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Review of Atomic Hope: Inside the pro-nuclear movement

Review of Atomic Hope:
Inside the pro-nuclear movement a film by Frankie Fenton

by Rick Maltese

I very much enjoyed watching Frankie Fenton‘s film Atomic Hope – Inside the pro-nuclear movement which premiered at Toronto HotDocs festival May 4th, 2022 about the people who advocate for the future of nuclear energy as a solution to climate change. The film starts appropriately by demonstrating the challenges the movement faces. The first guest is Moto-Yasu Kinoshita, the Chief Nuclear Engineer of Thorium Tech Solutions from Japan. The director creatively composes the next sequence where Kinoshita speaks against a quality music track, about the distinction between the atomic bomb and nuclear energy. Kinoshita’s own family were victims of the atomic bomb. No other people know better than the Japanese the dilemma our planet is faced with. Essentially we must convince people that the two technologies are opposites and independent of one another. 


To give context, the opening shows dramatic historical clips from the enormous explosions and mushroom clouds of the past which deliver the message that fear of anything nuclear is justified. But also more positive clips appear like Eisenhower and the Atoms for Peace initiative. Still, it might seem counterintuitive to expect the audience to be sympathetic while showing the extraordinary power of the bomb. Fenton’s portrayal of the pro-nuclear advocates show them to be credible people faced with the knowledge that their solution to climate change is the only solution where the risk of climate change far outweighs the risk of nuclear energy. Generally it is seen by them as the safest energy  source.  With time running out there’s the double challenge of first, winning public opinion and second, building the nuclear plants fast enough. 


The director gambles with his story-telling, making the next segment about false statements, starting with Helen Caldicott and moving onto Cindy Folkers from Beyond Nuclear who says “There is no safe radiation dose” which is such an irresponsible thing to say and of course totally false, as the bananas example later in the film demonstrates. (note: Photo at top shows Eric Meyer riding a banana – reminiscent of famous film moment in the classic Dr. Strangelove) Who knew? After all, we eat radio-active substances, swim in the radio-active oceans and bathe in the radio-active sun without serious consequences. 

 The film is organized into chapters.

Chapter One – A Movement Begins

 

The film introduces John Kutsch, founder of Thorium Energy Alliance (TEA).  He is one of the leading pro-nuclear advocates, with his entourage of followers. Kutsch not only organizes the conferences but also finds time to approach congress, senators and lawmakers hailing the value of nuclear energy, molten salt reactors and most of all Thorium and how it ties into the big picture.

Video footage from TEA conferences (AKA TEAC) has a large following and largely grew as a result of filming the early days with Kirk Sorensen, pioneering founder of Energy from Thorium, speaking about the wonders of Thorium and inventor Alvin Weinberg’s contribution. Gordon McDowell deserves credit for the success of widespread interest in Thorium. He filmed and tirelessly edited the numerous speakers’ talks from the conferences, uploading them to his youtube channel. Gordon continues to this day providing assistance to their needs. Kutsch spreads the word in several ways. John Kutsch and James Kennedy are unofficial partners in their efforts to make  Thorium and mining rare earths accepted practice in the US,  thereby allowing the growth of industries that currently are totally dominated by China. These finer points are understandably not in the film considering such details are worthy of an entire film of their own. 

Eric Meyer is President of Generation Atomic. He has not only attracted a loyal following of young people but has formed a non-profit organization who after educating his members they educate the public door to door. Meyer started off as a volunteer camera operator for the Thorium Energy Alliance conferences. He started his advocacy full time spending nearly a year with Environmental Progress before launching Generation Atomic.  The film shows a glimpse of his accomplishments and how he has travelled, organized and performed at numerous public events internationally, including the TEA conferences themselves. Meyer credits Michael Shellenberger and James Hansen, who we see later in the film, for raising his awareness of the importance of preserving existing reactors. Both Meyer and Shellenberger have successfully contributed to preventing several shutdowns including two Illinois nuclear plants and it’s starting to look like Diablo Canyon Generating Station will be next.

Mothers for Nuclear is briefly highlighted with Kristen Zaitz and Heather Hoff making appearances. We all know how mothers are often overprotective of their children which is exactly why their perspective on nuclear power is so important. As mothers they care about their children’s futures. They happen to also work at Diablo Canyon one of the best run nuclear plants in the country.

Many pro-nuclear advocates maintain the position that once you see a nuclear plant in operation you can’t help but marvel at their energy capability. Visiting a nuclear plant has often made a convert of known fence-sitters.

Michael Shellenberger is one the most prominent pro-nuclear environmentalists. Not only has he contributed as both an excellent author and charismatic speaker but a strategist and leader in getting the word out. Let’s hope the timing of this film’s release coincides with him winning his second bid to become Governor of California. Having launched The Breakthrough Institute and now Environmental Progress, Shellenberger has excelled in his research and authoring of articles, reports, speaking at rallies and doing Ted Talks. Also like others in the film, he provides much needed testimony at various hearings. Shellenberger is a great example of how we can change our minds and grow in unexpected ways. 

A natural born activist, his early years had some success in advocating against nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. After becoming pro-nuclear he developed a friendship with historian/author Richard Rhodes who wrote The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Shellenberger became in some people’s eyes too controversial for his views about nations who acquire nuclear weapons. Shellenberger is a diverse individual and unlike many he is extremely well versed and eloquent in expressing his feelings and passions as well as facts. Shellenberger’s recent book San Fransicko shows his other side as a humanitarian and social worker. In an excerpt from his Ted Talk How Fear of Nuclear Power is Hurting the Environment, he explains the irony that statistically Nuclear power is the safest way to create electricity. 

Chapter Two – Disaster

Iida Ruilshalme is the next profile, a tireless nuclear advocate and author of the Thoughtscapism blog, is a cell biologist and a member of Mothers For Nuclear. A trip to Chernobyl helps clear up many misconceptions of nuclear energy. Iida gets a tour with Professor Jim Smith a Professor of Environmental Science and author of Chernobyl, Catastrophe and Consequences. Professor Gerry Thomas a Professor and chair of Molecular Pathology joins the discussion and they share views about risk perception regarding radiation. Smith states “The nuclear risk is something that is horrifying but at the same time you have to balance that very tiny risk with the known risk, damage from climate change.” He perhaps overstates using the word “horrifying.” In the same segment Professor Thomas explains that “There is absolutely no evidence at all that fetal deformities are caused by radiation from Chernobyl.” This is a controversial statement considering past anti-nuclear fundraising efforts have often included photos of children with birth defects attributed to radiation. 

Iida returns carrying around a geiger counter to measure radiation for herself. She took readings on her flight on the way to the Ukraine. Like any other flights with high elevation, her flight documented higher level readings than the highest measured reading she obtained during her visit to various places around Chernobyl.

Chapter Three – Science is all we have

Eric Meyer returns to say about the anti-nuclear environmentalists “They want a clean environment but the work that they are doing is actually working against what they care about.” Perhaps the biggest hero to the pro-nuclear movement is climate scientist James Hansen “Why do I speak out on this subject? There’s no way to phase off all fossil fuels within a few decades without the help of nuclear power which I think is pretty clear.”

Chapter Four – The Outsiders

From three different continents these “outsiders” assemble to raise awareness and educate the public. Ben Heard, energy analyst from Australia, carries a big box of bananas alongside author Rauli Partanen from Finland and Taylor Stevenson from America (also a member of Generation Atomic) who are walking to the designated area for their participation at the COP 23 conference. The bananas are an awareness raising strategy to explain how people really don’t understand radiation. Later Stevenson and Heard stare out in disbelief at the enormity of a coal mining operation in Germany. 

The next scene evokes a real sense of sadness when the team arrives at the conference they are not allowed a seat at the climate conference table reinforcing how big the challenge to get the word out really is. This underlies the motivation for the film. Whatever forces are preventing acceptance of nuclear energy from progressing is made poignant by their plan. They refuse to accept the rejection and set up their tables outside the conference with the hope of speaking to some of the attendees. Passersby pretty much ignore solicitations to speak. In the end they must face the reality that their audience will be the cameras. 

Another significant moment shows Michael Shellenberger speaking French to a group attending an international pre-conference chat. Knowing the scene takes place in Russia before the current war against Ukraine gives an added dimension to the events unfolding now that we have learned that Russia’s war machine is paid for by their selling fossil fuels to countries in short supply of energy. 

Chapter Five – Injury of the Heart  

The focus shifts back to Japan’s nuclear accident in Fukushima and Ben Heard who has been invited by 60 Minutes to speak about Nuclear Energy largely motivated by the desire to raise awareness to his own Country of Australia that has no nuclear energy and seems an unlikely place to gain acceptance. Exactly like you might expect precautions are made with required white bodysuits theoretically designed to prevent contamination from radiation. The visit’s conclusion about the days exposure turns out to be similar to a flight home. This recurring theme was also in Robert Stone’s film Pandora’s Promise. It demonstrates the kind of hysteria towards anything nuclear. Robert Stone actually documents a beach in Brazil that has  higher than Fukushima radiation levels. People seek out this beach for its healing properties. 

Moto-Yasu Kinoshita tries to explain the explosion that took place at Fukushima however inconsequential (no people were exposed to dangerous levels – it was a gas explosion) still nonetheless it had an effect on the people who still have emotional scars or “injury to the heart” associated with the nuclear bomb.

Chapter Six – Tilting at Windmills

Eric Meyer returns to the scene in his own hometown in Minnesota. This moment gets up close and personal. Meyer grew up learning that his state had plenty of wind. At the time of the film shoot numerous wind turbines, seen in every direction, have the unfortunate condition of no wind. And he explains why it is obvious that these renewable giants have a hidden cost. What do you pay for unreliable power; the intermittent unplannable shortfalls? Next Meyers, a trained opera singer, boldly explains this dilemma in his own parody adaptation of a famous aria.

Chapter Seven – The Only Way is Up

Kutsch explains using a metaphor of an aircraft hitting a mountain to show the crisis we face. Hitting the mountain is inevitable. The only choice left is trying to decrease the impact.

Some of the faces who show up in the film that don’t get singled out include Mark Nelson a brilliant analyst/speaker/communicator part of Shellenberger’s team, Alex Cannara a tireless advocate who draws attention to the tragedy of the oceans and its loss of life. He has a dedicated following of online letter-writers, communicators and entrepreneurs, Meredith Angwin who has authored Shorting the Grid and Campaigning for Clean Air,  Robert Hargraves a professor in Connecticut, Author of Energy: Thorium Cheaper than Coal and board member of Thorcon. Mike Conley is an author and frequent attendee of TEAC. Dr. Chris Keefer’s of Canadians For Nuclear Energy and Decouple Podcast who has a voice over moment. 

Each profile of a guest is thoughtful and artistically executed by director and cinematographer Frankie Fenton. I hope he tackles this neglected topic again someday soon.

One thing which has evolved in the pro-nuclear environmental movement is the ever-growing sense of pride in the roles they play. Fenton has captured this. One could easily mock these advocates where the goals seem insurmountable. Some would say they are foolish or even crazy to expect to achieve their goals. But when you grasp the significance that Kutsch blatantly speaks about, it’s the driving force behind their advocacy knowing there’s no better way than nuclear power to ease the damage heading our way. As for the importance of their role, nobody else is taking the challenge to educate people about the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. Somebody needs to stand up.

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