Blowing up the desert – and minds: the first atomic bomb test in 1945. US Government
Over seventy-five years ago, at a remote site in New Mexico, the first test of a nuclear bomb was detonated, producing a massive explosion. The test, which presaged the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan in August 1945, forever changed the course of world affairs. The ensuing nuclear explosions and the radioactive fallout they produced quickly raised concerns about the dangers of radiation.
But what does “radiation” mean? And how have attitudes towards radiation changed over time?
Technical definition aside, to most Americans today it means something like this: energies, often man-made, usually undetectable, that have strange effects on living beings. We relate the abstract physical concept to a personal biological concept. We pay close attention when we are exposed to these energies, even briefly.
The first days: a glowing welcome
In this sense, the era of radiation began in 1895 with the discovery of X-rays. In the half century that followed, Americans indulged in optimistic fantasies about the miracles these energies could perform for better health. . But they also quickly learned to fear them. Overall, anxieties had greater resilience.
Such reactions came from the many direct and personal experiences Americans had with irradiation at a time when radium and x-ray devices were icons of scientific modernity in the early 20th century. They were hailed as the wonders of the age, presented simultaneously as poisons and miracle cures, perpetual motion machines and planet-destroying explosives. Radioactive substances (or plausible counterfeits thereof) have been added to dozens of everyday consumer products, including toothpaste and lipstick, to enhance them with the mysterious energies of the atom. X-rays were portrait tools in the beauty salon (for hair removal) as well as in the hospital.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, radioactive substances and irradiating machinery came directly under the control of a few specific entities: the government, the medical authorities and the scientific community. Tangible experiences of radiation became muted and rarer for Americans, and fanciful speculations about atomic energies in popular literature gave way to more sober considerations of the new nuclear reality. American feelings about radiation have become more reserved and tied more to their anxieties about the world at large than to their personal experiences. Radiation, still impenetrable, has become a clean slate.
Physicists emerged from the war with a fearsome and controversial reputation. Some scientists have campaigned against the further development of nuclear weapons. Many others have taken funding from the Department of Defense to do just that.
Publicly, the government has downplayed weapons research while encouraging peaceful medical applications of the new isotopes. The 1953 media campaign “Atoms for Peace” envisioned international cooperation in energy research. Jobs and comforts came from American uranium, the message said. The obsession with the destructive capacity of atomic energy was the domain of the communist bloc.
The atomic peace dividend was real: nuclear power plants built from 1957 became a substantial part of the country’s electricity production. Before the construction of the first commercial power plant, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission happily predicted a world in which electricity would be “too cheap to measure”.
Fallout becomes a major fear
But the enthusiasm faded when nuclear power plants became a reality. The public did not universally trust the regulators and corporations that oversaw these factories, nor the engineers and scientists behind them. In March 1979, two reactors melted: one at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and one in a movie, The China Syndrome. The fact that the real accident was ultimately contained without casualties did little to allay the concerns voiced by the film: that nuclear energies were fundamentally beyond the control of fallible and corruptible people. No other plants were approved until 2012.
Radiation anxiety was heightened by the realization that it was becoming more difficult to avoid. Civilian scientists, refusing to trust the “ex cathedra speaking oracles of the Atomic Energy Commission”, conducted nationwide tests on baby teeth beginning in 1959. They found clear evidence that the fallout nuclear tests were accumulating in the children’s bodies. In 1963, atmospheric testing had been banned, but the feeling that radiation was a form of pollution endemic to the new “atomic age” had taken hold. Even natural sources of radiation seemed newly threatening. Radon gas, a selling point of early 20th century health spas, was discovered in the 1980s to accumulate in dangerous amounts in some residential basements.
It is this pervasive and inadvertent radiation threat that has given nuclear weapons their true horror. One could survive the initial blast, but the irradiated landscape that awaited survivors was subtle and menacing. Richard Rhodes credits the dark 1983 TV movie The Day After with Ronald Reagan’s energetic engagement in the disarmament talks.
He was not the only person thus affected. Books and movies that imagined the world after nuclear war highlighted the physical suffering of radiation sickness. But they also reinforced the association between radiation and mutation: the fictional post-nuclear landscapes featured radioactive distortions of both the body and the social order. Radiation has always been associated with change, but at a time when nuclear energies posed an existential threat to the world, it was harder to believe that such change would be for the better.
If “radiation” is tied to Americans’ opinions of who uses it, then perhaps the most troubling thing about it is how fragile and circumstantial their monopoly is. There is no more “secret of the bomb”; only diplomacy or threats prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Even much simpler mass irradiation devices – the so-called “dirty bombs” – alarm people with the anxiety left over from more than a century of encounters with radiant energy. Cold War-style nuclear anxieties have persisted because we do not fully trust either the energies or the human systems into which they are embedded.
This article has been updated with a new anniversary year.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts.
Matt Lavine does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.