From the opening moments of the new Godzilla movie, it’s eminently clear that the nuclear fears that animated the first incarnation of the monster in Japan 1954 are still very much with us. In just the film’s first ten minutes, director Gareth Edwards treats us to images of nuclear bomb tests from Bikini Atoll, featuring voluminous apocalyptic mushroom clouds and a full-blown Fukushima-like nuclear power meltdown.
Godzilla (2014) handles the subject of nuclear power like an old-fashioned Cold War relic. When a handful of nuclear cooling towers collapse in the background, you’d half expect to see a group of school kids nearby practicing their “duck-and-cover” drills. And late in the film, US military commanders quickly resort to the “nuclear option”—featuring a quick nod to Hiroshima—without too much anguish. Haven’t we learned anything in 60 years?
Clearly, nuclear energy continues to pop up as one of science fiction’s favorite bugaboos. Sloan Science and Film asked Dr. Spencer Weart, former director of the American Institute of Physics’ Center for History of Physics and author of The Rise of Nuclear Fear and The Discovery of Global Warming, about the history of nuclear anxiety, why nuclear science has such a bad reputation in popular culture, and what, if anything, can be done about it.
Science and Film: So why do you think nuclear power has gotten such a bad rap, and clearly, judging from Godzilla, continues to do so?
Spencer Weart: As someone put it in 1946, it wasn’t a thousand tons of coal that they dropped on Hiroshima. From the very discovery of nuclear energy, it was touted by scientists themselves as being particularly powerful and mysterious, and that got into the popular culture, which then got reinforced when nuclear weapons came along, and people had good reason to believe that nuclear energy would kill them. And this got transferred over to nuclear reactors.
SF: In Godzilla, nuclear energy explicitly gets conflated with nuclear weaponry, because the monsters are first generated and fed by a nuclear power plant, and then by the very nuclear weapons that the army is trying to destroy them with…
SW: It’s this idea of the mysterious life force that goes back thousands of years: the radiation and life force of the sun, or the stars, which, by the way, is often sexual in nature. It makes it all the more dangerous to meddle around with.
SF: It’s funny, because that’s in the film, too. The two MUTOs ["massive unidentified terrestrial organisms"] in the film are essentially mating with the help of the nukes.
SW: As I said, the energy of radioactivity is often conceived of as a sexual energy, and it’s hard to keep screenwriters from Freud.
SF: Are there earlier examples of this?
SW: My favorite is Dr. Cyclops (1940), who has a radium ray generator, which is this phallic thing that he lowers into the earth, and he raises and lowers it, and he’s panting and puffing, and then he uses it to shrink people to child-size, and goes around terrorizing them like some punitive adult whose secrets have been spied upon.
SF: In Godzilla, there is a scene where the nuclear reactor essentially collapses. And this gaseous toxic plume—perhaps it’s steam—explodes down the hallways and consumes the characters. Is this at all accurate?
SW: Well, it happened in Fukushima. Hydrogen started to build up, and they lacked the reserve power to pump coolant through it and shut it down, because the generators were swamped by the tsunami. So the result was a hydrogen bubble that exploded and gave rise to a plume of radioactive steam. But it didn’t happen immediately; I imagine the film compresses all this in a few minutes, but it takes days for something like this to develop. Needless to say, it takes extraordinary circumstances, like an earthquake plus a tsunami, or a giant monster stomping around, to produce this effect. And people are starting to build new generations of reactors, where that sort of thing would be impossible; these reactors would not require emergency cooling to shut them down; they would shut down automatically.
SF: Have you done any research on Godzilla as a phenomenon in this light?
SW: Godzilla was recognized himself as a representation of the atomic bomb or a consequence of atomic bomb sets. When Godzilla approaches Tokyo, the air raid sirens sound off, and the damage to Tokyo is very much what they had experienced in the war. Later on, Godzilla got involved with environmental issues, and the metaphor expanded to include Godzilla as a representation of nature’s response when humans trespass too much. Like the mad scientist’s monster coming out, and embodying our worst fears. But it must also be said that the mad scientists’ monster also represents our own destructive impulses: As we know from the popularity of these movies, people love to see things smashed. So there’s a certain amount of identification with the monster.
SF: There’s a scene in the new movie where the audience I saw it with cheered for Godzilla.
SW: They say when Godzilla was first shown in Tokyo and the monster stomped on the police station, everyone cheered.
SF: Is it surprising that a film made in 2014 would traffic in so many of the old clichéd fears about nuclear power?
SW: It is surprising, because the younger generation is no longer concerned about nuclear war. But nuclear power is a recurrent concern. And the nuclear war fears and nuclear power fears are intertwined, after all. People originally were afraid of nuclear reactors because they thought they would explode like nuclear bombs. And there was a transition from fallout from a nuclear bomb test to nuclear reactor explosions. That concern is still with us: Germany canceled its whole nuclear program, and Japan is considering canceling theirs. But they are not the same visceral fears as they were in the Cold War era. They’ve been accepted as kind of the background of daily life. During the Cold War years, they did word association tests with the word “atomic,” and they got things like “bomb” and “dangerous” and “end of the world.” And recently, in the 1990s, they did another word association test, and they got the exact same words, except for one additional word: The Simpsons.
SF: So in your research, where do you start tracing those images and what do they tell us about our response to nuclear power?
SW: It starts in the 19th century. Before the discovery of atomic energy, there are these fears of scientists, and electricity or x-rays, or some weird Frankenstein biological experiments. The basic idea that scientists could be meddling with unhallowed secrets, and could release forces, both mysterious and dangerous, goes as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As far as fears of radioactivity, that began very promptly with the discovery of radioactivity itself, because here was a mysterious force, and the scientists themselves said they didn’t know how to control it and the enormous powers hidden inside the atom. So by the 1930s, people were familiar with ideas of nuclear war, mutant monsters, genetic damage caused by radiation, and cancer, of course—all of those things were very common. Even talk of blowing up the world appeared in science fiction by the 1930s, well before the atomic bomb.
SF: As a physicist and a scientist, do you feel the way the pop culture rehashes this stuff and regurgitates it over and over again is a problem?
SW: Yes, it’s a problem. If nuclear energy is secretive in nature, so is chemistry and so is electricity. There’s nothing especially super secret or mystical about nuclear energy; it’s just one of the forces of nature. When we’re dealing with the dangers of these things, we should put them on the same level. For example, coal-fired power plants put out far more cancer-causing chemicals than nuclear reactors. So we should be equally worried about cancer and mutations caused by coal-powered or chemical plants. There’s no reason to single out nuclear energy as uniquely dangerous in this respect. People say that nuclear waste will last hundreds of thousands of years, but so does the waste from coal-powered plants; for example, lead and arsenic last forever in the environment.
SF: What would you like to see come out of popular culture that more responsibly represents nuclear energy and nuclear power?
SW: One of the problems is you can’t make a movie about nuclear energy puttering along and producing electricity. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult to make a movie about the dangers of coal pollution. If I could ask pop culture to do anything, it would be to lay off the nuclear industry and to stop using it as a symbol of super-science horrors.
SF: But that’s tough to do, considering the historical legacy, right?
SW: Right. When the Geiger counter starts ticking, everyone expects something creepy and crawly to emerge, thinking back to the 1950s movies or The Simpsons, for that matter.
Anthony Kaufman is a part-time assistant professor at The New School for Public Engagement. This interview was originally conducted for Sloan Science and Film, a website devoted to exploring the intersection of science and film, and enhancing the public understanding of science and technology. The article is reprinted with permission.