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A IS FOR ATOM

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Adam Curtis | 15:42 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

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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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Looking forward to your new series!

  • Comment number 2.

    One of my fav docs! Thanks for posting it.

    There have been complaints about the confusing reports coming from the Fukushima managers and Japanese gov but rather than a cover up, I reckon as with Three mile island, its more that they don't have much of a clue whats going on! Fingers crossed they manage get it under control.

    The dictaphone recordings are amazing.

  • Comment number 3.

    Yes I remembered that episode while watching the horror unfolding with the Fukushima nuclear plant. Clearly, governments and businesses can't be trusted with such a dangerous resource. Nuclear reactors in a earthquake prone zone? You'd think safety would come first, but not so. Even today, the information coming out is sketchy and confusing. Many people still believe they can trust authorities that they have everything under control. Watching helicopters lifting sea water in a desperate effort to cool down these reactors is an example about how unprepared they were for such a possibility that their backup systems would fail.

    It is not science that is at fault, it is the politicians, businesses and engineers prone to all sorts of corruption and lacking any sense of responsibility. Society is addicted to consumptions of huge amounts of unsustainable energy, for what? To power their consumer goods of course, and their cars. And this is the price we pay for this delusion.

  • Comment number 4.

    I've been pointing people at this programme ever since the crisis in Japan started. A useful and salutary tale.

    I am quite prepared to believe that it's possible to design a safe and effective nuclear power plant (though I must admit I do find the use of radioactivity to heat water to create steam to drive turbines a bit primitive - whatever happened to MHD oscillating plasma direct conversion systems?). I just don't trust a private company to build and operate them.

    I think that in absolute terms the danger to humanity of nuclear reactors is far less than that of climate change – many more will die of the latter. However to realise safe nuclear power in practice requires extremely high levels of regulation, transparency and oversight. And in the UK it will mean siting them away from locations that will be submerged by sea-level rise (virtually all our plants currently are on the coast).

    I can't imagine there will be much investment available for this from the private sector for a while, so any such plants should be publicly owned, and run as a non-profit service for the population. Just don't forget that rigorous regulation, transparency and oversight.

  • Comment number 5.

    I wish everyone would watch the film "Into Eternity" which examines the issues surrounding Nuclear Waste that is dangerous for 100,000 years...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoyKe-HxmFk

  • Comment number 6.

    It also shows a missing long term perspective and missing liability. At the core of the problem is the lack of personal liability (as shown in the film 'The Corporation'). Individuals pursue entirely profit oriented task, behind the legal construct of a corporation, without any ethical or moral obligations (except the 'law' of course, which they help writing in their favour). And then these accidents happen. They are all good people that do those abominable things. Those corrupt General Electric people and politicians involved of course have long since retired and died.
    The bill however is being picked up by innocent people that have nothing to do with those consciously wrong decisions made a generation ago. This system is so wrong, its unbelievable that it is allowed to exist.

  • Comment number 7.

    I was thinking of this vid last week. It's interesting watch the media here (including the BBC) load focus and fear monger about the nuclear reactor while at the same time giving very little analysis into the situation or the real effects (because lets face it, anyone with a brain cell or two isn't going to trust the government).

    The Tsunami had far bigger impact socially, and likewise the side effects of last years oil spill highlights that when you look at the bigger picture, nuclear power is still far safer (even with the points you very rightly raise here), and less damaging than oil. Yet we have governments in Europe going hyper about the idea of suspending various nuclear power plans. We never had governments do the same last year after the BP crisis.

    It seems that as normal the media fail to put things into perspective/context yet again.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks for posting this full version of A is for Atom.

    I had seen a version available from archive.org that appears to have been recorded off the UK History Channel. That version is missing 10 1/2 minutes. They seem to be the most controversial 10 1/2 minutes: Teller, using atomic bombs to make harbours, man radioactive for 4 days, worship of technology, etc.

    Seeing lots of blog comments on the web saying nuclear is better than coal, as coal -> CO2 emissions -> global warming -> environmental destruction & loss of live

    They don't seem to see that nuclear reactors -> plutonium production -> nuclear weapons proliferation -> nuclear war -> environmental destruction & loss of life

    Nuclear winter is more severe than global warming.

  • Comment number 9.

    Following on Paul's comment from above. I was also surprised to see 11.5 minutes missing from the YouTube and GoogleVideos versions of the documentary. It may be the History Channel needing to cut it back to 45 minutes so that commercial time needs are also met. But still, the parts that are missing are indeed interesting.
    Here is a list of the parts that have been cut out of the video:

    5:18 - 8:20 --> references to Technocracy Inc

    12:47 – 15:17 --> Chauncy Starr's comments and further on Edward Teller's reference to Project Plowshare

    17:51 – 18:03 --> Stan Witson talking about the 1958 nuclear accident in the UK

    30:44 – 31:35 --> comments by Andranik Petrosyants

    34:25 – 35:23 --> Peter Kapitza's reference to Ernest Rutherford

    39:39 – 42:15 --> Greg Minor talking about safety issues in the plant

    Interesting deletions, eh?

    Thanks for a great documentary! Very informative and educational.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    Interview with Valerii Legasov was astonishing,standing on shoulders of Dostojevski and Tolstoj,and the paradoxal quote that we have to protect technology from people,great words.

    How can we protect anything when we cant protect ourselfs. Its sad.
    Thanks.

  • Comment number 12.

    Each episode of Pandora's Box that was shown recently on TV goes for about 45 minutes. I'd be interested in seeing the entire episodes so that I could see the missing 10 minutes or so from each one. Maybe they will all be posted on this blog eventually.

    P.S. A version of this comment was originally removed for advertising a product, which I didn't realise I was doing. I've avoided mentioning the specific website and cable TV channel in the hope that this comment will not be deleted (although I did mention them in an earlier comment, and that has not been removed).

  • Comment number 13.

    "At the centre of the reactor was the uranium core. Its heat powered the generators. The cores were now so large that if for any reason the flow of water to keep them cool were lost they would melt.

    "The scientists feared that such a core could then burn its way through the floor of the containment shell. In theory there would be nothing to stop it emerging on the other side of the world. They called it the China Syndrome"

    The above is from the documentary, it's a shame this statement wasn't clarified:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Syndrome

  • Comment number 14.

    @GamosVoo yes the explanation of china syndrome was somewhat incorrect. Not least because anything melting it's way through the earth will come at rest in the center not pop out the other side(liquids molten or otherwise do not flow uphill). there were a few other quibbles I have with AC's scientific explanations but this was the only one I thought significant enough to comment on. Overall thou a fine piece of work and relevant today.

  • Comment number 15.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12801085

    This item shows the tragedy of a failed floodgate and its consequences. You can't help but think: if only, if only...

  • Comment number 16.

    I know someone who helped engineer British nuclear power-plants during the Thatcher era; he spoke of continual (bumbling) government interference and costcutting pressures that were definitely hampering safety in his view.

  • Comment number 17.

    Adam, thank you for posting this. They should be showing it every day on CNN as long as the Japanese crisis goes on. I have seen quite a few nuclear documentaries over the years and that was by far the most analytically incisive. The message that technology (and capitalism) present us with moral and political choices that we as peoples can make is so important and so hard to get across to people. Is there is a transcript somewhere? What was the country song playing toward the end? Something besides the usual Louvin Brothers number. Looking forward to your new series, if we get to see it in the U.S. Bring it to the True/False Film Festival next year!

  • Comment number 18.

    I was also wondering about that country song,i found it but its a clip from another nuclear documentary "Atomic Cafe". Its pretty ugly.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sP01ylAkfo

  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks for posting the full video. I do hope it will remain for future reference.

    Excellent history of the GE type reactors from the 1960-80 period, and their inherent problems. (Basically, most of the BWR - Light Water reactors)

    See this video on the Integral Fast Reactor to discover what our new reactors should be like. Documentary describing the history of the Integral Fast Reactor project and how it solves the problems associated with traditional nuclear reactors.

  • Comment number 20.

    Excellent information on the current state and possibilities of nuclear energy can be found at BraveNewClimate.com.
    Start with this post, and explore from there:
    Two TV documentaries and a new film on the Integral Fast Reactor

  • 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 ?

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • Comment number 24.

    Hi,

    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

  • 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

  • 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:

    http://writing-community.writersworkshop.co.uk/magazine/read/thorium-the-future-of-global-energy-demand_3669.html

    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.

    Steve

  • 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.

  • Comment number 28.

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

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-p3YBCUwopU

    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.)

  • 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.

    www.uraniumfilmfestival.org
    info@uraniumfilmfestival.org

 

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