Analyses of nuclear fiction have tended to focus on the literature of the United States, particularly that of the 1950s. This article not only switches attention to British literature, but makes the case for the 1980s as a nuclear decade, arguing that the late Cold War context, especially renewed fears of global conflict, produced a distinctive nuclear literature and culture. Taking its cue from E.P. Thompson's rewriting of the British government's civil-defence slogan, ‘Protect and Survive’, as ‘Protest and Survive’, it identifies a series of issues – gender and the family, the environment and socio-economic organization – through which competing nuclear discourses can be read. In particular, it argues, British fiction of this period functions by undercutting the idea that protection is possible. Hence, although few nuclear texts advocate particular policy positions, they are characterized by a politics of vulnerability. Proposing for the first time the existence of a distinctive 1980s nuclear culture, it seeks to suggest the broad parameters within which further research might take place.