With Great Power Comes Responsibility

About a year into making Atomic States of America, filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce were forced to starkly change the direction of the film. An earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011 and caused a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, potentially derailing the so-called “Nuclear Renaissance” as mankind was once again reminded of the problems that come with splitting the atom.

“Unfortunately it was a very real reminder that when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong,” Argott says.

Argott and Joyce discussed their film in an exclusive with SRQ Mag Backlot this week.

The pair said they never set out to make a pointedly political film about nuclear energy and instead wanted something that explored the merits. Of course, the result of that effort is a film that is frighteningly sobering. Atomic States erases any illusions one might have about the consequences of nuclear reaction being either minimal or distant.

But the film doesn’t read as propaganda either, and that is critically important to the documentarians. “We didn’t have an agenda coming in,” Joyce says. “We are not activists. We are just asking questions. What is nuclear energy? Is it safe? Do we need it?”

The film actually doesn’t spend an enormous amount of time on major disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl. Instead, the drama is in smaller communities like Upton, New York. There, research done by the Brookhaven National Laboratory was polluting the water supply, something long-denied by scientists. The result was a huge number of cancer cases, which resulted in neighbors asking questions and being constantly rebuffed with the explanation the commoners didn’t understand power. Similar instances happened in Shirley, New York and Braidwood, Illinois.

“Even the people living in these communities normally don’t look at these communities all over the country that are dealing with the same thing,” Joyce says. “For the rest of us, it is easy to just dismiss it.”

The movie doesn’t come down on a political side either, though that may because neither political party seems interested in hearing out the dangers on nuclear energy. The film documents well how Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, successfully gutted nuclear regulations in the 1990s, but it also notes that the Democratic Obama Administration has been absolutely bullish on expanding nuclear power rather than better regulating it.

Joyce says that Washington seems squarely on the side of energy companies, and is willing to take regulatory direction from the very parties that are being regulated. She likens that to what has happened in recent years with financial regulation, and says the system seems firmly upside-down from what the public expects.

Argott says the public should realize partisanship will not solve this problem, and that it may oversimplify how the debate should be waged. “I think for a lot of us, we went through eight years of George W. Bush, and he was such an easy, convenient target,” Argott says. “He was easily made fun of. We could say he was inept and it was all his fault.

“Well, now we have Obama, who is frankly the first president in over 32 years who is actively trying to restart the nuclear industry. That doesn’t fit well into other people’s narratives, but to us, it is just about the truth. People, including me, would rather it have been George Bush who was restarting the nuclear industry, but it’s not.”


If you want to hear what else Argott and Joyce have to say, they will be in Sarasota when the documentary screens at the Sarasota Film Festival later this month. The movie screens on April 21 at 5:45pm and April 22 at 4:45pm.

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