The Rise of Atomic Power

Updated on September 25, 2018
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John Tuttle is a journalist with a niche in science, history, and culture, being featured on ZME Science, Ancient Origins, & elsewhere.

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It was August 6th, 1945. At a little after eight in the morning, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was utterly obliterated by a force the likes of such the world, let alone Japan, had never seen. It was as if in man's attempt to play God he was trying to echo the command, "Let there be light!" But unlike the Spirit of God in creation, this man-made light was a sign of death. First the flash of the expanding fireball, then the iconic and morale-crushing mushroom cloud.

Countless buildings were leveled like domino tiles, and in an instant, 80,000 human lives were snuffed out. The bomb which was dropped and caused such wanton catastrophe to the civilians and their home had been nicknamed "Little Boy." This infamous device became the sudden executioner of thousands of boys and girls, men and women. This was the atomic bomb, the most horrific and powerful weapon ever devised by scientists.

Japan, unrelenting of their war stance, witnessed the force of the atomic bombing repeated three days later. Another flash, another cloud, another mourning were the inescapable results. The aftermath of the largest war the world had experienced went out with a bang. Few of the world's calamities could come close to comparison with the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Thus, the earliest of public demonstrations of nuclear power were human holocausts. As it turned out, atomic energy could be used for constructive purposes just as well as it could be for destructive ones. Into the following decade, the United States and other countries entered an era of great fear over the future use of the atom bomb, also commonly known as a "nuke." However, this fear did not stop many from attempting to harness nuclear energy for other purposes.

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Other Uses of Nuclear Energy Are Explored

The realm of atomic energy was being explored by scientists as early as the late 1800's. It was Wilhelm Rontgen who discovered a type of ionizing radiation in 1895 when he generated X-rays. The next year, spouses and fellow scientists Pierre and Marie Curie officially coined the term "radioactivity." Their daughter Irene Curie, along with her husband Frederic Joliot, continued atomic experiments and research. In 1935, the husband-wife duo was awarded a Nobel Prize for their radioactive discoveries.

Both generations of Curies were friends of Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of modern history. Interestingly, neither the Curies nor Einstein himself had anything to do with the direct development of the A-bomb. However, in his own lifetime as well as in the present day, he was/is associated with the construction of the most devastating weapon engineered by mankind. The truth is the U.S. did not permit Einstein the security clearance needed to be able to participate in the Manhattan Project.

The scientists who did end up working on the project were not allowed to speak to him. He was considered a security risk. After "Little Boy" was let loose over Hiroshima and had accomplished what it was intended for, Albert Einstein regretted his minor act of suggesting to President Roosevelt that the U.S. should look into nuclear weaponry before the Germans did. It was a rueful decision in his eyes. He took no enjoyment in seeing what had been done to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the months and years following the dropping of the A-bombs on Japan, nuclear energy was sought to be employed for generating power, particularly for running naval vessels. So began some of the more popular constructive uses of atomic power.

A Nuclear Submarine.
A Nuclear Submarine. | Source

The world had obtained its first electricity-generating nuclear reactor when the Experimental Breeder reactor began working successfully in late 1951. The achievement from the Argonne National Laboratory was attributed to American ingenuity since it was developed in Idaho.

In 1946, the Soviets had started to set up the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering in the city of Obninsk. By 1954, Obninsk was the site of APS-1, the very first nuclear power plant which supplied electricity to the general public. The Soviets wasted no time in engineering atomic energy sources and weapons.

The use of reactors did not end on land alone; it soon spread to the sea, both above and below. The U.S. Navy was honored with having the first nuclear-powered submarine. She was powered by an S2W nuclear reactor, which explained her great speeds even though the sub was rather bulky, and was commissioned by the Navy in 1954. Quite appropriately, the world's pioneering nuclear sub was christened the USS Nautilus. Apparently, it was named after another USS Nautilus which had seen service in WWII. It is also, however, the name of the fictitious submarine from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Fearing the Threat of Nuclear Warfare

Many of the public's anxieties over the threat of nuclear attacks were quite warranted. Anyone who saw footage or images from the sites in Japan came to such a conclusion. The Atomic Age had begun. The plans of the A-bomb were an American secret which had to stay solely in the U.S., for the U.S. But it didn't.

Despite security for such a national secret, nuclear plans were leaked to the U.S.S.R. By late August 1949, the Soviets had their very own A-bomb, distressing news to many Americans. The U.S. took nuclear matters extremely seriously. People accused of being Russian atomic spies during this period were put in jail or executed.

Husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed via the electric chair under just such accusations in 1953. The execution caused large groups of sympathizers to gather in protest in cities such as New York, London, and Paris. But that did not change the sentence of the electric chair, the final word. Prior to the execution, when President Eisenhower was asked about their crimes, he said, "By their act, these two individuals have in fact betrayed the cause of freedom for which free men are dying at this very hour."

The video attached above was just one demonstration used in classrooms throughout the United States during these tense times in which the threat of atomic bombardment was as real as it ever could be. Unfortunately, some of the safety precautions suggested in Duck and Cover would have been in vain. But in 1951, our understanding of all the effects of the atomic bomb and of radiation was still in an almost infant-like state.

In late 1953, President Eisenhower proposed the "Atoms for Peace" program which was intended to regulate nuclear power in certain fields. It would be a four-year wait until the Atoms for Peace amounted to anything substantial. This was the founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an establishment which observes events related to nuclear technologies. The IAEA has gone on to try to create ways of protecting health patients from harmful ionizing radiation used in a number of procedures. The agency is involved in many other relevant projects.

Ballistic missiles are typically built for carrying nukes. Under President John F. Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out in 1962. This intense 13-day war alert between the United States and Soviet Russia had been brought about through complications of ballistic missile placements on the part of both sides. The Atomic Age was still a touchy and dangerous one.

Both the Atomic Age and the Cold War Era entered a new phase when the Russians became the Americans' equals in nuclear weaponry. This had occurred by the mid-1960's. This equality meant that if either nation launched a nuclear attack and the other nation retaliated, then both would veritably destroy each other.

The knowledge of this hypothetical yet grimly possible event was called mutual assured destruction, the acronym for which is MAD. Look at what the world powers had gotten themselves into. In the following years, this American paranoia has dissipated a great deal. In addition to a slew of laws set up and altered since the 1960's, some factors which may have contributed to the decrease in nuclear attention include the space race and various wars which the U.S. has become involved in.

An Atomic Culture

Nuclear Reactor Aboard the Submarine Seaview in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Nuclear Reactor Aboard the Submarine Seaview in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. | Source

News and society cause an effect on popular culture. So it's not all too surprising to find much of the pop culture of the fifties and sixties steeped in concepts and references revolving around the notion of atomic warfare and nuclear power. Japan, still picking up the broken pieces in the early 1950's, showed little to no interest in developing anything that involved atomic power. This opinion made its way into perhaps the most iconic Japanese monster creation put on the silver screen: Godzilla. The original film was released in 1954.

The very same year, Hollywood brought the nuclear monster movie Them! to theaters. The main plot involved the discovery of giant ants, a result of exposure to radiation. Eventually, men end up battling the oversized pests in the sewers of Los Angeles, the drainage tunnels of which had become iconic in the film He Walked By Night (1948).

The 1960's was one of the prime decades of science fiction in literature, film, and TV, the last being a somewhat new medium at the time. It was sci-fi's golden age. Focusing in on the film/TV industry of the day, nukes and nuclear power were "in." The audiences sci-fi was geared toward grew to love it.

If aliens were invading Earth and all other military tactics failed, the A-bomb was the last resort. If a futuristic story was being portrayed, future humanity was still living in an Atomic Age. The spaceships ran on nuclear energy. All the submarines on the big screen were nuclear. Nothing else would do. Even Captain Nemo's fantastic Nautilus was nuclear-powered when Disney adapted 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea into a film.

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Drawing a good deal of inspiration from Verne's submarine epic, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea film and subsequent series took place aboard the Seaview, a massive nuclear submarine which also happened to carry a few nuclear missiles. It seemed as though every other week, the crew of the Seaview might have to launch the nukes or else alien invaders might try to launch them and destroy major cities around the globe.

Stock footage of a Polaris missile shooting out of the water and into the sky was overused obsessively by various films and TV shows in the 1960's such as Batman the Movie with Adam West. In the time travel series The Time Tunnel, Dr. Anthony Newman would travel back in time and meet his father who perished in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Abducted by Japanese spies, he is tortured. Being from the future, he tells them honestly what will happen in the future. The spies are dissatisfied, and Newman threatens to tell them the horrors of the A-bomb.

The literature was also steeped in the fear of devastating nuclear warfare. Even the literature which had nothing to do with rockets or bombs was seen as symbolic of this kind of doomsday weaponry. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy was becoming quite popular, particularly among younger people, during the sixties.

Some of the critics and fans saw the Ring of Power as being representative of the atomic bomb. The author disliked this association and puts such assumptions to rest when he responds to a letter in 1960 with the following: "Personally I do not think that either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 303).

In a correspondence with another individual in 1956, Tolkien goes even deeper with his denial of atomic influence of any degree:

"Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for Domination). Nuclear physics can be used for that purpose. But they need not be. They need not be used at all. If there is any contemporary reference in my story at all it is to what seems to me the most widespread assumption of our time: that if a thing can be done, it must be done. This seems to me wholly false. The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 246).

Tolkien did not intend his stories to take on atomic relevance. Nonetheless, that's what happened due to the looming threat of nuclear warfare in his day and age. MAD is still quite possible in the present day. Nuclear warfare remains prominently displayed throughout pop culture (eg: in The Avengers, a nuke might be the only way to make a dent in the ranks of alien invaders). But the heated and intense moments of the Atomic Age are behind us, yet they should never be forgotten.

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    © 2018 John Tuttle

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