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The genealogy of nuclear fear

How the world turned against nuclear energy and rationalism

Artillery Row

There has been much talk recently of a “nuclear renaissance”. However, this seems to confuse a change in public opinion with a change in the situation of the sector. In Europe, attitudes toward nuclear energy have shifted for the better: according to a survey conducted by Ipsos, Europeans’ ignorance about the atom is declining, and more of them see it as a clean energy source — but that’s not enough.

This sounds not like a renaissance, but the onset of nuclear schizophrenia

The International Energy Agency predicts that doubling nuclear capacity will be required to reach net zero by 2050. Given the dwindling of engineering talent, chronic delays, burdensome regulations and lack of capital, this appears to be a highly optimistic prospect. The IEA assumes that the nuclear sector must receive $90 trillion a year by 2030 to meet climate targets. For its part, the UK Government hopes that 25 per cent of its energy will come from nuclear power by 2050. Meanwhile, the British government still hasn’t included this type of energy in its Green Financing Framework. The problem, however, is not exclusively British. The entire sector is capital-starved, and green constraints imposed on investment only aggravate the situation. In a survey of the 30 most important global banks, it was found that 57 per cent excluded nuclear from the green investment category, and 40 per cent do not mention it at all. The sector is cut off from a growing global pool of capital. This does not sound like a nuclear renaissance, but rather the onset of nuclear schizophrenia.

In 1956, the UK built its first commercial nuclear power plant. The atmosphere of nuclear optimism was palpable, with some believing that in the future every power plant built in Britain would be nuclear. Currently, of the 45 reactors built, 36 have been shut down. Nuclear power plants in Britain are being constructed today by the Chinese and the French. The most advanced project of them all, Hinkley Point C — one of the most expensive power plants ever built — is expected to be completed in 2026, although some sources suggest a more realistic date would be 2036.

One source of the problems plaguing the nuclear sector today — from regulation to exclusion, from environmental taxonomies and shutting out investment to the scarcity of engineers — is the atmosphere of nuclear fear that has pervaded the West for decades.


Elites were the first to spread the fear. By the late 1940s, intellectuals were putting the issue on a knife’s edge: the atom must be stopped completely. Bertrand Russell articulated the climate of opinion of some elites at the time when he declared that there was no third way — either humanity would choose a world government, or it would annihilate itself. Oppenheimer, consumed by guilt over having had a hand in creating the bomb, planned to set up an international organisation of nuclear physicists to oversee every nuclear facility on the planet.

The public, however, did not share the scientists’ anxiety. Most Americans did not feel guilt for Hiroshima. On the contrary, they held the belief that the bomb had brought the war to a quicker end, thus saving many lives. The public’s attitude to the creation of international agencies to control the atom was similar. Faced with the Soviet rejection of the idea, Americans did not want to give up such a powerful weapon.

The 1955 Hiroshima demonstration marked the start of a shift in how nuclear energy was perceived. Pictures of the protest circulated around the world. Young people began to organise, viewing the bombs as a symbol of all the evil represented by the establishment. The apprehension aroused by nuclear weapons turned into a comprehensive critique of modern society, becoming one of the catalysts of the counterculture.

Opposition to the atom was amongst the decisive impulses for the emergence of the environmental movement. Barry Commoner, a notorious American green critic from that era, admitted that the environment became a “cause” for him because he followed the discussions about the atom. One of the most important environmental magazines of the time, Environment, was originally called Nuclear Information.

The nuclear industry realised that its image was rapidly deteriorating. Accordingly, it launched a campaign in the 1960s. However, as Spencer Weart notes in The Rise of Nuclear Fear, the tone changed. Gone were the optimistic visions of a future where energy would be “too cheap to meter”. The aim now was to calm the public’s fears.

Since the mid-1960s, nuclear has received less and less attention in the press. The threat of nuclear war was fading away in the public consciousness. In the 1970s, however, a second crusade against the atom began. At its core was the equation of reactors with bombs.

Nuclear energy-critical books spoke in one breath about the apocalypse and reactors

One of the first nuclear energy-critical books in English, published by two environmental activists, Our New Life with the Atom, spoke in one breath about the nuclear apocalypse, reactors and radioactive waste. This confusion was typical of the environmental movement, as was the path of activist Helen Caldicott. In her native Australia, she campaigned against nuclear weapons. When she moved to the United States, she found that no one cared about bombs anymore, so she changed the focus of her activism to reactors. The entire environmental movement redirected its attention this way. In his widely popular book from the 1970s, The New Tyranny, German journalist Robert Jungk associated reactors with a vision of the world where humans are transformed into robot-like slaves. He described this undesirable nuclear future as more inhumane than Hitler’s regime.

Radicals and the media have transformed public sentiment. The tactic of fuelling fear with ignorance led to a point where, according to polls, a third of the world believed that reactors could explode exactly like nuclear bombs. The press propagated the notion that just anyone could steal plutonium from a power plant and build a homemade bomb.

In several European nations, concerns surrounding nuclear energy have led to long-awaited victories for environmentalists. In 1978, Austria rejected nuclear energy in a referendum. Two years later, Sweden had a similar referendum with the same outcome. Later, votes took place in Italy and the Netherlands. Green propaganda triumphed — progress lost.

Weart argues that in the 1970s in the West, the construction of reactors was still supported by majorities, albeit small ones. A study of the American and European press from the same period shows that nuclear became the most loathed technology amongst the media class. Its attitude did not align with public sentiment, nor did it mirror the views of the business milieu or the engineering community. The deposing of Richard Nixon and the anti-nuclear crusade were two great victories for the media class in the 1970s.

After the accident at the American Three Mile Island power plant, journalists ignited a hysteria. In unison, they talked about the end of humanity and Hiroshima. People living near the plant began to call themselves “survivors”, although there was virtually no radioactive spill and no one was injured. This hysteria spread through the world. Demonstrations were held not only in Washington, but also in Germany, Switzerland, France, the UK, Spain, Canada and Japan.

There could hardly be a better example of the phenomenon that Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein have dubbed “availability cascades”. As the authors explain, “the perceived likelihood of any given event is tied to the ease with which its occurrence can be brought to mind”. When one is bombarded with images of nuclear devastation and radioactive releases that turn the world into a wasteland, it is difficult to assess the benefits of nuclear power with cool and detached calculation.

This atmosphere of fear has underpinned the unrealistic regulations that are one of the main causes of escalating costs and delays in reactor construction. As Ted Nordhaus from the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute put it, “Most nuclear skeptics understand as well as everyone else that the entire nuclear regulatory apparatus is built upon a foundation of epidemiological sand.” An analysis of the U.S. Davis-Besse plant found that changing regulations were responsible for 60 per cent of the increase in construction costs, from $136 million projected in 1967 to $650 million in 1977, when the plant was completed. At the same time, construction costs for nuclear plants in France were much lower, as Brian Potter remarks, precisely because of the lack of constant changes in regulations.


It is difficult not to consider attitudes toward nuclear power as a proxy for attitudes toward technological progress. A survey of book vocabulary from the mid-19th century to the 1980s reveals a greater prevalence of terms related to rationalism and science over those associated with emotions. Since the 1980s, language expressing feelings has begun to dominate. Reason ceased to be the lens through which civilisation understood its experience. In the West, the retreat from nuclear power has been happening in parallel with the retreat from rationalism.

Political writer Brink Lindsey calls this phenomenon the “anti-Promethean backlash”: “the broad-based cultural turn away from those forms of technological progress that extend and amplify human mastery over the physical world”. The West ceased to explore space, gave up supersonic planes and rejected nuclear energy. Lindsey compares these abdications with the Ming Dynasty period, when the Chinese renounced exploration and destroyed their own expeditionary fleet.

The nuclear renaissance in the West stands, as yet, on shaky ground. It’s happening in the East instead. Russia was the world’s most important vendor of nuclear technology until the invasion of Ukraine. It is China, however, that now has the boldest ambitions. The PRC currently has 53 GW of nuclear power and aims to more than triple that by 2035 (keep in mind that the UK’s plans call for 24 GW by 2050). The risk-aversion of one civilisation is an opportunity for another — and, at the same time, one of the most underrated causes of decadence.

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