Images that shape the nuclear debate

Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, by Spencer R. Weart. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 544 pp, $29.50. A MAD scientist enters his laboratory, seeking cosmic secrets. He dreams of a ``white city'' of hope. He creates a monster. The monster runs amok. The world as we know it is destroyed. The no-longer-mad scientist and a good woman (optional) rise from the ashes to face the dawn of a new civilization.

Variations on this set of images form the basis of legend, Grade-B monster movies, and countless science-fiction novels. It is also (except for the happy ending) the substance of public debate on nuclear energy. For, Spencer Weart argues, much public discussion of nuclear power is not about nuclear physics. It is about nuclear fear.

``Nuclear clich'es,'' he argues, distort rational evaluation of ``real facts.'' Public understanding of nuclear issues is caught up in a ``tangle of imagery,'' the bright and the somber together, and the images are crowding out the facts.

This book offers no analysis of superpower relations, force-ratio calculations, conflict resolution strategies, or calls for ethical rearmament. Instead, it sifts through elements of popular culture - comic books, pulp magazine stories, Saturday movie serials, science fiction, science journalism - and traces the origins and development of the images that surround nuclear questions.

The ``good'' atom: radioactive rays with powers to heal; the ocean liner that encircles the globe, ``fueled by a single gram of radium''; the ``white city'' of hope.

The ``bad'' atom: the atomic scientist who glows in the dark, killing everything he touches; radioactive mutant monsters ``who in their anguish stamp around smashing everything''; radioactive rays with powers to destroy.

For Weart, these images of fantastic hopes and fears have a history. They are ``encrusted with complex and emotive meanings.'' And they are powerful. Nuclear images short-circuit thought, he says, allowing the public to set aside the actual experience of power plants and bombs, in favor of comfortable, plausible images.

Thus, Weart argues, a public steeped in ``good atom'' imagery trusted in ``healing rays'' long before ``scientific evidence'' suggested they were actually helpful. Radioactive spas and medicines, a rush to X-ray everything from feet to babies, were all inspired by a vague conviction that some good would come of mysterious powers.

The drive toward a civilian nuclear industry began long before ``ordinary business practices'' would dictate its practicality. ``Forces of traditional imagery encouraged scientists, journalists, and officials to make gorgeous promises that went far beyond fact.''

But by the '60s, Weart argues, ``bad atom'' images held sway, tending public thought toward ``a deep, unreasoning hostility to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.''

Elements of his case are persuasive. His method is well suited to an analysis of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, which Weart describes as a defense program launched on death-ray stories. The ``star wars'' program, he says, is ``a striking demonstration that imagery could shape history in spite of what scientists and engineers held to be true.''

Early chapters in the book provide vivid accounts of the Manhattan Project, the ``powerful and arrogant'' atomic establishment, and the press personalities at the fringes of nuclear issues. But Weart's treatment of actors in the nuclear drama comes to resemble his own good-atom, bad-atom images: heroic ``routine scientists'' vs. ``pseudo-scientists.''

Real scientists, ``underlings in a corner of some industrial organization or poorly paid teachers,'' have thoughts worthy of the public's respect. They deal with genuine, straightforward technical problems, and, unlike the mad scientists of myth, enjoy warm associations with other people. Their work is not uniquely mysterious: ``Making a nuclear device work was neither more nor less magical than wiring a house for electricity or building a bonfire.'' Engineers, industrial scientists, and managers, armed with the technical training necessary to think through scientific facts, tend to support civilian use of nuclear power, he says.

Weart is less charitable toward pseudo-scientists.They are, he says, often people who had troubled childhoods. By implication, anxious people gravitate toward anxious views of the world - views snapped up by a press corps of ``real-life clich'e experts,'' for ``no newpapers would dream of reporting routine science.''

Beyond this core of faux-physicists is a larger group of nuclear whistleblowers, with enough technical training to be taken seriously by news media hungry for sensational images. Weart dismisses antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott, for example, as a ``lively and tireless pediatrician.'' These pseudo-scientists, he says, feed the fantasies of larger groups (``students, housewives, independent tradesmen, farmers'') who judge nuclear policy questions on the basis of feelings. They tend to be, he says, ``allergic to authority,'' intemperate, and susceptible to ``attacks of imagery.''

We are told much about the images they employ, but little of the substance of the arguments they advance. Opponents of nuclear energy may be using ``primitive images'' to advance their arguments, but are they pointing to real problems? A response to this question must move beyond a history of images to an analysis of facts.

Weart moves in this direction in his discussion of nuclear waste. In a brief passage, he says that ``wastes are remarkably compact,'' have a volume small enough to bury in one locality ``with scant risk to persons in other regions,'' and that ``even expert critics agree there were many feasible ways of disposal.'' There are, he adds, other sources of pollution. Raw sewage is a more immediate environmental threat than ``dumping drums of slightly radioactive materials in the ocean.'' Moreover, the nuclear industry is at last learning, better than most industries, to take extreme care with its wastes, he says.

There is a curious pre-Chernobyl ring to these assurances, which takes us to the core problem of the book. Is there a basis ``in fact'' for nuclear fear? Weart would pull the nuclear debate away from fear and back to fact. Nuclear fact. Political and economic facts, he says, introduce ``endless ambiguity.''

Exactly. Two years after the Chernobyl disaster, Soviet officials complain of ``radiation phobia,'' but have also put five more Chernobyl-type reactors into operation. Officials said the reactors were under construction when the Chernobyl reactor exploded, and it would have been too expensive to stop the work. Economic fact.

The United States Congress, winding down a 30-year search for a nuclear dump site, settles on Yucca Mountain, Nev. The site has three earthquake fault lines, a thermally active zone, and only four congressmen. Political fact.

We owe much to Weart for drawing attention to images that substitute for thought. But in the real world of political economy, even and especially on nuclear questions, timid voices have significance.

Gail Russell is on the Monitor staff.

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