Science

Living In The Atomic Age: Remember These Images?

Schoolchildren kneel to practice a "duck and cover"  air-raid drill in an elementary school classroom, circa 1955.

Schoolchildren kneel to practice a "duck and cover" air-raid drill in an elementary school classroom, circa 1955. American Stock Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption American Stock Archive/Getty Images

For young people today, the Fukushima disaster in Japan could be their Nuclear Moment.

Since the 1940s, we have been living in the Atomic Age. Each decade has produced images and imaginings that, when stitched together, add up to our ambivalent relationship with nuclear power.

In a positive light, nuclear power is seen by some as cleaner, greener and less expensive than many other energy options. "I actually think we should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix," presidential candidate Barack Obama said in 2007.

In a negative light, our dreams of peace and prosperity are periodically shocked by a nuclear nightmare and reminders that our abundance of nuclear power plants and weaponry could result in a worst-case scenario for humankind.

Now there is Fukushima, a potential catastrophe. And no one knows the ultimate extent of the danger.

Officials check the level of radiation on a woman in Fukushima prefecture. i i

Officials check the level of radiation on a woman in Fukushima prefecture. Wally Santana/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Wally Santana/AP
Officials check the level of radiation on a woman in Fukushima prefecture.

Officials check the level of radiation on a woman in Fukushima prefecture.

Wally Santana/AP

The Fukushima disaster "seems like a fairly random accident," says Reid Detchon of Energy Future Coalition, a nonpartisan public policy group. "But the trouble with nuclear power is that the potential consequences are so terrible. It's great as long as it works right, but you can't engineer away every possible calamity."

Knowing that we have lived with these potential consequences for more than 60 years, we posed this query to NPR followers on Facebook: We want to know the image that first forced you — as a child — to think about the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Mushroom cloud? Bomb shelter? Chernobyl?

We received more than 3,700 replies, including some who chastised us for fear mongering and emphasizing disaster. That was not our intention. We wanted to examine certain Nuclear Moments in recent world history that shocked our consciousness. Here is what we learned:

Nearly everyone who replied carries a nuclear image. It is something we live with.

Sometimes our Nuclear Moments come from actual events — such as Hiroshima or Chernobyl. Or they come from fictional accounts — such as the 1957 novel On the Beach by Nevil Shute or the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After. Or they come from preparedness efforts — such as backyard bomb shelters and yellow-and-black Fallout Shelter signs.

A look, then, at Nuclear Moments through the decades, accompanied by selected responses from Facebook correspondents.

1940s, Atomic Bomb Tests
Janet Poling Toth, Ohio: Probably the mushroom cloud. I was born in 1940, and I remember our calculating how close we lived to a major city (Pittsburgh, in my case) that could be a target for THE BOMB.

A mushroom cloud rises from the waters of Bikini Lagoon during the first series of underwater atomic tests in August 1946. i i

A mushroom cloud rises from the waters of Bikini Lagoon during the first series of underwater atomic tests in August 1946. Keystone/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Keystone/Getty Images
A mushroom cloud rises from the waters of Bikini Lagoon during the first series of underwater atomic tests in August 1946.

A mushroom cloud rises from the waters of Bikini Lagoon during the first series of underwater atomic tests in August 1946.

Keystone/Getty Images

1950s, Classroom With Gas Masks
Dawn Graff-Haight, Oregon: I was in first grade. It was 1956. We watched a film showing us the "duck and cover drill." Some days later, a blaring alarm screamed in the hall, and the teacher instructed us to crawl under our desks and cover our heads. and even though I was only 5 years old, I KNEW that if a bomb dropped on my school, I could kiss my a** good bye.

On Feb. 14, 1950, the headmistress of the village school in Shropshire, England, supervises the children in their monthly gas mask drill. i i

On Feb. 14, 1950, the headmistress of the village school in Shropshire, England, supervises the children in their monthly gas mask drill. Central Press/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Central Press/Getty Images
On Feb. 14, 1950, the headmistress of the village school in Shropshire, England, supervises the children in their monthly gas mask drill.

On Feb. 14, 1950, the headmistress of the village school in Shropshire, England, supervises the children in their monthly gas mask drill.

Central Press/Getty Images

1960s, Bomb Shelter
Corinne Bozin-Grizzell, Ohio: In elementary school outside of Detroit (1961-'65) I remember having drills on a regular basis, they were like tornado drills but the sound of the alarm was different and we had to go deep into the basement of the school to the "bomb shelter" — sit on the floor with legs crossed and hands locked over our heads until we got an all clear.

The family of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas W. Robinson prepares to enter an underground bomb shelter on Nov. 4, 1960, at Parks Air Force Base near Pleasanton, Calif., where they were to remain for 48 hours to test life in the shelter. i i

The family of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas W. Robinson prepares to enter an underground bomb shelter on Nov. 4, 1960, at Parks Air Force Base near Pleasanton, Calif., where they were to remain for 48 hours to test life in the shelter. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
The family of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas W. Robinson prepares to enter an underground bomb shelter on Nov. 4, 1960, at Parks Air Force Base near Pleasanton, Calif., where they were to remain for 48 hours to test life in the shelter.

The family of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas W. Robinson prepares to enter an underground bomb shelter on Nov. 4, 1960, at Parks Air Force Base near Pleasanton, Calif., where they were to remain for 48 hours to test life in the shelter.

AP

1970s, Fallout Shelter Sign
Summer Gotschall, Georgia: I grew up in the 1970s and my dad was a Ph.D. student in physics for most of my childhood — he often took me to his university lab in a basement, right next to the building's fallout shelter — the symbol for a fallout shelter is deep in my memory. I can draw one now without Googling. :)

A fallout shelter sign graces the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Ala., in 2007. The county is working on a plan to identify shelters that can house up to 300,000 people in the event of a nuclear incident. i i

A fallout shelter sign graces the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Ala., in 2007. The county is working on a plan to identify shelters that can house up to 300,000 people in the event of a nuclear incident. Dave Martin/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Dave Martin/AP
A fallout shelter sign graces the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Ala., in 2007. The county is working on a plan to identify shelters that can house up to 300,000 people in the event of a nuclear incident.

A fallout shelter sign graces the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Ala., in 2007. The county is working on a plan to identify shelters that can house up to 300,000 people in the event of a nuclear incident.

Dave Martin/AP

1970s, Three Mile Island
Midori Green, Minnesota: I was a kid in the '70s, and it was watching all the reruns of '50s American and Japanese movies on Saturday afternoons that focused on this endlessly. Godzilla, film noir, Ultra Man, the endless references to uranium and glowing in the dark or changing into a freak of nature. I used to be afraid of glow-in-the-dark dials on wristwatches. Then add Three Mile Island on the news to that and all those fallout shelter signs that were still in the classroom. It's a bunch of things. I still don't own a microwave.

A cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., looms behind an abandoned playground on March 30, 1979, two days after the initial reactor emergency. i i

A cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., looms behind an abandoned playground on March 30, 1979, two days after the initial reactor emergency. Barry Thumma/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Barry Thumma/AP
A cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., looms behind an abandoned playground on March 30, 1979, two days after the initial reactor emergency.

A cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., looms behind an abandoned playground on March 30, 1979, two days after the initial reactor emergency.

Barry Thumma/AP

1980s, The Day After
Dianne Pater, New Mexico: I grew up in Albuquerque, and I remember after the TV movie The Day After, the local news showed graphics indicating that the Air Force base here would be a prime target, and showed what neighborhoods would be annihilated by a nuclear attack ... including mine. As a 9-year-old, I was terrified.

A still from The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie. i i

A still from The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie. ABC/Photofest hide caption

itoggle caption ABC/Photofest
A still from The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie.

A still from The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie.

ABC/Photofest

1980s, Chernobyl
Anna Howard, Florida: I was 4 years old living in Ukraine when Chernobyl happened. At the time, my parents' panic to get me out of the city and out to the Black Sea was nothing but a fun vacation. However getting back to the city (Kiev) in the fall changed a lot. ... As an outdoor child, I really felt the difference in not being able to play outside, to wear dust masks and not touch anything. Wash hands rigorously even if after just getting the mail. If the rain began, the entire city would disappear inside, instantly, and the puddles were avoided like little ponds of molten lava.

A nurse at a children's health clinic in Warsaw administers an iodine solution to a 3-year-old girl held in her mother's arms in Poland, May 1986, as a protective measure against possible radiation poisoning after the Chernobyl disaster. i i

A nurse at a children's health clinic in Warsaw administers an iodine solution to a 3-year-old girl held in her mother's arms in Poland, May 1986, as a protective measure against possible radiation poisoning after the Chernobyl disaster. Czarek Sokolowski/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Czarek Sokolowski/AP
A nurse at a children's health clinic in Warsaw administers an iodine solution to a 3-year-old girl held in her mother's arms in Poland, May 1986, as a protective measure against possible radiation poisoning after the Chernobyl disaster.

A nurse at a children's health clinic in Warsaw administers an iodine solution to a 3-year-old girl held in her mother's arms in Poland, May 1986, as a protective measure against possible radiation poisoning after the Chernobyl disaster.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

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