2 September 2016

The psychological power of nuclear weapons

Alex Wellerstein

Alex Wellerstein is an associate historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. He runs ...


Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have historically been associated with both apocalyptic fear and salvational hope. Do we fear nuclear technologies too much or too little? The author makes the case that nuclear fear is a double-edged sword: It can be mobilized to reduce risks, but it can also warp risk perceptions. There are countless examples of humans, even experts, miscalculating risks – and any approach that relies on simply “telling people the facts” can lead to public misunderstanding, mistrust, and backlash. On the other hand, gut instinct and human imagination can also lead to poor decisions. Finding new ways to help the public become informed on the relevant issues, without overreliance on imagery of either apocalypse or salvation, should be a major focus of experts with regard to nuclear technology.