In “Nuclear,” his intensely compelling, must-see documentary, Oliver Stone makes the vital and historical case that nuclear power has been the victim of a perception/reality conundrum, one that is now in the process of being overturned. The perception is that nuclear power is dangerous: too dangerous to be an essential component of providing our energy needs. The reality, argues Stone, is that nuclear power is clean, abundant, and safe. “Nuclear” says that the ominous reality of our energy crisis — the looming catastrophe of climate change, the hopeful yet stubbornly incremental growth of renewables like wind and solar — is too urgent for nuclear power not to be an essential component of providing our energy needs.
Those are the two sides of the debate, and they have been entrenched for so long that it’s hard, at a glance, to see much possibility for change. But that’s where a documentary like “Nuclear” comes in. I think the movie, viewed with open eyes, could influence people’s ideas on the nuclear-power issue the way that “An Inconvenient Truth” moved the needle on climate change.
For decades, there has been a primal fear of all things associated with the word nuclear. The protest movements against nuclear power that took root in the late ’70s and early ’80s lumped all of “nuclear” into one bucket: nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. It was all…bad. That’s why leftist-activist types, in the No Nukes era, made a cult fetish of mispronouncing the word “nuclear” as “nuke-ular.” They were saying, in essence: the possibility of being nuked is inherent in this technology. Therefore it must be treated as toxic.
If you argue against this idea, as Stone does, then those who believe it will repeat the following as if it were a self-evident mantra: “Safe? You’re crazy. Six words: Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Fukushima. Done.” The fear of nuclear disaster is a primal fear that is seen, by the anti-nuclear ideology, as a transcendent deal-breaker. There’s no possibility of having a rational dialogue about it, because the pro-nuclear position is treated, by the anti-nuclear position, as if it were, in effect, the pro-nuclear-disaster position.
What few will say out loud is that the fear of nuclear disaster has, for decades, been elevated into a mythology. No one, for instance, died in the Three Mile Island accident (but the coincidental release of the 1979 meltdown disaster movie “The China Syndrome” helped lock in the perception that people did die). There is risk inherent in everything, but the new generation of nuclear-power reactors have built-in structural safeguards that are leaps and bounds beyond those that were in place at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima.
And for anyone tempted to write off that argument as an extreme form of wish-fulfillment, Stone invites you to check out the forces who happen to agree with it. Namely: huge sectors of the rest of the world. Once you get outside the United States, nuclear power has a very different image. It has been used, for decades, to power the economy of a Euro-socialist nation as enlightened as France, which now gets 70 percent of its energy from nuclear. (Each French citizen, on average, produces one-third of the carbon emissions of each citizen of the United States.) And things may be changing even within the U.S.. The anti-nuclear-power position was, for years, a shibboleth of liberal progressives, but 60 percent of Americans now say that they’re in favor of nuclear energy. (To this day, 20 percent of American energy is generated by nuclear.)
The case for nuclear energy, as the force that could lead us out of our calamitous addiction to fossil fuels, has been made in a movie before. A decade ago, the great documentarian Robert Stone (“Chasing the Moon,” “Oswald’s Ghost”) — no relation to Oliver — directed “Pandora’s Promise,” which put forth an even more immediate version of the case Oliver Stone makes: that nuclear energy has been unfairly demonized, and that more and more environmentalists believe it’s destined to be our savior if we’re going to rescue ourselves from the slow-burn entropy of climate change. “Pandora’s Promise” premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and I’ll never forget the conversations there I kept having about it. I’d say what an important film I thought it was, and the reply, inevitably, would be, “But it only presents one side!” I thought: Really? That’s your objection? We’d been hearing the case against nuclear energy for 30 years. Now, here was a documentary that took 87 minutes to present the case for nuclear energy. It seemed, quite simply, as if no one wanted to listen.
The same thing may be going on with Stone’s “Nuclear,” which provoked a mixed response when it premiered, a month ago, at the Venice Film Festival and is still looking for a distributor. Yet Stone, who based the movie on the book “A Bright Future,” by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist (the narration, read by Stone, was written by Stone and Goldstein), colors in the historical parameters of nuclear power in a way that I defy you not to find eye-opening.
Stone talks about the nuclear bomb, “the original sin of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” which became, he says, “a collective trauma.” (We see the infamous public-school images of duck-and-cover.) As he explains, “I, too, once believed that the environmentalists were right, and that nuclear power was dangerous. We were, in our way, terribly miseducated, subconsciously cross-wiring nuclear war with nuclear power.”
It wasn’t always that way. In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower planned to use nuclear power to produce massive amounts of electricity, and he jubilantly shared his vision with the United Nations in 1953. Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace program and ordered the visionary U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, who had first developed the idea of nuclear propulsion for submarines, to get started on a nuclear power plant for land. (It was built by 1958.) The future would be all-electric! From the ’60s through the ’80s, 100 large reactors were built in the U.S. France opened its first nuclear reactor in 1964, and from 1975 to 1990 built 56 reactors. Sweden and Canada, too, were part of the movement, as those countries took giant steps toward getting off coal. For a long time, nuclear energy was allied with the conservationist movement and supported by institutions like the Sierra Club.
But the major oil companies, nicknamed the Seven Sisters, were ready to take on nuclear power. “Nuclear” presents evidence that the Rockefeller family, the mogul barons of Standard Oil, disseminated the false idea that even the lowest levels of radiation are harmful to human health. Stone claims that’s an argument we’ve been viscerally wired to agree with. He calls it a “contamination phobia,” saying, “We’ve evolved, after all, on a planet filled with uranium, and bombarded by both sunlight and cosmic rays. Our bodies are built by nature and by evolution to handle small amounts of radiation.”
Yet that’s not the perception. The perception is that nuclear energy is dangerous because uranium, the material at its core (pun intended), is inherently dangerous. If you want to talk about strange bedfellows, consider this: The U.S. oil companies, in the ’60s and ’70s, became de facto partners of the anti-nuclear movement, allying themselves with “tree huggers” in order to help kill the key energy source that could compete with fossil fuels.
But today, Stone suggests, for perhaps the first time since the ’50s we can actually start having the discussion, since there’s a new factor at work in the nuclear-energy-is-unsafe-so-STFU zone. That factor, simply put, is this:
You want to talk about unsafe? Fossil fuels are unsafe. Not just in the way they’ve always been (they create pollution, which is bad for you), but in the relatively new way that mainstream culture has come to regard them: as the driving force behind climate change, the mother of all unsafe energy trends. It’s killing the planet. It’s choking off the possibilities of the future.
It is, on balance, far more dangerous than nuclear power.
A connected idea: Our global need for electricity is going to multiply in the coming decades. That’s because three-quarters of the world’s population, who we tend to think of as “poor,” live in developing nations, and they are going to be wanting air conditioners, computers, and all the other benefits of the developed world. How can this escalating demand for electricity be met without an even more catastrophic rise in carbon emissions? By ramping up the wind turbines?
No one, except for oil-company executives and their Republican enablers in Congress, is against the renewables. Oliver Stone certainly isn’t. Wind and solar will be a strong part of the future. But once again, we run into a wall of perception/reality. The perception, going back to the No Nukes era, is that renewables, which are now a major growth industry, are a wonderful organic way of creating energy that are destined to replace the dirty dangers of coal. Which sounds fantastic. The reality is that renewables, even given the growth curve they’re on, will not be able to generate close to all the electricity our world needs for many, many decades. We cannot depend on them to fill the gap.
Stone makes the point that middle-class culture has become all about personal virtue in terms of people reducing their carbon footprint: recycling, electric cars, the use of more environmentally friendly consumer products, all held together by the wish that these things will add up and make…the difference. But they won’t. That they will is actually something of a progressive fantasy (one could argue that it’s a feel-good tic of the consumer culture). It’s not that the rise of, say, electric cars isn’t going to have an impact; of course it will. It’s that it’s not enough to stem the tide of climate change.
In the last decade, Oliver Stone has made some documentaries I’ve had mixed feelings about, like his exploratory but overly soft-pedaled portraits of Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro, or his recent conspiracy jaunt “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.” I have been, at key points, a Stone believer (I think “Natural Born Killers” and “Nixon” are two of the greatest American films), but I am not a conspiracy theorist. I think that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, killing JFK with three shots from the Texas Book Depository. But “Nuclear,” which is laced with Stone’s intelligence and his quest for the truth, comes from a different place than the fever-dream polemical sphere that has often been associated with this filmmaker. The case it makes for nuclear power is sober, grounded, journalistic. But don’t take my word for it. If and when “Nuclear” lands a distributor, seek the movie out. It demands, and deserves, to be seen.