This global environmental history across space and time will enable us to evaluate the evolution, and twists and turns, of the geopolitical and environmental contexts of the nuclear age. The multiple and ongoing dialogues about the nature of the nuclear world indicate both recurrent ideas about human-nature-atom interactions and new environmental understandings. We intend to evaluate several of them. Already in 1945 the impending use of atomic bomb struck the authors of the Franck Report as premature, poorly thought out and great moral risk. Yet they proposed finding some “barren” island or desert, apparently of little value to humans, on which to demonstrate the power of the new weapon (Franck Report). After Trinity in July 1945, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the control of the atom (the atomic bomb) was a symbol of American know-how and a sudden end to an interminable war, while to others it was inhuman, a powerful Pandora’s box. And yet to many observers, and to the leaders and scientists across the globe, especially after President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations in 1953, and also after the mid-1950s conferences in Geneva, Switzerland, on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, the nuclear world was a sign of modernity, an entry into the twentieth century club of science, and a place of limitless possibilities.
These twists, turns, debates and deliberation carried through the twentieth century on the foundation of growing research into the nature of nuclear waste, nuclear risk, nuclear accidents, and nuclear promise. If the “peaceful atom” convinced many international commentators that it was a dangerous atom, all too dangerous, after the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, then to many individuals it remained and remains a viable approach to produce electricity without global warming. Its facilities provide good jobs for those wanting to work for a better world. Its mines are significantly safer than coal mines and its electricity produced without particulate. Still, to others, these accidents were a reminder precisely that environmental concerns have never been adequately addressed. The peaceful atom, for them was a persistent source of environmental challenge in waste and the intractable problem of storage. It was Chernobyl as an ecosystem with persistent and still misunderstood damages brought about by low-level ionizing radiation in precisely those areas blanketed by radiation after the Chernobyl disaster, not a place of recovery that revealed nature’s resilience and regenerative capacities (Møller, A.P., T.A. Mousseau). The atom to too many others has been a homeland destroyed, and to many others, especially workers, the nuclear enterprise threatens lung cancer, and has resulted in broken homes and exploited Navaho and Kazakh miners, and those in South Africa, Namibia, and the Central African Republic (Hecht; Voyles; Brugge et al., Bersimbaev). And it is a site of costly, but necessary decommissioning of nuclear power stations, bomb factories, and other facilities. We wish to analyze and attempt to reconcile these divergent views of the human-nature-atom interface.