Nuclear Power in Cinema

Kevin Hurlbutt
March 21, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2014


Fig. 1: Godzilla devouring a plane. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In a democracy, the will of the people is the strongest driving force in determining government policy. In the United States, public misunderstanding impedes responsible and productive use of nuclear resources. Here we examine the public conception of nuclear power through an examination of four films produced since the end of the Second World War. Hopefully we can better educate the public if we understand first what the public knows about nuclear energy. Our goal here is to construct a portrait of the average American's view on nuclear power by examining what the popular medium of the cinema has taught him.

Godzilla (1954)

No discussion of films with nuclear themes can begin anywhere but the 1954 Japanese classic, Godzilla. It is fitting that the first great nuclear film was produced by the only country to have ever been attacked by nuclear weapons. The story tells the tale of a primordial monster, taller than cities and more vicious than the dinosaurs, who is awoken by nuclear tests executed in the Pacific Ocean not far from Japan. This monster wreaks terrible havoc on Tokyo to great loss of life. He is only stopped when a scientists new "oxygen disintegrator" device suffocates the monster. We must first look at the theme of fear in the film. Nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the victims zeitgeist demonized nuclear power so that it was not the weapon of man but an untamable, wholly destructive monster. It was something that science and knowledge could combat and ultimately destroy, but it was not something that Yamane (the archaeologist) can categorize or that Serizawa (the physicist) can analyze. Godzilla's power lay as much in the fear his novelty evoked as in his actual destructive ability. Next we must consider the convolution of several issues of nuclear power in the film. As Tsutsui writes, the film was released at a time when the different concerns around nuclear power (as weapon, as radiation source, as geopolitical tool, as energy source, etc.) were not differentiable at this nascent stage in nuclear development. [1] Was he created by the radiation of a nuclear blast? Does his "atomic breath" come from his native biology or some mutation? Is there anything the military can do to stop him? Is the destruction the work of man or of God? Is there a difference? Godzilla shows us that the first common perception of nuclear power was wildly misinformed, and, more importantly, we filled that initial gap in knowledge with fear. We have been struggling against this perception ever since.

Dr. Stangelove (1964)

The only comedy we will consider here (if indeed "comedy" as a moniker truly conveys the tone of the film), Dr. Stangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is also the most critically acclaimed. It satirizes the Cold War thinking of the American military complex through the tale of rogue, bellicose generals in the American army trying to attack the Soviet Union, the politicians (and sometimes Nazis) trying to negotiate peace, and the foot soldiers with the atomic payload who are caught in the middle. This film is perhaps the best work to encapsulate the American people's view of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. We all recognized the death and destruction (worthy of Godzilla himself) that could come of nuclear war. We also recognized the absurdity behind mutually assured destruction and the arms race in which we found ourselves. We laughed, yes, but we laughed at something we still feared greatly. As Nelson writes, it was a unique period in American history when the public vehemently supported a policy they know was ridiculous and dangerous. [2] Nuclear power in the national imagination was dominated by weaponry. The practicality of nuclear reactors in your car or your vacuum had long ago been dispelled. The only useful harnessing of nuclear power was in large, dangerous plants heavily monitored and protected by the government. For Americans, the fear of nuclear power had not decreased at all. Added to it was a jingoistic desire to win the arms race, but no substantive increase in education or learning about nuclear power had come about.

The China Syndrome (1979)

Several years after the release of Dr. Stangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, in 1969, the United States and the Soviet Union reached a detente. By the time The China Syndrome was released, America had become accustomed to a global armory of nuclear warheads capable of destroying humanity several times over. [3] However, as cooler heads in Washington and Moscow prevailed, the omnipresent threat of destruction was dulled. It was as if Damocles' sword was lowered from above our heads. One might well conclude that the fear born with the monster Godzilla had faded, and that conclusion is partially true. The whole world now understood the theory of nuclear fission, its consequences, and the political and militaristic overtures that would set the superpowers on a path of decimation. But even as the American public was coming to fear nuclear bomb less, they were given great reason to fear nuclear energy. The China Syndrome opened in 1979. It tells the tale of an investigative television news team who discover that a nuclear power plant's operation is not only highly unsafe, but is being deliberately covered-up by plant administrators and owners. The "China Syndrome" is a contingency whereby the core of the reactor melts through all its containment housing and falls clean through the Earth and comes out in China (a hyperbole of the real situation whereby the water table becomes radioactively contaminated). The nuclear power sector in America immediately responded in justified anger. They called the caricature of the greedy, unfeeling, criminally negligent plant operator slanderous. Their position was not helped by the accident at the nuclear power station at Three-Mile Island. Was the incident there a terrible tragedy that was costly in human life? Were greed and short-cuts in construction to blame? Or indifference to safety? Obviously not. But in the public view it was the foundation (and first several floors) of the NIMBY attitude. Yes, the American people might take the electricity from a nuclear power plant, but that unsafe plant and its callous, incompetent owners must be miles and miles away. Limitless power, the one blessing that nuclear power promised, had become nearly as feared and misunderstood as nuclear weapons had been decades before.

The Sum of All Fears (2002)

Our final film, The Sum of All Fears will probably have the smallest lasting artistic impact, but it was one of the more popular films when it was released. The film, based on a 1991 novel of the same name by Tom Clancy, follows a C.I.A. analyst who must unravel a terrorist plot after neo-Nazis detonate an atomic bomb in the United States and frame Russia for the attack. This film introduces a whole new element into growing list of concerns about nuclear power: terrorism. The mutually assured destruction of the Cold War, while utterly ludicrous, did hold the U.S and the U.S.S.R in check. A small, mobile terrorist cell with no flag or supporting government does not need to fear the kind of reprisal that held the superpowers in check. [4] We see again what is becoming a familiar patter. Up to this point, despite the warming relations between Russia and America, the fear of nuclear weapons and energy was always with society. Now, finally, with the Cold War over America had a hope that it might not have to fear anymore. And then the artists reminded us that there is no such hope. Terrorists with nuclear warheads or just enough radiation to make a dirty bomb can be as destructive as any war. The film speaks to the theme of intellectual viruses and their ability in our globalizing world to spread without hosts. The technology of nuclear power is in the world. No treaties or agreements can change that or make us safe from those who would abuse that knowledge.


The subject of nuclear power is enticing to artist for two reasons. First, it is a topic that cuts directly to our most primal fears, nationalistic prides, and engrained concept of the hero. Secondly, it is something artists feel compelled to address (and usually condemn). Art imitates life and life imitates art. It is a fast cycle that admits change only slowly. The American people and their artists have feared nuclear power since 1945. Since then they have only found new reasons to fear it without educating themselves. The technical accuracy of The China Syndrome and The Sum of All Fears is commendable, but the overall themes capitalize on the spectacle of the worst case scenario, because nuclear power is so enticing a subject. Art is not a perfect way of telling what the people are thinking or even how much they know. But the people are the ones who make the art, and until America has films showing the possibility of safe nuclear power, we can never realize it in legislation.

© Kevin Hurlbutt. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] W. M. Tsutsui, Godzilla On My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[2] T. A. Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze (Indiana U. Press, 2000.)

[3] F. J. Harbutt, The Cold War Era (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).

[4] R. O'Kane, Terrorism (Pearson, 2007).