Nuclear Energy, the Environment, and Debating the Costs of Progress

Module Elements

Almost since its inception, nuclear technology has raised challenging questions about the goals, costs, and the very nature of progress. Would nuclear technologies lead to a world of cheap energy that freed humans from the demands of physical labor—or to a world of dystopic, technocratic rule and environmental ruin? The documents in this module provide a window into American ideas about nuclear energy, progress, and nature in the early years of the “Atomic Age.”

Americans first encountered nuclear energy a generation before World War II. European scientists such as Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen and Marie Curie had experimented with radioactivity and X-rays since the 1890s; Curie won two Nobel prizes for her explorations of radiation. Radium-infused paints hit the American market in the late 1910s and became key features on everything from watch dials to childrens’ toys, their glow-in-the-dark fluorescence representing the arrival of modernity. That the young women who applied radium paint to watch dials eventually suffered from radiation poisoning also came to stand for modernity’s mixed blessings. By the 1930s, radioactivity and atomic imagery claimed a central role in American thinking about science and technology, modernity and progress.

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, represented something different, and forced the American public to grapple in new ways with both the promise and the almost inconceivable peril of nuclear energy. As the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, fear of nuclear annihilation dominated the public discourse about nuclear technologies. The negative consequences of nuclear weapons were clear to see; but what about other forms of nuclear technology?

 American ideas about nuclear energy both shaped, and were shaped by, the modern environmental movement. In the early years of the Cold War, virulent anti-Communism suppressed concerns about potential negative impacts of both civilian and military nuclear technology. But in the late 1950s, the first public criticisms of nuclear energy built on a growing anxiety about the environmental impacts of fallout from weapons testing. This fear of fallout catalyzed the modern environmental movement. Scholars have suggested, for example, that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring owed its popularity to a general public primed for her warnings about silent, deadly chemicals and her questions about the environmental costs of progress by their encounters with fallout.

As the environmental movement blossomed in the late 1960s, the focus of environmental concern broadened to include the commercial generation of nuclear energy as well as nuclear weapons. At the same time, the promoters of nuclear power viewed the technology a perfect response to newfound concerns about pollution and air quality. With rising costs of fossil fuels, concerns about the stability of the energy supply, and heavy government subsidies, many utility companies invested in the construction of nuclear generating stations.

At the heart of these debates lay fundamental questions about the nature of progress. What kind of promises did the American dream entail, exactly? What role might nuclear energy—and science and technology in general—play in the pursuit of progress? And what costs—environmental and otherwise—should people accept in this pursuit?

James Feldman, Nuclear Reactions: Documenting American Encounters with Nuclear Energy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. 

Dr. Jim Feldman is an environmental historian whose teaching and research interests include American and global environmental history, wilderness and National Park Service policy, radioactive waste policy and management, and campus sustainability. He has explored these subjects in two books: "A Storied Wilderness: Rewilding the Apostle Islands" and "Nuclear Reactions: Documenting American Encounters with Nuclear Energy." He is currently an active member of the FORWAR+DS in Place project, in which he is exploring the history of the PCB cleanup in the Fox River.