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The Atomic Age

by Michael D. Richards on Oct 6, 1999

Michael D. Richards

The Atomic Age is over. 

That’s what some observers of the nuclear power industry are saying. 

But is it really over? The latest nuclear accident, this one only 87 miles northwest of Tokyo, left three seriously injured and more than 30 others exposed to high levels of radiation. Three hundred thousand people were ordered to remain indoors. This indicates the era of the atom may be slow in winding down.  

The nuclear power industry is declining. Consider these statistics: electrical power generated by atomic energy expanded in the 1990s by less than 5 percent. Every other source of electricity, especially wind power, grew much faster. Global nuclear capacity today has probably reached its peak at 343,086 megawatts, which is not even one-tenth of what the International Atomic Energy Agency forecast back in 1974. 

France, the leading European user of nuclear power, has declared a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction.  The Social Democratic/Green government in Germany is discussing how quickly to close down its remaining nineteen nuclear power plants. In Japan and other parts of Asia, however, nuclear energy, despite its high costs and the vocal domestic opposition to it, will continue to be a major source of energy. We can expect more nuclear accidents in the future because of inadequate safety regulations, mistakes by workers, and aging facilities.  

But surely the other side of the nuclear coin, nuclear weapons, is no longer a source of worry. In this case the Atomic Age ended a decade ago, didn’t it? The Revolutions of 1989 in eastern and central Europe and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union in 1991 brought an end to the Cold War. And that ostensibly ended the danger of nuclear annihilation. Since that time we and the Russians have been working to reduce our respective arsenals of nuclear weapons.   

It may be, however, that we are not yet out of the nuclear woods. The tensions and the near misses of the Cold War era may now belong to the past, but what about the continuing perils of nuclear weapons in whatever we choose to call this new age?   

Nuclear non-proliferation has not worked all that well, as the atomic saber rattling last year by India and Pakistan demonstrated. There is still the danger that a nation might believe it to be in its best interests to use an atomic weapon. In addition to those nuclear powers we already know about, there are several other nations which hope to become nuclear powers in the near future. Add to this those terrorist groups that might acquire and use an atomic device. The controversy over whether the Chinese were given secrets about miniature atomic bombs hints that atomic bombs might well come in a small packages. Finally, even though we have worked with the Russian nuclear establishment for several years, we cannot be certain about the security of their weapons systems or even whether they will be able to deal effectively with the Y2K problem. 

For years Americans identified nuclear power with progress and the promise of a better life. Even after the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, many continued to see nuclear energy as the energy source of the future.  The nuclear power industry appears on an irreversible decline simply because using nuclear energy to produce electrical power has become too expensive in most cases, but the nuclear accident in Japan reinforces our anxieties about nuclear disaster. 

Americans also identified nuclear energy with a strong defense. They had in mind not only the arsenal of redundant nuclear weapons but also nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. Now major powers no longer base their foreign policy on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). 

The Atomic Age as we once knew it is now history.  Nuclear power plants will slowly dwindle in number. The impressive arsenals will be dismantled.   

Unfortunately, as the chances of a nuclear conflict between major powers fade, the possibility of a rogue state or a terrorist group or even a single demented individual detonating an atomic bomb may increase. And we are reminded that a nuclear power plant catastrophe may be just over the horizon. We cannot easily put the atomic genie back in the bottle. The specter of the atomic power will continue to haunt us for decades to come. And in this sense the Atomic Age will never end.

Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.