Among the many social movements that arose in the 1960s and ’70s, one just about everyone on the liberal spectrum could agree on was anti-“nuke.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki left behind a lingering horror at the ways technological advancement might be turned to mass destruction. Power plant accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl seemed to confirm fears that this energy source’s risks outweighed its benefits. Yet in recent years, some voices have argued that nuclear power is in fact humanity’s best option to meet its energy requirements amid escalating environmental and resource crises.
It’s an intriguing if unpopular viewpoint that merits clear explanation and debate, things that “Atomic Hope” ultimately does not provide. Irish filmmaker Frankie Fenton’s second feature, following the much more intimately focused “It’s Not Yet Dark,” chooses to focus primarily on pro-nuke advocates and their uphill public campaigns — as opposed to the pro-nuke arguments themselves, which are never rigorously addressed. Nor are opponents heard from at all. The result is a slick globe-trotting documentary that holds attention, yet doesn’t really leave the viewer more enlightened on the subject at hand than they were before.
Archival footage under the opening credits provides a rapid-fire overview of relevant key events over the last 80 years, from bombing aircraft Enola Gay to climate activist Greta Thunberg. She’s depicted because it is a core belief among current proponents that (as one puts it here) “nuclear energy is the fastest way to decarbonize our energy systems, in time to combat climate change.” The clock is ticking, environmentally damaging fossil fuels still supply over 80% of energy needs worldwide, and it is estimated that by mid-century those needs will double or even triple.
The first voice heard from here is that of Japanese scientist Moto Yasu Kinoshita, who admits his nation’s attitude toward nuclear power is “very complex” for very good reasons (his family came from Nagasaki). But he also says, “It is very natural behavior for human beings to overcome our history,” allowing, “We have already opened the box of the Pandora. We cannot close it again.”
Among those enthusiastic about nuclear being the safest, cleanest and most productive energy option going forward are leaders from disparate advocacy orgs Thorium Energy Alliance, Generation Atomic and Mothers for Nuclear. Such is the automatic resistance to their message that they are often barred or shouted down at climate change-related conferences and protests. Few are willing to hear arguments that for all its notoriety, nuclear power has a track record of minimal harm compared to other energy sources. English medical-science research professor Geraldine Thomas calls the general wisdoms about radiation risks, birth defects and cancer “misinformation,” while biologist Iida Rushalme actually tours Chernobyl’s “exclusion zone” to measure the (surprisingly low) remaining radioactivity levels.
But missing here are any knowledgable critics who might refute these points, and allow the advocates to defend their stances in turn. A major figure in “Atomic Hope” is author and recurrent California political candidate Michael Shellenberger. He’s presented as a plucky, good-humored rebel for his more combative stances as an “ecomodernist,” notably raining on the parade of those championing “renewables,” i.e. wind and solar power. The film entirely sidesteps the controversy of his views among many environmental scientists and academics who’ve termed them misleading or inflammatory.
Indeed, even as it sprawls from San Francisco to Manila, “Atomic Hope” somehow eludes the harder questions that might have both challenged and ballasted the stances of proponents onscreen. We don’t doubt the genuineness of their concern or activism, but the full evidence isn’t here to win us over. While it finds some colorful personalities and situations to capture (notably some desperate ploys for public attention), the film errs in assuming activists themselves merit central focus when their cause itself remains so poorly understood.
At heart it’s a documentary for the converted, at a time when most viewers will still require converting. Barely touched on is how countries like France and Sweden came to buck the general tide by increasing their nuclear power capacities. Never addressed at all is a widespread fear that has greatly heightened with Putin’s recent actions and statements: Can we fully separate the plusses of nuclear from the threat of leaders who might abuse it?
Beyond hewing to the currently ubiquitous and somewhat gratuitous norm of being structured by themed chapters, Fenton’s survey is otherwise well-turned in production terms. There’s good use of archival footage, and a polished look to new material shot on myriad locations. Neo-folkies Jose Gonzalez and Stornoway contribute pre-existing songs for the bookending credits sequences.
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