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Activist Madison Hilly in Paris
atomic hope

Is nuclear energy the key to curbing climate change?

That’s what a new Irish documentary explores.

BACK IN THE 80s and 90s, to be environmentally conscious was synonymous with being be anti-nuclear. The reasons were obvious: the horrifying Chernobyl disaster and the impact it had; the use of the atomic weapons. Latterly, in the 2000s, the unexpected Fukushima disaster reminded people of what can happen when nuclear goes wrong.

To be anti-nuclear was to say you were anti-environmental destruction; it meant you cared about the energy that was created on this planet and the potential for nuclear issues. It was a raising of concern about nuclear waste and cover-ups.

So it comes as a surprise, then, to find out that in this era of even more focus on climate, there are people who are both environmentalists and pro-nuclear power. As the world teeters towards climate collapse, and protests on small and large scale take place globally to urge governments, business owners and policy makers to drastically curb emissions, there is a small but passionate cohort of people who believe nuclear is part of the solution.

Now an Irish documentary, Atomic Hope – Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement, explores what it’s like to be part of that cohort who want to see more nuclear power stations open, and who believe nuclear power is the key to decarbonising the atmosphere.

The documentary, directed by Frankie Fenton (It’s Not Yet Dark) and produced by Kathryn Kennedy (My Name is Emily), might be a challenging watch for some, but is an illuminating look into a community that dares to take on a taboo topic. It shows, too, how they are on the fringes of the environmentalist community – some scenes show one group facing up to some very unhappy fellow protestors at a climate change event. 

‘Jarringly optimistic’

The idea first fomented in Fenton’s mind in 2009, when he set out to make a film “about something that had some sort of effect of changing the world for better”. As he did his research into various topics, a friend send him an article from Wired magazine about thorium, a radioactive metal which some believe should be used in nuclear reactors because it could be safer than using uranium. That set him off on a journey into learning more about nuclear power as it was in the mid-2000s.

“I realised you had these people talking jarringly optimistically about how this technology was actually the key to decarbonising our energy systems in time [to curb] catastrophic climate change, and a whole host of other issues that come with that,” he says. “I realised it was going to be a very complicated sell to not only understand the topic itself, but also to make an entertaining 80-minute long documentary.”

The idea bubbled away and he continued researching it, but it wasn’t until he met Kennedy (his future wife) that the film came to fruition. The pair met when he did a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 for what was then called The Good Reactor (which The Journal covered at the time). Kennedy was looking into crowdfunding her feature film My Name is Emily, and was advised to speak to Fenton for advice on this. He in turn asked her to look at the early version of The Good Reactor. 

“It was very much older, white physicists… male, in front of bookcases, talking about scientific stuff in a very flat way,” recalled Kennedy of the footage back then. “But that optimism and enthusiasm for a solution was very engaging. Because all of us have grown up with that fear… [when] you very strongly identify as an anti-nuclear person, you know that it’s more than just an opinion, it’s who you are. That’s how it felt growing up in the 80s.”

And so I was really surprised to hear these new facts, and scientific facts and information that we hadn’t been given in the media before – that maybe we weren’t entirely correct in what we thought [about nuclear power].

ATOMIC_HOPE_STILL_006 Young girl, daughter to Iida Ruishalme, Zurich

The documentary moves away from the ‘man in front of bookcase’ footage and follows people like the youthful Eric Meyer of Generation Atomic, who sings opera on public transport about nuclear energy. It shows how some groups went around a COP event handing out bananas with stickers on them detailing their radiation output.

The pro-nuclear activists tend to skew young, and have an awareness of the need for diversity in their ranks. They also include scientists, such as Prof Gerry Thomas, chair of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, who have considerable work and research backing up their stance.

The film uses the stories of a number of people involved in the movement – including Thomas, campaigner Michael Shellenberger, scientist and activist Iida Ruishalme of Mothers for Nuclear, environmental physicist and Chernobyl researcher Prof Jim Smith and chief nuclear engineer with Thorium Tech Solutions Moto-Yasu Kinoshita – to showcase their viewpoint and knowledge. 

It doesn’t shy away from showing the events in Chernobyl and Fukushima, but asks the question of whether these created a lingering fear of nuclear power that might be hindering progress. Countries like Sweden and France already get a substantial amount of power from nuclear – could the world be missing a trick in its battle against carbon emissions by not harnessing this source of power to replace fossil fuels?

The activists in Atomic Hope don’t want to see current nuclear power plants closed down, a point of view shared by Greta Thunberg, who said that closing nuclear power plants early would be a mistake, if it meant turning towards more coal. 

The documentary forces the viewer to ask whether long-held fear is justified in terms of imagining a carbon-free future. But it also presents the viewer with moments where the campaigners’ positive spin on nuclear power can be tested – like when Ben Heard of Bright New World visits the Fukushima power plant and is jarred to encounter much higher levels of radiation than he anticipated.  

Changing opinions

“Like all of the people in the film, I too started off vehemently anti-nuclear,” Fenton tells The Journal. In the early 1990s, rumours in his locality in Co Louth claimed that cancer cases were due to the nuclear power plant Sellafield across the Irish sea. That, combined with films like When The Wind Blows and TV series like Threads, also contributed to his scepticism.

“As I learned more about it, it was suggested that perhaps the fears that we had about nuclear were just that: fears… and not things based on actual science,” says Fenton. He says it’s rare to find someone within the movement who was pro-nuclear and goes anti-nuclear – usually, they go the other way. 

He describes Ireland as “traditionally anti-nuclear”, pointing out that the country has prohibited (since 1999) the creation of electricity using nuclear fission – because of this, he says our government can’t do a feasibility study on nuclear power. It’s a stance that the government has been questioned on in recent years.

ATOMIC_HOPE_STILL_003 Iida Ruishalme and Jim Smith, Chernobyl

The Journal puts it to the filmmakers that some of the campaigners seem to be so eager to promote the positive sides of nuclear power that they appear to ignore the negatives. “The bunch of people I pointed the camera at, [I did it] because they weren’t dogmatic in their position. They’re certainly aware that there is no silver bullet,” says Fenton.

The fact that the filmmakers had to turn to crowdfunding 10 years ago, after their traditional means of financing the film were rejected, but eventually got executive producers on board in 2019, shows how some attitudes towards the topic of nuclear power have changed.

“People were finally coming full circle, wanting to hear more about climate change documentaries, and what was the unique selling point about this was that it was solution-based and it was optimistic and hopeful,” says Kennedy. “Rather than erasing the individual for not doing as much as they can, it’s talking about a bigger solution that involves everybody and politicians and it’s something we can all get behind.”

In total, a whopping 1,000 hours of footage was filmed, which was quite the job for editor John Murphy (who also edited the Oscar-nominated An Cailín Ciúin) to cut down. This also shows that a documentary cannot take in every single viewpoint on a knotty, layered topic like nuclear power. What it can do is focus on one specific group of people and showcase what they think, giving the viewer plenty to chew on.

Fenton says that post-Covid lockdowns, when people had more time to go research topics like nuclear power, there’s been an upswing in interest. “I think that coming out of that, it’s quite obvious to me right now just how mainstream the idea of talking about nuclear as a possible solution has become in such little space of time,” he says.

“And what I’m definitely finding behind closed doors [is], I’m talking to people, politicians, and they definitely shared this view about nuclear power and they’ve started discovering this conversation about it in a more grown-up way. But they would find it difficult still, being so forthright with that opinion. But I do think it’s defrosting,” says Fenton. What a film like Atomic Hope does is take that discussion out of meeting rooms, and makes it more public.

ATOMIC_HOPE_STILL_010 Radiation fact on banana, Germany

But there will be many who disagree wholeheartedly with what’s put across by the pro-nuclear campaigners. “We’ve already had responses from people saying, ‘that can’t be right. I don’t believe that opinion.’ And it really, it’s science. We aren’t interested in any sort of propaganda or putting forward something that isn’t true,” says Kennedy. “We are just pointing a camera at these people, but at the same time what they’re saying is a result of scientific research.”

“I’m hoping that people take that for what it is: we’re not just representing an opera singing activist or people who are great characters and have lots of energy and charisma. There’s also very real science in the documentary that we hope people engage with.”

“We welcome all the conversation around it.”

Adds Fenton: “I think that most people will know the reasons why they are anti-nuclear – and if anything, we just hope that the film can spark people’s interest afterwards, and they can look into it themselves.”

Atomic Hope is in cinemas now.

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