The Atom: A Love Affair review – changing reactions to nuclear power

This inconclusive documentary charts the scary history and, in the era of climate crisis, revised views about the prospects for nuclear power

Vicki Lesley’s sprightly, inconclusive documentary tackles a perennially controversial subject: nuclear power and its contested ethical status. Like almost all documentaries these days, this begins with a clip of some sonorous 1950s propaganda film – shorthand for the hilariously naive, reactionary stance that we’ve supposedly overcome. It is an amusing gimmick, but in danger of being overused here.

Nuclear power was idealistically embraced after the war as part of our white-hot technological future (a notable partisan was once Labour politician Tony Benn) but then rejected with the news of terrifying accidents, notably the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979. (Lesley perhaps should have mentioned the very real importance of James Bridges’ movie The China Syndrome, a nuclear-disaster drama that came out just before Three Mile Island; praised as prophetic and genuinely instrumental in popularising anti-nuclear attitudes.)

Ecological campaigners, particularly in West Germany, led the charge in Europe against nuclear energy. The Chernobyl horror in 1986 frightened even the most diehard pro-nuclear interests; and in 2011, just when we were getting complacent, there was the chilling incident at Fukushima in Japan. Yet the climate crisis, the key question of the age, brought a new revisionist case for nuclear power.

The climate crisis is the slo-mo disaster that looms as large in our minds as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima; nuclear does not emit greenhouse gases, and is still capable of wholesale power generation. Should theoretical future increases in nuclear safety be weighed against the climate disaster that is happening right now, under our noses? For the time being, our love affair with nuclear is over, leaving us with a joyless marriage to fossil fuels, and a chaste courtship with renewables.

Lesley gives the last word to the passionate and persuasive anti-nuclear campaigner Ralph Nader, though her film does not commit itself in the same way.

The Atom: A Love Affair is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 15 May.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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