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This article discusses a particular cultural perspective on a technology. For a general discussion of the issues and debate surrounding nuclear technology, see nuclear power debate.
Nuclear optimism is a term used to refer to optimistic expectations held by some regarding the future of nuclear technologies to benefit mankind.Ganguly (2008), pg. 13
Cohn (1997), pg. 107
Evans (1984), pg. 150
Nuttall (2004), pg. 67
Wolfson (1993), pg. 456
Collingridge (1992), pg. 65

This optimism had its greatest popularity during the 1950s and 1960s when the atom itself became a chic symbol of the future in popular culture, and commentators proclaimed that a new "Atomic Age" had begun.

A 1940 Saturday Evening Post article provides one of the earliest expositions on this perspective:

"International boundaries, money as we know it today, and poverty would vanish from the earth. So would war itself; for the economic causes of war would no longer exist. That, gentlemen -- that Utopia, if you like -- was what we envisioned: a free world of free peoples living in peace and prosperity, facing a future of unlimited richness."

Nuclear optimism can be applied in a number of different ways, particularly to the potential for using nuclear power for energy, or the potential for using nuclear weapons arsenals as means to avert war. Most views that are characterized as nuclear optimism are controversial because of societal concerns about the safety of large-scale nuclear reactions and/or the potential misuse of the technology. Nevertheless many continue to believe strongly in the promise of these technologies.Ganguly (2008), pg. 13
Nuttall (2004), pg. 67

Optimism regarding nuclear power has sometimes been connected with nuclear weapons because of a belief by some that making nuclear technology more available decreases the motivation to develop weapons (or simply that the two uses support each other and build security).Evans (1984), pg. 2. "The advanced technology required was a challenge undertaken in the spirit of optimism. ... The link between nuclear power and weapons ... was seen as an asset rather than a liability ..."
Frankly (2008), pg. 140.
Schiff (1984), pg. 55-56. "inherent in the Atoms for Peace formula, the norm of reciprocity was implicitly adopted. ... The trade was a policy of non-acquisition of nuclear weapons by the consumer states in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology transfers from the suppliers."

Conversely some have expressed a pessimistic connection because of concerns that developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes can lead to its use for war.

Though this optimism declined for some time following after the 1960s there has recently been a resurgence of interest in these technologies, largely in academia and government circles.Nuttall (2004), pg. 1
"So nuclear power is coming back? Increasingly the media in Europe and North America are giving that impression."

Nuclear power

During the 1950s and 1960s nuclear power was seen as the energy of the future which would gradually replace petroleum and coal as well as most other sources of energy then used.Canadian Nuclear Society (2007)
Watts (2001), pg. 312 Society in the world's industrialized nation believed that energy would soon become inexpensive to the point of becoming negligible thereby ushering in a new age of mankind (hence the term Atomic Age that was popular at the time). The United Statesmarker launched its Atoms for Peace program that provided nuclear power technology to less developed nations, and countries around the world raced to develop their own domestic nuclear energy programs.

By the 1970s it had become apparent that the economic factors associated with nuclear energy were not so simple as previously believed and the environmental hazards posed by nuclear waste were not easy to solve. Two decades of the Cold War in which the world had fretted about the possibility of nuclear annihilation also dampened optimism about the technology in general and led to increasing protests against its use. Finally, following the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Islandmarker and Chernobylmarker, political sentiment turned decidedly against nuclear power and construction of nuclear power plants in the world slowed dramatically. Nevertheless optimism about the future of nuclear energy never entirely perished and nuclear power plants continue to operate throughout the world.

Many commentators and policy-makers today believe that the 21st century will witness a major nuclear renaissance, a dramatic expansion of the use of nuclear power for producing energy compared to the relative lull in construction of nuclear power plants that characterized the late 20th century. Indeed Chinamarker has been active in development and construction of nuclear power technology and there has been widespread discussion regarding new construction in governments around the world. A major motivation for this renewed interest has been primarily worries about a looming energy crisis and concerns about the environmental pollution and global warming caused by the current widespread use of fossil fuels.

Nuclear weapons

Since their creation these weapons have been heavily criticized by many experts as dangerous and unnecessary. Indeed in spite of the argument that these weapons hastened the end of World War II commentators and politicians around the world have questioned the United Statesmarker' rationale for having used them.Lifton (1998), pg. 94
Keever (2004), pg. 68
Nevertheless a persistent number of scholars have argued that nuclear weapons have in fact served to maintain peace around the world and will continue to do so. Most arguments in support of this optimism, sometimes known as the nuclear peace theory, are based on the assertion that the threat of mutual destruction keeps nations that possess these weapons from going to war. The rationale is that even the most irrational regime recognizes the futility of fighting a war that virtually guarantees this outcome. Examples cited in support of this perspective include the following.
  • The fact that during the Cold War the Soviet Unionmarker and the United States never fought an active war despite open hostility and military build-up.
  • The fact that, since acquiring nuclear weapons, Indiamarker and Pakistanmarker have not fought a large-scale war despite previously having fought three major wars and the continuing Kashmir conflict.

The theoretical basis for this optimism is the science of deterrence theory, an international-relations discipline that predates nuclear technology. One of the first theorists to formulate a rationale for nuclear optimism was Kenneth Waltz. He bases his optimism on two propositions:
  • "Nuclear weapons, responsibly used, make wars hard to start. Nations that have nuclear weapons have strong incentives to use them responsibly."
  • Because this holds true "for small as for big nuclear powers ... the measured spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than to be feared."
His rationale has been criticized by organizational theorists such as Scott Sagan who argue that Waltz's rationale ignores the possibility of unreliability in any particular organization.

David Karl and Jordan Seng have more recently refined the optimism argument, particularly in addressing concerns of proliferation in new, often less developed, nuclear states. They argue, among other things, that new nuclear states do not need complex control controls for their smaller arsenals and, therefore, can manage their strike capability with simple control structures.Seng (1997)
Karl (1993) Their chance of accident, therefore, need not be higher than more developed states with more complex control structures yet their arsenals can still provide effective deterrence.

In the political world today nuclear optimism is highly controversial. However, even in Japan, historically one of the most anti-nuclear nations in the world, some politicians and commentators have recently begun a stronger push for Japan's acquisition of nuclear weapons demonstrating at least a shift away from the traditional pessimistic view that these weapons inevitably lead to war.

Popular culture

Because of the rapid pace of development in technology following the industrial revolution, the late 19th century and early 20th century saw a great deal of speculation in popular fiction about a weapon to end all wars, a weapon so fearsome that war itself would become unthinkable. The 1889 novel The Great War Syndicate, for example, tells of England's developing a superweapon so terrifying that it immediately ends a war between England and the United States and ushers in an era of world peace. The nature of such hypothetical weapons varied greatly depending on the source but the premise that they could bring about peace was not a unique one.

The general public first became aware of the development of nuclear weapons as result of reporting by William L. Laurence, a New York Times science journalist who became the official journalist for the U.S. Manhattan Project and authored many of the government press releases regarding the project and the bombings in Japan. The power of these weapons combined with their role in the closing of World War II captured the imagination of the American public and Allied countries around the world (helped in no small part by government propaganda).

Though the public was always concerned about the danger posed by nuclear weapons, in the years immediately following the war popular culture in the U.S. and Western Europe often portrayed the power of these weapons in a positive light. One iconic example was designer Louis RĂ©ard who in 1946 named his new bathing suit design the bikini in reference to nuclear testingmarker at the Bikini Atollmarker. U.S. and Soviet education programs promoted the idea that nuclear technology would promote prosperity and peace. In the U.S. and Western Europe nuclear weapons were seen by many as the only guarantee against invasion by the Soviet Union. The public in the Soviet Union and its allies had largely the same view toward the West. The optimistic association, of course, never appeared in Japan.

In 1957 Walt Disney released the film Our Friend the Atom which was shown to school children throughout the United States and to many in other parts of the world. Public optimism was at its all time high with the most of the public in the industrialized world believing that all power sources in the near future would use nuclear energy and that prosperity was inevitable. The atom and other symbols of nuclear energy became popular symbols in advertising and even children's toys.

The fear of the technology was never fully absent in the public. Some early books and films such as the 1947 story Tomorrow's Children and the 1954 Japanese film Godzilla demonstrated a marked fear and pessimism which existed even during this age of optimism. By the 1970s public awareness of the dangers of these technologies such as nuclear waste, meltdown, and fallout popular associations with nuclear technology became decidedly darker and hopeful associations vanished from popular culture. Popular fiction such as the American films The China Syndrome and The Day After were almost uniformly pessimistic in their depictions of the technology.

Though the pessimism in the general public has decreased somewhat in recent years, popular culture has never recovered its optimism with respect to nuclear technology.

See also


  1. Holl (1997), pg. 122
  2. Franklin (2008), pg. 140
  3. Byrne (1995), pg. 56
  4. Wolfson (1993), 455
  5. Tepperman, Jonathan: Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb, Newsweek, Aug 29, 2009
  6. Chengappa (2000)
  7. National Research Council (1996), pg. 414
  8. Edwards (1986), Ch. 5
  9. Goldstein (2005), pg. 100
  10. Ganguly (2008), ch. 4
  11. Ganguly (2008), pg. 13
  12. Waltz (1981)
  13. Sagan (1993)
  14. Franklin(1989), pg. 18-25
  15. Lev (2006), pg. 172
  16. Pedersen (2004), pg. 69


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