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The Nuclear Age: Global Nuclear Threats from Hiroshima to Today

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM31712
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


From the detonation of the first nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, nuclear weapons and the culture surrounding them have shaped our lives and the world we live in. The explosions inaugurating the nuclear age have since then transformed international military and political relationships. They have also dramatically transformed popular culture, also informing art, music, literature and films.

Politics and military doctrine have reflected and embodied the traumas of nuclear culture. In the Cold War the "mushroom cloud" became the terrifying icon of the nuclear age and imminent destruction. After the break-up of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, fragmentation of accountability and responsibility in the newly independent states' nuclear security arrangements led to a significant traffic in smuggled fissile material. In the wake of 9/11, fears of radiological weapons ("dirty bombs") were rife, transforming the domestic and international security environment. Now, in the twenty-first century, some commentators argue that we are in a second, or even a third nuclear age, in which the new threat is from a new arms race between competing superpowers (the recent crisis in Ukraine comes to mind), and the "rogue states" like North Korea. In essence, nuclear weapons have shaped and still shape our globalized society and culture.

Accessible to all university students, this course explores the origins and development of the nuclear age and sheds light on the interactions of science, technology, politics and cultural production in the global nuclear world. The module offers an opportunity to better understand their interplay through an analysis of the science and technology behind the production of atomic weaponry, the interactions between nuclear scientists and decision-makers, the crises typifying the nuclear age (Cuban Missile Crisis, Able Archer) and cultural products of the nuclear age.


The unit aims are:

  • Introducing you to the global history and politics of nuclear weapons.
  • Exploring how nuclear weapons have shaped culture and society.
  • Examining and assessing the global impact of the nuclear age on human affairs.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, you will be able to:

  • Identify the origins of nuclear weapons and the debates surrounding their use from 1945 onwards
  • Describe the reasons underlying the proliferation and control of nuclear weapons and their effect on international politics and military strategy
  • Assess the roles and relationships of nuclear science and states during and after the Cold War
  • Analyse cultural expressions of the nuclear age including film, literature, poetry, television, music, art, cartoons, video-games and architecture
  • Evaluate the broader impacts of nuclear weapons on society through education, gender relations, protest movements and more
  • Prepare written reviews/essays aimed at different audiences


Content may vary from year to year in response to contemporary events and student interest, but will typically address the following broad topics:

  • Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the end of the Second World War
  • Nuclear proliferation and anxiety in the decade after Hiroshima
  • The Hydrogen Bomb and Nuclear Fear, 1950-1965
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
  • Meltdown and Broken arrows! Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents
  • Massive Proliferation: MAD, MIRVs and Minutemen
  • A new crisis point? Nuclear Winter and Able Archer, 1983
  • Resisting the Bomb: Pugwash, CND and other anti-nuclear movements
  • End of the Cold War and Nuclear Terrorism
  • The Nuclear 'Rogue' States
  • Atomic Past and Nuclear Futures

Teaching and learning methods

12 x 1 hour lecture

12 x 1 hour seminar

NB Student must be available to attend the full 2 hour class each week

Knowledge and understanding

Students should/will be able to:

  • Recognise the ways in which nuclear weapons and atomic energy have shaped international politics since 1945
  • Critically appraise key aspects regarding the history of nuclear weapons development including proliferation, testing and disarmament
  • Assess factors at play in governments' decisions regarding the acquisition and relinquishing of a nuclear deterrent 
  • Evaluate the impact of military and peaceful applications of atomic energy globally on different social cohorts, especially those who affected in terms of social, health and environmental impacts by atomic energy procedures and operations
  • Critically reflect on the cultural manifestations of the nuclear age in various cultural and artistic products (from sculptures to pop songs) and the ways in which these products conveyed the broader meanings and implications of the nuclear age
  • Be able to independently develop a critical understanding of a specific aspect of the nuclear age through a tailored study enabling to shed light on a specific political, social and cultural aspect of this historical period. 

Intellectual skills

Students should/will be able to:

  • Analyse and make critical judgements on critical aspects concerning the politics (e.g. disarmament vs proliferation of nuclear weapons); societal and environmental impacts (e.g. containment vs removal of nuclear waste); and cultural tropes of the nuclear age
  • Produce reasoned argumentations about the key elements of historical and political debate regarding nuclear proliferation (e.g. on the decision to use the atomic bomb to end WW2)
  • Plan ahead, source out the key literature materials and produce high quality independent research on topical issues regarding the nuclear age for which there are still gaps in knowledge or lack of consensus

Practical skills

Students should/will be able to:

  • Devise methods to retrieve online primary and secondary literature in order to offer an innovative analysis of key issues regarding the nuclear age
  • Actively engage in academic discussions regarding aspects of the nuclear age that cater for alternative interpretations of their significance hence exploring competing perspectives and the strengths and weaknesses of both these rivalling viewpoints
  • Research and write a literature-based, independently-conceived review, drawing on your interests and integrating historical, technical and cultural contexts

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Students should/will be able to:

  • Improve your learning through planning, monitoring, critical reflection, evaluation and independent thinking
  • Formulate ways to combine concepts, theories and interpretations on the basis of collective exchange and elaboration through seminar discussions and activities
  • Be able to synthesise and organise materials from various sources so as to improve the evaluation of their significance

Employability skills

Group/team working
Students have the opportunity to be involved in group work through class discussion and debate.
For individual research projects students are required to locate relevant primary and secondary sources, and to use them to write a contained piece of original historical work.
Project management
All students manage an individual mini-research project involving original historical sources.
Oral communication
Students are encouraged to participate in classroom discussions of set readings and issues of current topical concern, allowing them to develop oral communication skills in a supportive and constructive context.
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.

Assessment methods

Project Report: 50%

Students will select TWO out of the following THREE coursework assignments:

Book Review: 25%

Research Project: 25%

Essay: 25%

Feedback methods

An informal and interactive approach is taken, and 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. Zoom and in person appointments are available on request.

All submitted coursework will be returned with annotations and individual feedback explaining the mark awarded.

General feedback will be given in class and on blackboard.

Recommended reading

There is no single textbook for the unit, below are some of the readings covering some of the unit's ground:

  • John Hughes-Wilson, Eve of Destruction (John Blake, 2021)
  • G. DeGroot, The Bomb: A History of Hell on Earth (Pimlico, 2005)
  • Andrew Futter, The Politics of Nuclear Weapons (Cham, 2019)
  • S. Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Harvard University Press, 2012)
  • J.L. Gaddis, P.H. Gordon, E.R. May and J. Rosenberg (eds.), Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb (Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • S.I. Schwartz, Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institution Press, 1998).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 12
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 176

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Simone Turchetti Unit coordinator

Additional notes

HSTM units are designed to be accessible to all undergraduate students from all disciplines. They assume no prior experience.

The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) offers a range of 'free choice' units, see The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Undergraduate teaching. Led by experienced researchers, our teaching explores science as a part of human culture, demonstrating that history is a valuable tool for understanding the present state and possible future of science, technology and medicine.

If you are unsure whether you are able to enrol on HSTM units you should contact your School Programme and Curriculum team. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a HSTM unit.

You can also contact the Academic Lead for Undergraduate teaching at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

The unit is offered in both 10-credit and 20-credit versions to meet the requirements of different programme structures across the University. Students will be able to choose the version appropriate to their programme.

10 credit - HSTM31212

20 credit - HSTM31712