Project: Thesis

Nuclear Anxiety in British Life, 1952-1989.


My current project seeks to conceptualise the emotional and cultural consequences of nuclear anxiety on British life, 1952-1989. The first full-length history of nuclear anxiety, it will develop innovative theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of the Cold War, modern British history, and nuclear scholarship in the humanities more widely.

Drawing upon previously neglected primary sources, it will explore how individuals and communities across Britain felt, perceived, or articulated nuclear anxiety over time. This project is intended to be ambitious, original and far-reaching, and to influence how we think about our nuclear past, present and future.

The project will focus on the genealogy of nuclear anxiety in cities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.


‘Protect and Survive,’ History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Prepared for the Home Office by the Central Office of Information, (1980).

The project will contribute to a number of themes in the existing literature. Most research has been conducted in the American context, with histories of nuclear Britain focusing almost entirely on the political, military and scientific aspects of the nuclear weapons state.

In the past decade there has been a steady rise in the number of social and cultural histories of the nuclear age, notably in the area of British nuclear culture studies. Here, scholars have conceptualised the relationship between nuclear technology and wider society, for instance introducing the concepts of class, nation and nuclear resistance in an attempt to re-think nuclear culture.[1]

Aside from a handful of studies from the last century, the cultural impact of nuclear anxiety has only been touched upon within general studies of fear and anxiety, or studies of the relationship between science and emotions.[2] Recent historical research has argued for the need to understand how ordinary individuals reacted to the nuclearisation of the state.[3]

Yet, the voices of ordinary people rarely enter these studies, meaning that our understanding of British nuclear culture is incomplete. This project will offer a new critical lens through which to examine the diverse impact of the nuclear nation-state through dissecting and challenging current historiographical conceptions of ‘British nuclear culture’ and the ‘British nuclear nation-state’. The project will attempt to offer new readings of the nuclear age through close appreciation of debates in the history of emotions.

51AlMIx5ICL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_ 9781441169761 51WSxL8KFVL

See: Baylis, J., and K. Stoddart, The British Nuclear Experience: The Role of Beliefs, Culture, and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; Hogg, J., British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the long 20th Century. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.; and Brown, K., Plutopia: nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

In order to conceptualise and map the changing status of nuclear anxiety, the project will examine two distinct periods of British history.

The thermonuclear era (1952-1963), was one of genuine anxiety over the nuclear arms race and global nuclear testing. The second period (1978-1989) saw a resurgence of diplomatic tension after years of ‘detente’, and new cultural forms of expression demonstrated nuclear anxiety in powerful ways, especially towards nuclear civil defence.

With the probable renewal of Trident in 2016 the project will also consider the contemporary relevance of historical research on nuclear anxiety, bringing an inter-disciplinary dimension to the project in its possible contribution to policy-related nuclear non-proliferation debates.[4]

This project will be the first cultural history of nuclear anxiety, promising to contribute significantly to the rapidly expanding historiography of British nuclear history, while also linking to contemporary discussions on the status of the nuclear weapons state, and thus highlight the broader social and cultural meanings of nuclear weapons in an era of non-proliferation.


[1] See special issue of British Journal for the History of Science, December 2012. Tony Shaw, British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001).

[2] Joanna Bourke, Fear: a cultural history (London: Virago, 2005); Frank Biess and Daniel M. Gross (eds.), Science and Emotions After 1945: a transatlantic perspective (Chicago: CUP, 2014).

[3] Jonathan Hogg, British Nuclear Culture: official and unofficial narratives in the long twentieth century (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[4] Nick Ritchie, A Nuclear Weapons-Free World: Britain, Trident and the challenges ahead (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2012; Andrew Futter, The Politics of Nuclear Weapons (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2015).