Atomic Mom – Confessions from the Nuclear Age

WNN Radio

Bomb shelter and swimming pool 1950s
A bomb shelter with swimming pool 1950s. Image: James Vaughan

WINGS radio show producer Susan Galleymore talks about women and the atomic age after the end of World War II. Pauline Silvia was a Navy biologist testing effects of radiation in the 1950s. In her daughter’s documentary Atomic Mom, Pauline wonders why her research was even done, and why the answers were ignored. Susan Galleymore explores with filmmaker M.T. Silvia the nuclear zeitgeist and its implications for now.

Optimism in the “Atomic age” was everywhere as the post World War II 1950s (US) America as the wonders of nuclear power and inventions became the trend. Over an entire decade the public was encouraged to think that every part of nuclear energy was amazing, bringing innovation and a grand future to everyone on the earth.

During the 1950s years the idea of endorsing “everything atomic” launched with it the use of nuclear medicine, food irradiation, nuclear energy and an ever expanding arsenal of nuclear bombs that ensured public safety and power. Propaganda was everywhere and prolific during the era that launched the nuclear age of industrial nations.


Atomic Energy ad 1953

WINGS – Women’s News Gathering Service

Host/Producer: Susan Galleymore / Raising Sand Radio

Series Producer: Frieda Werden / WINGS

Featured guest: filmmaker M.T. Silva, with excerpts from the film Atomic Mom

Date: May 8, 2011

Length: 27:07

BACKGROUND: Atomic Mom is a feature length documentary about two women, both mothers, who have very different experiences of the atom bomb. One is my mother, Pauline Silvia, who was a Navy biologist in the early 1950’s and was sent to the Nevada Test Site where she witnessed five detonations. After decades of silence, she is in a crisis of conscience about the work she did. The other woman is Emiko Okada, a Hiroshima survivor who was eight years old when the bomb was dropped. Knowing the work that Pauline did, Emiko offers her an olive branch with a beautifully potent message of peace.

Atomic Mom tells the story of two lives affected by the atom bomb – that of a scientist involved in the post-war development and testing of the bomb and the one on whom it was unleashed. As children and adults float paper lanterns at a Hiroshima Memorial in Berkeley California, filmmaker M.T. Silvia reminisces about her childhood. Growing up, no other kid in M.T.’s neighborhood had a mother who had the nation’s top most secret security clearance. “I grew up during the Cold War. As a kid I imagined my Mom as a character in a James Bond thriller”, says M.T. in the voice over. Yet no bragging rights came with being Pauline Silvia’s daughter. Instead the code of secrecy manifested itself into other secrets big and small that settled on the Silvia household like clouds. It took fifty long years and a chance drive across highway 101 in San Francisco to unravel the secrets Pauline had kept close to her heart. Now, seventy-nine, Pauline finally opens the doors to her past for her daughter filmmaker, M.T. Silvia, and reveals her role as an insider involved in the research of the most sophisticated, influential, and devastating technologies of the twentieth century.


Although the “Atoms for Peace” campaign was formally launched in 1957, corporate America began to use propagandized images to promote peaceful uses of atomic energy as early as the first few months after Hiroshima. “A Is For Atom,” was a public 14 minute educational PSA – Public Service Announcement broadcast on TV during the 1950s. The PSA takes a highly loaded and threatening issue straight to the public in an attempt to ‘humanize’ and soften the issue, and now known dangers, inherent in nuclear power accidents.