Nuclear Aftershocks: A Documentary Review

Photograph of an original painting by Gary Sheehan. Depicted is his version of the scene when scientist(s) observed the world's first nuclear reactor (CP-1) as it became self-sustaining. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Photograph of an original painting by Gary Sheehan. Depicted is his version of the scene when scientist(s) observed the world’s first nuclear reactor (CP-1) as it became self-sustaining. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In my “Introduction to International Studies” class this spring I showed the video “Nuclear Aftershocks,” which my library had in its Streaming Video database, under “Films on Demand.” This 56 minute documentary begins by discussing the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the global impact that it had. The work also includes the voices of experts who argued that only nuclear power can provide sufficient non-carbon energy to meet the world’s future needs. The video then shifts to the United States, and the Indian Point reactor, which is located dangerously close to New York City. According to the documentary, the plant also supplies about a quarter of the electricity required by the city. The film finishes by returning to Fukushima, and the challenges that Japan faces in cleaning up the disaster, a process that will take decades.

My students believed that the video allowed them to see the pros and cons of nuclear energy. On the positive side, after viewing the documentary my students noted that there is a large supply of uranium in the United States, and that we need to consider all non-carbon forms of power to fight global warming. Students also noted that nuclear power can meet base load needs, and is therefore complementary to renewable energy. In the end, however, a large majority of my students believed that the risks that come with nuclear power are simply to great. There was a consensus that the risks of a nuclear accident are unlikely to be lower in the United States than in Japan, which shows what could take place in an earthquake or natural disaster here. My students have also lived in the era of the War of Terror, so the idea of a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor is a real fear for them. Even those students who saw advantages to nuclear power mainly saw it as a stepping stone to a fully renewable energy future. I should note that there was also a minority of students who saw nuclear power as the only realistic tool that our societies have to avoid global warming, given the limited time that we have to stop CO2 levels from rising.

Although the video was generally well-done, some students would have liked more historical information, in particular information about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. One student commented that the video could have provided more information about the overall role that nuclear energy plays now in the U.S. energy industry. Another believed that there should have been more information on how much energy could be saved through conservation and efficiency, and how much that could reduce our reliance on nuclear power. Finally, many students commented that the nuclear technology at Indian Point is very old, and that it would be interesting to learn more about newer technology, and how much safer it might be. The video did, however, provide the content for a rich discussion of the issue. For example, based on the video one student commented on the irony that Germany is abandoning nuclear by increasing its reliance on coal. The video also fostered a good discussion of public policy issues, such as the enormous pressure that regulatory agencies face to continue licensing even those plants that have had many safety issues.

Overall, this was a well-balanced and interesting video that I would recommend for introductory International and Global Studies classes. Want to read more posts on nuclear energy? Click here.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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