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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

The nuclear age: Hiroshima to nuclear terrorism

HSTM31212 (10-credit); HSTM31712 (20-credit)

Semester Two, Wednesdays, 11.00-13.00

Contact: Dr Jeff Hughes


To provide an introduction to the history and politics of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and to the culture of the nuclear age. To explore the interactions of science, technology, politics, gender and cultural production in the nuclear world. To examine and assess the impact of the nuclear age on human affairs.

20-credit unit only – Additionally to give students the opportunity of exploring in detail some aspect of the nuclear age through an individual research project.

Intended Learning Outcomes

Students will understand the origins of nuclear weapons and have an appreciation of the debates surrounding their use in 1945; appreciate the diverse reasons for the proliferation and control of nuclear weapons and the relationships between science, politics and state formations in the Cold War and after; be able to analyse the cultural phenomena associated with nuclear weapons, including film, literature, television and the media; be aware of the effect of nuclear weapons on military strategy both in general terms and in specific instances, e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis. Students taking the 20-credit unit will also extend and develop their research and writing skills through an individual research project.

Lecture Content

  • Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the end of the Second World War. The origins of atomic weapons, reasons for their use, and controversy over their role in ending the War.
  • Nuclear proliferation and nuclear culture, 1945-1955.
  • The Hydrogen Bomb and Massive Retaliation, 1950-1965. The origins of the hydrogen bomb and its effects on nuclear offensive and defensive strategy.
  •  The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Origins, development and outcome of the Crisis, and its impact on international relations and nuclear culture.
  • ‘Civil Defence’ and The War Game. Organisation and critiques of civil defence in the nuclear age. CND and anti-nuclear protest.
  • Nuclear test bans and nuclear intelligence, 1963-1996. Relationships between international nuclear treaties.
  • The growth of nuclear energy and the nuclear industry in Britain.
  • Nuclear weapons and nuclear power accidents. Case study: Windscale.
  • Nuclear smuggling and nuclear terrorism. Current threats of nuclear terrorism.


10 credit unit (HSTM31211) - 2000-word essay (50%) and coursework (50%).
20 credit unit (HSTM31711) - 2000-word essay (25%); coursework (25%); individually supervised 3000-word research project (50%).


Students may ask questions at any time during classes. Specific queries can be dealt with by email or during office hours; the lecturer will provide contact details in the course handbook. All submitted coursework will be returned with annotations and an assessment sheet explaining the mark awarded. Group meetings will provide direction and feedback on project work.

Employability Skills

Oral communication - Students are encouraged to participate in classroom discussions of set readings and issues of current topical concern.
Written communication - Coursework assignments and formative feedback are designed to develop students' writing skills. Beginning with a small review task, students progress to a focused piece of individual research, then complete a larger essay requiring more sustained attention to issues of structure and organisation in writing. Students taking the course for 20 credits further develop their research and writing skills in a substantial additional individual research project.
Project management - Students taking the course for 20 credits complete a 3,000-3,500 word individual research project requiring integration of primary and secondary sources. The project runs over the entire course of the semester, and requires students to develop time-management and related project management skills.
Innovation/Creativity - The individual research projects and larger 20-credit projects require the use of primary sources. Students are required to locate relevant primary and secondary sources, and to use them to write a contained piece of original historical work.
Research - As above
Analytical skills - The entire unit is predicated on the development of students' analytical skills in being able to find and assess evidence and to represent those judgments in coherent focused pieces of writing. The course has direct topical relevance in, for example, analysis of the national security state and notions of governmentality.


None, though other HSTM courses an advantage

Recommended Reading

  • Gerald de Groot, The Bomb: A Life. Pimlico, 2005.
  • J.M. Siracuse, Nuclear Weapons. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • John Hersey, Hiroshima (many editions and publishers)

Teaching Staff

Dr Jeff Hughes


A recent copy of the course outline is available to view (pdf). Please note that course content may change in the next academic year.