Hosts Michal Meyer and Robert Kenworthy speak with nuclear historians Alex Wellerstein and Linda Richards in this episode of #HistChem. They discuss our turbulent nuclear past and look at how it has shaped, for better and for worse, our current attitudes.

Some say we are on the verge of a bright nuclear future in which nuclear power will play a major role in responding to climate change. Others say that we should expect more Fukushimas. Whichever way our nuclear future goes, there will be tradeoffs between energy and the environment. On CHF’s blog you can decide on the tradeoffs you are willing to make.

CLICK THE TIME STAMPS BELOW TO GO DIRECTLY TO THE HOSTS' QUESTIONS AND TO HEAR THE GUESTS' ANSWERS.

00:40 MICHAL MEYER: Welcome to #HistChem, a history show that takes a look at the science and technology world we live in. I'm Michal Meyer, a historian of science and editor of Chemical Heritage magazine here at CHF.

00:53 BOB KENWORTHY: And I'm Bob Kenworthy, a chemist and also on staff here at CHF. Our program today is "Power and Promise: What ever happened to our golden nuclear age?" We have two guests today, Dr. Alex Wellerstein from the American Institute of Physics and Linda Richards from Oregon State University.

01:33 MICHAL MEYER: Welcome to the show, Alex and Linda. I want to start off with the "Atomic Age." What is the Atomic Age exactly, and when did it start?

01:45 ALEX WELLERSTEIN: One way to talk about a technological age is to talk about how people self-identify with technology. So if we go back to the 19th century, if you search over what words are being used in books and articles, they describe themselves as living in the Machine Age.

03:02 IMAGE: Ngram diagram tracking use of word "nuclear" throughout decades.

05:50 IMAGE: First medical X-ray by Wilhelm Röntgen of wife Anna Bertha Ludwig's hand.

08:02 BOB KENWORTHY: Alex, what would you say about this dawn of the Atomic Age?

09:12 IMAGE: "Undark" (Radium Girls advertisement, 1921)

09:18 IMAGE: "Radium Girls: Radium dial painters working in a factory."

09:53 MICHAL MEYER: How does the fiction of that time address that? I know in the zombie show we looked at the fiction that goes around the idea of epidemic. What would be the equivalent for the nuclear age?

10:16 IMAGE: "The World Set Free" H.G. Wells book cover.

10:22 IMAGE: "The Atomic Age" book cover, from Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives Research Center.

10:29 IMAGE: "Atomic Attack!" book cover, from Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives Research Center.

11:30 MICHAL MEYER: So, this show has promise in its title so let's look at promise for a little bit. I know there was the early promise of healing, but more broadly, what was the promise of the nuclear age?

12:21 IMAGE: "Hanford Site": Nuclear reactors on the Columbia river.

13:48 MICHAL MEYER: So how did pessimism about nuclear power turn into something much more positive?

14:15 IMAGE: "Launching Nautilus"

14:23 IMAGE: "Nautilus's Reactor Core"

14:48 MICHAL MEYER: But the first nuclear power stations appeared as early as the 1950s. What was the push there? For making civilian power?

16:52 IMAGE: President Eisenhower

19:42 BOB KENWORTHY: When I think of that era wasn't the whole context one of secrecy and paranoia? I think of the movie Dr. Strangelove, for example.

22:22 MICHAL MEYER: We've talked a lot about the end product, we've talked a bit about nuclear bombs and nuclear power stations. Linda, I'd like for you to take us back to the very beginning to uranium and where it comes from.

26:40 IMAGE: "Half Lives" Chemical Heritage magazine cover.

27:18 MICHAL MEYER: What can you tell me about the conditions of these specific miners, in terms of their lives and what happened to them when they got sick?

29:10 [BREAK: Interview with Lee Sullivan Berry, program assistant with Oral History Program: "History, Chemistry and Literary Detection"].

33:02 MICHAL MEYER: Welcome back, we have time for one Twitter question and here's a question from Leah Bolger: "Aren't we still ignoring the downside of hazards of nuclear power? Even despite Fukushima still a push to move to 'clean' energy."

37:34 BOB KENWORTHY: I want to switch gears now. I had a heart attack, I'm a cardiac patient and a couple months ago I had a cardiac stress test---that's an injection of a radio isotope into my bloodstream so that while I'm exercising the instruments can monitor where my blood vessels are, and see it much more clearly. The question is, back to promise, what else would we not have?

46:20 MICHAL MEYER: I want to bring it back to nuclear power for a moment and talk about, well, carry on with our Twitter question. In some ways it's connected to global warming and connected to our growing need for power. How do we keep up? I mean our power needs seem to increase year by year on a planetary level. How do we keep up with that?

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The Chemical Heritage Foundation fosters an understanding of chemistry’s impact on society through ongoing live events that feature thought leaders in the science community. An independent, nonprofit organization, CHF maintains major collections of instruments,…


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The Chemical Heritage Foundation fosters an understanding of chemistry’s impact on society through ongoing live events that feature thought leaders in the science community. An independent, nonprofit organization, CHF maintains major collections of instruments, fine art, photographs, papers, and books. We host conferences and lectures, support research, offer fellowships, and produce educational materials. Our museum and public programs explore subjects ranging from alchemy to nanotechnology.

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