21st century, the label of the "Atomic Age" connotes either a sense of nostalgia or naïveté, and is considered by many to have ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, though the term continues to be used by some historians to describe the era following the conclusion of the Second World War. The term is used by some science fiction fans to describe not only the era following the conclusion of the Second World War but also contemporary history up to the present day.

Some environmentalists such as Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, have suggested, in fact, that nuclear technology could be a solution to global warming as well as the looming oil crisis that threatens the world's supply of energy.

The nuclear power industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed new, safer, (though generally untested) reactor designs.[15] Risk while minimized is not eliminated. For example, the designers of reactors at Fukushima in Japan did not anticipate that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake would occur nearby, creating a tsunami that disabled the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize the reactor after an earthquake.[16] Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable.[17] An interdisciplinary team from MIT have estimated that given the historical data and the expected growth of nuclear power from 2005 – 2055, four core damage accidents would be expected in that period (though this number would significantly decrease given claimed new light water reactor designs).[18][19]

Chronology of the Atomic Age

The Atomic Age in pop culture

  • 1913 — C.W. Leadbeater published Man: How, Whence, and Whither? . This book describes the future society of the world in the 28th century (which, as a clairvoyant, Leadbeater claimed to have gotten information about from consulting the akashic records) as being powered by what he called atomic energy.[35]
  • 1914 — H. G. Wells publishes science fiction novel The World Set Free, describing how scientists discover potentially limitless energy locked inside of atoms, and describes the deployment of atomic bombs.
  • October 1939 — Amazing Stories published a painting of an atomic power plant by science fiction artist Howard M. Duffin on its back cover.[36]
  • 1940 — Robert A. Heinlein published the science fiction short story "Blowups Happen" about an accident at an atomic power plant.
  • 1940 — Robert A. Heinlein published the short story "Solution Unsatisfactory" which posits radioactive dust as a weapon that the US develops in a crash program to end World War II.
  • 1945 – The Atomaton chapter of Sweet Adelines was formed by Edna Mae Anderson after she and her sister singers decided, “We have an atom of an idea and a ton of energy.” The name also recognized the Atomic Age — just three days after Sweet Adelines was founded (July 13, 1945), the first nuclear bomb, Trinity, was detonated.
  • 5 July 1946 — The bikini swimsuit, named after Bikini Atoll, where an atomic bomb test called Operation Crossroads had taken place a few days earlier on 1 July 1946, was introduced at a fashion show in Paris.[37]
  • 1946 - Virgil Jordan published: "Manifesto for atomic age" Rutgers University Press.
  • 1948- Voltolino Fontani published : Manifesto of Eaismo, Società Editrice Italiana, Livorno.
  • 1951 — Isaac Asimov's science fiction novel Foundation (consisting mostly of stories originally published between 1942 and 1944) is published. In this novel, the first novel of the Foundation series, the Foundation on Terminus, guided by Psychohistory, invents a religion called Scientism which has an atomic priesthood based on the scientific use of atomic energy to pacify, impress, and control the masses of the barbarian inhabitants of the stellar kingdoms surrounding Terminus as the Galactic Empire breaks up.
  • 1954 — Them!, a science fiction film about humanity's battle with a nest of giant mutant ants, was one of the first of the "nuclear monster" movies.
  • 1954 — The science fiction film Godzilla was released, about an iconic fictional monster that is gigantic irradiated dinosaur, transformed from the fallout of an H-Bomb test.
  • 23 January 1957 — Walt Disney Productions released the film Our Friend the Atom describing the marvelous benefits of atomic power. As well as being presented on the TV Show Disneyland, this film was also shown to almost all baby boomers in their public school auditoriums or their science classes and was instrumental in creating within that generation a mostly favorable attitude toward nuclear power.[38]
  • 1957—The current leader of the Nizari sect of Ismaili Shia Islam, Shah Karim al-Husayni, the Aga Khan IV, acceded to the Imamship at age 20. One of the titles bestowed on him by his followers was his designation as The Imam of the Atomic Age.[39]
  • 1958 — The Atomium was constructed for the Brussels World's Fair.
  • 1958—The Peace Symbol was designed for the British nuclear disarmament movement by Gerald Holtom.[40]
  • 1959 — The popular film On the Beach shows the last remnants of humanity in Australia awaiting the end of the human race after a nuclear war.
  • 23 September 1962 — The Jetsons animated TV series began on ABC, attempting to humorously depict life in the fully developed Atomic Age of 2062.
  • 1964 — The film Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (aka Dr. Strangelove), a black comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick about an accidentally triggered nuclear war, was released.
  • 1982 — The documentary film The Atomic Cafe, detailing society's attitudes toward the atomic bomb in the early Atomic Age, debuted to widespread acclaim.
  • 1982 - Jonathan Schell’s book Fate of the Earth, about the consequences of nuclear war, is published. The book "forces even the most reluctant person to confront the unthinkable: the destruction of humanity and possibly most life on Earth". The best-selling book instigated the nuclear freeze movement.
  • 1983 - The cartoon book The End by cartoonist Skip Morrow, about the lighter side of nuclear apocalypse, is published.[41]
  • 20 November 1983 — The Day After, an American television movie was aired on the ABC Television Network, and also in the Soviet Union. The film portrays a fictional nuclear war between the United States/NATO and the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact. After the film, a panel discussion is presented in which Carl Sagan suggested that we need to reduce the number of nuclear weapons as a matter of "planetary hygiene". This film was seen by over 100,000,000 people and was instrumental in greatly increasing public support for the nuclear freeze movement.
  • 1985 - 1990 in the Film series Back to The Future, references to the Atomic Age and uses of Nuclear Energy are broadly exploded; for example the use of Plutonium in the time machine, the concept of "Mr. Fusion" (a futuristic nuclear reactor for domestic use that can use garbage as fuel) and references to the common 1950s conceptions of the Atomic Age.
  • 17 December 1989 — The animated cartoon series The Simpsons debuted on television on the Fox Network, providing a humorous look at the Atomic Age, since the main protagonist, Homer Simpson, is employed as an operator at a nuclear power plant.
  • Beginning in the 1990s, nostalgia stores that specialize in selling modern furniture or artifacts from the 1950s often have included the words Atomic Age as part of the name of, or advertising for the store.
  • 1997 - The first installment of the Fallout series, a computer game series set in an alternate earth post-apocalyptic world, is released by Black Isle Studios/Interplay. Both the visual style and many Inseries references deal with the atomic age optimism towards nuclear power and the stark contrast it creates to the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
  • 1999 — Blast from the Past was released. It is a romantic comedy film about a nuclear physicist, his wife, and son that enter a well-equipped spacious fallout shelter during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. They do not emerge until 35 years later, in 1997. The film shows their reaction to contemporary society.
  • 1999 — Larry Niven published the science fiction novel Rainbow Mars. In this novel, in the 31st century, Earth uses a dating system based on what is called the Atomic Era, in which the year one is 1945. Thus, what we call the year 3053 A.D. (the year the novel begins) is in the novel the year 1108 A.E.
  • Autumn 2007 — Bachelor Pad magazine, "The New Digest of Atomic Age Culture" began publication.[42]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Benjamin K. Sovacool (2011). Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy, World Scientific, p. 259.
  2. ^ John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 99.
  3. ^ Gonzalez, Juan (9 August 2005). "ATOMIC TRUTHS PLAGUE PRIZE COVERUP". New York Daily News. "Laurence, the only journalist the U.S. government permitted to witness the bombing of Nagasaki, is also the reporter who first coined the term "Atomic Age." ... Soon after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Laurence launched his Times series, where he extolled the bomb and sought to discredit other accounts about effects of the bomb." 
  4. ^ On this incident, see David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994): 59-60.
  5. ^ John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 85.
  6. ^ a b John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, pp. 50-51.
  7. ^ Benjamin K. Sovacool (2011). Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy, World Scientific, p. 266.
  8. ^ John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 55.
  9. ^ a b c d Benjamin K. Sovacool (2011). Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy, World Scientific, pp. 171-172.
  10. ^ "Too Cheap to Meter?". Canadian Nuclear Society. 2007-03-30. Archived from the original on 2007-02-04. Retrieved 2007-06-17. 
  11. ^ a b John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, pp. 20-21.
  12. ^ Stephanie Cooke (2009). In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, Black Inc., p. 283.
  13. ^ "Nuclear Follies", a February 11, 1985 cover story in Forbes magazine.
  14. ^ Tomoko Yamazaki and Shunichi Ozasa (June 27, 2011). "Fukushima Retiree Leads Anti-Nuclear Shareholders at Tepco Annual Meeting". Bloomberg. 
  15. ^ Jacobson, Mark Z. and Delucchi, Mark A. (2010). "Providing all Global Energy with Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part I: Technologies, Energy Resources, Quantities and Areas of Infrastructure, and Materials". Energy Policy. p. 6. 
  16. ^ Hugh Gusterson (16 March 2011). "The lessons of Fukushima". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 
  17. ^ Feiveson, H.A., 2009. A skeptics view of nuclear energy. Daedalus, Fall, 60–70.
  18. ^ Benjamin K. Sovacool (January 2011). "Second Thoughts About Nuclear Power". National University of Singapore. p. 8. 
  19. ^ Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2003). "The Future of Nuclear Power". p. 48. 
  20. ^ a b Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 92
  21. ^ a b Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 125
  22. ^ Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 95
  23. ^ Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 154
  24. ^ Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 182
  25. ^ Too Cheap to Meter?:
  26. ^ Samuel Upton Newtan. Nuclear War I and Other Major Nuclear Disasters of the 20th Century 2007, pp. 237-240.
  27. ^ Fortune magazine November 1961 Pages 112-115 et al
  28. ^ EnerPub (2007-06-08). "France: Energy profile". Spero News. Retrieved 2007-08-25. 
  29. ^ World Nuclear Association (August 2007). "Nuclear Power in France". Retrieved 2007-08-25.  (alternate copy)
  30. ^ Tierney, John (2007-02-27). "Findings; An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New 'Heresies'". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  31. ^ Scientist Urges Switch to Thorium:
  32. ^ Wired Magazine—December 2009—“Uranium Is So Last Century—Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke”:
  33. ^ "Japan to raise Fukushima crisis level to worst". Retrieved 12 April 2011. 
  34. ^ "Japan raises nuclear crisis to same level as Chernobyl". Reuters. 12 April 2011. 
  35. ^ Besant, Annie and Leadbeater, C.W. Man: How, Whence, and Whither? Adyar, India:1913 Theosophical Publishing House Pages 456-457 On page vii of the Introduction it is stated that the information in the book is a result of Leadbeater's inspection of the Akashic records.
  36. ^ Brosterman, Norman Out of Time: Designs for the Twentieth Century Future New York:2000 Henry N. Abrams, Inc. Page 79 shows Howard M. Duffin's 1939 painting of his impression of what an atomic power plant would look like; see “The Atomic Age” pages 78-83
  37. ^ The Bikini Turns 60:
  38. ^ Animation World Magazine Issue 3.1, April 1998 — The Making of Our Friend the Atom
  39. ^ "Aly Khan's Son, 20, New Aga Khan", The New York Times, 13 July 1957, p. 1
  40. ^ Breyer, Melissa (2010-09-21). "Where did the peace sign come from?". Shine. Yahoo!. Retrieved 2010-09-30. 
  41. ^ The End:
  42. ^ Bachelor Pad: The New Digest of Atomic Age Culture:

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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