It’s hardly a mystery why the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan is so horrifying—and so riveting. A country already savaged by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 24-foot-high tsunamis is now facing the prospect of meltdowns at multiple reactors, with a handful of technicians risking their lives to avert further radiation leaks. But the crisis is attention-grabbing for another reason, too: The fear of nuclear disaster has long claimed a special hold on our collective psyche.
Pro-nuclear advocates love to grumble that people are disproportionately, even irrationally, afraid of nuclear power. There’s certainly something to that complaint. According to a 1992 study by James Flynn, a researcher at Decision Research, the public in the United States and Canada seems to dread nuclear accidents more than any other type of disaster—even though the industry has amassed a commendable safety record. In Japan, it took an earthquake of apocalyptic force to cause serious problems at the Fukushima reactor. And, while the risk of calamity will never be zero, nuke fans note that other energy-related tragedies don’t get the same frenzied media coverage, whether it’s a deadly explosion at a natural-gas plant or the 13,200 Americans killed by coal pollution each year.
This outsized panic about nuclear was on full display after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania back in 1979. No one died, and epidemiological studies later found that what radioactive gas had escaped had no discernible effect on cancer rates. Yet the incident provoked widespread alarm about nuclear power—no doubt aided by the release, just 12 days earlier, of The China Syndrome, a Jane Fonda film about a potential reactor meltdown. What’s more, when a waterfront chemical facility blew up in New Jersey just two years later—sending a toxic cloud wafting toward Staten Island—the outcry was hushed in comparison.
Or take the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. This, granted, was a genuine tragedy: Fifty people were killed, and it’s still unclear what fate awaits the 800,000 workers (known as“Liquidators”) who were sent in to clean up the mess. Yet just two years prior, deadly gas from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India had killed 5,000 people, and the reaction was, comparatively speaking, more restrained. No one suggested banning chemical plants altogether, whereas Chernobyl set off a fierce anti-nuclear backlash across Europe.
In fact, studies have found that one of the most serious health consequences of Chernobyl was the psychological damage, including post-traumatic stress, in people otherwise unaffected by the meltdown. Phantom symptoms and suicide rates skyrocketed. Fear, it turns out, is one of the worst effects of a nuclear accident. Which raises the question: Is there any cure for our outsized atomic anxieties?
To get a better handle on our long, uneasy love affair with the atom, I talked to Spencer Weart, a retired historian at the American Institute of Physics and the author of a forthcoming book on the history of nuclear fear. Dread toward nuclear fission, Weart notes, predates the Manhattan Project: “Ever since the discovery of radioactivity at the beginning of the twentieth century, this has been depicted as a power that man was not meant to wield.” Already in the 1930s, movies like The Invisible Ray—in which a scientist played by Boris Karloff encounters a radioactive meteorite and, from then on, kills anyone he touches—depicted radiation as an uncanny force that could bring gruesome death or birth new life. In 1943, Kryptonite, a potent metaphor for the power of radiation, made its debut on the Superman radio series in the United States.
The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fear of nuclear annihilation during the cold war embedded nuclear fears even more deeply. In Japan,Godzilla, a film about a monster created by nuclear detonations, first appeared in 1954. The movie was inspired by a hydrogen-bomb test at Bikini Atoll that ended up blanketing a faraway Japanese tuna ship in radioactive dust (crew members suffered from nausea, burns, and bleeding gums, while newspapers in Tokyo fanned concerns about radioactive tuna). In later films, Godzilla’s arch-nemesis, Mothra, hailed from a fictional nuclear-testing island. Back in the United States, meanwhile, worries about nuclear war and fallout mixed in with rapidly growing concerns about cancer—radiation, after all, was one of the first carcinogens discovered, an invisible force triggering the ultimate deadly disease. “The fear of cancer has long been an incredible motivating force in the United States,” says James Gilbert, a historian at the University of Maryland. “The first thing people would ask when it came to nuclear power was, ‘What’s the risk of cancer?’ ” (The textbook view is that radiation is one of the weaker carcinogens out there.)
It didn’t help that many of the dire warnings by anti-nuclear activists were hard to refute: In the 1950s, opponents of open-air testing claimed that the U.S. military was sending radiation up through the atmosphere and boosting cancer rates around the world. “Now, does that mean out of a million incidents of cancer worldwide, there will now be a million plus ten?” asks Weart. “We don’t know, it’s hard to detect.” That lingering uncertainty has made radiation more unnerving than other threats. When a natural-gas plant blows up, we know who got burned and who didn’t right away. That’s not necessarily the case with radioactivity—an unseen force working in mysterious ways.
It’s clear enough why radiation—and the bomb itself—garnered such horrified fascination. But why did peaceful nuclear power get such a bad rap? (After all, X-rays and nuclear medicine are perfectly popular.) Pro-nuke supporters often blame activist types, many of whom turned their focus to nuclear plants after they successfully campaigned against open-air nuclear tests in the 1960s. But Weart notes that nuclear scientists themselves also hyped the danger of reactors. “Every worry you hear about nuclear reactors exploding, about meltdowns—every exaggerated scenario originated with some nuclear scientist or engineer,” he says. In the postwar era, many of these scientists fretted that the nuclear industry would adopt overly lax standards. Edward Teller, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” was a big proponent of civilian nuclear power (in 1979, he suffered a heart attack and blamed it on Jane Fonda’s anti-nuclear activism). But he spent a lot of time agitating for safety rules, playing a role in persuading U.S. reactor operators to install containment vessels (something Chernobyl, tragically, lacked). Such warnings, ironically, both made the industry safer and stoked fears of catastrophe.
Distrust of government has also helped nurture anti-nuclear sentiment. As Flynn’s study found, the yawning gap between expert and public views on nuclear risk owes largely to a lack of trust in government and industry officials to manage the hazards safely. In the United States, the old Atomic Energy Commission was widely viewed as secretive and deceptive before its dissolution in 1974. Perhaps this explains why the two industrialized countries that have had the most success in allaying nuclear fears are France and Japan, cultures that are largely comfortable with leaving the task of governing to technocrats. (Though, admittedly, in Japan, confidence in the government and nuclear utilities had come under strain even before Fukushima.)
Until last week, the obsession with nuclear risk had somewhat subsided in the past few decades. In countries where controversy had raged over nuclear power, reactor construction mostly came to a halt after Chernobyl, which drained momentum from the anti-nuclear movement. In the United States, thanks to shows like The Simpsons (with its lovable, bumbling nuclear operator and three-eyed fish) and popular video games like Fallout, radioactivity slowly acquired a quite different, almost ironic, popular image.
And yet, notes University of Maryland’s James Gilbert, nuclear fears have laid dormant in our cultural memory, waiting for catastrophe to strike—as it has in Japan. To assuage those worries, it’s rarely enough to point out that cars kill more people per year than reactors. Too often, Weart says, the nuclear industry has tried to respond rationally to atomic fears, only to fail. To counter anti-nuclear protests in the 1960s and ’70s, the industry ran ads touting cheap energy and independence from oil sheikhs, with limited success. “The nuclear industry tends to attract engineering types, and they respond like engineers, pointing out that the numbers add up,” says Weart. “People have a hard time relating to that.”
Ultimately, the best thing the nuclear industry can do to combat atomic dread is to avoid any mishaps in the first place. And the industry has done well on this front. But unexpected events—a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, say—do have a way of creeping along eventually. And, fair or not, accidents involving nuclear power will likely always be held to a higher standard.
Bradford Plumer is associate editor of The New Republic.