Created in 1942, the world's first nuclear reactor was the brainchild of The Manhattan Project under the supervision of Enrico Fermi. Scientists discovered nuclear power to be an unlimited source of clean energy, without the environmental damage caused by fossil fuel pollutants. Hopes were high that nuclear power would save the day — producing clean, cost-effective energy while conserving the environment and preserving our planet's natural resources. Fear and negativity soon replaced this optimism when in 1945 the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing death and destruction. Since then, the media and pop culture have been a strong influence when it comes to the public's fear-based perception of nuclear energy.
First Days: When Fear Took Over
The bombings demonstrated the deadly, devastating power of nuclear energy when harnessed for such a purpose — a concept found throughout pop culture since the early days. In 1953, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released in the United States, introducing American society to both the sci-fi film genre and a host of nuclear power fears. Within a year, the now-classic sci-fi films Godzilla and Them! were released in both the U.S. And Japan. Although these films served as nothing more than movie theater entertainment for many, they all reflected society's anxiety about the safety of nuclear power. Despite nuclear power's promising benefits, its reputation only got worse as time progressed.
The Influence of History
The film industry's scare tactics weren't the only thing contributing to society's negative views on nuclear energy. In 1979, the public's fears were realized at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. At the time, the presence of a hydrogen bubble in the core reactor caused incredible panic and led to evacuations. In addition, there was a partial core meltdown which caused a radiation leak into the surrounding environment. It cost $1 billion dollars and took 13 years to clean up the area.
The worst nuclear disaster ever to occur happened in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The core of a nuclear reactor exploded, causing leaked radiation to flood the surrounding area, even reaching parts of Scandinavia, the UK and the United States. To this day, films such as The Chernobyl Diaries (a horrifying tale involving murderous mutants) continue to negatively influence the public's perception of the disaster (and nuclear energy itself).
Nuclear Power and Modern Pop Culture
One of the most surprisingly influential shows in recent history when it comes to the public's perception of nuclear power is The Simpsons, which featured lovable yet bumbling Homer Simpson as a clueless nuclear power plant worker and the plant's evil owner, Montgomery Burns. The show was so popular, in fact, that a group of its writers and producers were treated to a VIP tour of a San Diego nuclear power plant, with Sam Simon promising to paint nuclear energy in a more favorable light. As a result, the three-eyed goldfish was removed from the show, but jokes at the industry's expense remain.
What Does the Future Hold?
Unfortunately, the nuclear power industry has likely been damaged beyond repair by the predominantly negative portrayals in movies, television shows and even music. According to energy policy watchers at Direct Energy, the memories of disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl may not be as fresh as they once were, but the fears still remain. As long as misconceptions about nuclear power remain a part of pop culture, society will continue to fear this abundant, clean source of energy. And as long as they do, the planet will continue to suffer pollution due to the harvesting and use of rapidly depleting fossil fuels.
The first paragraph is distorting history. The few scientists that succeeded in putting critical Fermi's pile were not thinking "Hey! An unlimited source of energy for the generations to come!" but "Hey, we made it! We're on the road now, and perhaps we MIGHT catch up with the Germans that, who knows, might be on the brink of having the bomb themselves already." They were wrong on one thing: Heisenberg was NOT reaching as far as they believed he was, so the road was actually pretty clear ahead for them. BTW, I assume that dropping the bombs in "1946" rather than "1945" was a typo.