“When It Goes Bad, It Goes Really Bad”

Atomic States of America director Don Argott talks about our uncertain nuclear future.

When I heard that Don Argott was releasing a documentary about nuclear power, I thought it peculiar, since I knew the Rittenhouse-based filmmaker from his rock-and-roll documentaries Rock School and Last Days Here and his controversial Barnes documentary The Art of the Steal. So I tracked him down to get to the bottom of Atomic States of America, the movie he made with partner Sheena Joyce. It comes out today via iTunes and other outlets.

Did you make Atomic States in response to Fukushima?
No. We were making Atomic States for almost a year before Fukushima happened. And then on that March 12th, we started remaking the film, because Fukushima started reshaping the dialogue and people’s views about nuclear power.

Haven’t we heard all this before? Hasn’t this story been told?
People say, “Three Mile Island was 1979. Why are you still talking about it?” These actions don’t have ends to them. Whether it’s Fukushima or Haiti or Katrina, the media descends and then they move on to the next disaster. But if you’ve been back to New Orleans, it’s really not that much better. And I guarantee you that things are not back to normal in Haiti. We went to Braidwood in Illinois and Indian Point in New York. People live in these communities with spills and releases, and nobody is paying any attention to them.

What about plants closer to home?
We have the Limerick plant that’s in Pottstown. And Harrisburg isn’t far away. For the most part, the industry hasn’t seen major accidents. When accidents do happen, they aren’t normally gigantic accidents. They can be small accidents, leaks into the groundwater. One statistic we use in the film is that three quarters of the nation’s nuclear plants are leaking radioactive tritium into groundwater. This is not a good thing. They are not supposed to do this. A lot of these plants are 20 and 30 years old, and they keep getting re-licensed.

But we don’t have major accidents, so the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be on top of this, right?
The NRC does a good job of trying to keep up, but one of the things we uncover in the film that was alarming for us is that while the NRC is charged with keeping us safe, their budget is controlled by Congress, and Congress is, of course, run by lobbyists. And it’s not just the budget but also the rules and regulations are not in the interest of safety but in the interest of keeping the plants operating.

How do you avoid being lumped in with all the “crazies” in the anti-nukes community?
Before we made the film, we did a ton of research, and there are so many films that are very typical anti-nuclear, very fear mongering in the sense of We’re all gonna die! We wanted to stay away from that. So we talked to people in the reactor communities that live with them day in and day out. In Illinois, there was a horrible leak. Residents asked lots of questions, but they weren’t getting good answers. They’re not activists. They just want their drinking water safe. The film is pretty even handed. We’re critical of the technology, but we’re not saying we’re all gonna die.

So if something does go horribly wrong, are we ready for it?
Unfortunately, we’re under-prepared. In the United States, evacuation zones are ten miles. But in Fukushima, even 50 miles wasn’t adequate. That’s a big problem with Indian Point 50 miles from New York. People say, “Well, what are the chances?” Well, the plants are aging, the technology is extremely dangerous, and if there’s a major nuclear accident, you’re going to render entire areas uninhabitable for thousands of years. With nuclear energy, when it goes bad, it goes really bad. In ways that we’re not used to.