Wednesday 16 March 2011, 15:42

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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I am sorry I haven't put anything up recently. I have been busy finishing a new series of films for BBC-2

As a background to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant I am putting up a film I made a while ago called A is for Atom. It was part of a series about politics and science called Pandora's Box.

The film shows that from very early on - as early as 1964 - US government officials knew that there were serious potential dangers with the design of the type of reactor that was used to build the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But that their warnings were repeatedly ignored.

The film tells the story of the rise of nuclear power in America, Britain and the Soviet Union. It shows how the way the technologies were developed was shaped by the political and business forces of the time. And how that led directly to inherent dangers in the design of the containment of many of the early plants.

Those early plants in America were the Boiling Water Reactors. And that is the very model that was used to build the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Three of them were supplied directly by General Electric.

In 1966 the US government Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards tried to force the industry to redesign their containment structures to make them safer. But the chairman of the committee claims in the film that General Electric in effect refused.

And in 1971 the Atomic Energy Commission did a series of tests of Emergency Core Cooling systems. Accidents were simulated. In each case the emergency systems worked - but the water failed to fill the core. Often being forced out under pressure.

As one of the AEC scientists says in the film:

"We discovered that our theoretical calculations didn't have a strong correlation with reality. But we just couldn't admit to the public that all these safety systems we told you about might not do any good"

And again the warnings were ignored by senior members of the Agency and the industry.

That was the same year that the first of the Fukushima Daiichi plant's reactors came online. Supplied by General Electric.

The film also has some of the recordings of the voices of the Commissioners struggling to deal with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. It was recorded by a dictaphone left running on a table - and you get a very good sense of what it must feel like to deal with such a crisis. A group of men realising they have no idea what is going on inside the core - knowing only that the cooling systems seem to have failed.

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    Comment number 21.

    Thanks for posting the film for I have never seen it before. I very much agree on the underlying method of examining past historical events in the light of developments and changes to add facts to a discussion. I encourage to produce a follow-up after the Japan events come to some conclusion. Being a physicist myself I always find some facts missing from all the expert's statements. Here's some sample questions I would ask if I were a journalist:

    1) is it true that nuclear reactions such as radiactivity unlike chemical reactions are not influenced by outside conditions in any way ?
    2) how can one speak of controlling a nuclear plant when there is but one option to influence it in the event of a disaster. Namely shutting the fission process down ?
    3) how is it possible to repair broken technology inside a reactor when it is a lethal environment to work in as a human ?
    4) how come there was no "nuclear fire brigade" in any country coming to the rescue of the Japanes reactor ?

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    Comment number 22.

    Terrific. Really excited about the new films Adam, can you give us any more info?

    I love the music done by the guys out of Gang of Four at the end of this film. I was looking into them and it seems one of them works for a PR company now. Looking at the clients I'm not sure how I feel about that, kind of ironic.

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    Comment number 23.

    Adam, please start your own blog. The BBC house rules and the glaring invitation to 'complain about this comment' make me feel all funny inside.

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    Comment number 24.


    Is there a version of this documentary with Japanese subtitles available? If not, I would very much like to arrange for subtitles to be made for it to be viewable online to the Japanese public.

    This documentary includes important revelations pertinent to the coming anti nuclear movement which can be expected to take shape here in Japan, presented in a manner which is understandable to the general public.

    Chris Harrington
    Kamogawa, Chiba, Japan

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    Comment number 25.

    Mr. Curtis,

    Thank you so much for all of your enlightening documentaries, and thank you for posting the above episode. I had no idea that I had only seen three quarters of the documentary! I think I can speak for all of your fans in saying that we would love to see the other episodes of "Pandora's Box" in their entirety. Is it possible to post the rest? I would especially like to see "The Engineers' Plot" in its entirety: the only version I can find cuts off the last few seconds of the final interview. I'm dying to know what Vitalii Lelchuk says after "Not science itself but the men who mistook what science was"! I tried to find ways of purchasing a copy and supporting your work but they don't seem to be any legitimate options.

    Thank you again for your hard work and wonderful films. I look forward to your next project.

    -Hunter Richards

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    Comment number 26.

    Dear Adam,

    Like others above, I thank you for posting the full version of A is for Atom here. As always, the low-key approach, particularly in the narrative, adds natural gravitas to the subject. I commend the exclusion of sensationalist narrative that trash documentary makers seem helpless to avoid these days.

    The documentary is an excellent insight into the historical development of nuclear energy (I particularly appreciated several of the interviews on the Russian side), and, of course, the focus on safety cutbacks through the decades.

    Regarding content, however, I do feel that two key elements were missing from this film. Firstly, the ongoing governments/defence policies for nuclear power plants to also be used to produce weapons grade material, to the detriment of safety. Secondly, the side-lining of thorium nuclear reactors which have several critical advantages over other types (like the uranium-based plant in Fukushima). The compelling benefits of thorium reactors include: intrinsic safety; reduced waste output; consumption of existing nuclear waste; energy efficiency; cost-effectiveness; plus, the relative abundance of the fuel source.

    There is a comprehensive article on the thorium reactor programme here:


    My hope is that you intend to go on and make a follow-up to A is for Atom. B is for BOOM! perhaps?

    Any which way, please continue to provide us with documentaries of rare quality.


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    Comment number 27.

    What's interesting to me is that the man who pointed out that Big Industry's nuclear power plants couldn't be guaranteed to be safe, also said that smaller plants (e.g., 60 megawatts) were safe. These smaller plants were after all designed to run submarines so they were not insignificant and they would find many uses in our world. I've never been pro-nuclear power but I wonder if we are going to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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    Comment number 28.

    I should have put this up sooner. Adam and all will love this brief you tube.


    The host of the WBAI Pacifica radio show called Five O'Clock Shadow played it as interlude music between segments on Fukushima. It wasn't meant to be funny (as you will hear in the parody lyric.)

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    Comment number 29.

    "A is for Atom" is a very intersting and important film. We would be glad to have it for our International Uranium Film Festival Rio de Janeiro and our Yellow Archives. Also of course we are interested in your productions about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

    The Uranium Film Festival ist about any nuclear issue - from uranium mining to atomic bomb tests and nuclear power plants, from Einstein to Chernobyl and Fukushima.



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