Younger generations are unaware of what it has been like to live with a horizon dominated by an atomic mushroom cloud, the mushroom cloud that symbolised the nuclear apocalypse. They do not know because this fear disappeared with the Cold War and the partial disarmament of US and Russian missiles. Suddenly, the spectre of a hecatomb has been summoned by Vladimir Putin, and the nuclear fear, which had been lying low, has been thrust upon us.
What would be the impact of an H-bomb falling on Madrid, wondered one newspaper headline a few days ago. Another reassured us that Spain is beyond the range of most Russian missiles, and a third identified the radiation-proof bunkers in the country. The nuclear scare is back in full force.
It originated in August 1945, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were blown apart by the energy locked in the atomic core. And it was triggered in 1949, when the Soviets detonated their A-bomb in Kazakhstan, raising the prospect of nuclear conflict. But the US, instead of proposing disarmament to the Kremlin, designed the more devastating H-bomb. The Soviets soon followed suit, and for the first time in history, the possible extinction of life on Earth was in sight.
Previously there had been fears of plague, invasions, natural disasters, witches… But the nuclear scare was different in that “the potential destruction of the planet, its apocalyptic scenario, is possible due to the technology developed by humanity”, Marta Rodríguez Fouz, professor of Sociology at the Public University of Navarra, told SINC. Added to this is “the evidence that nuclear destruction, even localised in a specific space, has a duration that goes beyond our time scale, compromising the survival of future generations”.
The double face of the nuclear era
In 1945, the atomic age was declared to have dawned. The public relations programme Atoms for Peace claimed that radiation would give us cheap and inexhaustible energy, cure cancer, open canals, fertilise plants, heat homes, power spacecraft… Atomic cocktails were invented and The Commodores enthralled their fans with the song Uranium. The atom was showing its radiant face.
But it did not take long for its dark side to reveal itself: when the particles released by nuclear tests rained down, and plutonium was detected in children’s bones, mothers cried out against universal contamination. That the radiation was invisible, toxic and virtually unstoppable added to the consternation.
Nor did it help that futurologist Herman Kahn warned that, after an exchange of missiles, between ten and several hundred million people would turn to ash. Like the god Janus, the atom possessed a dual nature: one side presented an array of wonders and the other showed the horrendous burns caused by its energy.
The panic had its epicentre in the US. In schools, children were trained to protect themselves from the hecatomb by ducking under their desks and covering their heads with their hands. The state’s inability to build bunkers for everyone unleashed a free-for-all, and homeowners dug family shelters in their backyards. Documentaries like Atomic Café reflect the bipolar madness of those years.
Not coincidentally, the cliché of the mad savant was revived, this time incarnated in physicists, portrayed as abominable brains, knowledgeable in the arcana of matter and without the slightest moral responsibility.
But there were scientists who were anything but mad, and in the USA they published The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose cover featured the iconic end-of-the-world clock. Marking the seconds to midnight – the total destruction of humanity – its hands would henceforth serve as the barometer of the imminence of global nuclear war.
The period of détente arrives
From 1963 onwards, the atomic mushrooms disappeared from view thanks to the suspension of open-air tests. From then on, the tests were conducted underground and, as the saying goes, ‘out of sight, out of mind’, concern was considerably reduced.
From 1963 onwards, the atomic fungi disappeared from view thanks to the suspension of open-air testing, and the tests were conducted underground: out of sight, out of mind.
However, notes Stephen Weart, the author of Nuclear Fear – the definitive work on the subject – concerns, far from dissipating, shifted to nuclear power plants, which came to be seen as potential time bombs.
Tension spiked in 1981 when NATO, in response to the deployment of Soviet missiles in the Eastern Bloc, decided to install so-called Euromissiles. The Cold War was in full swing and the peace movement was rekindled.
Refuting the Reagan administration’s claim that a thermonuclear war was survivable, NBC aired The Day After, a docudrama about the ravages of a bombing in Kansas City. To appease a panicked citizenry, Reagan came up with a ‘missile defence shield’, a strategic defence initiative (SDI) that would stop Soviet attacks.
“During the Cold War and with the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki closer to home, this fear was part of the Western imagination, and the Chernobyl disaster revitalised this fear”, recapitulates sociologist Rodríguez Fouz, and although “the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the arms race seemed to ease the tension, Fukushima burst in as an expression of nuclear fear unrelated to the war”.
A stifled fear in Spain
Spain lived through this period in a bubble. Francoism, eager to ingratiate itself with Washington, extolled “our friend the atom”. The perception of danger was a foreigner’s thing, as reflected in Calabuch (1956), Berlanga’s film about the American physicist with a crisis of conscience who takes refuge in a village in the Levant. But in “the upper echelons of power, aware of the US bombers flying over the country, there was growing concern”, Cristina Roiz, of Ecologistas en Acción, told SINC.
“At the end of the 1950s,” says José Herrera, a scholar of the Palomares accident, “the high command became alarmed by the weapons that the Americans were storing at the Torrejón de Ardoz base. Concern spread to the public in 1966, when three H-bombs fell on the Almería town, showering it with plutonium.
The regime could not hide it: “in Australia, a newspaper warned of an atomic explosion with thousands of victims, and Radio Pirenaica and the BBC broadcast alarming news,” Herrera recalls to SINC. Despite isolated protests, the authorities managed to calm the population with the famous bath on Fraga beach and by prohibiting bombers from flying over national airspace. They did, however, conceal the fact that Poseidon submarines armed with Trident missiles were at home in Rota (Cádiz).
Nevertheless, the following years were marked by “nuclear euphoria”, Herrera adds, alluding to plans to spread nuclear power plants across Spain, while secretly embarking on the construction of a homeland H-bomb – the Islero project – which was later discarded due to US pressure. There was not even panic when “the Portuguese discovered radioactive sludge in the Tagus being dumped into the Manzanares river from the Nuclear Energy Board in Moncloa”, says Roiz.
But the concern did not disappear. The apocalyptic films started in 1964 by Mariano Ozores with La hora incógnita, which portrays the hours before a missile falls on a Spanish city; and continued with La Casa (A. Fons, 1976), whose protagonists escape from Earth before the atomic holocaust; Último deseo (L. Klimovsky, 1977), where the end of the world surprises some rich people in an orgy; and Animales Racionales (E. Herrero, 1983), about two brothers and a woman who tries to survive the disaster.
With the arrival of democracy and freedom of information, fear reared its head again. “In part, it was encouraged by the movement against Euro-missiles, which found its greatest expression in the rejection of NATO membership; and in part, it was combined with the invisible threat posed by the reactors built on Spanish soil,” observes Roiz. This unease was enough to push the government of Felipe González to approve the moratorium on the construction of new power plants, in force since 1983.
The 1991 CIS survey showed that between 60 and 70 % of Spaniards were opposed to nuclear energy, and this opinion has not changed over the years, with 60 % of those interviewed declaring themselves anti-nuclear in 2011.
This resentment has prevented “the installation of a centralised repository for radioactive waste, as nobody wants to have it nearby”, Herrera analyses. And the good reception of La Zona, the Movistar series broadcast in 2017 that critically recreates the consequences of the serious breakdown of an imaginary reactor in the north of Spain, speaks of its validity.
Apparently, the nuclear scare subsided in recent decades. Reactors began to be dismantled, North Korea’s missiles did not pose a global danger and the number of bombs was reduced from 70,300 in 1986 to 12,700 today. For younger people, the nuclear apocalypse was the stuff of disaster movies, totally out of touch with reality.
But when Putin put his “nuclear deterrent forces” on alert, we saw that the anxiety had not vanished; it was simply lurking beneath our consciousness, ready to surface when circumstances called for it.
“The existence of an enormous atomic arsenal and numerous nuclear power plants prevents us from completely neutralising the fear of a nuclear catastrophe,” reflects Rodríguez Fouz, who adds: “The threat from Russia reactivates a fear that cannot disappear and that, moreover, is linked to fears derived from ecological threats, with the difference that the latter appear as unintended effects and Putin’s threat as an expression of a desire for the destruction that may or may not have a deterrent purpose.
Russia’s threat reactivates a nuclear fear that joins fears of ecological threats, with the difference that these appear as unintentional effects and Putin’s threat as an expression of a will to destroy.
Marta Rodríguez Fouz (Un. Pública de Navarra)
Putin’s warning came shortly after various forums had tried to relaunch atomic energy as the great tool against climate change, once again showing the smiling face of the atom.
But these plans have been called into question by the war in Ukraine: the struggle for control of Chernobyl and other power plants has raised fears of a radioactive leak. As a result, the fear of atomic energy and nuclear war have merged into a single nightmare scenario. “It’s like having a powder keg waiting for someone or something to blow it up,” Roiz compares.
In the past, nuclear fear elicited mixed reactions: on the one hand, it fuelled the global peace movement and served as a midwife to environmentalism; on the other, it generated patriotic support for weapons that gave one’s own country the status of world power and inhibited potential aggressors. Where will it be channelled now?
A trend towards nuclear rearmament or sanity?
“The reaction will be towards rearmament and not questioning the need to have an atomic arsenal,” Rodríguez Fouz replies, “and in this scenario pacifists will, as always, find themselves powerless when faced with the practical question of how to respond to military aggression without resorting to weapons.
Nor can it be ruled out that sanity will prevail and talks will resume containing an arms race of mass destruction. For the time being, if one thing seems reasonably certain, it is that in the coming weeks the editors of the end of the world clock, which has been ticking 100 seconds to 12 o’clock since January, will move their hands forward again.