Social Education
April/May 1998
Volume 62 Number 4

From Hiroshima to Homer Simpson: Using Literature to Confront the Impact of Nuclear Energy

Dennis N. Banks

Ask a group of middle school students what they know about nuclear power and a likely first answer will be, “Homer Simpson works there!” The next response may be “Hiroshima” or “the bomb.” Someone may mention Chernobyl, though fewer in this age group are likely to have heard of Three Mile Island. Nuclear energy—the major scientific development of the twentieth century—has a major image problem. Whereas the industry wants people to see their product as a positive force in cleaning up the environment throughout the world, the public seems to have a different point of view.
Nuclear energy has the power to build as well as destroy. But its positive attributes for civilian use seem to be outweighed in the public mind by the issues of potential accidents and nuclear waste disposal. From On the Beach (1959) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) to China Syndrome (1979) and the Star Trek films and television series, the consequences of nuclear energy have become more part of our nightmare than our dream of the future.
The popular image of nuclear energy is tied to the politics of the past five decades. In the immediate post-World War II years, the only public knowledge of nuclear power concerned its apocalyptic destructive capability. The images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became ingrained in the universal mentality. As the Cold War escalated, new images developed—for example, of nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll (1954) and of missiles aimed at every major city in the United States and Russia. Fear of nuclear war intensified during the 1960s, when school children practiced “duck and cover” and fallout shelters became the latest home accessory. And, while the escalation of arms evolved into a doctrine of defense known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the Cuban Missile Crisis showed that the threat of nuclear war was not merely theoretical.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the rationale for nuclear attack became ever more unthinkable, and the argument for survivable nuclear war became moot as the world recognized the possibillity that no one might survive a full-scale nuclear war. Nuclear weapons were the defense systems that could and would not be used. Simultaneously, the positive uses of nuclear energy for power production were being offered to the public. Built as less expensive alternatives to burning fossil fuels, nuclear power plants were considered the wave of the future. But, after the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, this future did not look so rosy—despite popular portrayals of a utopian future of interplanetary cooperation with nuclear energy used for the common good, such as that found in the “Star Trek” universe.
For more than half a century, society has been getting a firsthand lesson in dealing with the consequences (positive and negative) of building the atomic bomb.

Nuclear Energy and the Social Studies
How does all of this fit in the with the teaching of social studies? NCSS Standard 8 Science, Technology, and Society states: “Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of relationships among science, technology, and society.”1 Further, within the descriptions of this standard for middle and high school grades, there are more specific references.

Middle school learners should be able to:
> describe examples in which values, beliefs, and attitudes have been influenced by new scientific and technological knowledge
> seek reasonable and ethical solutions to problems that arise when scientific advancements and social norms or values come into conflict

High school learners should be able to:
> make judgments about how science and technology have transformed the physical world and human society and our understanding of human-environmental interactions
> analyze how science and technology influence the core values, beliefs, and attitudes of society, and how core values, beliefs, and attitudes of society shape scientific and technological change.

Our colleagues at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issued a position statement on the teaching of Science, Technology and Society (STS) in 1990:

The bottom line in STS is the involvement of learners in experiences and issues which are directly related to their lives. STS empowers students with skills which allow them to become active, responsible citizens by responding to issues which impact their lives.2

The issues surrounding nuclear energy seem ready made to meet these varying standards. How can social studies teachers help students gain perspective on the significance of ongoing debates over this issue? One way is to examine the history of nuclear development for both military and civilian uses. Another is to follow current debates over such public policy issues as the dismantling of nuclear stockpiles, the deterioration of nuclear power plants, and the problem of nuclear waste disposal. Such discussions entail both the study of objective facts and the weighing of subjective beliefs about the potentials of nuclear energy.

Literature About Nuclear Power and Its Problems
Another way to approach the subject is through literature. An integrated approach that combines social studies and literary instruction can add depth to a unit by presenting the human element as a balance for the larger socio-political and economic forces at work. A number of young adult novels, short stories, poems, and plays, along with some works of non-fiction, are recommended here as the literary component for an integrated social studies and language arts unit on the changing image of nuclear power in the world. As students read about the experiences of children their own age confronting nuclear issues, they might focus on one character (it is likely to be the young protagonist) and, as relevant, consider the following questions:

At the conclusion of the unit, it is hoped that participants will be able to:
> distinguish between those works written with a positive and those with a negative view of nuclear energy
> interpret literary works with a view toward the political climate in which they were written
> evaluate the impact of “the story” on the reader’s point of view regarding nuclear energy
> be inspired to go out and read even more about the subject for themselves.

After Hiroshima
The fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings was greeted with renewed interest in these events and their aftermath. But books on the actual use of atomic weapons are not the only reaction to the problem of nuclear war. Many works of fiction have placed their protagonists in the situation of being among a few survivors trying to rebuild the world in the aftermath of “survivable” nuclear war. Perhaps it seems reassuring to let young readers believe that, though terrible, these wars can be overcome and the world will continue. Some works regarding the destructive capability of nuclear power follow.

The Bomb
. Theodore Taylor. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1995.
This book puts a human face on the people of Bikini Atoll during WW II and the Japanese occupation through American liberation and the subsequent evacuation for postwar testing of the atomic bomb. We watch Sorry, a 14-year-old boy, as he becomes a man and leader of his family. We participate in village life. We feel the pain of dislocation as the islanders are forced to settle on another location that is far inferior to their homeland. To the islanders, the “living reef and all the life around it would be there tomorrow, as it had been for more years than man could count.” (p. 34) Since the atomic testing, Bikini has been turned into “waste dumps.”

Children of the Dust. Louise Lawrence. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
This is a novel about England post-Doomsday. We follow three generations of a family as they survive and evolve in the new world that develops out of nuclear destruction. This is more a book of human endurance and survival than one of despair and oppression; it presents the possibility of a future that is positive in its ethical and moral dimensions.

Doomsday Plus Twelve. James D. Forman. New York: Scribner, 1984.
In 1988, World War III breaks out and a great deal of the world is decimated by atomic blasts. This story highlights one community in northern California that survives and is rebuilding in the new world. Most of the story takes place twelve years after the catastrophe, in 2000. A subplot involves the survival of Japan and its dominance as the only remaining manufacturing power. Young people organize to fight the growth of a militia movement that seems headed toward World War IV.

On the Beach. Nevil Shute. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1957.
Though not a young adult book as such, this is the work that began the genre, and remains a powerful piece of fiction. Set in Australia after an unnecessary series of little wars have led to nuclear fallout slowly covering the planet, a group of people realize that their time on earth is limited. How would you react to being a victim of a war that didn’t concern or involve you? How would you spend the last six months of your life if you knew it was ending? If you knew all human life was ending?

On the Wings of Peace: Writers and Illustrators Speak Out for Peace, in Memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
. Sheila Hamanaka. New York: Clarion Books, 1995.
The collected works of sixty authors produce a powerful document aimed at the children of the 21st century. Every child deserves the chance to live in a world of peace. Through prose, poetry, art, and song, these artists present a united front in the battle to make such a world possible.

“To the Chicago Abyss” in The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and Other Plays. Ray Bradbury. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
In this play/poem, set in Chicago after the bomb, craters exist where there was once a town. The police state arrests people for remembering the past. Survival in unthinkable situations is made easier by letting the mind venture back to when times were different. The characters remember food, friends, and what made life worth living.

Z for Zachariah
. Robert C. O’Brien. New York: Collier Books, 1974.
Ann Burden, sixteen, is the only survivor of an undescribed war... just called “the war.” Nuclear radiation has killed everyone else, as far as she knows. Her valley is for some reason spared. Into this world comes a stranger in a radiation-proof suit. She avoids, then comforts, then confronts him and the world in which she now lives. It is a different place than the one she knew.

Problems of Civilian Use
The setting may have changed, but the issue is the same. In these novels, young people confront the destructive results of nuclear fallout, not because of war or an “evil empire,” but just a horrible accident.

Downwind. Louise Moeri. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1984.
The threat of an accident at a nuclear power plant sends waves of panic through the residents of the California valley some thirty miles “downwind.” The people need to escape before the fact to avoid the unseen consequences of radioactivity. There is no evacuation plan for the area, so people take off on their own and mob mentality breaks out. This is a story of survival; in the end, nothing happens at the plant, but the people have had their eyes opened to the possibilities. As one reflects, “none of us will ever be the same.” (p. 121)

Fall-out. Gudrun Pausewang. Viking: New York, 1994. (German edition, 1987)
Winner of the German Literature Award for Children’s and Young Adult books. Janna, age 14, is thrust into the role of an adult when an accident at a German nuclear power plant causes her to be separated from her family. Her harrowing adventure of growth and maturity in the face of overwhelming devastation is inspiring. The discrimination and hardship she faces as a nuclear survivor (or Hibakusha, in memory of the Hiroshima survivors) is an eye opener.
I Heal: The Children of Chernobyl in Cuba. Trish Marx and Dorita Beh-Eger. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1996.
More than 13,000 young victims of the Chernobyl accident have been treated in Cuba since March 1990. The hospitals in Russia were full and other countries offered assistance. A camp formerly used for Cuban children was turned over to the children of Chernobyl in 1990. We follow two of these children as they deal with their radiation-caused illnesses and learn to love the sun and fresh air of Cuba.

Phoenix Rising. Karen Hesse. New York: Heny Holt, 1994.
Nyle lives with her grandmother in small town Vermont. A nuclear accident near Boston has caused widespread devastation. Refugees are dying of radiation poisoning and face evacuation and relocation. Her interaction with one such family is the major focus of this book. Nyle confronts death many times over. Coming of age, falling in love, and dealing with adult situations combine to make a powerful novel.

Non-Fiction Books on Nuclear Power
It is all but impossible to find positive images of nuclear energy in fiction writing (except for some science fiction). There are, however, numerous nonfiction books for all ages that provide the reader with more understanding of the potential of this energy source.

How Did We Find Out about Nuclear Power? Isaac Asimov. New York: Walker and Company, 1976.
“We have come far in a single century. A hundred years ago, scientists were wondering what cathode rays might be. Now they are trying to make a miniature sun on the earth, a little sun that will do the work of the world.” (p. 61) Asimov introduces young readers to the development and uses of nuclear power.

Nuclear Accident. Christopher Lampton. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.
This book looks to the possibility of using nuclear fusion to solve the problems associated with the production of nuclear power. “Unfortunately, scientists have not yet been able to produce energy economically using fusion. However, they believe that they will someday be able to do it. By the middle of the next century, fusion plants may be ready and waiting to manufacture as much electricity as we need. And then we’ll never need to worry again about the dangers of nuclear fission.” (p. 43)

Nuclear Energy. Gini Holland. Benchmark Books: Tarrytown, NY: Benchmark Books, 1996.
A positive image of nuclear power is presented clearly, with historical and scientific references included. Stress is placed on the issue of nuclear waste disposal. “The secrets of the atom can power the world or destroy it, and how we manage this energy may be the biggest challenge humanity has ever had to face.” (p. 59)

Powerhouse: Inside a Nuclear Power Plant. Charlotte Wilcox. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1996.
Photos by Jerry Boucher make the production of nuclear power glisten like the inside of a laboratory. Wilcox stresses the safety of nuclear power plants. The book gives a page each to what happened at Three Mile Island (“A small amount of radioactive gas was released into the environment... no health problems resulted” [p. 42]) and Chernobyl (“A reactor like the one at Chernobyl would not be allowed to operate in North America or Europe.” [p. 43]).

Teaching about nuclear energy by using literature can add a needed human dimension to a scientific debate that is complex and multidimensional, but essential for the future of our world. Exploring nonfiction about nuclear power is likewise essential to understanding the relationship between technology and society, and the public policy issues at stake in the nuclear debate.
The story of Sadako, a Hiroshima child who developed a radiation illness, has touched the hearts of millions by encapsulating humanity’s worst fears about its imperfect conquest of the atom. But Sheila Hamanaka’s tribute to Sadako in Peace Crane also describes the hopes the of many of the world’s young people today:

So fly, Peace Crane, fly,
fly as fast as you can.
If you come for me I’ll follow,
but I’ll know it’s not a dream.
For now I remember
that I’ve seen you before...
in the fluttering heartbeat
of a small bird set free,
and in songs sung by people on
the long road to peace.

1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: Author, 1994), 43.
2. National Science Teachers Association, Science/Technology/Society: A New Effort for Providing Appropriate Science for All (REF 1990). Available on the web at:
3. Sheila Hamanaka, Peace Crane (New York: Morrow, 1995).

Dennis Banks is assistant professor of social science education at the State University of New York, Oneonta.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.