Nuclear fear: the ghost of the atomic hecatomb returns

Young generations ignore what it has been like to live with a horizon dominated by an atomic mushroom

They are unaware of it because this fear disappeared with the Cold War and the partial disarmament of US and Russian missiles.

The specter of a hecatomb has been summoned by Vladimir Putin

doWhat impact would an H-bomb drop on Madrid have??, a newspaper headline asked a few days ago. Another reassured us that Spain is out of reach of most Russian missiles, and a third identified the existing radiation-proof bunkers in the country. Nuclear fear has returned for its rights. Its origin dates back to August 1945, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were volatilized by the energy locked in the atomic nucleus. And it was shot in 1949, when the Soviets detonated their A-bomb in Kazakhstan and the prospect of a nuclear conflict opened up. But the United States, instead of proposing disarmament to the Kremlin, designed the most devastating H-bomb. It didn’t take long for the Soviets to do the same, and it was glimpsed, for the first time in history, the possible extinction of life on Earth. Before, there had been fears of the plague, invasions, natural disasters, witches… But the nuclear fear was differentiated by stating “that the potential destruction of the planet, its apocalyptic scenario, is possible due to the technology developed by humanity ”, he declares to SINC Martha Rodriguez Fouz, Professor of Sociology at the Public University of Navarra. To this is added “the evidence that nuclear destruction, even localized in a specific space, has a duration that exceeds our time scale, compromising the survival of future generations”.

The double face of the nuclear age

In 1945 the atomic age was declared inaugurated.. The public relations program Atoms for Peace assured that radiation would give us cheap and inexhaustible energy, cure cancer, open canals, fertilize plants, heat homes, drive spacecraft… Atomic cocktails were invented and The Commodores enraptured their followers with the song Uranium. The atom showed its radiant face. But it didn’t take him long to reveal the dark side of him: when the particles released by the nuclear tests rained down, and plutonium detected in children’s bones, mothers cried out against universal contamination. That the radiation was invisible, toxic and virtually unstoppable added to the consternation. In US schools, children were trained to protect themselves from the nuclear catastrophe by crouching under their desks and covering their heads with their hands. It didn’t help either that the futurologist Herman Kahn warned that, following an exchange of missiles, between ten and several hundred million people would turn to ashes. Like the god Janus, the atom had a dual nature: one side featured a set of wonders and the other showed the horrendous burns caused by his energy.
The panic had its epicenter in the US. In schools, children were trained to protect themselves from the catastrophe by crouching under their desks and covering their heads with their hands. The inability of the state to build bunkers for everyone sparked the every man for himself, and cottage owners dug family shelters in their backyards. Documentaries like Atomic Café reflect the bipolar madness of those years. not coincidentally, the topic of the mad sage was reactivated, this time embodied in physicists, portrayed as abominable brains, connoisseurs of the arcana of matter and without the slightest moral responsibility. But there were scientists who were not crazy at all and in the US they published The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on the cover of which was the iconic doomsday clock. Marking the seconds to midnight – the total destruction of humanity – its hands would henceforth serve as the barometer of the imminence of global nuclear war.

The relaxation period arrives

As of 1963, the atomic mushrooms disappeared from sight thanks to the suspension of the tests in the open air. Subsequently, the tests were carried out underground and, as the saying goes ‘eyes that do not see, heart that does not feel’, the concern decreased considerably. However, it points Stephen Weartthe author of Nuclear Fear –the definitive work on the subject–, the concerns, far from dissipating, moved to nuclear power plants, which came to be seen as ticking time bombs. The tension jumped in 1981 when NATO, in response to the deployment of Soviet missiles in the Eastern bloc, decided to install the so-called Euromissiles. The Cold War heated up and the peace movement was revived.
Demonstration in 1980 for disarmament in EnglandKim TraynorRefuting the claim of the Reagan administration that could you survive a thermonuclear war, NBC broadcast The Day After, a docudrama about the ravages of a bombing in Kansas City. To calm the terrified citizenry, Reagan pulled out of his hat a ‘missile shield’, a strategic defense initiative (SDI) that would stop Soviet attacks. “During the Cold War and with the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki closer, that fear was part of the Western imaginary, and the Chernobyl disaster reinvigorated that fear”, recapitulates the sociologist Rodríguez Fouz, and although “the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the arms race seemed to ease the tension, Fukushima erupted as an expression of nuclear fear unrelated to war”.

A fear suffocated in Spain

Spain lived that period inside a bubble. The Franco regime, eager to ingratiate itself with Washington, praised “our friend the atom.” The perception of danger was something for foreigners, as reflected in Calabuch (1956), Berlanga’s film about the American physicist with a crisis of conscience who takes refuge in a town in Levante. But in “the leadership of power, aware of the US bombers flying over the country, concern grew,” Cristina Roiz, from Ecologistas en Acción, tells SINC. “At the end of the 1950s,” explains José Herrera, a student of the Palomares accident, “the high command was alarmed by the weapons that the Americans were storing in the Torrejón de Ardoz base.” The restlessness transcended the public in 1966, when three H-bombs fell on the Almeria town, showering it with plutonium. The regime could not hide it: “in Australia, a newspaper warned of an atomic explosion with thousands of victims, and Radio Pirenaica and the BBC broadcast alarming news,” Herrera recalls to SINC. Despite isolated protests, the authorities managed to reassure the population with the famous bath in Fraga beach and prohibiting bombers from flying into national airspace. Of course, they hid that the Poseidon submarines armed with Trident missiles were roaming freely in Rota (Cádiz). The Franco regime, eager to ingratiate itself with Washington, praised “our friend the atom”, but three H-bombs fell on the Almeria town of Palomares, showering it with plutonium, and the regime could not hide it. But the concern did not disappear. Proof of this is the apocalyptic cinema begun in 1964 by Mariano Ozores with La hora incógnita, which portrays thehe hours before the fall of a missile in a Spanish city; and continued by La Casa (A. Fons, 1976), whose protagonists escape from Earth before the atomic holocaust; Last Wish (L. Klimovsky, 1977), where the end of the world surprises some rich people in an orgy; and Rational Animals (E. Herrero, 1983), about two brothers and a woman who seek to survive the disaster. With the advent of democracy and freedom of information, fear reared its head again. “In part he did so encouraged by the movement against Euromissiles, which he had su maximum expression in the refusal to join NATO; and in part it was combined with the invisible threat posed by the reactors built on Spanish soil”, observes Roiz. Sufficient discomfort to push the government of Felipe González to approve the moratorium on the construction of new plants, in force since 1983. The CIS survey in 1991 showed that between 60 and 70% of Spaniards were against nuclear energy, and That opinion has not changed over the years, since in 2011 60% of those interviewed declared themselves anti-nuclear. Nothing prevented mistrust from spreading to radiation of any kind, whether it was founded or not: microwaves from the electric oven, electromagnetic radiation from the telephones, those of high tension cables… In 1991, the survey by the Center for Sociological Research found that between 60 and 70% of Spaniards were against nuclear energy; and these attitudes have not changed over the years, since another of their surveys recorded in 2011 that 60% of those interviewed declared themselves anti-nuclear. That resentment has prevented “the installation of a centralized deposit of radioactive waste, because nobody wants to have it close”, analyzes Herrera. And the good reception of La Zona speaks of its validity, the Movistar series broadcast in 2017 that critically recreates the consequences of the serious breakdown of an imaginary reactor in the north of Spain.

latent terrors

in appearance, nuclear fear subsided in recent decadesyes Reactors began to be dismantled, North Korean missiles did not pose a global danger and the number of bombs was reduced from 70,300 in 1986 to 12,700 today. For the youngest, the nuclear apocalypse was a theme of disaster movies, totally alien to reality. “The existence of a huge atomic arsenal and numerous power plants prevents completely neutralizing the fear of a nuclear catastrophe”, reflects Rodríguez Fouz, who adds: “Russia’s threat reactivates a fear that cannot go away and that, in addition, it joins the fears derived from ecological threats, with the difference that these appear as unintentional effects and Putin’s threat as an expression of a desire for destruction that may or may not have a deterrent purpose. Putin made his warning shortly after attempts were made from various tribunes re-launch atomic energy as the great tool against climate change, again the smiling face of the atom was exhibited. But those plans have been questioned by the war in Ukraine: the fight for control of Chernobyl and other plants has raised fears of a radioactive leak. In consecuense, the fear of atomic energy and nuclear war have merged in a single nightmare scenario. “It’s like having a powder keg exposed to someone or something making it explode,” compares Roiz. In the past, nuclear fear provoked reactions of various kinds: on the one hand, it promoted the pacifist movement on a planetary scale and acted as a midwife for environmentalism; on the other, it generated patriotic support for the weaponry that gave the country itself the status of a world power and inhibited would-be aggressors. Where will it go now?

Tendency towards nuclear rearmament or sanity?

The reaction will be geared towards rearmament and the non-questioning of the need to have an atomic arsenal”, answers Rodríguez Fouz, “and in this scenario, pacifists will find themselves, as always, powerless in the face of the practical question of how to respond to military aggression without resorting to weapons. ”.
Nor is it ruled out that good sense prevails and talks resume to contain a race in weapons of mass destruction. For now, if anything seems reasonably certain, it is that in the coming weeks the editors of the doomsday clock, which since January it marks 100 seconds to 12they will move their hands forward again.

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