Justin Pemberton, dir. The Nuclear Comeback. DVD. New York: Icarus Films, 2007. 53 minutes.
Are we on the brink of a nuclear revival? Should we be? The Nuclear Comeback, an absorbing documentary video, is titled declaratively but sprinkles question marks. The Nuclear Comeback embarks on a tour of some of the high and low points of the nuclear world, touching on most of the major issues in the debate. The video deals with the key elements of the nuclear fuel cycle: mining, processing, reactor operation, and waste disposal. We visit a British station, an Australian mine, Chernobyl, the British reprocessing site at Sellafield, and Swedish facilities — reactors at Forsmark and a proposed underground waste storage site. Talking heads state their positions and an unseen narrator guides the tour. Overall, the DVD works well. Visuals and sound bites are smoothly integrated. Most speakers state their positions without excessive rancor and appear to be well informed. The video is well paced for an audience without much knowledge of the nuclear power issue, although those with more expertise may find it somewhat superficial.
The filmmakers allow the affirmative side of the debate to present its case first. A French nuclear engineer, Bruno Comby, declares himself to be a member of “Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy” and maintains, forcefully if rather coldly, that the peril of global warming leaves us no alternative to nuclear power. Nuclear energy, Comby contends, is “clean, safe, and abundant enough to ensure the survival of our civilization.” The DVD does not state Comby’s credentials as either an environmentalist or as nuclear scientist. Indeed, Comby’s own Web site (www.comby.org) reveals that his published books are largely on personal health. Topics include stress reduction, antismoking, the virtues of siestas, and the benefits of optimism.
Antinuclear journalist Rob Edwards makes the first of several appearances, claiming that the nuclear power industry is dying and is grasping desperately at climate change to save itself. He sneers that Comby’s “Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy” amounts to “about two people and a dog.” Comby later rejoins by pointing out that a Greenpeace founder, Patrick Moore, has endorsed the nuclear cause. Comby is a less appealing spokesman for nuclear energy than Ian Hore-Lacy, a publicist for the World Nuclear Association, who assumes the major responsibility for making the pronuclear case in the video.
A segment labeled “Risks” focuses on an incident at the Forsmark nuclear installation in 2006. A short circuit in one part of the reactor’s power supply initiated the failure of what was supposed to be an uninterruptible power source. Two of four diesel generators did not start up as expected. The International Atomic Energy Agency rated the Forsmark episode at level two on its classification of severity (level seven is the most dangerous), treating Forsmark’s problem as an “incident” rather than an “accident.” Industry executives support this assessment. The video interviews Swedish nuclear engineer Lars-Olov Hoglund who contests this sharply. Hoglund, who had been chief of construction for the company operating Forsmark, contends that a core meltdown was only half an hour from beginning and that only “luck” prevented the disaster. The conflict over the Forsmark incident is not resolved, but Hoglund gets the last word, saying that he doubts nuclear energy should be handled through a conventional market system.
Appropriately, the next stop is Chernobyl. Unlike Three Mile Island, the 1986 accident here was truly cataclysmic. One speaker estimates that perhaps six hundred thousand people were affected. The visuals show barren desolation. There is virtually no attention given to the counterclaim that the Chernobyl design was drastically different from plants operating in most of the rest of the world and certainly radically unlike any plant that would be built today or in the future. In any event, however, Chernobyl is a disquieting reminder to nuclear optimists.
Following this, the video takes on questions of terrorism and security. British Greenpeace activists are shown on a railway station platform announcing that a nuclear waste train is passing through. Clips of large airplanes heading for reactor buildings are simulations, but we also see a U.S. experiment from 1988, when a fighter jet was crashed into a concrete barrier meant to model a reactor vessel wall. The segment proves little or nothing about how dangerous a terrorist attack with a large commercial airplane would be. Edwards makes the plausible claim that a greater threat would come from terrorists working inside the power station. The video does not offer a rebuttal on this point from an industry defender.
Last, The Nuclear Comeback considers nuclear waste. We are reminded that high-level radioactive waste needs to be stored safely for at least one hundred thousand years and that no nation has a permanent high-level storage site. Hore-Lacy, the industry spokesman, remarks that the only real problem of waste disposal is political and that NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) opposition is fading. Visually, this segment shows visits to the Swedish low- and medium-level storage site eighty meters under the Baltic Sea and to the planned high-level site near Uppsala.
At the end, our protagonists Comby and Edwards square off once again. What is a better hope for the future: renewables or nuclear energy? The answers are the expected ones. For Comby, renewables are never going to provide enough reliable and consistent power. For Edwards, the nuclear option is fraught with perils and rests on a history of failure and deception.
With these starkly different perspectives, the video in one sense ends in a stalemate. Should we embrace nuclear energy as our best hope to cope with climate change? Or is the nuclear revival too dangerous to enlist in the battle against greenhouse gases? The format is point-counterpoint, but it appears (to this viewer at least) that the filmmakers come down on the antinuclear side. Edwards is an appealing spokesman, knowledgeable, well spoken, and thoughtful, if perhaps a bit overly certain of his own rectitude. The pronuclear talking heads come off less attractively.
Because it devotes little attention to the economics of nuclear power, the video is more likely to help viewers decide whether there should be a nuclear comeback than to answer the question of whether there will be one. While there is a round of nuclear construction in developing countries, notably China and India, and in Russia, the pace of construction is slower than nuclear advocates have projected. There are forty-seven reactors being built around the world, but thirty-three of these are located in only four countries — China, Russia, India, and South Korea. There are still no new nuclear power plants underway in the United States. Meanwhile, American nuclear construction costs escalated an estimated 15 percent annually from 2003 through 2008. Without subsidies and/or carbon charges for fossil fuel generation, nuclear power is not likely to be the least cost option for new generating facilities in this country.1 Even some nuclear proponents worry that the long hiatus in nuclear growth has created a lost generation of nuclear engineers. The industry may not be prepared to achieve the targets that its most enthusiastic proponents envisage.
One strongly suspects that if the profitability of new nuclear projects were assured we would have a nuclear revival. The antinuclear power movement has, as Comby points out, lost the backing of several important environmentalists. Opinion polls indicate growing support for nuclear power. A three-decade effective moratorium has reduced the supply of dedicated antinukes activists. (In a Gallup poll in March 2009, Americans favored it by a 59 percent to 37 percent majority.)2 Legislation has eased the regulatory constraints that utilities often used to blame for the industry’s woes. Nearly a quarter-century of operations since Chernobyl has persuaded at least some doubters that plants are not going to explode or tunnel through the earth to China.
Nevertheless, the economics of nuclear power render a comeback of the sort its most fervent backers espouse unlikely. Not only are there no plant starts in the United States, but recent experience in Europe and Canada also does not augur well for a major revival. Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 project has fallen years behind its original construction schedule and will come in at least 50 percent over budget. In Ontario, Bruce Power recently canceled plans for two new nuclear plants at its Darlington installation as cost estimates soared. Britain’s strategy for underground storage of high-level nuclear waste is encountering resistance. No permanent repository is likely before 2040 at the earliest. Even in France, the nuclear industry’s poster child, the one new plant under construction, Flamanville 3, has experienced unforeseen difficulties. For better or worse, a nuclear comeback will in all likelihood not provide a major contribution to solving the problems of climate change in the next decade or two. Whether it ever will remains to be seen. The debate about nuclear energy will, however, continue, as it should. The Nuclear Comeback is a significant contribution to public awareness of the issues involved.
1 See John M. Deutch et al., Update of the 2003 MIT Future of Nuclear Power, web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/pdf/nuclearpower-update2009.pdf (accessed August 4, 2009).
Daniel Pope is Professor of History at the University of Oregon and the author of Nuclear Implosions: The Rise and Fall of the Washington Public Power Supply System among other books. This review was first published by H-Energy (October 2009) under a Creative Commons license.