Positive portrayals of nuclear power?

Using escaping radiation or the impending melt-down of a nuclear power plant as the basis for a science fiction disaster film or superhero narrative has been a lucrative and successful Hollywood tradition for almost fifty years.1  These stories have drawn record crowds into the theaters and, despite being fictional and mythical, they have effectively established fears that often conflate nuclear energy with nuclear bombs or which vastly exaggerate the ill-effects of radiation, and have helped to lend credibility to an anti-nuclear movement set on eliminating nuclear power. 

Which is why the April 29th episode of CBS’ popular TV series, Madam Secretary, made scientists happy all around the world: it was the first accurate and positive portrayal of nuclear energy in a television or film production.  Michael Mann, the climate scientist whose research brought us the “hockey stick” graph, wrote:

“It placed nuclear power in a positive light and even accurately portrayed the established “environmental groups” as understanding nuclear power as essential to fighting global warming, but afraid to change their stance for fear of loss of revenue . . . it was epic!”

Here is but a snippet of that episode, courtesy of the Media Research Center/TV.

Fictional Hollywood Depictions of Nuclear

Name (Date)

Story Line

Revenue and Follow-on Sales

Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla is depicted as an enormous, destructive, prehistoric sea monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation. With the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident still fresh in the Japanese consciousness, Godzilla was conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons. (Wikipedia)

Godzilla is a monster originating from a series of tokusatsu films of the same name from Japan. The character first appeared in Ishirō Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla and become a worldwide pop culture icon, appearing in media including 29 films produced by Toho, three Hollywood films, and numerous video games, novels, comic books, television shows.

Them! (1954)

Them! is an American black-and-white science fiction monster film from Warner Bros. Pictures, produced by David Weisbart, directed by Gordon Douglas, based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates, which was then developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes. Them! is one of the first of the 1950s “nuclear monster” films, and the first “big bug” feature.  A nest of gigantic irradiated ants is discovered in the New Mexico desert; they quickly become a national threat when it is discovered that two young queen ants and their consorts have escaped to establish new nests. The national search that follows finally culminates in a battle with Them in the concrete spillways and sewers of Los Angeles. (Wikipedia)

The Monthly Film Bulletin stated that despite the science fiction film genre being new it had developed several sub-divisions including “the other-worldly, the primeval-monstrous, the neo-monstrous, the planetary-visitant, etc.” and that “Them! is a “well-built example of the neo-monstrous”, “less absurdly sensational than most.”  The film earned  $2 million (US) in domestic rentals, making it the year’s 51st biggest earner.

The Hulk (1962)

The Hulk is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. Created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the character first appeared in the debut issue of The Incredible Hulk (May 1962). In his comic book appearances, the character is both the Hulk, a green-skinned, hulking and muscular humanoid possessing a vast degree of physical strength, and his alter ego Bruce Banner, a physically weak, socially withdrawn, and emotionally reserved physicist, the two existing as independent personalities and resenting of the other.  Following his accidental exposure to gamma rays during the detonation of an experimental bomb, Banner is physically transformed into the Hulk when subjected to emotional stress, at or against his will, often leading to destructive rampages and conflicts that complicate Banner’s civilian life. (Wikipedia)

Banner and the Hulk have been adapted in live-action, animated, and video game incarnations. The most notable of these were the 1970s The Incredible Hulk television series, in which the character was portrayed by Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. The character was first played in a live-action feature film by Eric Bana, with Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo portraying the character in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The China Syndrome (1979)

The China Syndrome is an American disaster thriller film directed by James Bridges and written by Bridges, Mike Gray, and T. S. Cook. It tells the story of a television reporter and her cameraman who discover safety coverups at a nuclear power plant. It stars Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, with Douglas also serving as the film’s producer. “China syndrome” is a fanciful term—not intended to be taken literally—that describes a fictional result of a nuclear meltdown, where reactor components melt through their containment structures and into the underlying earth, “all the way to China.” (Wikipedia)

It was released theatrically on March 16, 1979, twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Upon release the film was a critical and commercial success with critics praising the film’s screenplay, direction and thriller elements and Fonda and Lemmon’s performances. The film grossed $51.7 million on a production budget of $5.9 million. The film received four nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards including and Best Original Screenplay.

The Simpsons (1989)

The Simpsons is a satirical depiction of working-class life, epitomized by the Simpson family, which consists of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The show is set in the fictional town of Springfield and parodies American culture and society, television, and the human condition.  Homer, the father, works as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, a position at odds with his careless, buffoonish personality. He is married to Marge and they have three children: Bart, a ten-year-old troublemaker; Lisa, a precocious eight-year-old activist; and Maggie, the baby of the family who rarely speaks, but communicates by sucking on a pacifier.

Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish (or simply Blinky) is a three-eyed orange fish species, found in the ponds and lakes outside the nuclear power plant. The Springfield Nuclear Power Plant caused the mutations.  Blinky is caught by Bart at the Old Fishin’ Hole and a picture of it is snapped by Dave Shutton and put in The Springfield Shopper. At the same time Mr. Burns was running for governor, and Blinky became a major topic in his election. He defended Blinky saying he was the next step in the evolutionary ladder and not a horrible mutant. (Wikipedia)

639 episodes of The Simpsons have been broadcast and it has won many awards. Its 29th season began on October 1, 2017. It is the longest-running American sitcom and the longest-running American animated program. The Simpsons Movie, a feature-length film, was released in theaters worldwide on July 27, 2007, and grossed over $527 million. On November 4, 2016, the series was renewed for a twenty-ninth and thirtieth season, extending the show to May 2019.