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Rachel Rothschild

The development of nuclear technology had a profound influence on the global environment following the Second World War, with ramifications for scientific research, the modern environmental movement, and conceptualizations of pollution more broadly. Government sponsorship of studies on nuclear fallout and waste dramatically reconfigured the field of ecology, leading to the widespread adoption of the ecosystem concept and new understandings of food webs as well as biogeochemical cycles. These scientific endeavors of the atomic age came to play a key role in the formation of environmental research to address a variety of pollution problems in industrialized countries. Concern about invisible radiation served as a foundation for new ways of thinking about chemical risks for activists like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner as well as many scientists, government officials, and the broader public. Their reservations were not unwarranted, as nuclear weapons and waste resulted in radioactive contamination of the environment around nuclear-testing sites and especially fuel-production facilities. Scholars date the start of the “Anthropocene” period, during which human activity began to have substantial effects on the environment, variously from the beginning of human farming roughly 8,000 years ago to the emergence of industrialism in the 19th century. But all agree that the advent of nuclear weapons and power has dramatically changed the potential for environmental alterations. Our ongoing attempts to harness the benefits of the atomic age while lessening its negative impacts will need to confront the substantial environmental and public-health issues that have plagued nuclear technology since its inception.

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Spanning countries across the globe, the antinuclear movement was the combined effort of millions of people to challenge the superpowers’ reliance on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Encompassing an array of tactics, from radical dissent to public protest to opposition within the government, this movement succeeded in constraining the arms race and helping to make the use of nuclear weapons politically unacceptable. Antinuclear activists were critical to the establishment of arms control treaties, although they failed to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, as anticommunists, national security officials, and proponents of nuclear deterrence within the United States and Soviet Union actively opposed the movement. Opposition to nuclear weapons evolved in tandem with the Cold War and the arms race, leading to a rapid decline in antinuclear activism after the Cold War ended.