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Nuclear radiation in pop culture: more giant lizards than real science

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Radiation was seen as beneficial

Radioactivity was not always seen as a negative power. In the early days of radium research, it was considered beneficial. Early uses included such popular items as “radium suppositories,” points out Mr. Latham.

But serious science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein and H.G. Wells began writing about the dangers of atomic power gone awry even before the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“After the war,” notes Latham, “the fears about nuclear fallout became palpable.”

Pop culture treatment of nuclear fallout fears have gone through several stages since World War II, says Kathy Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, she points out, the depictions were largely fantastical, horror- and B-movie subjects, with whole cities being destroyed and populations dying terrible deaths.

After the partial nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, the popular culture portrayals “took a serious, dramatic and more realistic turn,” she points out, with films such as “Silkwood” and “China Syndrome.”

Now, she says, we are in an era where popular entertainment combines modern terrorism with the nuclear threat.

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