Nuclear Power in Film: Influencing Public Opinion

Cate Guyman
January 27, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Nuclear Power's Introduction to Film

Fig. 1: A Hollywood Star given to Godzilla, demonstrating the movie's popularity. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When Nuclear Energy first became available as a power source around the turn of the 20th century, many scientists were very hopeful for the future it could bring. Nuclear radiation, which is the energy given off of decaying radioactive elements, was thought to be the future of science and the solution to all problems. [1] Nevertheless, it was not until the two bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the media began to pick up on the idea of radiation to be portrayed in movies and TV shows. The realities of the death and destruction of the Atomic bombs dropped in Japan scared many into worrying about nuclear fallout and the potential dangerous side effects of radiation, including cell mutation. [2] Radiation began to appear in popular culture as having almost magical powers - giving protagonists extraordinary capabilities, or rendering them as mutated and destroyed. [3]

Radiation Causing Heroism, or Horror and Destruction

Many superheros emerged as a result of radiation. Prominent examples include The Incredible Hulk, who was an ex scientist supposedly exposed to radiation during a bomb test, and Spider-Man, who was given incredible spider-like capabilities after having been bitten by a radioactive spider. Though in some movies radiation gave people extraordinary capabilities, most featured scary mutants and monsters, often involving extreme societal destruction. In 1954, the hit movie Godzilla was released, in which a radioactive lizard grows and terrorizes Japan. The movie was incredibly popular, earning it a star in the Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, California (Fig 1.) The same year, the Warner Brothers film THEM! Was released, in which giant ants mutated by radiation from an atomic bomb rampage LA. These sci-fi films both reflected and perpetrated exiting fears and awes of nuclear energy. [3]

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: Realism

Fig. 2: A crowd gathers at the capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979, shortly after the Three Mile Island Accident, to protest nuclear energy. Crowd at Rally. Anti-nuke Rally in Harrisburg, (Pennsylvania) at the Capitol. 1979. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Source: U.S. National Archives)

Nevertheless, many of the portrayals of the effects of radiation were clearly unreasonable, and public opinion still favored nuclear energy despite the ghost stories of the media. [4] However, the film that most influenced public view of nuclear energy was extremely realistic, and happened in almost tandem with a real life nuclear scare. "The China Syndrome" (1979), was a popular Hollywood movie that depicted a near nuclear meltdown at a power plant, which threatened to render huge chunks of the land inhabitable. [3] Only 13 days after the film was released, the world saw its first encounter with a near-accident at a nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island. In this incident, the nuclear fuel overheated, and part of the core melted. [5] Because the accident was extremely similar to the circumstances in the film "The China Syndrome", the movie and the incident combined built upon the fear that the science fiction started around nuclear energy. [4] Many decided that nuclear energy was too dangerous to keep using as an energy source (Fig 2.) Perhaps the accumulation of fears occurred after the worst nuclear disaster ever in 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. At Chernobyl, radiation leaked and flooded surrounding areas far and wide. [2] A film made after, called "The Chernobyl Diaries", depicted dangerous mutants from the radiation of the disaster, continuing to negatively influence public perception of nuclear energy . Even though the two power plants are up and functioning today, they continue to be affiliated with the dangers of nuclear energy

Public Opinion Over Time and Today

However, over time the public has still generally favored the use of nuclear power as an energy source. The only time since the 1980s that the public has not favored it was shortly after the Chernobyl accident, ranging from 1986-88. [1] Since the 90s, steady three-quarters of Americans believe that nuclear power plants will be built in the future and that the importance of nuclear as an energy source will increase. [1] Data shows that more and more people support nuclear energy, especially when people are asked about nuclear energy in the context of energy shortages and global warming. [1] However, when asked if they support the construction of new nuclear power plants, people are for the most part opposed. [1] In fact, three fourths of Americans still believe that living near a nuclear power plant poses high risk. [1] This suggests that Hollywood films and popular culture may still have people convinced that living near a nuclear power plant is dangerous due to radiation, despite that it is no more dangerous than living near a coal or natural gas plant. [6] Today, though support for nuclear energy is stronger than ever as people realize its potential to solve world energy problems, it's important to recognize the potentially harmful effects that movies and television shows can have on awareness about new technologies.

© Cate Guyman. 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] E. A. Rosa and R. E. Dunlap, "Poll Trends: Nuclear Power: Three Decades of Public Opinion," Public Opin. Quart. 58, 295 (1994).

[2] W. Goodman, "Pop Culture's Role in Nuclear Fears," New York Times, 22 Apr 97.

[3] S. Ahmed, "How the Bomb Changed Everything," BBC Culture, 2 Jul 15.

[4] W. A. Gamson and A. Modigliani, "Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach," Am. J. Sociol. 95, 1 (1989).

[5] "Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident", U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, February 2013.

[6] T. Tucker, "5 Myths on Nuclear Power," Washington Post, 22 Mar 09.