Plot-a-Day: Power of the Atom

Nuclear power is the stuff of our dreams. It promises clean and safe energy – no greenhouse emissions, no dependency on foreign oil sources. At the same time it was devised as an ultimate weapon, and thus has become the stuff of our nightmares. The iconic picture of a mushroom cloud is firmly burned into our collective cultural consciousness. Nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism, nuclear war – each has the potential to keep you awake at night, if you are prone to worry about such things at all.

As a consequence, all things nuclear have crept into our pop culture wherever you look. Indeed, it stands to argue that nuclear war created post-apocalypse as a genre. Nuclear power can be a powerful element of a story, whether for a game or for fiction.

Nuclear War

Nuclear war, the prevention and consequences of it, are basically their own sub-genre of science fiction. It’s pretty much beyond the scope of a Plot-A-Day post to tackle it in its entirety. Some ideas, though:

  • Nuclear wars do not have to be global in scope; a regional exchange and its devastating effects can make for an interesting setting, since you will be able to highlight the damage and the suffering better as foreign journalists arrive among the wreckage.
  • Nuclear war can also occur on other planets, whether alien home worlds or human colonies, with our intrepid heroes having to prevent the catastrophe from happening. Likewise, a spaceship crew could stumble across a devastated world and attempt to piece together what happened. If the war is recent, interaction with the survivors is a source for endless topics and a neat way to run some temporary “post apocalyptic” stories.
  • One trope is to follow up the nuclear war with either the development of mutants, who may be very zany depending on your setting, or with a war of machines against the surviving humans. Think Terminator. This might be especially interesting if the war was regional – in this case, it becomes a sort of “alien invasion” setting. The rest of the world will quickly send in troops to contain the rogue AIs.
  • The prevention of nuclear war or nuclear strikes is another common idea. Think Crimson Tide. Works in any genre, really.
  • And if your character can not prevent nuclear war, in the right setting having foreknowledge of a nuclear strike may make for an excellent “race against the clock” type adventure. Perhaps the character are psychic, and nobody will believe them, or perhaps they are Space Federation agents charged with recovering an important item before a planet gets nukes.

Nuclear Accidents

  • Thanks to the Japanese, the specter of nuclear accidents is once again on people’s minds. One possible (classic) plot idea is a cover-up at a nuclear power plant after an accident – you can’t really keep a large scale disaster a secret, but perhaps some of the employees were irradiated and turned into Zombies, superheroes, or simply dead goo. Weird events at a powerplant could easily involve Cthulhu.
  • A “broken arrow” is a situation where a warhead was lost. Recovering it could be a lengthy adventure.

Other Nuclear Ideas

  • Suitcase nukes existed, though it is not known publicly how many of these were built, how many may yet exist, and if any of them “got lost”. Suitcase nukes are an excellent topic for an espionage-centered story, no matter whether it is “realistic” or James Bond over the top. If the suitcase nuke has been deployed, finding and disarming it may be more of a special forces scenario.
  • A nuclear explosion rips a hole in the space-time continuum and lets… something through. This could be anything fantastic, from aliens to monsters to magic pixies.
  • An espionage story could also attempt to keep the secret of making nukes from falling into the wrong hands. These could be Nazis (World War II or Alternate History), Communists (Post-World-War-II), Rogue nations (21st Century), terrorists (War on Terror), or even aliens (see H. Beam Piper’s “Uller Uprising” as an example)
  • A missile silo has been occupied by terrorists, and the protagonists have to go in and remove them before they launch the missile or take the warheads for later use.
  • There was a natural nuclear reactor in Gabon 1.7 billion years ago. Perhaps in a space opera setting this could be pushed to the extreme, creating a deadly natural environment. It’s probably too much of a stretch to posit natural nuclear bombs, but even if one of these extreme natural reactors sits on top of a volcano, any eruption may be a “dirty” bomb. The characters have to recover important documents or alien technology from a ship that crashed right into that hell..

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