A is for Atom: Vintage PR Film for Nuclear Energy

As a dev­as­tat­ed Japan con­tin­ues to strug­gle with the dam­age to its nuclear facil­i­ties, sev­er­al oth­er nations have begun recon­sid­er­ing their nuclear poli­cies. Ger­many, for exam­ple, has tem­porar­i­ly closed down sev­en aging nuclear reac­tors, and oth­er coun­tries (includ­ing Rus­sia, Chi­na, and the US) have announced checks of their own safe­ty stan­dards.

Cyn­ics might sug­gest that these announce­ments are cal­cu­lat­ed less to make sub­stan­tive changes than to calm a fright­ened pub­lic, and attempts to man­age per­cep­tions of the atom­’s volatile pow­ers are noth­ing new. They began imme­di­ate­ly after the bomb­ings of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki. The video above, pro­duced by Gen­er­al Elec­tric in 1952, was one of many Atom­ic Ener­gy “PR films” designed to sway pub­lic opin­ion in favor of this prof­itable and pow­er­ful new ener­gy resource. (Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, GE built the Fukushi­ma reac­tor that’s now in deep trou­ble.)

A is for Atom was a huge hit — it won sev­er­al hon­ors, includ­ing a spe­cial prize at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val and a Mer­it Award from Scholas­tic Teacher. In some ways those hon­ors were deserved. The movie is a spright­ly car­toon with cheer­ful nar­ra­tion and expla­na­tions of some dif­fi­cult physics, even as it avoids any engage­ment with the dark sides of nuclear ener­gy. In fact, the whole mes­sage boils down to a reas­sur­ance that the atom­’s mas­sive poten­tial is all “with­in man’s com­mand.”

(For more Atomic/Nuclear PR films, check out this YouTube chan­nel ded­i­cat­ed to Vin­tage Atom­ic Nuclear Films.)

Sheer­ly Avni is a San Fran­cis­co-based arts and cul­ture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Week­ly, Vari­ety, Moth­er Jones, and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low her on twit­ter at @sheerly.

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Comments (3)
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  • Yogibb says:

    Inter­est­ing that the music over the clos­ing cred­its should be so…ominous.

  • Barry Woods says:

    What a biased and unpro­fes­sion­al review of the film “A is For Atom.” This edu­ca­tion­al film was cre­at­ed in the ear­ly 1950’s when about the only edu­ca­tion one received on nuclear pow­er was from low bud­get sci­fi and hor­ror movies. The film is a clas­sic because of its fac­tu­al pre­sen­ta­tion of the sci­ence and physics behind nuclear pow­er.

    Most of the time the media was (and still is) feed­ing on peo­ple’s fears of the unknown.

    Fuk­ishi­ma had a prob­lem only because the back up gen­er­a­tors were not built far enough inland to pre­vent water dam­age dur­ing a water surge event. The reac­tors are a tried and true mod­el (called the Boil­ing Water Reac­tor, or BWR) from GE which have been gen­er­at­ing pow­er with­out inci­dent since 1960, over 50 years. The Fuk­ismi­na design showed how safe these reac­tors are in that even as dev­as­tat­ing an event as an earth­quake and tsumani could not cause injury or death. The reac­tors shut them­selves down auto­mat­i­cal­ly when they detect­ed the first microtremors, even before felt by any of the pop­u­la­tion.

    Nei­ther the earth­quake, nor the tsuna­mi dam­aged the reac­tors in any way as they were designed to with­stand events to a much greater fac­tor than what occurred.

    Had the back up gen­er­a­tors, to pro­vide cool­ing water cir­cu­la­tion been locat­ed out of harms way. Noth­ing would have hap­pened and the reac­tors would have been put back one line.

    Due to the exten­sive safe­ty sys­tems, even total loss of cool­ing pow­er, an earth­quake and tsuna­mi could not cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion where even one indi­vid­ual at the plants, nor one mem­ber of the pop­u­la­tion where hurt or put into dan­ger.

    Nor­mal fos­sil fueled plants are not designed to with­stand such forces of nature, and if the Fuk­ishi­ma plants had been con­ven­tion­al fos­sil fueled, there would have been the death of many of the oper­at­ing per­son­nel and staff.

    The media loves to den­i­grate nuclear pow­er as it sells news­pa­per, mag­a­zines and gets peo­ple to watch the news. In oth­er words, they make mon­ey off of it. Look at the cre­den­tials of most of the reporters in the media. They would­n’t know an atom from a neu­tron, from a pro­ton. Odds are they prob­a­bly bare­ly passed high school phys­i­cal sci­ence, and yet the pub­lic relies on them for infor­ma­tion about nuclear pow­er. No won­der peo­ple are some­times fear­ful of it as they are total­ly mis­in­formed by biased, ill informed reporters.

    A lit­tle research and you will see that a nuclear pow­er plant is the only emis­sion free way to gen­er­ate pow­er on a large scale with­out cre­ation of Car­bon Diox­ide, which caus­es glob­al warm­ing and acid rain.

    Fos­sil fuels, such as oil and coal release a witch’s brew of hydro­car­bons to the atmos­phere and soil which we breathe in and ingest.

    The radi­a­tion released by a coal fired pow­er plant, is actu­al­ly 3 to 10 times (depend­ing on the plant size and scrub­bers) greater than that of a nuclear plant because of the radon gas that is nat­u­ral­ly present in coal. This is released to the air when the coal is burned.

    Pop­u­la­tions liv­ing near a coal fired pow­er plant have increased rates of lung can­cer and emphy­se­ma.

    Nuclear pow­er is known to be, by the experts, as the clean­est and most green way we cur­rent­ly have to pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty.

    Base­load nuclear plants com­bined with small­er satel­lite solar and wind pow­er gen­er­a­tion plants is the only way we can con­tin­ue to pro­vide pow­er to our expo­nen­tial­ly increas­ing pop­u­la­tion with­out per­ma­nent­ly dam­ag­ing our envi­ron­ment.

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