The Myth of the Atomic Genie

Photograph Source: Sarah – CC BY 2.0

It was forty years ago this coming September that I was busted along with a couple thousand others protesting the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo, California.  The protests were one of the larger civil disobedience/direct action undertakings of the anti-nuclear movement in the United States.  The politics of the protesters were eclectic, while the approach of the organizers tended towards the timid, at least in my opinion.  Nonetheless, the action itself was a week’s worth of constant harassment of those powers intent on opening a plant built way too close to an active earthquake fault.  Although the protests did not force PG&E to shut down the plant, they did end up creating enough of a stir that scientists and engineers opposed to the plant’s existence were able to find a major design flaw.  That flaw kept the plant closed for a few more years. Although it finally did go online, the Diablo Canyon plant is scheduled for shutdown beginning in 2024.

For those of us growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear power was presented as a solution to all of our ills.  Hunger, poverty, cheap electricity—all of these would be resolved if only nuclear energy was established in the manner the industry and its sycophants described.  Propaganda extolling the benefits of the so-called peaceful atom included comic books given to schoolchildren and field trips to nuclear power plants.  The dangers of radioactive waste and the possibility of meltdowns were dismissed or went unmentioned.  It took a number of years of organizing and education by anti-nuclear activists to make those things part of the conversation.  Also not mentioned was the war industry’s role in promoting nuclear energy—a role ignored today by so-called green campaigners who along with industry spokespeople are once again trying to convince the world’s public that nuclear power is safe and the best way to combat global climate change.

In recent years, the warming of the planet has caused tremendous changes to weather patterns, many of them harmful to human, animal and plant life.  While some search for ways to diminish their impact on this climate change, the truth of the matter is that the very nature of the worldwide capitalist economy makes their attempts virtually meaningless.  Scientists from various disciplines search for means to slow down the warming while charlatans deny it exists and capitalists continue to put their profits ahead of everything.  This places some of them in the denial camp while others finagle ways to make some coin while ostensibly helping the planet survive.  Solar, geothermal and wind energy are increasing in output while the champions of nuclear energy make the same arguments in support of that form of power they have always made.  It has once again become necessary to point out its shortcomings to the general public.

Essential to the arguments against nuclear power is its history.  This is where a new book titled The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology comes in.  Written by Oregon State University history professor Jacob Darwin Hamblin, this text describes how the concept of peaceful nuclear energy was conceived, developed and sold.  The tale he narrates includes government and industry manipulation of the truth, scientists and bureaucrats religious-like proselytizing to sell nuclear energy, and the neocolonialist nature of the decision-making by the powers involved in exporting this energy to other nations.  It is a story fraught with racism, hubris and imperial arrogance.  Conversely, it is also a narrative in which nuclear weapons became symbols of sovereignty and strength to governments of formerly colonized states.  There is economic blackmail under the aegis of none other than Henry Kissinger and there is blatant manipulation of governments in the Global North by Israelis intent on building the bomb.

Hamblin frames his text around the program innocently (and deceptively) called Atoms for Peace.  This program began almost immediately after the end of the Second World War—a war which ended in Japan with the incineration of two cities and over 300, 000 people in two nuclear attacks by the US military.  Despite the misguided hopes of some who thought the war and its ending would bring about a new world which made disarmament a primary goal for the future, the opposite occurred.  Instead of disarmament, the race to develop nuclear weapons became the goal of several nations.  Coinciding with this race was a desire by nuclear scientists and their supporters in government to figure out other uses for this dangerous form of power.  According to these advocates, nuclear energy could solve virtually all of the world’s problems; hunger, homelessness and epidemic might all be erased should this power be harnessed.  Of course, very little was said about the downside—nuclear waste, meltdowns, security, and so on.  Nor was much said about the relationship between nuclear energy and the nuclear arms race.  This was intentional, as surely as this connection is still barely mentioned by those who support a rebirth of nuclear power today.

During the peak of the antinuclear movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, many of the objections to nuclear energy focused on the uncertainties and real dangers associated with nuclear fission.  However, some protesters also objected to it because of the unwarranted centralized power it gave to the governments and industry involved in its development and proliferation.  As Hamblin makes quite clear, this centralization of control is a large part of nuclear power’s appeal to government and military officials that support it.  In Hamblin’s history he describes the manipulation of countries in the Global South by the governments of the North in the former’s quest for nuclear capabilities.  It is a tale which serves as both metaphor and a microcosm of the unequal nature of those relationships.

The Wretched Atom takes its name from the title of revolutionary anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth.  In his conclusion, author Hamblin writes this: “Frantz Fanon warned in the 1960s that the ‘wretched’ or ‘damned’ of the earth would be offered dreams of rapid advance and of economic miracles. That surely has been true of the atom.” (238)  Hamblin makes it equally clear that the atom has also been one more tool of the world’s most powerful nations to keep the rest of the world under their control.  Hamblin speculates at the book’s beginning as to whether or not his history id pro or anti-nuke.  He then writes that his approach is to be objective.  It is this reviewer’s contention that in its objectivity, The Wretched Atom and the history it relates is as anti-nuclear as those of us arrested at Diablo Canyon in 1981 were.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: