BA Modern History with Economics

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
The Nuclear Age

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM31712
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? No


This unit will provide an introduction to the history and politics of nuclear weapons and to the culture of the nuclear age. You will examine and assess the impact of the nuclear age on human affairs. Topics will include the use of nuclear bombs at the end of the Second World War and the current threats of nuclear terrorism.


None, though other HSTM courses an advantage. Students must be able to attend for the full 2-hour class each week.


From the detonation of the first nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, nuclear weapons, nuclear energy and the culture surrounding them have shaped our lives and the world in which we live. Nuclearism transformed international military, political and economic relationships. It also transformed popular culture and social life: art, literature and film as well as politics and military doctrine have all reflected and embodied the traumas of nuclear culture. Accessible to scientists and non-scientists, this course explores the origins and development of nuclearism and nuclear culture from the wartime Manhattan Project to the 2011 accident at Fukushima Daiichi and the current debate about the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. As we face claims of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, the ongoing threat of nuclear terrorism and a potential energy crisis for which some argue nuclear power is the only sustainable solution, the course also asks if history offers any help in understanding our present nuclear predicaments.

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. In addition, the 20 credit version of the unit will extend and develop students’ research and writing skills through an individual research project.


A weekly 2-hour class will explore the following indicative themes through lectures, discussion of key texts and films, and class debates:

  • 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 WW2.
  • Nuclear proliferation: the USSR and the arms race, 1945-1955.
  • The Hydrogen Bomb and Nuclear Fear, 1950-1965.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962.
  • Civil Defence, CND and anti-nuclear protest. The War Game (film).
  • Nuclear test bans and nuclear intelligence, 1963-1996.
  • Broken arrows: nuclear weapons and reactor accidents. Windscale 1957.
  • Nuclear smuggling and nuclear terrorism: current threats.
  • Nuclear Britain: history and future of Britain’s military and civil nuclear programmes
  • Dr. Strangelove and nuclear culture (film)

Employability skills

Group/team working
Students have the opportunity to be involved in group work through class discussion and debate. 20-credit students participate in group workshops designed to focus project work and share good research/writing practice.
For individual mini-research projects and larger 20-credit 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. 20-credit students further develop time-management and related project management skills by complete a substantial individual research project running over the entire course of the semester, and requiring integration of primary and secondary 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.
Students develop transferable skills in independently locating and interpreting primary and secondary source materials and in writing up the results as new history.
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.

Assessment methods

Coursework (25%), 2000-word essay (25%) and individual 3500-word project (50%) [HSTM31712 – 20 credits)

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. 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. Group meetings will provide direction and feedback on 20-credit project work.

Recommended reading

•       DeGroot, G (2005) The Bomb: A Life. Pimlico

•       Hersey J Hiroshima. (many editions and publishers)

•       J.M. Siracuse (2008) Nuclear Weapons. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Practical classes & workshops 100
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 178

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Simone Turchetti Unit coordinator

Return to course details