The Atom on Display: Nuclear Technology in Public Exhibition

Publication Date
October 4, 2018

In 1953, nearly a decade after the United States dropped nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech and subsequent program of the same name attempted to reframe atomic energy as a peaceful technology. Ostensibly designed to stave off brinkmanship and encourage the global development of peaceful nuclear technology, the program also served a propagandistic function – aiding the United States in its “struggle for the minds and wills of men” against the Soviet Union, and diverting attention from the United States’ continued development of nuclear weapons.[1] Events such as the 1955 Geneva Conference and the Atomic Energy Commission’s 1960 “Atoms at Work” exhibition served to bolster this project of peaceful technological diffusion through the spatialized display of nuclear energy at national and world expositions. These exhibitions, by drawing visitors into proximity with operational nuclear technology, invited the public to witness that “nuclear energy is something that they can live with … [and] that the control of nuclear energy is in competent hands.”[2]

Two years after Eisenhower’s speech, the first International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy was held at the Headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists presented papers, while each of the participating countries prepared displays highlighting their respective achievements for both specialist and lay audiences. In a report prepared for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) describing their entry, Francois Kertesz described the special pressure the US organizing committee had felt to present a true spectacle, writing that “the country where … atomic energy was born was expected to present something never before seen by the public.”[3] The display needed to not only reassure the public that nuclear energy was safe, but also needed to captivate its imagination. The proposal, submitted by a scientist at ORNL, didn’t fail in this regard: a miniature swimming pool reactor would be the focus of the display, allowing the function and operation of a nuclear reactor to be publicly visible for the first time.[4] After the American plan to construct a working reactor was approved by the conference, other participating nations were offered the opportunity to follow suit – however, none opted to attempt it.

Originally intended to be housed inside of the Palace of Nations, the reactor’s size and potential damage to the marble floors eventually necessitated the construction of a separate building. The pavilion, formally evocative of a Swiss chalet, contained the reactor and other exhibits focusing on health and safety. Preliminary designs called for a large glass panel in the facade to allow the reactor and the blue glow of its Cherenkov radiation to be visible to passersby, a plan which was scrapped after the design team was unable to source a large enough sheet of glass. Despite the setback, the reactor proved to be a huge success, hosting over 62,000 visitors over the two week period of the Geneva Conference. Visiting members of the public toured the reactor, guided by specially trained staff. Prominent scientists, members of the the Conference organizing committee and other VIP guests were allowed to actually operate the reactor, intermittently pausing for Coca-Cola and Swiss wine in the pavilion’s basement “Bar Atomique.”[5]

While the Soviet Union chose not to incorporate a working reactor into their display for the Geneva Conference, a year later, in 1956, they constructed a public display reactor in Moscow. The exhibition of the reactor served a similar function as the display in Switzerland, presenting nuclear energy as a peaceful technology. The reactor also positioned nuclear energy as critical for the forward progress and development of the Soviet state. Housed in the Pavilion for Atomic Energy, the reactor was one among many attractions within the larger reconstruction of the country’s 1930s era All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, a permanent exhibition park master planned by Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky. The park reopened in 1954, rebranded as the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (VDNKh), and featured a series of new pavilions focusing on displays of Soviet industry and culture. The Pavilion for Atomic Energy, an imposing neoclassical structure with statues of proletarian workers capping the pediments of the side entrances, contained displays on the history of Soviet nuclear physics, exhibits elucidating the basic processes of nuclear reaction, samples of radioactive ores, and the small reactor. Operational from 1956–1962, it was one of the most popular displays in the exhibition park at large.

If the educational programming of the US pavilion at the Geneva conference focused on the safety of nuclear energy and its productive capacity, the Soviet reactor display was exhortative. In her article “Celebrating Tomorrow Today: The Peaceful Atom on Display in the Soviet Union,” Sonja Schmid argues that rather than visitors being seen as passive receivers of entertainment, they were expected to not just absorb the Pavilion’s information, but disseminate its lessons: going forth to build a utopian communist society through the practical application of the technologies on display. The reactor was intended less as entertainment or reassurance than as a means of mobilizing visitors to engage with a larger political and ideological project.[6]

Exhibitions focusing on the peaceful atom and its potential to power a utopian future continued through the late 1950s and early 1960s. In two of these later events, the architectural form of the pavilions shifted from a vernacular or classical reference, as in the Swiss or Soviet examples, to a symbolic representation of energy. At the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, the atom became a visible symbol of the exhibition via the Atomium. Designed by André and Jean Polak with engineer André Waterkeyn, the structure, composed of a connected series of occupiable stainless steel spheres linked by escalators, was the iconic image of the fair. Modeled on an iron crystal, rather than a nuclear atom, the Atomium represented an attempt to capitalize on the utopian potential of the atom divorced from explicit nuclear content. Early plans by the Brussels 58 Organizing Committee apparently incorporated the construction of a working reactor on the World’s Fair site, however the inclusion was eventually rejected by the Belgian King.[7] Instead, rather than displaying the machinery of energy generation, the fair utilized images of energy and technology symbolically.

Two years later, in 1960, the Atoms for Peace program organized an exhibition of nuclear energy which traveled through Latin America. The exhibition, “Atoms at Work,” was housed in a pavilion designed by Victor Lundy and engineer Walter Bird. 91 meters long, the inflatable and air-supported structure was linear, deformed at the center to create two linked, dome-like spaces housing displays and a theater. It consisted of a double EFTE skin, separated by a 1.2 meter airspace.[8] Despite being a temporary structure, the pavilion contained an operational reactor. Housed inside an inflatable dome, the 10 kilowatt reactor and its operators were presented as a diorama display.[9][10] Visitors circulated around the reactor, able to observe it through dome’s transparent walls.

Unlike previous exhibitions, the skin of the internal dome sealed the reactor off from its environment, coding its presence as display rather than equipment demonstration. If in Geneva the reactor’s materiality and operation was a critical part of the information on display, in the “Atoms at Work” pavilion, the reactor – mediated by the transparent dome – was abstracted, treated as symbolic image rather than a literal technological demonstration. The pavilion’s architectural form similarly marked a shift from a symbolic domestication of nuclear energy, as seen in the Geneva pavilion’s formal reference to a Swiss chalet, to an assertion of environmental control via form and materiality. Lundy’s pavilion took the inflatable, a building type seen at the time as broadly accessible to nonprofessionals, and utilized it to create a structure that projected solidity and control. The structure was designed to optimize thermal performance, resist significant wind loads, and the double-layered skin was compartmentalized to prevent total collapse in the event of damage to the skin.

Today, atomic energy has again emerged in several countries of the former Soviet Union as a topic of popular exhibitions. In 2014, ROSATOM – the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation – announced a competition for the design of a new Atomic Energy Pavilion to be built on the territory of VDNKh. The text of the competition brief is in many ways a repetition of the language of the midcentury nuclear exhibitions, speaking of a need to demystify nuclear power and provide the public with information on its history and applications. The winning scheme, by Russian office UNK, features a cantilevered roof, transparent facade, and “dynamic form,” but, disappointingly, no operational reactor.

[1] Dwight D.Eisenhower quoted in John Krige, “Atoms for Peace,  Scientific Internationalism, and Scientific Intelligence,” Osiris, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2006), 162.

[2] Francois Kertesz, The Story of “Project Aquarium” (Oak Ridge: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, August 1968), 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Swimming pool reactors are a type of nuclear reactor in which the fuel and control rods are contained within a pool of water. The pools are typically open, displaying the core. The transmission of Cherenkov radiation through water creates a blue light perceptible by the human eye, thus visualizing the nuclear reaction occuring within the core.

[5] The Bar Atomique was an area in the pavilion’s basement where the Swiss crew responsible for assembling the reactor would take their twice daily wine breaks, concealed by reactor’s tank. Over the course of construction, the bar grew steadily more formal, eventually featuring built in furniture and a trompe-l’oeil window looking out to Lake Geneva. See Kertesz, pages 10-11.

[6] Sonja Schmid, “Celebrating Tomorrow Today: The Peaceful Atom on Display in the Soviet Union,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 36, No. 3 (June 2006), 331-365.

[7] Schmid, “Celebrating Tomorrow Today,” 344.

[8] Annette LeCuyer, EFTE: Technology and Design (Basel: Birkhauser, 2008), 23.

[9] For more information on the pavilion see Whitney Moon, “Environmental Wind-Baggery” (

[10] Ibid.

Publication Date
October 4, 2018
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