NUCLEAR: Tracing the history and complex social and political forces that have fueled the conversation around nuclear power.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 15, 2020


«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.

Atomic Age

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


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