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How Dr. Who Ended My Fears of a Nuclear Apocalypse

Dr. Who's Tardis. Image aussiegall/Wikimedia.

Dr. Who's Tardis. (Image courtesy aussiegall/Wikimedia)

I’m a Doctor Who fan, which immediately puts me into a niche within a niche. I’ve been watching the show since I was about 7 years old, which is definitely one of the advantages of growing up in the British-speaking world. The Doctor, who travels through space and time in a blue police box solving problems and defusing crises, doesn’t deal with current issues, at least not head on. So when an episode earlier this year dealt directly with the Cold War, I knew we’d hit a milestone. The episode is set on a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine at the height of the Cold War; events ensued and catastrophe loomed, as it always does in the show, and it was up to the doctor to prevent the nuclear annihilation of the world.

The Cold War is now safe history, safe enough for what is basically a kids adventure show to delve into without hitting any cultural or political nerves. No one except the odd historian cares deeply about the Cold War; there are no emotional investments or visceral fears. We no longer worry about the world being totally destroyed by nuclear weapons, which is not to say we don’t worry about nuclear weapons, just not the end of humanity via nuclear Armageddon.

While a ballistic nuclear missile launch was the end point in triggering a nuclear tit for tat between the Soviets and the Americans, the beginning point was the mining of uranium. Large scale mining began only after the United States entered World II and much of the uranium was mined on or near Navajo lands in the American Southwest. Linda Richards wrote a sad and fascinating story on the long-term effects of the mining on the Navajo and their lands in the spring 2013 issue of the magazine. The Cold War plays a hidden but central role in the story for it was the age of secrecy, and it was the secrecy around the health effects of mining uranium that doomed some of the Navajo miners.

In Hanford, Washington, uranium 238 was transmuted into plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project. Well over one hundred thousand people were involved in the overall project to build the atom bomb, a scale that dwarfed Nazi Germany’s attempts. Christmas at Hanford gives a sense of what life was like for ordinary workers at a town that existed to produce plutonium. Hanford also played a role in the Cold War, but today it is better known as one the largest environmental remediation projects in the world.

The Cold War was a dark thread in the cultural psyche put to good effect by Hollywood. The Mid-century Mutants podcast episode has a section on “Hollywood and the Atomic Age” (starting at 9:48) that takes a look at how the film industry used a mishmash of Cold War fears and the imagined effects of radiation to create cinematic monsters that threatened civilization. Another Distillations’ episode, Cold War Chemistry, focuses on the ideology that drove much of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union and the United States were not the only players in the Cold War drama. The United Kingdom, China, and France had their own nuclear ambitions that were tied as much to prestige as to raw power. France, by then a fading world power, built its own atomic bomb and put uranium to civilian use in powering the country. In the late 1950s the French postal service put out a series of rather lovely stamps celebrating the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Politicians, nuclear-armed submarines, Mutual Assured Destruction, nuclear tests, all were there to see on the Cold War stage. Behind the stage were the workers who made it all possible: miners, factory workers, scientists, scriptwriters, actors, and even stamp designers. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor Who episode focused on the high drama of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation could be committed with the press of a button.  

Watch our #HistChem nuclear show about the power and promise of the nuclear age.   

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