The Wilson cloud from test Baker, situated just offshore from Bikini Island


Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the promoters of nuclear technologies have sought to highlight future applications and indemnify past negative impacts and uncertainties by offering a series of promises about contributions to a secure and safe energy future. These include the claim of “energy too cheap to meter”; myriad peaceful applications associated with industry, agriculture and medicine starting with Atoms for Peace programs in the 1950s; and presently the assertion that only nuclear energy can provide the electricity needed to sate world demand without producing greenhouse gases. Engineers tout “portable” reactors; thorium units with nearly inexhaustible fuel; and fusion power, all inherently safe and soon to be deployed. Indeed, environmentalists from the Sierra Club, WWF, and other groups claim that dealing with climate change demands a nuclear future. These visions, arguments and beliefs about a nuclear future are crucial to understanding the environmental past and present impacts of the nuclear age.

We shall examine global thinking about the environment in the nuclear world and how understandings of the human-nature-atom interface have changed since ca. 1945. We shall investigate how various actors have thought about this relationship, how their views and perceptions have evolved, and the interactions between and among the actors. We shall enrich this investigation by considering the human-nature-atom interface in a variety of settings, climates and geographies; in different communities, institutions, organizations and agencies; among individuals who are engaged in the nuclear world in a variety of ways; and whose experiences in the nuclear world range from active participants to “downwinders” and indigenes and others removed from their homes and homelands. We shall consider human-nature-atom interactions for radioactive wastes, radioactive, and in accidents.

Geographic Coverage.

We have determined to focus on North America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and East Asia. The project involves two full-time researchers and the part-time involvement of a specialist on Korean and Japanese nuclear issues. To ensure a rigorous comparative approach and to highlight important issues, we shall examine and refer to also the secondary literature – and occasionally primary sources – on Indian, Chinese, African nation and several other cases. Our focus – beyond the various national and international nuclear programs – is the shifting narratives surrounding the nuclear age, many of which promised the inevitable progress of humankind through safe, abundant energy, and others that worried about an apocalypse of proliferation and the unresolved menace of radioactive waste. Largely, engineers, military planners, policy makers and industry representatives successfully recast their narratives. They learned how to frame, shape and even obscure such failures as high costs, environmental degradation, and accidents. The radiant future of nuclear power remains uncertain because of cost overruns, environmental challenges (waste, land takings, thermal pollution) and such accidents as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Yet to date no one has undertaken a global environmental history of the vast and growing nuclear enterprise, military and civilian, to evaluate its place in present and future energy futures, nor the kinds of conceptual and technological developments that have accompanied its development including its environmental impacts.

Intellectual Merit.

No one has undertaken a stand-alone global environmental history of the military and civilian nuclear enterprise in cross-national comparison, nor considered the kinds of conceptual and technological developments that have accompanied its development including socio-political and environmental impacts. This history is valuable because of the vast expanse of the nuclear enterprise, its transborder and international ramifications, and the nature and kinds of landscapes and peoples whose lives have been affected by peaceful and military programs – and who have shaped its development. This study will use recently available primary sources in English, French, Russian, Swedish, Korean and other languages. Further, examination of civilian and nuclear technologies as intimately related may change our comprehension of nuclear power and Cold War nuclear history writ large. Bringing STS and environmental history methods to bear on the study of the nuclear world will enable better understanding of the rise and functioning of state-sponsored big science and technology for military and peaceful purposes, contribute to policy debates about the costs, benefits and consequences of nuclear technologies over time, and enable analysis of nuclear power as an effective way to address climate change in the twenty-first century.


This project will contribute to public discussion about the future of nuclear energy as an environmentally-sound technology; it will encourage involvement of a variety of stakeholders (citizens, academics, policy makers, industry representatives, regulators) in discussions over the nature of safety, efficacy and risk and such problems as the disposition of radioactive waste. It will help investigate the possibility that only nuclear energy can provide the electricity needed to sate world demand without producing greenhouse gases, an argument accepted by a range of environmentalists and other individuals. It will, we believe, contribute to more complete understanding of the human-nature-atom interaction through the development of an interpretative and empirical historical foundation.

Through a dedicated webpage with links to extant and new research materials, teaching guides and the like; a blog and a wiki; through consultations with public science and nuclear site museums; through editorials; and through other published results, this project will engage the broad public. It will enable improvements in STEM education and educator development; contribute to increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; and encourage discussion of concerns about the state of nuclear communities, testing grounds, power stations, homelands and other places that have served as the locus of nuclear activities. In taking advantage of published and archival documents and studies on the nature of human-nuclear interactions in the domain of nuclear science and technology for different groups, languages and ethnicities, and across geographic and climatic areas, it will ensure societally relevant outcomes in its analyses of the role of women, children, underrepresented minorities including indigenes in postwar nuclear worlds.