The Atomic States Of America ★½

Issue documentaries tend to work on me, no matter what the topic and no matter what my position is going in. The editing, the score, the way the director treats their subjects can be much more effectively manipulative than any news article or podcast. I’ve recently resolved to treat documentaries more skeptically and the Atomic States of America, a critical look at nuclear energy facilities across the U.S., is up first.

The film is put together as my kind of documentary, such that the makers are never seen on camera. The film is about the data and the interviews, though this one leans heavily on the interviews. The main focus is on the trials and tribulations of a handful of nuclear sites. Activists make up the bulk of the interview subjects. Alec Baldwin is treated as an expert. Some activists are more likable than others, and a couple come off as self-aggrandizing and small. “Why won’t anyone pay attention to me,” makes up the bulk of one segment, while another activist accuses regulators of not knowing what cancer is. Federal regulators, at all levels, are also interviewed. The picture these people paint is of two different worlds. In one world, nuclear power is beyond humans, and should be shelved until we can master it. In the other world, with the proper inspection and regulation, nuclear power is safe and clean, though it does produce waste that, in its worst variation, stays dangerous for dozens of millennia. By interviewing two incidents of cancer clusters near nuclear sites, the directors plainly plant their flag on the activist side.

On the data side, there is a paucity of useful, unvarnished information in the film. A handy infographic of different kinds of radioactive particles is informative, though it was given by a woman essentially arguing for a complete abolition of radiation. No hard data is given on the actual incidence rates of cancer near a nuclear site, probably because it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint the genesis of most cancers. Climate change is not mentioned in a serious way, which is a major factor in the current push for new nuclear plants. To ignore it is to do a disservice to the debate. The remaining factors in the film boil down to the intersection of money and politics, a real issue, but no new ground is covered. The nuclear industry could have been subbed out for any other industry and the content would be the same. Additionally, if political corruption is the source of the problem, the directors should have spent more time on it, instead of padding their film’s length with manipulative shots from optimistic 50’s commercials and nuclear explosions.

Overall, while a competent film, it’s an unconvincing argument. This is a stock issue documentary from reasonably talented filmmakers, and less talented editors. The lack of hard, epidemiological data is a serious blow, and the reliance on anecdote just leads to the precautionary principle run amok. I try to always be open to countermanding data, but there simply wasn’t enough of it here. D+