However, the "nuclear dream" fell far short of what was promised because nuclear technology has produced a range of social problems, from the arms race, to the Chernobyl disaster and Three Mile Island accident, and the unresolved difficulties of bomb plant cleanup and civilian plant waste disposal and decommissioning.
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".
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. Glen 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".
World War II
The phrase "Atomic Age" was coined by William L. Laurence, a New York Timesjournalist who became the official journalist for the Manhattan Project which developed the first nuclear weapons. 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. 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".
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". 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 Nucleonconcept 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. Nuclear policymaking became almost a collective technocratic fantasy, or at least was driven by fantasy:
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.
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".
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".
Fear of possible atomic attack from the Soviet Union caused U.S. school children to participate in "duck and cover" civil defense drills.
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".
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”. 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. However, there were many negative impacts from Project Plowshare’s 27 nuclear explosions. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. According to UBS AG, the Fukushima I nuclear accidents have cast doubt on whether even an advanced economy like Japan can master nuclear safety. Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable. An interdisciplinary team from MIT has estimated that if nuclear power use tripled from 2005–2055 (from 2% to 7%), at least four serious nuclear accidents would be expected in that period.
In September 2012, Japan announced that it would completely phase out nuclear power by 2030, joining with Germany, and other countries in reaction to the accident at Fukushima.
1934 — Enrico Fermi begins bombarding uranium with slow neutrons; Ida Noddack predicts that uranium nuclei will break up under bombardment by fast neutrons (Fermi does not pursue this because his theoretical mathematical predictions do not predict this result.).
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.
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.
21 November 2006 — Implementation of the ITERfusion 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.
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.
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.
1985 - 1990 in the Film series Back to the Future, references to the Atomic Age and uses of Nuclear Energy are broadly explored; for example the use of Plutonium in the time machine, the concept of "Mr. Fusion" (a futuristic small scale fusion reactor for domestic use that can use garbage as fuel) and references to the common 1950s conceptions of the Atomic Age.
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 video 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 — 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.
^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
^Benjamin K. Sovacool, The National Politics of Nuclear Power, Routledge, p. 68.
^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."
^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.
^John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, p. 85.
^ abJohn Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (1996). Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk, Transaction Publishers, pp. 50-51.
^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
"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".