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Stranger Things Season 2: A Pointed Comment on the Department of Energy’s Nuclear History and Future?

This post is written assuming you have watched both season 1 and season 2 of ‘Stranger Things.’ If you have not yet watched and want to avoid potential spoilers, consider this your warning!

‘Stranger Things’ was the Netflix sensation out of nowhere in 2016, which made season 2 one of the most anticipated TV releases of this year. While this sci-fi mystery thriller seemingly had something for everyone– parallel dimensions, 80s nostalgia, mystical and mysterious forces, pop cultural references– I was also drawn in by the depiction of the Department of Energy (DOE) as the malevolent government forces behind the secretive experiments. Seeing DOE scientists at the fictional Hawkins Lab, rather than the typical Hollywood choices to use the FBI or the CIA for supernatural government cover-ups, was exciting for all of us who have worked in or with DOE and created a buzz in DOE offices and labs across the country.

Leading up to the release of season 2, I wrote about the interesting parallels that existed between Hawkins Lab and the real DOE labs. Some of these parallels appeared to be intentional similarities written by the Duffer Brothers (the show’s creators), while others were likely coincidental. With that in mind, I was very eager to watch for anything DOE-related in season 2 to see if I could gather more information about what it was the Duffer Brothers might have been trying to say about the real government agency, or would season 2 put to rest the connection between Hawkins Lab and the real DOE.



Well after just three nights on the couch, I’ve finished by ‘Stranger Things’ season 2 binge and have two main takeaways:

  1. I can’t believe I’m already done with the new batch of episodes and now have to go through another year at least before getting to do it again with season 3!
  2. One scene in particular has convinced me that the choice to use DOE was intentionally symbolic and is a pointed metaphor for the history and future of the agency.

The scene in question

Honestly, I would have been bingeing this show regardless of the DOE connection. So after a few episodes I had ceased paying terribly close attention to potential DOE parallels and was simply enjoying the story. But a specific scene in ‘Chapter Four: Will the Wise’ hit me over the head with its metaphor enough that I had to pause the episode to excitedly discuss it with my wife.

To set the scene, Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers had called the mother of the missing and dead (from season 1) Barb Holland to admit that they hadn’t been fully honest about the night that Barb went missing (they knew the truth that Barb had been lost and killed in the parallel dimension of the Upside Down, but Barb’s parents had been shielded from this fact). They expressed their hesitation to discuss the matter on the phone, as they were correctly concerned that their phones were tapped by the government monitoring forces, and instead requested to meet in person in public. When Nancy and Jonathan go to the meet up spot, they are sitting ducks and get intercepted by undercover Hawkins Lab agents. They are taken to the lab to speak with Dr. Sam Owens, the new head scientist at Hawkins Lab, replacing the evil and manipulative Dr. Martin Brenner. Immediately, this situation looks like it will end poorly for the teens, as it surely would have were Dr. Brenner still in charge– he was never overly concerned with protecting the citizens of Hawkins and might have resorted to threats of violence. However, Dr. Owens’ approach is instead to explain the difficult scenario he inherited and hope the Nancy and Jonathan understand why the secrets of the lab cannot be made public.

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The following is a transcript of the dialogue of this scene:

Dr. Owens: Men of science have made abundant mistakes of every kind. George Sarton said that. You guys know who George Sarton is? Doesn’t really matter. The point is mistakes have been made.

Nancy: Mistakes? You killed Barbara!

Dr. Owens: Abundant mistakes. But the men involved in those mistakes– the ones responsible for what happened to your brother and Ms. Holland’s death– are gone. They’re gone, and for better or worse I’m the schmuck they brought in to make things better. But I can’t make things better without your help.

Nancy: You mean without us shutting up?

Dr. Owens: She’s tough, this one. You guys been together long?

Jonathan: We’re not together.

Dr. Owens: You want to see what really killed your friend?

The three of them enter the area containing open portal to the Upside Down, which has grown much larger and more dangerous looking compared with what we saw throughout season 1. There are tentacles coming from the portal.

Dr. Owens: Teddy– brought you an audience today, hope you don’t mind.

Teddy (lab agent who is getting dressed in a protective suit): The more the merrier, sir.

Dr. Owens: I’d call it one hell of a mistake, wouldn’t you? The thing is, we can’t seem to erase our mistake. But we can stop it from spreading. It’s like pulling weeds. But imagine for a moment if a foreign state, let’s say the Soviets, if they heard about our mistake. Do you think they would even consider that a mistake? What if they tried to replicate that? The more attention we bring to ourselves, the more people like the Hollands that know the truth, the more likely that scenario becomes. You see why I have to stop the truth from spreading too, just like those weeds there. By whatever means necessary.

Teddy begins to spray fire all across the portal and the tentacles of the creature coming from the portal, which leads it to squirm and let out a noise of pain.

Dr. Owens: So, we understand each other now, don’t we?

After this scene when Nancy and Jonathan leave the lab, it is revealed that Nancy had a tape recorder and recorded Dr. Owens’ admission that Hawkins Lab, and thus DOE, was at fault for the death of Barb and all the other ills that had befallen the town due to the opening of this portal.

How does this relate to the real Department of Energy?

After hearing Dr. Owens describe the creation of the portal to the Upside Down and all the associated technology as a mistake and express the fear that enemy nations might replicate it, it immediately signaled that this scene was intended to describe the way many scientists and government officials felt during and after the Manhattan Project was used to develop and deploy the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II, as well as the fear and regret about the continued existence of nuclear weapons since that time.

The Manhattan Project was the government sponsored effort to develop the technology behind nuclear weapons, and it is to this effort that the Department of Energy traces its origins. These efforts were marked with secrecy, espionage, and a recognition of the vast worldwide implications of a potential development of a nuclear bomb.
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The quotes from Dr. Owens during this scene, if interpreted as an allegory for the development of nuclear weapons by DOE in the 1940s, provide a number of clues as to the parallels between the Manhattan Project and the ‘mistakes’ to which Dr. Owens refers.

Men of science have made abundant mistakes of every kind…The point is mistakes have been made.

Noting that all the experimentation and resultant terrors performed by Hawkins Lab during season 1 were mistakes does nothing to change that these mistakes were made. However, such an admission is one way to begin a healing and repair process. Similarly, many of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project have been noted in the years that followed to have found the entire effort to have been a mistake, using such admission to spur discussion about the future use of nuclear weapons, deal with personal guilt, and find any potential good that can come out of the situation.

Despite the official stance that DOE is “proud of and feels a strong sense of responsibility for its Manhattan Project heritage,” many people would still contend that it was wrong to bring nuclear weapons into the world. In the years that followed, various levels of regret have been expressed by the physicists involved in the creation of the nuclear technology.

  • While Albert Einstein was not directly involved in the development of nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project (the government denied him the necessary security clearance to be involved), it was a letter he wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to support the research and development of atomic weapons before Germany could do so that prompted to U.S. government to launch the Manhattan Project. Einstein would come to regret his role in kicking off the age of nuclear weapons after finding that the Germans never did produce an atomic bomb, stating that if he had known that would be the case he “would have never lifted a finger.”

 

 

  • At the same time, 70 scientists who actively worked on the Manhattan Project wrote and circulated the Szilard Petition that asked President Harry S. Truman not use the atomic bomb on populated land. Instead, they urged him to deploy an observed demonstration of the power of the bomb. The hope of these less hawkish scientists was that they were creating a weapon the threat of which would end the war, and if deployed on a remote island for the enemies to see its devastating power then that would be enough to earn surrender (in an odd footnote of history, the petition never made its way up the chain of command to reach the President). Obviously, the efforts of these scientists to delay (or ideally make unnecessary) the dropping of the atomic bomb failed.

 

  • The most famous Manhattan Project scientists who would openly consider the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons a mistake was J. Robert Oppenheimer– considered to be the father of the atomic bomb that came out of the Manhattan Project. At his farewell ceremony from Los Alamos Lab, Oppenheimer speculated that if atomic bombs were now to become a regular part of war then “mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.” Even more famously, in a meeting with President Harry S. Truman after the war, a still-shaken Oppenheimer confided that he felt he had blood on his hands. While Truman dismissed those concerns by insisting the responsibility for the deaths of the tens of thousands of Japanese who died was his own, Oppenheimer was instead concerned about the countless potential deaths his atomic bomb could cause to future generations.

While the Manhattan Project scientists like Shachter and those who signed the Szilard Petition were focused on whether the development and use of the bomb was the right move during World War II, Oppenheimer was forward looking and was contemplating if the development of the technology was one of those abundant mistakes that science makes. Several years later, Oppenheimer would confirm this position, stating that “we have made a very grave mistake” in even considering the massive use of nuclear weapons.

 

But the men involved in those mistakes– the ones responsible for what happened to your brother and Ms. Holland’s death– are gone. THey’re gone, and for better or worse I’m the schmuck they brought in to make things better. 

When Dr. Owens says that those responsible for the nefarious actions of Hawkins Lab are gone, he seems to be suggesting that because the original architects are gone that those in charge are largely inculpable. They are gone, and now the new leadership can only do what it can to make things better.

Similarly, in the years that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs, much was made about the need for new leadership behind the research, production, and regulation of the technology. Along with the uncertainty the scientists of the Manhattan Project had regarding the appropriateness of using the nuclear weapons was the uncertainty that that power belonged in the hands of the government. As such, some of these scientists joined and formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists in 1945 and pushed for civilian control of nuclear research and production. These scientists thought it was the scientists, not the policymakers, who were the best stewards for the technology and that a change in this leadership would allow them to make things better.

Another leadership option that was widely discussed in the years following World War II was the possibility of a United Nations Atomic Energy Commission to take worldwide responsibility for atomic energy. The idea was that worldwide leadership would ensure that nuclear technology was only developed for peaceful purposes, rather than the destructive and warring use that was immediately developed under the leadership of the U.S. government. The agreements of the Commission would have called for the United States to destroy its atomic arsenal and a disclosure of the atomic secrets, but disagreements between the Soviet Union and the United States ultimately undermined and tanked the Commission. This failure would point the world towards a future Cold War and a path where the nuclear question still loomed.

In the end, the U.S. government settled on passing the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, which created the Atomic Energy Commission (the predecessor agency of DOE) as a civilian committee that took over responsibility of legacy U.S. nuclear development from the Manhattan Project. While the agency eliminated complete military control, a Military Liaison Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission kept the military involved and there was still a “strict government monopoly on both scientific and technological knowledge, and fissionable materials.”

In the end, despite efforts on the national and international scale, the leadership was never changed completely away from the U.S. government that created the nuclear weapons in the first place. In the absence of such real change, it appears that things have predictably only gotten worse– with nuclear warhead inventories skyrocketing to above 60,000 at their peak during the Cold War and remaining around 10,000 warheads across 9 countries today. Perhaps if a real schmuck, an international equivalent to Dr. Owens, had been given control and leadership, then things would have been made better.
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I’d call it one hell of a mistake, wouldn’t you? The thing is, we can’t seem to erase our mistake. But we can stop it from spreading. It’s like pulling weeds.

While Dr. Owens and the new leadership at Hawkins Lab were not responsible for the creation of the portal to the Upside Down and the unleashing of the creatures that inhabit it, the job of containing the mistake did fall to them. They couldn’t undo the past even if they wanted to, so instead they continually try to clean up the mess and stop it from spreading.

This weeding metaphor is very apt for the responsibilities DOE continues to manage after the predecessor agency brought for the age of nuclear weapons. As Oppenheimer noted, “the physicists have known sin: and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” While the scientists cannot take back the knowledge of nuclear weapons and how to create them from the world, they have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent its spread.

During the Cold War, DOE was in charge of nuclear weapons development and production. While the goal since the end of the Cold War has been to decrease stockpiles of nuclear warheads across the world, DOE has remained involved in the fallout of these nuclear weapons of the past. In 2000, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was formed as a semi-autonomous agency within DOE whose jobs include managing the nuclear weapon stockpile, promoting international nuclear safety and nonproliferation, and more. Also included in these efforts is managing the environmental aspects of past and future nuclear development, such as managing and storing nuclear waste. These waste storage sites are managed by DOE across the country, often sparking outrage and controversy wherever they go, and are one of the ongoing containment activities required by DOE after the ushering in of nuclear weapons. DOE also finds itself at the table during discussions of international nuclear issues, such as its role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in an effort to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.
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In addition to storing new nuclear waste, a large part of DOE’s mission (and associated budget) is to provide environmental cleanup at “107 sites across the country whose area is equal to the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware” where nuclear weapons were developed, tested, and stored. Not only that, but DOE also finds itself continuing to pay for healthcare costs to those in the Marshall Islands that ended up affected by radioactive fallout of nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s on nearby islands. The need to perform these actions now and for the foreseeable future are possibly the best examples of DOE’s need to continue ‘weeding’ to prevent the spread of ills from its previously developed nuclear weapons.

But imagine for a moment if a foreign state, let’s say the Soviets, if they heard about our mistake. Do you think they would even consider that a mistake? What if they tried to replicate that?

One of the chief concerns at Hawkins Lab is that an enemy nation will find out about the technology they created and then assume it was done to create a weapon and/or replicate that technology for a weapon of their own. These fears are what drives the massive amount of security, secrecy, and monitoring at Hawkins Lab. These ideas are also directly applicable to the use of nuclear technology– both in its origin in the United States and in modern times across the globe.

In the days of the Manhattan Project, chief among the priorities were keeping the entire program secret from Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. While fission, the core scientific discovery behind the atomic bomb, was discovered in Germany, the ability to harness the resultant chain reaction and use it as a weapon was what was at stake. The result was a period of extensive espionage between the United States and these enemy nations, with Soviet spies actually successfully penetrating the Manhattan Project at several locations. Between these governments, it was no secret that the technology was actively being pursued and that the goal of doing so was for anything but peaceful means. However, the secrecy about the progress and scientific breakthroughs were critical– and in these ways the Manhattan Project embodied the paranoid secrecy that Dr. Owens and Hawkins Lab felt about their dimension jumping technology falling into the hands of enemy nations.

Even after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war ended, the efforts of the U.S. government continued to focus on making sure the nuclear capabilities stayed out of the hands of the Soviets and other nations. This secrecy was so important to the U.S. government that one of the main reasons the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission failed to become a reality was due to the proposed requirement that the United States turn over the scientific and technological secrets behind the nuclear bomb. This fear went to such an extent that when the Cold War started to heat up, accusations that Oppenheimer, the central figure in the development of the atomic bomb for the United States, was a communist resulted in a repeal of his security clearance.
Even today, the United States finds itself as the country with the most nuclear weapons in its arsenal but also leading the conversation in ensuring additional nations do not acquire these weapons and working to reduce the existing stockpiles of weapons across all nations. The desire to ensure foreign states do not acquire the technology that the United States developed decades ago rings true to the fears Dr. Owens expresses about the past mistakes at Hawkins Lab.

The more attention we bring to ourselves, the more people like the Hollands that know the truth, the more likely that scenario becomes. You see why I have to stop the truth from spreading too, just like those weeds there.

Lastly, the highly secretive nature of Hawkins Lab is very true to the situation across U.S. towns that were home to Manhattan Project facilities. Despite employing 130,000 workers and spending $2.2 billion during the course of the Manhattan Project, most people across the United States were floored to find the extent to which such a large operation could have been kept such a secret. The entire town of Oak Ridge was built around the secret project, with the existence of the town itself kept a secret as well. Even among employees at the Manhattan Project facilities the end goal of the labs were kept secret, with most lower level workers at the facilities simply performed whatever rote task they were assigned without being explained what its purpose was or the big picture. Many workers simply watched large quantities of raw materials enter the facility, saw nothing coming out, and were tasked with monitoring dials and switches  behind thick concrete walls without knowing the purpose behind these monitors or their jobs. This extent of secrecy was seen as critical to the mission of the Manhattan Project, as any amount of information spreading out to the outside world would put the mission at risk. Secrecy defined the early stages of the nuclear age, as it also defined the work going on in Hawkins Lab. The secrets behind the real DOE and Hawkins Lab only remained secrets, however, until the scientists lost control of their creations as they started to affect the unsuspecting public.

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Is this reading too much into one scene of a TV show?

While I don’t particularly like over-analyzing metaphors and symbolism that aren’t intended by creators to be there (shout out to literature teachers everywhere insisting that Fahrenheit 451 is about something Ray Bradbury himself denies), due to my experience with DOE and focus on its depiction in the show I couldn’t help but find some real world parallels that I think might have been an intentional metaphor included by the writers.

Admittedly, it seems that this part of the episode that is midway through season 2 might just be meant to signal shift in the plot. Whereas the antagonists in season 1 were Dr. Brenner and his team, with the Demogorgon being the unintended creation of these bad guys, it seems the Duffer Brothers used this scene as an opportunity to reset and shift the plot. The scientists at Hawkins Lab no longer have nefarious intentions (in a later episode, Dr. Owens is even the voice of reason in not allowing Will to die as a means to an end of defeating the mysterious forces putting the town at risk), and instead the main antagonists of the show are now the forces and creatures that continue to make their way through from the Upside Down.

Despite this function of the scene as a story-telling device that sets up the rest of season 2, it does also appear to speak to advent of nuclear weapons as the reason why DOE was chosen as the dark government agency in the series instead of the more commonly used FBI or CIA (seriously, can you name another pop culture avenue in which the Department of Energy plays a main role in the plot? The only two I could come up with are 1) Captain America, Campbell’s Soup, and DOE teaming up in comic book form for energy conservation and 2) the selection of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ participant Rick Perry as the Secretary of Energy.

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Source 1 Source 2

Because of the seemingly deliberate choice of words for Dr. Owens in this one scene, I believe the Duffer Brothers are pointing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the large mistake made by DOE in the past, which to this day requires constant weeding to prevent the effects of this mistake from spreading. Further, the devastating impacts shown by the creatures of the Upside Down when released into our dimension serve as a small reminder of the apocalyptic effects that the use of nuclear warfare could have on the world– a point that is made all the more poignant with nuclear tensions as high as they are today between the United States and certain hostile foreign states. For that, let’s all just hope diplomacy and cool heads prevail, lest the metaphorical Demagorgons of the world show what devastation really looks like.

 

Sources and additional reading
A Petition to the President of the United States: Dannen.com

As Hiroshima Smouldered, Our Atom Bomb Scientists Suffered Remorse: Newsweek

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.