Most of the Time, Nuclear Power Will Stay in Its Cage: ‘The Atomic States of America’

[23 October 2012]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Rabbit Hole

“It was just part of the texture of the town,” says Kelly McMasters. She’s talking about cancer. She and her family moved to Shirley, Long Island in 1981, she recalls in the documentary The Atomic States of America, and as a child, she didn’t give much thought to the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nuclear reactor. It was only when she got older that she became aware of possible effects. When she was away at college, she says, her classmates wondered why she was going home to attend so many funerals, for the unusually high number of people she knew who were dying of breast, lung, and thyroid cancers. McMasters began to wonder, too.

She turned that wonder into research for her book, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, which serves as the point of departure for Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce’s film. As she places a heavy case of files and papers on her dining room table, McMasters describes her process, and more importantly, her discoveries. “The mystery started to unravel,” she says, meaning, she learned that radioactive leaks from the facility affected Shirley, which was “in the line of fire.”

“Part of me wishes that I could go back and unwrite this story,” McMasters says. Instead, she has focused her energies on telling it, on making clear the consequences of nuclear power plants, even as the United States appears poised for what she calls a “nuclear renaissance.” The film offers up as evidence the president’s 2010 announcement of the first new nuclear power plant construction in over 32 years. The new nuclear energy story insists that it’s different from fossil fuels, green and clean and efficient. The new nuclear energy story tends not to remember what McMasters remembers. It overlooks leaks, meltdowns and, waste management (the legendarily long half-life of nuclear waste has made this a particular sticking point as companies and the government look for sites to store it).

“It’s a rabbit hole,” says McMasters.

Screening at Stranger Than Fiction 23 October, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers, The Atomic States of America traces how this rabbit hole has evolved, how the nuclear power industry has been hard at work for three decades, lobbying. The efforts have paid off, even as problems remain unresolved. The range of arguments on nuclear power is represented here in a range of interviews, with Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors, journalists, physicists, nuclear engineers, community activists, and nuclear power advocates, like Christine Todd Whitman. Their disagreements occasionally come to a head, as when NRC representative Steven Orth is confronted by citizens of Braidwood, Illinois who oppose the Exelon Corporation’s new generating station. Orth insists the NRC inspections should be enough to assuage worries. They are not. Residents are having trouble believing what they’re told, as they see the NRC in league with Exelon.

Such a suspect relationship between industry and government regulators has been brewing for years. Eric Epstein, chairman of the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, remembers. “My dad would drive me down to the [TMI] plant, and we’d see these big clouds billowing out. And he would assure me that they were benign. You know, I believed my dad. My dad believed the industry. I just thought this was a wonderful, magical technology that had come to rescue us.” Following the disaster, this story seemed put to rest. Now that nuclear power is resurgent, he worries. The industry has not made clear how it has corrected for the long-term health and environmental risks so visible in the story of Shirley and Braidwood and Middletown, PA, other towns located near nuclear facilities. Neither has the industry made anyone feel very confident concerning the risk of system failures—the potential meltdowns brought on by natural or manmade disasters, such as those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or, in 2011, Fukushima. 

Driving toward TMI’s south gate today, Epstein describes his concerns about security: as his car nears the gate, the camera tilts up to show it: no guards, no locks. “This fucking back door’s wide open,” says Epstein. A sign welcomes visitors but, he says, “You should be telling people stay the fuck away.” Epstein’s upset has to do with his own research into the dangers posed by exposure to radiation, effects on water, dairy, and vegetation. And that’s when a plant runs according to plan. “Most of the time,” he goes on, “nuclear power will stay within its cage.” But when something goes wrong, “There’s a hell of a price to pay.”

Here the film cuts to some familiar footage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan: the frame shakes, people dart about, cars and buildings are swept away by water. US television journalists report on the devastation at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Power Plant, with Geraldo providing something of a coda concerning the “soul searching” that the meltdown might provoke. For its part, Japan has made the decision to phase out all nuclear power plants by 2023, and Germany intends to cut back as well, despite complaints about the economic costs. Still, the United States appears determined to push forward, insisting on the reliability of the technology.

By raising questions and showcasing ongoing debates, The Atomic States of America argues that the nuclear renaissance has emerged out of deal-making and lobbying more than technological or scientific resolutions. The rabbit hole stretches before us.

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