Nuclear in Popular Culture

Siddharth Gupta
March 27, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Mushroom Cloud of a Nuclear Test. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since the dropping of two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pop culture and the media have used the fear of nuclear weapons to create some of the most memorable and important works of art in the last sixty years. From movies to comic books, many stories told today revolve around some sort of ultimate destruction device. Even though nuclear energy is safer, cleaner, and more efficient than coal, oil, and natural gas, it continues to be abandoned in the United States. Pop culture has played a large role in the way nuclear energy and weapons are perceived to the general public. [2] Fig. 1 shows the famous mushroom cloud. This is typically the picture that comes to mind when thinking of Nuclear. Looking at examples from film, television, and other sources, the paper will assess how nuclear is portrayed in the media.

Famous Depictions

One of the earliest and probably the most famous movies to take advantage of the nuclear fear is Godzilla. The movie is about a monster that is woken up by nuclear tests done in the pacific ocean. [5] It is ironic that Japan, the only country to ever be attacked by nuclear weapons, ended up creating one of the first nuclear films. One of the most famous franchises, James Bond, has greatly relied on nuclear weapons as plot devices. At least five movies, Thunderball (1965), You only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Octopus (1983), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and The World is Not Enough (1999), focus on James Bond trying to prevent a nuclear catastrophe. More recent movies including The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers have focused on nuclear weapons. Comic books have, for a long time, pitted superhero's against nuclear weapons. A satirical take on nuclear policy is seen in the film Dr. Strangelove. The movie pokes fun at fears of nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. [3] It is one of the few movies out there to show the absurdity of nuclear weapons and of the arms race in particular. Society famously sees nuclear weapons in movies, but there are other instances when nuclear is shown.

Fig. 2: A picture of the Simpson's family in front of the nuclear reactor. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Other Notable Media

One of the most recognizable instances of nuclear is in television on The Simpsons. The two-unit nuclear reactor is notorious for being badly run. It is famous for its safety violations, spillage of radioactive waste, constant flashing lights, and creation of mutants. [1] Fig. 2 shows a picture of the Simpson family enjoying a picnic near the plant. This characterization of nuclear energy is important because it shows how negatively it is perceived by people. Comedians are allowed to show power plants like this because that is how people think they are run. Nuclear fear and nuclear distrust has recently been depicted by the contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. [4] Murakami recently created an exhibition, In the Land of the Dead: Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, inspired by the Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear meltdown. In the exhibit, Murakami uses cartoonish figures with bright colors to depict people suffering from the nuclear catastrophe. [6] The vibrant colors give a disturbing almost scary feel to the art. I think this is important to show how significant nuclear energy and weapons has been to Japan. I also think the popping colors give hope and assurance to Japan that things will get better.

© Siddharth Gupta. 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. Fuchs, "The Public, and Cheerful, Face of Nuclear Power," The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2004.

[2] W. Goodman, "Pop Culture's Role in Nuclear Fears," The New York Times, 22 Apr. 1997.

[3] K. Hurlbutt, "Nuclear Power in Cinema," PH241, Stanford, Winter 2014.

[4] R. Islam, "The Bomb in Japanese Popular Art," PH241, Stanford, Winter 2015.

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

[6] Farago, Jason, "Takashi Murakami Review: A Welcome Return to a More Disturbing Style.," The Guardian, 11 Nov 2014.