Nuclear power has long been sold as a utopian technology that would usher in an era when no-one would need to work, energy would be free and limitless, and people would live longer and healthier lives. The cultural impacts of the ‘atom age’ were profound.
Ever since x-rays were discovered over 100 years ago and radium soon after, various applications of radiation-based technologies were devised which captured the public imagination in Europe and North America.
X-ray technology was used for everything from treating headaches to fitting shoes. Radiation cures as a fad lasted for at least 40 years and were used for ringworms, acne, tonsils and adenoids. So-called ‘female problems’ were treated by having ovaries irradiated as a cure for depression, or to bring about menopause. Some paediatricians would routinely fluoroscope pregnant mothers and their babies. People drank radium solutions as an all-purpose tonic, sometimes referred to as ‘liquid sunshine’.
In 1958 Ford came out with a prototype of the Nucleon – a nuclear-powered car. The US Air Force spent $1 billion researching a nuclear-powered fighter jet that would stay aloft forever. One science writer predicted that bad weather would be a thing of the past due to atomic ‘artificial suns’ installed on tall towers. A researcher suggested that the construction of roads could be improved by using reactors to melt highways directly on to the landscape.
With recent hype about fusion technology and the promise of a new fusion age, it would be wise to remember the mistakes of the past.