Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

"The film successfully unsettles the viewer by demonstrating the number of headaches the rush to harness the power of the atom has left us."

The cynics among us are so are so used to our political leaders thinking only in the short term, that it is might come as a surprise to learn through Peter Galison and Robb Moss’ solemn but engaging film that the US nuclear authorities once instituted a far future project to find a way to transmit warnings about nuclear waste storage to whatever civilisation walks the Earth centuries from now. With a lifespan of 10,000 years, spent plutonium for nuclear power stations across the US continues to be sealed in tanks and buried underground in the deserts of New Mexico. Such are the conundrums of dealing with a power source with such a generation-spanning and lethal byproduct, that the far future WIPP nuclear storage plant team have found themselves envisaging such wacky future containment breaches like a future robot revolution, or humans leaving the planet only to return centuries later ignorant of how to read English radiation warning signs.

The left-field thinkers of the WIPP future group, whose visualised projections in some cases resemble a weird scifi graphic novel, are just a few of the unusual talking heads the filmmakers assemble. It is as if the threat posed by nuclear power is so absurdly off the scale that only absurd thinking might help us tame it. Inevitably, the filmmakers move from speculation to tackle the subject of the real-life near-meltdown at the Japanese coastal plant of Fukushima in 2011 and the risks this highlights.

In some of the most striking sequences, they take their cameras along with residents authorised to return to some of the areas in the evacuation zone. All that is left are eerily quiet ghost towns which, as one former resident points out, are now the closest equivalent you can get to “seeing what it is like when time stops”. Tables still have plates and cutlery (and soy sauce) set on them, doors have been left open, even the traffic lights, bizarrely, still seem to be functioning. The former Japanese prime minster admits in an interview that they escaped a more dangerous breach by a hair’s breadth.

In between shifting between the speculative forecasting of the American future consultation group and the abandoned towns around Fukushima, the filmmakers examine the potential ramifications of current polices on nuclear management through interviews with various experts, policymakers and those working in the nuclear industry, including a garrulous ‘nuclear salesman’ from New Mexico whose job it is to pitch the benefits of nuclear storage to townspeople.

What emerges isn't so much a detailed study of the science of nuclear power, though there are plenty of facts and figures given (most of them on the scale from worrying to terrifying), but instead the question about how well we are future proofing ourselves is batted about. Video footage of heated town and city council meetings demonstrate how few citizens - understandably - want nuclear storage in their backyard. Add to that political wrangling and hold-ups due to safety breaches (one accidental leak in fact happened in the WIPP New Mexico plant that features prominently in the film), and you have a US that is not providing adequate long term storage.

Though the filmmakers don’t take a firm stand against nuclear power (its place in the battle against climate change is noted, albeit briefly, and alternatives like renewables are not discussed), the film successfully unsettles the viewer by demonstrating the number of headaches the rush to harness the power of the atom has left us. It does provoke the interesting question of how much we feel we owe to future generations, and how they will look back on us.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2015
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Documentary on the potential future problems from the world's nuclear waste.

Director: Peter Galison, Robb Moss

Year: 2015

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US, Japan


Doc/Fest 2015

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