The Wretched Atom

Winner of the 2022 Oregon Book Award in general nonfiction, with the following citation:

“The Wretched Atom is packed with discoveries that will interest author Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s academic peers, carried along in a thrilling narrative page-turner sure to also ensnare lay readers. This exploration of the United States government’s multi-decade strategy of cloaking the testing and proliferation of thermonuclear weapons within the promise of the atom’s constructive potential is fascinating and immensely readable. Hamblin’s deep research into materials previously unexplored by scholars, and in some cases nearly unknown even to the repositories that house them, inspires and satisfies.” — Paula Becker, Judge


The Wretched Atom is institutional history that reads like an adventure story. Rather than focusing on the notable failures of Atoms for Peace, Jake Hamblin asks how it was deployed. He finds that the implementation of peaceful energy has rarely been peaceful. Embedding this history in the context of the nuclear arms race, colonialism and decolonization, and geo-political struggles to take control over natural resources such as uranium and oil, Hamblin’s study offers a rewarding re-examination of the long game behind the promotion of aspirational nuclear technology.” — Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival
“Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s The Wretched Atom provocatively tells the story of global Realpolitik and unintended consequences in the pursuit and promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear technology, adding a fresh perspective to thinking about the role of science in the modern Game of Nations.” — Timothy Naftali, co-author of Khrushchev’s Cold War
“Arising from the ashes of World War II, the peaceful atom has been evergreen: bountiful energy, water, crops, and medicines to lift the world to an environmentally sustainable future. Hamblin’s The Wretched Atom deftly shows how those perpetual promises were sustained by exploitative geopolitics and oftentimes outright cynicism. A sobering and engaging counter-narrative of the dream of a utopian nuclear future.” — Michael D. Gordin, Princeton University
“In The Wretched Atom, historian Jacob Darwin Hamblin seeks to remind readers of the misguided 20th-century effort launched by the United States, its allies, and international agencies to expand nuclear energy around the world. The compelling narrative should lead readers to realize the importance of preventing a repeat of the follies that marked the early decades of the atomic age. Hamblin covers a vast amount.” — M. V. Ramana, Science 
“Essential to the arguments against nuclear power is its history. This is where a new book titled The Wretched Atom…comes in… Jacob Darwin Hamblin… describes how the concept of peaceful nuclear energy was conceived, developed and sold. The tale he narrates includes government and industry manipulation of the truth, scientists and bureaucrats religious-like proselytizing to sell nuclear energy, and the neocolonialist nature of the decision-making by the powers involved in exporting this energy to other nations. It is a story fraught with racism, hubris and imperial arrogance. Conversely, it is also a narrative in which nuclear weapons became symbols of sovereignty and strength to governments of formerly colonized states.” — Ron Jacobs, CounterPunch
“Hamblin’s broad sweeping narrative offers an engaging study of the sustained attempts to promote nuclear technologies, even though such actions made the world less safe….When atomic energy was actually deployed, it was rarely peaceful and had far-reaching consequences, including geopolitical struggles, heightening tensions over colonialism and decolonization, and increasing debates on racism….The Wretched Atom provides a fresh perspective on the rhetoric and policy decisions concerning the atom that were made nearly seventy years ago, yet still resonate today.” — Jason Krupar, Technology and Culture