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Early efforts to expand nuclear energy were rife with racism and peril, reminds a historian

The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology

Jacob Darwin Hamblin
Oxford University Press
328 pp.
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana in 1905. Heeding this aphorism, in The Wretched Atom, historian Jacob Darwin Hamblin seeks to remind readers of the misguided 20th-century effort launched by the United States, its allies, and international agencies to expand nuclear energy around the world. The compelling narrative should lead readers to realize the importance of preventing a repeat of the follies that marked the early decades of the atomic age.

Hamblin covers a vast amount of material in this well-written book, which encompasses the period from soon after the close of the Second World War through the end of the 20th century. He divides this history into three eras: “Atomic Promises,” a period defined by numerous ideas for civilian applications of atomic energy; “Atomic Propaganda,” when these ideas resulted in the spread of atomic technology, albeit with mixed success; and “Atomic Prohibition,” when non-Western countries, China and India in particular, acquired atomic bombs, and Western countries adopted new norms to govern nuclear commerce.

The events described in this book took place over many continents, with actors ranging from the right-wing media mogul (and nuclear energy supporter) Matsutaro Shoriki of Japan and Kwame Nkrumah, head of the state of the newly decolonized Ghana, to the plant breeder M. S. Swaminathan in India and Hans Blix, the Swedish director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The range of players reflects the many facets of our world tied to nuclear energy that Hamblin explores.

Nuclear weapons are, of course, the best-known technology that is closely tied to nuclear energy, and quite a few of Hamblin’s chapters highlight how various geopolitical and economic goals outweighed concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation in key decisions. But the importance of Hamblin’s book lies in its exploration of the intersection of nuclear energy with seemingly unrelated topics, such as racism, colonialism and neocolonialism, propaganda, and surveillance and control.

Hamblin describes, for example, major differences in how the United States treated Ghana and South Africa in the 1960s. Both African countries were seriously interested in nuclear energy. Even as it passed civil rights legislation domestically, the Johnson administration supported apartheid South Africa’s nuclear program, and US companies helped build its first nuclear reactor in 1965. In contrast, the United States not only refused to help Ghana, but, according to Hamblin, the country also helped “crush” the “prospect of an ambitious peaceful nuclear program by an independent African nation not ruled by whites.”

Such instances are not mere historical oddities. Today, for example, some companies are working to develop so-called nuclear batteries, sealed reactors that contain enough fuel for their predicted operational lifetimes. Although seemingly a technological choice, the neocolonial politics of this endeavor lie in the envisioned geographical distribution: The reactors are to be assembled and fueled in predominantly white nations, while developing countries with predominantly nonwhite populations are to be at the receiving end. The implicit message is that the latter are not to be trusted with operating a reactor or replacing its fuel.

Historical amnesia is also at play in the US nuclear industry’s recent attempts to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia despite Saudi leaders openly citing Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons as part of the reason for their interest in establishing a nuclear program of their own (1). Hamblin describes how the promise of nuclear electricity in India and Pakistan and desalinated water in Israel were used as justifications for nuclear programs in these countries, but these seemingly beneficial initiatives ultimately contributed to the advancement of each nation’s nuclear weapons programs. Remembering this past could uncover the potential long-term repercussions of exporting nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia.

All books involve editorial decisions about which topics to emphasize. I found myself wishing that The Wretched Atom had explored more thoroughly, for example, the corporate propaganda used to promote nuclear energy and increase profits, as well as the efforts by US governmental institutions to portray nuclear technology as risk free. But such is the hallmark of a good book—readers are left wanting more, not less.

References and Notes:

  1. A. Murphy, M. V. Ramana, “The Trump administration is eager to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. But why?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 16 April 2019.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada.