Atomic Age

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

The Atomic Age, also known as the Atomic Era, is the period of history following the detonation of the first nuclear ("atomic") bomb, Trinity, on July 16, 1945 during World War II. Although nuclear chain reactions had been hypothesized in 1933 and the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction (Chicago Pile-1) had taken place in December 1942,[1] the Trinity test and the ensuing bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that ended World War II represented the first large-scale use of nuclear technology and ushered in profound changes in sociopolitical thinking and the course of technology development. Atomic power was seen to be the epitome of progress and modernity.[2]

However, the "nuclear dream" fell far short of what was promised because nuclear technology has produced a range of social problems, from the nuclear arms race to nuclear meltdowns, and the unresolved difficulties of bomb plant cleanup and civilian plant waste disposal and decommissioning.[3]

Early years

In 1901, Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford discovered that radioactivity was part of the process by which atoms changed from one kind to another, involving the release of energy. Soddy wrote in popular magazines that radioactivity was a potentially “inexhaustible” source of energy, and offered a vision of an atomic future where it would be possible to “transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles, and make the whole earth one smiling Garden of Eden.” The promise of an “atomic age,” with nuclear energy as the global, utopian technology for the satisfaction of human needs, has been a recurring theme ever since. But "Soddy also saw that atomic energy could possibly be used to create terrible new weapons".[4][5]

The concept of a nuclear chain reaction was hypothesized in 1933, shortly after Chadwick's discovery of the neutron. Only a few years later, in December 1938 nuclear fission was discovered by Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, and proved with Hahn's radiochemical methods. The first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction (Chicago Pile-1, or CP-1) took place in December 1942 under the leadership of Enrico Fermi.[1]

In 1945, the pocketbook The Atomic Age heralded the untapped atomic power in everyday objects and depicted a future where fossil fuels would go unused. One science writer, David Dietz, wrote that instead of filling the gas tank of your car two or three times a week, you will travel for a year on a pellet of atomic energy the size of a vitamin pill. Glenn T. Seaborg, who chaired the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote "there will be nuclear powered earth-to-moon shuttles, nuclear powered artificial hearts, plutonium heated swimming pools for SCUBA divers, and much more".[6]

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 Manhattan Project which developed the first nuclear weapons.[7][8] 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.[9] 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".[10]


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 thirsty, irrigate the deserts for the hungry, and fuel interstellar travel deep into outer space".[2] 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 aircraft, which the US federal government even spent US $1.5 billion researching.[2] Nuclear policymaking became almost a collective technocratic fantasy, or at least was driven by fantasy:[11]

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.[11]

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".[12]

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."[13]

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".[14]

Fear of possible atomic attack from the Soviet Union caused U.S. school children to participate in "duck and cover" civil defense drills.[15]

In the late 1950s, there was a stadium north of Las Vegas, Nevada where tourists gathered (wearing special sunglasses) to watch above-ground nuclear weapons tests taking place at the Nevada Test Site[citation needed].


By exploiting the peaceful uses of the "friendly atom" in medical applications, earth removal and, subsequently, in nuclear power plants, the nuclear industry and government sought to allay public fears about nuclear technology and promote the acceptance of nuclear weapons. At the peak of the Atomic Age, the United States government initiated Operation Plowshare, involving "peaceful nuclear explosions". The United States Atomic Energy Commission chairman announced that the Plowshares project was intended to "highlight the peaceful applications of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests".[16]

Project Plowshare “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”.[17] 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. It was proposed to plant underground atomic bombs to extract shale oil in eastern Utah and western Colorado. 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.[17] However, there were many negative impacts from Project Plowshare’s 27 nuclear explosions.[17] 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.[17]

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.

The term "atomic age" 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

A photograph taken in the abandoned city of Pripyat. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant can be seen on the horizon.

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:[18]

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 20th 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.[18]

In 1973, the United States Atomic Energy Commission predicted that, by the turn of the 21st 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.[19]

By the late 1970s, nuclear power suffered a remarkable international destabilization, as it was faced with economic difficulties and widespread public opposition, coming to a head with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, both of which adversely 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.[20]

So, in a period just over 30 years, the early dramatic rise of nuclear power went into equally meteoric reverse. With no other energy technology has there been a conjunction of such rapid and revolutionary international emergence, followed so quickly by equally transformative demise.[21]

21st century

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.[22]

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 many historians to describe the era following the conclusion of the Second World War. Atomic energy and weapons continue to have a strong effect on world politics in the 21st century. 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.

The nuclear power industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed new safer (but generally untested) reactor designs but there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly.[23] Mistakes do occur and the designers of reactors at Fukushima in Japan did not anticipate that a tsunami generated by an earthquake would disable the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize the reactor after the earthquake.[24] According to UBS AG, the Fukushima I nuclear accidents have cast doubt on whether even an advanced economy like Japan can master nuclear safety.[25] Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable.[23] An interdisciplinary team from MIT has estimated that if nuclear power use tripled from 2005–2055 (from 2%[26] to 7%), at least four serious nuclear accidents would be expected in that period.[27][28]

In September 2012, Japan announced that it would completely phase out nuclear power by 2030, although under the Abe administration thisnis now unlikey, with Germany, and other countries in reaction to the accident at Fukushima.[29] Germany plans to completely phase-out nuclear energy by 2022.[30]


Discovery and development

Nuclear arms deployment

"Atoms for Peace"

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl

Nuclear arms reduction

  • 8 December 1987 – The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is signed in Washington 1987. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed after negotiations following the October 11–12, 1986 Reykjavík Summit to go farther than a nuclear freeze – they agreed to reduce nuclear arsenals. IRBMs and SRBMs were eliminated.
  • 1990–Present – Nuclear power is the primary source of electricity in France. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s (decade), France produces over three quarters of its power from nuclear sources (78.8%), the highest percentage in the world during these 2 decades.[46][47]
  • 31 July 1991 – As the Cold War ends, the Start I treaty is signed by the United States and the Soviet Union, reducing the deployed nuclear warheads of each side to no more than 6,000 each.
  • 1993 – The Megatons to Megawatts Program is agreed upon by Russia and the United States and begins to be implemented in 1995. When it is completed in 2013, 500 tonnes of uranium derived from 20,000 nuclear warheads from Russia will have been converted from weapons grade to reactor grade uranium and used in United States nuclear plants to generate electricity. This has provided 10% of the electrical power of the U.S. (50% of its nuclear power) during the 1995-2013 period.[48]
  • 2006 – Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace and other environmentalists such as Stewart Brand[49] suggest the deployment of more advanced nuclear power technology for electric power generation (such as pebble bed reactors) to combat global warming.
  • 21 November 2006 – Implementation of the ITER fusion power reactor project near Cadarache, France is begun. Construction is to be completed in 2016 with the hope that the research conducted there will allow the introduction of practical commercial fusion power plants by 2050.
  • 2006-2009 – A number of nuclear engineers begin to suggest that, to combat global warming, it would be more efficient to build nuclear reactors that operate on the thorium cycle.[50][51]
  • 8 April 2010 – The New START treaty is signed by the United States and Russia in Prague. It mandates the eventual reduction by both sides to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons each.


The Atomic Age in pop culture

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Holl, Jack (1997). Argonne National Laboratory, 1946-96. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02341-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Benjamin K. Sovacool (2011). Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy, World Scientific, p. 259.
  3. John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 99.
  4. Zia Mian and Alexander Glaser (June 2006). "Life in a Nuclear Powered Crowd" (PDF). INESAP Information Bulletin No.26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. The two words atomic and nuclear are synonymous in the context of atomic power and weapons. The atom consists of a nucleus and one or more electrons. All atomic reactions involve changing one atom into another by changing the nucleus. Historically atomic power is an older term, and nuclear power is newer.President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" Speech
  6. Benjamin K. Sovacool, The National Politics of Nuclear Power, Routledge, p. 68.
  7. Laurence, William L. (1945-09-26). "Drama of the Atomic Bomb Found Climax in July 16 Test". The New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 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." ... Nagasaki, Laurence launched his Times series, where he extolled the bomb and sought to discredit other accounts about effects of the bomb.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 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.
  10. John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 85.
  11. 11.0 11.1 John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, pp. 50-51.
  12. Benjamin K. Sovacool (2011). Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy, World Scientific, p. 266.
  13. "Too Cheap to Meter?". Canadian Nuclear Society. 2007-03-30. Archived from the original on 2007-02-04. Retrieved 2007-06-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 55.
  15. Remember Duck and Cover? What Safety Experts May Have Been Thinking
  16. Charles Perrow (September–October 2013). "Nuclear denial: From Hiroshima to Fukushima". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Benjamin K. Sovacool (2011). Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy, World Scientific, pp. 171-172.
  18. 18.0 18.1 John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, pp. 20-21.
  19. Stephanie Cooke (2009). In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, Black Inc., p. 283.
  20. "Nuclear Follies", a February 11, 1985 cover story in Forbes magazine.
  21. Andy Stirling (2014). "Transforming power". Energy Research and Social Science.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Tomoko Yamazaki and Shunichi Ozasa (June 27, 2011). "Fukushima Retiree Leads Anti-Nuclear Shareholders at Tepco Annual Meeting". Bloomberg.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. 23.0 23.1 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" (PDF). Energy Policy. p. 6.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Hugh Gusterson (16 March 2011). "The lessons of Fukushima". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. James Paton (April 4, 2011). "Fukushima Crisis Worse for Atomic Power Than Chernobyl, UBS Says". Bloomberg Businessweek.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. World Energy Outlook 2007 pp 74,360
  27. Benjamin K. Sovacool (January 2011). "Second Thoughts About Nuclear Power" (PDF). National University of Singapore. p. 8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2003). "The Future of Nuclear Power" (PDF). p. 48.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Japan Plans To Abandon Nuclear Power
  30. "The history behind Germany's nuclear phase-out". Clean Energy Wire. Retrieved 2015-11-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. 31.0 31.1 Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 92
  32. 32.0 32.1 Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 125
  33. Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 95
  34. Klaus Hoffmann: Otto Hahn - Achievement and Responsibility. Springer Verlag, Inc., New York-Berlin-London-Tokyo etc. 2001. p. 81. ISBN 0-387-95057-5.
  35. Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 154
  36. Otto Hahn: A Scientific Autobiography. Charles Scribner's, New York 1966.
  37. Klaus Hoffmann: Otto Hahn - Achievement and Responsibility. Springer Verlag, Inc., New York-Berlin-Barcelona-Hong Kong-Milan-Paris-Singapore-Tokyo 2001. ISBN 0-387-95057-5.
  38. Lise Meitner: Erinnerungen an Otto Hahn. S. Hirzel, Stuttgart 2005. ISBN 3-7776-1380-0.
  39. Lise Meitner: Otto Hahn - the discoverer of nuclear fission. In: Forscher und Wissenschaftler im heutigen Europa. Stalling, Oldenburg-Hamburg 1955.
  40. Asimov, Isaac Atom: Journey Across the Sub-Atomic Cosmos New York:1992 Plume Page 182
  41. Too Cheap to Meter?:
  42. Samuel Upton Newtan. Nuclear War I and Other Major Nuclear Disasters of the 20th Century 2007, pp. 237-240.
  43. Fortune magazine November 1961 Pages 112-115 et al
  44. "Nuclear Pulse Propulsion: A Historical Review" by Martin and Bond, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 1979 (p.301)
  45. Interstellar Transport Physics Today October 1968
  46. EnerPub (2007-06-08). "France: Energy profile". Spero News. Archived from the original on 4 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-25. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  47. World Nuclear Association (August 2007). "Nuclear Power in France". Archived from the original on 7 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-25. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (alternate copy)
  48. USEC Progress Report on Megatons to Megawatts Program:
  49. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  50. Scientist Urges Switch to Thorium:
  51. Wired Magazine—December 2009—“Uranium Is So Last Century—Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke”:
  52. "Japan to raise Fukushima crisis level to worst". Archived from the original on 12 April 2011. Retrieved 12 April 2011. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  53. "Japan raises nuclear crisis to same level as Chernobyl". Reuters. 12 April 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  54. H. G. Wells And The Atom Bomb - Trove
  55. 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
  56. The Bikini Turns 60:
  57. Animation World Magazine Issue 3.1, April 1998 — The Making of Our Friend the Atom
  58. "Aly Khan's Son, 20, New Aga Khan", The New York Times, 13 July 1957, p. 1
  59. Breyer, Melissa (2010-09-21). "Where did the peace sign come from?". Shine. Yahoo!. Archived from the original on 4 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-30. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  60. Image of the cover of the 1970 underground comic book Hydrogen Bomb Funnies:
  61. The End:
  62. Bachelor Pad: The New Digest of Atomic Age Culture:

Further reading

  • "Presidency in the Nuclear Age", conference and forum at the JFK Library, Boston, October 12, 2009. Four panels: "The Race to Build the Bomb and the Decision to Use It", "Cuban Missile Crisis and the First Nuclear Test Ban Treaty", "The Cold War and the Nuclear Arms Race", and "Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and the Presidency".

External links