States of Fear and Nuclear Energy

Tim Anderson
December 13, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017

Monolithic Enemies

Fig. 1: Mushroom cloud after detonation of Little Boy over Hiroshima. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

July 16, 1945 was perhaps the most pivotal day of the 20th century, and indeed one of the most consequential in human history. The Trinity Test was the first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon, and marks the beginning of the nuclear age and associated state of fear over nuclear weapons.

In his novel State of Fear, Michael Crichton asserts that elitesparticularly those in the governmentstoke our fears toward monolithic enemies to maintain power and manipulate the public into compromises that otherwise would be impossible. [1] The specific example Crichton uses in the novel is global warming as the monolithic enemy and environmental policy as the compromise he believes we were being deceived into accepting. While several of Crichtons specific points regarding climate science have come under fire or been disproven since the novels publication, his broader political points still ring true today.

Crichton's novel was unknowingly completed in the midst of one of the most egregious examples of the U.S. government using questionable evidence to deceive the nation. The Iraq War and the dubious weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that motivated it are a paragon for government exaggeration and distortion of facts to manipulate the public. In 2004, the country was embroiled in the early years of the Iraq war, the Patriot Act had been passed a few years prior, and WMDs were in the back of everyones minds. Indeed, in late 2003 when the Iraq War was less than one year old, public support for the war was polled to be 68%. [2] While the report disputing the existence of WMDs had been released in September 2004, Bush nevertheless rode these cultural coattails to victory over John Kerry in the 2004 election. The state of fear worked, and all in the three months prior to Crichtons novel hitting shelves.

The original and still largest-scale instance of the government propagandizing a monolithic enemy was during the Cold War. The government and media portrayed nuclear weapons and communism as existential enemies that we must make collective and individual sacrifices to stop. This is not to say that the political axis formed by a nuclear Soviet Union and its allies did not pose a significant geopolitical threat: indeed, even today most international relations revolve around the power struggle between Russia and the United States. However, we need look no further than the Vietnam War to see how the nebulous threat of communism was used as the initial motivation for what otherwise would have been (and later became) a widely unpopular foreign conflict. States of fear have continually convinced the American public to act against its own interests, and the effects of widespread fear on the American public and policy can have long-lasting, sometimes unintended consequences.

The Bomb, Cold War, and Nuclear Accidents

The deep-seeded cultural fear of nuclear weapons has greatly affected energy policy in the United States over the last seven decades. Throughout the middle part of the 20th century, nuclear weapons were portrayed to the public as the fundamental threat of our time. Every student was forced to practice drills in case of a nuclear strike (akin to a fire or earthquake drill today), every town had sirens to warn of an incoming air strike. Nuclear weapons penetrated our culture on a deeper level than any form of weaponry or technology had before that time. We were inundated with images of mushroom clouds over Japanese cities (shown in Fig. 1) and test sites, and were continually reminded that we should be scared of someday seeing a similar sight on the horizon.

Consequently, the fear of nuclear weapons became embedded in our culture and remains so today. While a fear of nuclear weapons is not entirely negative - Xie argues that this fear has averted widespread nuclear war - this collective fear has had a decidedly detrimental effect on the development of nuclear power as a source of alternative energy. [3] Nuclear energy becomes economical at $0.108 per kWh, which is competitive with many fossil fuel-based sources of energy. [4] Consequently, nuclear energy is for the most part a political issue: most of the engineering and economic challenges have been solved, and it is policy and public support that stand in the way.

Sensationally reported nuclear disasters have also destroyed the image of nuclear energy in our culture. The quintessential nuclear disaster is Chernobyl in 1986, and more recently the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011 has reignited many cultural fears over and opposition towards nuclear power. To the American public, the concepts of heavy water reactors and nuclear warheads are indistinguishable, and people fear that every reactor will become another Three Mile Island. Even in places or with groups where nuclear energy is accepted in concept, people suffer from not in my backyard syndrome when it comes to choosing where the build a reactor. Politically, widespread unpopularity coupled with heavy lobbies from the coal and oil industries means nuclear energy proposals are essentially dead on arrival today.

Possible Ways Forward

However, not all is lost, and there are possible ways forward to shift our culture in favor of nuclear energy. First and foremost, we need education. This is of course an uphill battle thanks to a culture that has replaced Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish with Big Bang Theory laugh tracks, and state governments that implement ever-declining standards in science and math. (Gupta also points to The Simpsons as an example of nuclear energy's negative image in popular media, showing that the issue is not in the level of humor but the content as well. [5])

When fighting a state of fear, knowledge is our only weapon, and as regards nuclear energy, this is particularly true. Nuclear energy becomes much less intimidating once one understands the basic science involved, the gross negligence behind disasters like Chernobyl, and most importantly that even in terms of radiation emitted, nuclear is far cleaner and safer than coal by nearly all metrics. Unfortunately, a huge majority of students leaving our countrys high schools today were never given the academic toolbox necessary to fairly evaluate nuclear power. How can we expect people to accept a source of energy they do not understand?

There are of course many efforts out there towards online education (e.g. Coursera, Udacity), but these mainly focus on collegiate-level courses, and few of their offerings are at an introductory level. The internet has made possible the dissemination and democratization of knowledge on a scale never before seen in human history, but we still need the basic mathematical and scientific knowledge taught in K-12 classrooms to take advantage of these resources.

Beyond basic education, our society also needs to maintain a measure of weariness towards government or media elites that in one breath describe a large-scale enemy, and in the next propose regulation, policy, or censorship in stop it. While there are many well-meaning people making informed suggestions, there are also many hoping to cynically exploit a cultural fear or crisis to push an agenda. Today, for example, we see such efforts coming from the far Right pointing to Islamic terrorism to justify the surveillance state and immigration restrictions, and the far Left citing online trolls to argue for draconian censorship and regulation of the Internet. We should be weary of these efforts: demagogues offer simplistic solutions to simplified problems, and we need to stop them at the door.

Finally, we should elect politicians who do not play on fears and foment divisions, and seek out media that presents reasoned, factual analysis instead of partisan propaganda. Identity politics and culture wars nearly tore our country apart in the 2016 election, but the crisis goes deeper than that. Since at least 2006, elections have been base elections, where parties top priority was rallying their most extreme supporters to turn out to the polls. In base elections, parties have no incentive to select moderates, and instead select candidates who resonate with or even embrace the worst wings of their parties. A great first step here would be returning to an era when politicians were willing to compromise, and more importantly were allowed to do so by their constituents.

Ultimately, much of the solution to nuclear energy comes down to creating a culture of intellectual vitality. We need a culture that admires scientists as much as movie stars, supports math and science education, approaches cultural crises with reserve instead of hysteria, seeks out quality media, and elects data-driven and intellectually honest politicians. We have a long ways to go, but these goals are very tenable in the near future. There is hope for us yet that we can defeat the State of Fear.

© Timothy Anderson. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] M. Crichton, State of Fear (Harper Collins, 2005).

[2] D. Sussman, "Poll Shows View of Iraq War Is Most Negative Since Start," New York Times, 25 May 07.

[3] X. Xie, "Fear of Nuclear Threat," PH241, Stanford, Winter 2013.

[4] D. Bechstein, "The Bomb in Japanese Popular Art," PH240, Stanford, Autumn 2013.

[5] S. Gupta, "Nuclear in Popular Culture," PH240, Stanford, Winter 2017.