I remember reading somewhere that the original X-Men were Children of the Atomic Age, as the first comics appeared at a time when nuclear weapons were still poorly understood, but there was great enthusiasm for the space race and anything felt possible. The X-Men First Class movie tapped into this mindset with its Cold War theme and mutants stepping in to rescue mere humanity from a fate worse than death.
I would argue, however, that children who reached their teens during the period 1979-1986 are the real Children of the Atomic Age. With the Cold War at its peak and each side pointing its missiles at the other as some form of deterrent, and culminating in the devastating accident at Chernobyl, we saw just how powerless humanity was against this monstrous behemoth we had created in the name of peace.
Such was the perceived threat of nuclear war that the British Government went so far as to issue a leaflet to every household in the United Kingdom, setting out its advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack (because, as every Western child knew, the Russians would always strike first). Public service announcements were broadcast to reinforce the message and familiarise everyone with the sound of the warning alarms. Television dramas, such as Threads, were also broadcast at this time, showing the immediate aftermath of a nuclear attack and setting the tone for a fair few post-apocalyptic novels afterwards.
The fear that pervaded society at that time was very real, fuelled by panicky tabloid headlines and news reports giving the impression that a badly timed fart would seal the fate of the planet.
And then Raymond Briggs wrote a book that sparked a furious debate about government policy and did CND the power of good. Where The Wind Blows was, to all intents and purposes, a graphic novel telling the story of an elderly British couple who follow the government’s advice on what to do in the event of nuclear war. The debate started because they die horribly from radiation sickness, despite doing everything in the leaflet. I believe that anyone who’s ever read this book is still haunted by it and it’s one of the first books I remember that made me cry.
In April 1986, a freak accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the then Soviet Union sparked genuine panic throughout Europe as a cloud of nuclear fallout spread westwards, finally reaching Scotland, Northern England and Scandinavia. For many years, the Soviet Union denied that there had been an accident at all despite having evacuated everyone in a 30km radius and death rates and birth defects rising dramatically. The full horror may never be known – but even today, the Exclusion Zone is strictly enforced and efforts are being made to reinforce the hastily built concrete sarcophagus over the melted reactor.
It is worth remembering that everything we know today about dealing with nuclear incidents – which lessons were tested and reinforced by the events after the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima in 2011 – were found out the hard way at Chernobyl. Nobody really had any idea at the time of what to do in such a crisis and I think the horrific realities of just what nuclear power was capable of opened a few eyes.
As a Child of the Atomic Age, I remember all this quite clearly, and whilst I see the temptations of building a nuclear power plant at Hinckley Point, my memories can’t help thinking this is a monumentally bad idea.