The Atomic States of America, the documentary about nuclear power plants based on Kelly McMaster’s memoir Welcome to Shirley, is a timely post-Fukishima look at the risks and opportunities of America’s nuclear energy industry and the capture of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by Congress and the monied interests that influence it. It also does something that I think can be hit or miss: using old footage to illustrate where our attitudes towards the issue were, and how much or how little they’ve changed.
The movie starts with a fifties-ish voiceover declaring nuclear energy “the answer to a dream as old as man himself.” The cadences may be different, but the pitch is similar to a recent ad included in the movie, when a cheerful, high-def suburban mom tells viewers “We need to reduce our reliance on foreign energy, and we need clean air.” In old movie footage, a woman with fabulously sequined glasses tells her girlfriends “I declare, with all these atomic plants going up, I wonder if a girl’s safe anymore. I hope they know what they’re doing.” Later, we meet Dr. Helen Caldicott, the life-long Australian anti-nuclear advocate recalling her life as “a medical nun,” then flash back to video her in chic seventies clothing, fighting the cause even back then. It’s hard to believe it’s possible, but it makes Ann Coulter even scarier to see her parrotting the idea that exposure to a little radiation is just dandy when you realize she’s part of an established line of thinking.
The use of those historical warning signs is particularly appropriate given that The Atomic States of America is a horror movie. “I just assumed there was some kind of mysterious curse—breast cancer, lung cancer, thyroid cancer,” McMaster says of her town. “It wasn’t until college when people kept saying ‘why are you going home for all these funerals’ that I realized things were a little different.” She’s not the only one whose trust in authority, be it lodged in industry or government, reaps terrible consequences. “We never really questioned nuclear power,” Eric Epstein, who runs Three Mile Island Alert, tells the audience. “That decision was made for us…I believed my Dad, and my Dad believed the industry.” It’s unfortuante that the movie doesn’t acknowledge that some of Dr. Ernest Sternglass’s research has been repudiated, and he has been accused of exaggerating results in his studies on the impact of radiation exposure. But he does provide a compelling explanation for why so many people in the scientific community and outside of it were so eager to believe in the promise of atomic energy: “We felt guilty, and what did we believe? That the peaceful atom was going to atone for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”