Camera Atomica

If people had been introduced to electricity by the electric chair, they wouldn’t have accepted it so easily.

This is a remarkable exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario of photographs, posters and other artifacts from the beginning of the atomic age in the 1940’s up to present times that should interest everyone in the nuclear industry. I would highly recommend it and you can see it until November 15, 2015.

More information can be found at

As one would expect the show touches in some way on every nuclear issue and I’ll make only my own observations on a few of them.

We have just marked the 70th anniversary of the two nuclear bombings in Japan in 1945 that ended World War II. There is a continuing debate about whether nuclear weapons should have been used but the show has no balance on this point. It shows pictures of the terrible injuries and devastation caused by the bombs but it does not show the fanaticism of Japanese militarism of that era when Japan’s armed forces committed atrocities in Asia as horrible as those of their Nazi allies in Europe. The issue is whether the nuclear bombings ultimately saved lives by ending this madness and avoiding a bloody invasion of Japan. The exhibit contributes little to this debate.

A consequence of the war ending “atomic” bombs was that everything atomic became fashionable in the US and Canada. There is a photo of a model at the 1952 Toronto Sportsman’s show posing with a radiation monitor and even more bizarre one of a US Navy admiral and his wife cutting a cake in the shape of a mushroom cloud. People loved all things nuclear for the first and perhaps only time in history. Then it was assumed that a nuclear war was survivable and therefore, people should build home fallout shelters where they could wait out the fallout from the war to subside. A sample shelter is illustrated in the exhibit. School children were advised to crouch under their desks and the basements of public buildings were designated and equipped as shelters. As time went on the number of weapons held by the nuclear powers grew into the thousands, too many for an exchange to be survivable, and the shelter concept went out of fashion.

The end of the honeymoon period of the first atomic age came from two sources. The first was the large number of nuclear weapons tests that dragged on from the late 1940s into the 1990s. There is a computer screen in the exhibit that blinks with each test year by year. I had forgotten that more than 2,000 tests actually took place during this period; about half were done by the US with the USSR, France, UK, making up most of the remainder. One can legitimately ask whether the US and the USSR really needed that many weapons tests and it would appear that the intense competition between these powers drove the test numbers to much higher than necessary levels. Whatever the reason the atmospheric fallout from weapon tests was significant and gave rise to the first anti-nuclear movement aimed at baning atmospheric nuclear tests particularly for the sake of developing children.

A second source of public discontent with nuclear weapons was the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) posture adopted by the US and USSR. If one of them attacked the other then it would retaliate with a weight of weapons sufficient to completely annihilate the attacker. Truly a nuclear exchange involving large numbers of weapons would be an Armageddon “end of the world” scenario. The classic 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove depicted an unintended nuclear war set off by a mad general. People who grew up during that era had a fear of world ending nuclear war. The reaction to that overhanging reality was the “ban the bomb/nuclear disarmament” movement that persists in many forms today.

Historically nuclear reactors for electricity production were a spin-off of a very large nuclear military industry. In the US in particular civilian applications grew out of nuclear naval propulsion. For many years up to the 1970s nuclear power was a side show but with its roots in nuclear defence activities.

The exhibit also touches on many nuclear issues including reactor accidents, uranium mining, nuclear proliferation, and radioactive waste that continue to feed the public fear and mistrust of nuclear power. The historical photographs are an impressive record of how these attitudes came about. The electric chair quote at the beginning of this piece sums up the problem the nuclear industry of today has in counteracting a negative nuclear history. Anyone seriously interested in nuclear power should see this exhibition.