«The best reactor is a paper one,» is one of the astute observations on nuclear plants we hear in The Atom: A Love Affair, director Vicki Lesley’s survey of the swing in attitudes for and against (and back again) nuclear technology in the western world, available from 15 May on Curzon Home Cinema.
A plan on paper, of course, is optimum in a way that its built manifestation, with all the chance unpredictability of human error and the unstable natural environment, never can be. Building, maintaining, and operating something in practice is always more difficult than one thinks — and so is keeping the public onside, when health and safety risks make a technology inherently political. A chronological retelling of waxing and waning enthusiasm about the potential of the atom as a solution to the west’s deepening energy crisis, narrated by Lily Cole, is punctuated by old romantic movie clips of burgeoning crushes and disillusionment with the object of one’s desire. This adds a tongue-in-cheek wit to dry science, but beyond that, it underlines how any new idea or discovery relies not just on cold facts but the creation of a compelling narrative to turn a population onto its charms. Potential lovers appear to us through a lens of idealising fantasy; and societal changes, a filter of propaganda. Amid the atom’s ambiguous capabilities of energy-revolutionising creation and massive radioactive destruction, its fortunes have turned on which of those stores dominates the public discourse at any given moment.
The Atomic Age was ushered in at the end of the Second World War. While there was much romance and fanfare in the ‘50s around the notion of an Atom-powered future, nuclear energy’s ambivalent nature was apparent right from the start, tied in with the impossibility of segregating its peaceful capabilities from its military ones. The Allied bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with their terrible mushroom clouds and decimation of Japanese populations, had shown the atom’s power for devastation, and the United States launched a propaganda offensive to try to change perceptions. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his famed «Atoms for Peace» speech to the UN, part of a huge media push to manage the public’s fears about nuclear armament. Nuclear scientists were painted as cutting-edge wizards forging useful tools for progress. With all the positive spin, newly built reactors even became tourist attractions in themselves. Warfare, however, was not off the table. Britain, for instance, which saw itself as a pioneer of nuclear power, set up a civil nuclear plant, Calder Hall. Its purpose was to produce weapons-grade plutonium, with electricity to be a useful by-product. The shutting off of oil shipments by the Middle East in 1973, causing the price of oil to quadruple, added to atomic energy’s global attraction as a possibility.
While there was much romance and fanfare in the ‘50s around the notion of an Atom-powered future, nuclear energy’s ambivalent nature was apparent right from the start
The fear of accidents and the catastrophic impact subsequent radioactive contamination could have, came to be the main alarm bell around the dangers of nuclear plants, even as nuclear experts remained reluctant to give up a lifetime of knowledge they had staked so much of their ambition upon. A group of anti-atomic activists in the U.S. in the ‘70s dubbed their demonstration «Nuclear excursion» — the euphemism for something going wrong at a nuclear plant. In 1979, a reactor partially melted down in Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island accident, causing a significant radiation leak close to a major city. Its operators were ill-prepared to handle an accident or talk to the public about it, and it was a defining moment for the debate around nuclear energy in that advocates could no longer breezily insist on its safety (though ‘80s meets in family homes akin to Tupperware parties were held in a bid to win over housewives, statistically more anti-nuclear than their husbands).
But Chernobyl, the infamous 1986 disaster in Soviet Ukraine, seemed to many a non-negotiable nail in the coffin. An explosion due to flawed reactor design and operator error caused vast radioactive fallout, ecological devastation, and hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. Advocates of atomic power in the west made concerted efforts to distance themselves from the cataclysm, blaming Russian technology and claiming such a thing could not happen elsewhere. But it was hard to argue against the visceral horror, and support for nuclear plummeted. And the 2011 reactor meltdown at Fukushima in Japan, the most severe nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, which was triggered by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, made it clear that a western-designed reactor in a highly advanced country is not immune to catastrophe, regardless of what those unwilling to identify with Chernobyl as a human rather than anomalously Soviet tragedy had said.
And what of the future? The dangers of global warming, which are making coal an increasingly problematic energy solution, are only rising, and nuclear power is being repackaged again as a low-carbon hero. The documentary may be western-centric in focusing on the US, UK, France, and Germany, but while it looks further afield only to flag up disasters, it by no means suggests western Europe has access to some kind of special genius or dependability by which it could invent a foolproof, next-generation reactor. We are, then, left to choose the least of several great dangers.