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Two Films Return Power to the Screen

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Issue: 58 Section: Arts Geography: Earth Topics: oil, Nuclear Power

February 18, 2009

Two Films Return Power to the Screen

by Carolyn Lebel

The Torness Nuclear Power Plant in Scotland. Photo: Justin Pemberton

PARIS, FRANCE–Canada's vast territory is graced with the full range of potential energy sources, from wind, solar and wave power to hydro, fossil fuels and uranium, used for nuclear power. Some see this as an enviable position: many of the world's nations are without the resources to make energy sovereignty possible. However, Canada – like the rest of the world – must come to grips with the dire combination of global warming and dwindling oil reserves.

In the face of this crisis, the nuclear industry has been quick to position itself as the energy source of the future. Its claims are that nuclear power produces virtually no carbon emissions and that incidents like Chernobyl are a thing of the Soviet past. The nuclear industry is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, with some 35 reactors under construction in 12 countries.

Crude and The Nuclear Comeback are two documentaries from Down Under that explore the nature of oil and nuclear energy, and the role that each play in our society, today and in the future. Both films are essential viewing for anyone uneasy about the fate of our fragile planet.

The Nuclear Comeback, by Justin Pemberton
75 minutes
(Documentary, New Zealand)

If there’s something that big business excels at, it is turning a crisis into an opportunity. In this vein, the nuclear industry has been back in the spotlight recently as a self-proclaimed panacea to global warming and peak oil.

In The Nuclear Comeback, filmmaker Justin Pemberton explores the question of whether nuclear power can indeed chart the path to a low carbon future. His quest is earnest. The filmmaker finds himself in some of the gloomiest places in the world: a ghost town on the edge of the Chernobyl power plant's red zone, in the depths of Sweden’s nuclear waste storage facility some 50 meters below the Baltic Sea, and inside the bowels of an inoperative power station in the UK that will take approximately 120 years to dismantle.

Pemberton also manages to dig up Bruno Comby, a French environmentalist who is pro-nuclear, which is apparently an aberration. France is an exceptional case when it comes to nuclear power: 80 per cent of its electricity comes from this source.

It is one thing to read about the various arguments for and against nuclear power, but it is quite another to be taken on a tour of the facilities that host – in one way or another – some of the most radioactive and lethal substances on the planet. This is the film’s greatest virtue; the buzzing of a massive control panel is as unnerving as the sight of a couple of lone Ukrainian engineers smoking in the radioactive control room of the abandoned Chernobyl plant.

While the ground covered in the 53 minute version of the film is vast, the question of mining for uranium – the mineral that fuels nuclear reactors – is under-explored in the film, as it is in mainstream press.

The nuclear industry’s comeback is perhaps best assessed by an expert from The New Scientist, who is interviewed in the film, as he asks if we are jumping “out of the carbon frying pan and into the plutonium fire.”

Crude - The Incredible Journey of Oil by Dr. Richard Smith
89 minutes
(Documentary, Australia)

It would be a mistake to see Crude expecting classified documents of the wars in the Middle East to be revealed. That said, Crude is a refreshing departure from the geopolitical innuendo that monopolizes much of the talk around one of the world’s most primeval, powerful and coveted substances.

For many of us, a history lesson in oil might seem to begin sometime around the middle of the 19th century, when the first hand powered rig unleashed the genie in the bottle.

Using striking animations of dinosaurs that could compete with a Spielberg blockbuster, Crude walks us through the greenhouse climatic conditions of the Jurassic era that allowed the formation of oil in the first place. The film makes the case that oil is essentially a concentration of millions of years of ancient sunlight.

Fast forward to modern times. Oil has been unleashed and the dense energy of this liquid sunlight now powers civilization. From the cars we drive to the food we eat, oil is ubiquitous.

Even newborns are drenched in oil from their first moments of life. "Newborn babies slide from their mothers into petro-plastic-gloved hands, are swaddled in petro-polyester blankets, and are hurried off to be warmed by oil-burning heaters," observes author Sonia Shah.

According to the many of the experts interviewed in the film, oil is peaking now. The 95-year-old retired oil pioneer will have seen the rise and fall of an oil civilization in his lifetime. In less than a century and a half, millions of years of evolution have been burned up, ushering in the climatic conditions that enabled its creation.

The film brings out the tragic beauty of this paradox, despite the obvious implications for humanity.

While the documentary remains somewhat conventional in its approach, it is in its content – which is fundamental to our understanding of life as we know it – that this documentary is at once novel and essential.

Carolyn Lebel is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Paris.

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the nuclear comeback

fantastic movie...but where can a copy be bought for a reasonable $...it listed at around 400$ by the distrib....no joke... any info appreciated...thanks, ... bob shaw

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