Walt Disney and Nuclear Power: A Forgotten History

An optimist’s dreams of an atom-powered future.

Our friend the atom hand

If I were to say the words “Walt Disney”, what images spring to mind? 

The adventures of Mickey Mouse? Daring Peter Pan? Snow White, Cinderella and sparkling princesses? Maybe the times you cried when Mufassa died and when Andy left Woody to go to college?

There’s one thing I’m certain “Walt Disney” doesn’t make you think of: nuclear power. 

But maybe it should.

It may surprise you to know that Walt Disney dreamed of an atom-powered future. And he wasn’t alone.

The late ’50s was a time of great optimism for nuclear technology, with the first nuclear power plants being built around this time.

But Walt Disney didn’t just dream. If there was one thing that made him successful in life, it was his belief that you could make your dreams come true. This belief culminated in plans to power his new Disney World Florida megaproject with its own nuclear reactor. He even got permission to build one.

Walt Disney died in 1966 before Disney World was complete, and somewhere along the way the plans for a small nuclear reactor were abandoned. The park today has it’s own methane gas plant and recently added a solar farm to provide intermittent renewable electricity.

Evidence of Disney’s atomic dreams is still visible today: the original concept of Disney’s Tommorowland parks was to showcase nuclear technology. Perhaps the greatest example of Disney’s nuclear legacy is the educational movie, titled Our Friend, the Atom, commissioned in 1957 by Mr Walt Disney himself (there is also an accompanying book).

The movie is incredibly positive about the future of nuclear power, predicting that nuclear will displace dirty fossil fuels as the way we produce electricity but also as a means to power our ships, planes and rockets (you could say Disney predicted ‘deep decarbonization’ with nuclear).

The world is once again rethinking the role of nuclear in light of the dual crises of climate change and habitat destruction. Our Friend, the Atom shows how nuclear was once a source of hope for humanity.

Perhaps it’s time we once again sprinkled some Disney magic onto nuclear power?

Let’s take a look at the message of hope Walt Disney had for nuclear in 1957:

Our Friend the Atom

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT - the following contains spoilers from Our Friend, the Atom. In fact, I pretty much tell you everything that’s going to happen.

Here’s the link to the full movie.

This is Disney, so of course the movie uses some fantastic storytelling to bring atomic science to life. The film’s narrator is Heinz Haber, an accomplished science communicator. He tells us how he came to realise that the story of nuclear technology is a bit like the story of The Fisherman and the Genie.

The Fisherman and the Genie is a story from Arabian Nights about a genie in a bottle granting three wishes - you know the one. Humankind is the Fisherman, the Genie and his power are nuclear technology. Let me explain.

The Fisherman and the Genie Physicist Heinz Haber introduces the tale of the Fisherman and the Genie.

The Fisherman and the Genie

In the story, The Fisherman spends all day, every day, toiling at the sea shore, casting his net out in the hope of catching something valuable. It’s just like how scientists spend their lives in research, looking for the answers in the deep ocean of existence. One day, the Fisherman hauls in a strange lamp.

The Fisherman finds his lamp The Fisherman is smart: if someone took the trouble to seal the lamp then there must be something valuable inside.

Just like when a scientist discovers something new, the Fisherman is happy with his strange discovery. He finds the lamp tightly sealed with a lead stopper and decides: “If someone took the trouble to seal the lamp so well, there must be something valuable inside.” 

The Fisherman takes his knife and forces open the lamp…and out shoots a powerful, magical being: the Genie.

The Genie emerges from the lamp The Genie emerges from the lamp.

The Genie was clearly a wonderous thing. But then he threatens the Fisherman, and the Fisherman realises the Genie has the capacity to destroy when his magic is used for evil purposes.

But the Fisherman is cunning. He traps the Genie back inside the lamp. The Fisherman only agrees to release the Genie if he will grant him three wishes.

The Fisherman tricks the Genie The Fisherman manages to trap the Genie back inside his lamp. To release him, the Fisherman demands three wishes.

The movie explains how the story of nuclear is just like the Fisherman and the Genie. Once society unlocked the power of the atom, we had to find a way to use that power for good.

We also learn about the wonders of electricity, the dirty fuels we feed it with, and how nuclear power might eliminate those dirty fuels.

How the steam power works The movie includes a fantastic explanation of how steam power works using a jar of water and a flame.

We’re shown how it was capturing the energy within steam that allowed us to turn the first generators to provide electric power and light to our cities.

Bringing electricity to the city

Although we learned to master steam, it was a hungry servant that had to be fed constantly. It consumed precious resources of coal and oil and polluted our towns and cities. 

We had yet to find our magic source of energy; our “Genie”.

Fossil fuels had insatiable hunger Electricity was wondrous, but steam’s hunger for coal and oil was insatiable…

Fossil fuels poisoned the air …and its soot and ash choked our air.

We’re told the story of Becquerel and the Curies discovering—by chance—the secret power of uranium and radium. The tiniest speck of these radioactive materials seemed to supply energy like an endlessly flowing spring. 

These scientists had found a “Genie’s lamp” that hinted at an almost magical source of energy.

Disovering radium Pierre and Marie Curie wonder at the magical energy of radium.

Radioactivity seemed to violate all the laws of science. It took the brains of Albert Einstein to realise that trapped inside the finest particle of dust is an almost unimaginable amount of energy. As his famous equation puts it:

E =mc²

Energy = mass x speed of light x speed of light

Just like the Fisherman, Einstein had found that a tremendous energy can be stored in a tiny vessel.

e = mc2 Einstein found that energy was equal to mass times the speed of light squared - a tiny mass contains a huge amount of energy.

But although we had our vessel, we had no way to get the energy out. It took until 1938 for Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman to—like our Fisherman with his knife—break open an atom of uranium using a neutron gun. 

These two scientists discovered something amazing: one neutron caused one uranium atom to split in two, but this then released two neutrons. By splitting the atom we could create a chain reaction.

In the movie the chain reaction is wondefully demonstrated via the analogy of mouse traps each loaded with two ping pong balls (uranium atoms and two neutrons).

Ping pong nuclear reaction Heinz Haber demonstrates how a single neutron can start a chain reaction.

One neutron was all it took to unleash the devasting power of the Genie. And humankind’s first introduction to the power of the Genie came less than ten years later when the US dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Humanity's introduction to nuclear The terrible power of the Genie is unleashed in the atomic bomb.

We were like the Fisherman when he first opened the vessel and was threatened by the Genie—we wished we’d never found the thing at all! 

Many people argued the Genie should be put back into his vessel and never allowed out again. But once the world knew of the existence of the Genie, he could never really be shut away again.

Thankfully, scientists devised a way to control the power of the Genie by slowing down the chain reaction and containing his power inside the nuclear reactor.

The Genie was tamed.

Harnessing the atom in the nuclear reactor The power of Genie is harnessed for good inside a nuclear reactor.

Like when the Fisherman trapped the Genie back inside the lamp, humankind was now granted three wishes.

Our first wish was for clean, abundant power.

The first wish was for nuclear power The atomic Genie grants humankind our first wish: clean, abundant power.

Thanks to the Genie, burning fossil fuels for electricity could be a thing of the past. The thousands of rail cars of coal and oil burned around the world every day could be used elsewhere to make useful things like plastics, dyes, textiles and drugs.

The first wish was for nuclear power Our first wish was to stop burning dirty fossil fuels…

Clean power …and to use the atom to cleanly power our world.

Our second wish was to tackle the world’s hunger and disease. The Genie granted us the power of nuclear techniques for food and health: diagnosis methods like X-rays, gamma rays to cure cancer and techniques to improve our crops.

The second wish Our second wish was for food and health.

Using the atom to grow more food The atom helps to grow more food for our growing population…

Using the atom to grow more food …and to fight diseases like cancers.

The narrator Heinz Haber advises that the third and final wish be carefully chosen…often in the old stories this is where the owner of the lamp makes a fatal mistake.

Heinz Haber concludes that the third wish should simply be that the Genie forever remains our friend. In the end it is down to us to decide how we use the Genie’s power, he says: “If we do it right, then the magic touch of the Genie will spread throughout the world, and he will grant the gifts of science to all mankind.”

We must decide

So 62 years since the movie was released, which of Walt Disney’s predictions came true, and which didn’t?

The first wish came true (sort of)

The wish for clean, abundant power came true…sort of. Nuclear power did replace fossil fuels for electricity to some degree. It was more successful in some countries than others. In France, nuclear has almost entirely displaced fossil fuels from electricity generation.

Nuclear power grew rapidly during the 60s, 70s and 80s, but then stalled. The reason for this is related to the third wish.

The second wish came true

Nuclear medicine is a huge field today, with an endless number of life-saving treatments and diagnostic methods relying on nuclear technology. Many important medical isotopes are actually made inside nuclear reactors.

The United Nations encouraged the use of nuclear techniques in food science. Many popular crop varieties came out of nuclear irradiation programmes.

As with the old stories, our third wish let us down

Just like Heinz Haber guessed, it is the third wish that let us down; our wish that the Genie would forever remain our friend has been forgotten in many parts of the world. 

The Genie made some mistakes at Chernobyl in 1986. We were reminded of his terrible power. Instead of learning from that mistake, many of us became frightened of the Genie’s potential to harm. We forgot that it is down to us to decide how we make use of his power.

When there were meltdowns at Fukushima following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, even though the Genie’s power was relatively contained and harmed no one directly, our minds were filled once more with fears of the Genie.

The fact we cannot fulfill our third wish - that the Genie be our friend - now may cause our first and second wishes to unravel. If we don’t learn to trust the Genie, to put his powers to good, we will never be able to make use of his ability to provide clean power, abundant food and vital medical techniques.

Given the growing urgency of the climate crisis, is it time to face our fears and embrace the power of the Genie? Is it time to sprinkle some Disney magic on our dreams of the atom?

You can also read this piece in the Generation Atomic magazine.

© David Watson 2019

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Written on September 22, 2019