What is British nuclear culture? Understanding Uranium 235

Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle


In the ever-expanding field of nuclear history, studies of 'nuclear culture' are becoming increasingly popular. Often situated within national contexts, they typically explore responses to the nuclear condition in the cultural modes of literature, art, music, theatre, film and other media, as well as nuclear imagery more generally. This paper offers a critique of current conceptions of 'nuclear culture', and argues that the term has little analytical coherence. It suggests that historians of 'nuclear culture' have tended to essentialize the nuclear to the detriment of historical analysis, and that the wide variety of methodological approaches to 'nuclear culture' are simultaneously a strength and a more significant weakness, in that they have little shared sense of the meaning of the term, its theoretical underpinnings or its analytical purchase. The paper then offers a study of Ewan MacColl's 1946 play Uranium 235, whose career reveals much about the diversity of cultures of the nuclear in post-war Britain. The study moves us away from a single, homogeneous 'British nuclear culture' towards a pluralistic critical history of cultural responses to nuclearization. These responses, I conclude, should be seen as collectively constitutive of the nuclear condition rather than as passive reflections of it. © 2012 British Society for the History of Science.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)495-518
Number of pages23
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2012