Are we in love with the atom? That might seem a pretty weird question since the deepest dread we all share is that one day someone will unleash atom bombs or missiles and reduce countless cities to smoking Hiroshimas.
But I have been previewing a new film, to be launched this week at Leeds Film Festival, which poses just that question. Its title is The Atom: A Love Affair. And as Lily Cole’s voiceover explains, while the atom has become a byword for war, “it knew it could be so much more – a miracle technology that would revolutionise medicine, industry, agriculture, transport and, most of all, energy, if only we would let it.”
So we took it on trust and fell headlong into a love affair. However, the atom has turned out to be one of those lovers you suspect right from the first date is probably going to be bad news but you ignore the warning signs. At least that’s the unsentimental, clear-eyed message I take from director Vicki Lesley’s superb thought-provoking film.
Since the atom was first split in the 1940s the challenge for those who fell in love with it has always been to prove to everyone else that he’s really a good guy. But the film nails its smiling sun “Nuclear Power No Thanks” flag to the reactor chimney early on with a 1950s sci-fi movie feel, which creates a sense of foreboding that contrasts with ex-US president Dwight Eisenhower telling the United Nations in 1953 that “this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind”.
When the American government played Cupid, there was no shortage of suitors for the atom to court. “Atoms for peace” became an effective sales pitch for the technology, and even Japan – which knew better than anywhere else the potential dangers of a love affair with the atom – was an early bride. But the world’s great wine and roses romance with the atom ended in March 1979 when there was a partial reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania, an accident the industry had said could never happen. This and other nuclear disasters – Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union and Fukushima in Japan – have put quite a few atomic marriages on the rocks. Some partners have flounced out and slammed the door, notably Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, all of whom decided to run down their nuclear power programmes.
This hasn’t happened in the UK, where we currently have 15 reactors producing around one-fifth of our electricity and will spend £20 billion on a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset. That’s because every prime minister has been sweet-talked by the industry. Even the Lib Dems’ ostensibly green credentials were tarnished by being successfully wooed into supporting the new Hinkley plant when in coalition with the Tories.
What has revived the spark of romance with the atom is concern about carbon emissions and climate change. The question being asked is, would you rather have floods, mudslides and apocalyptic wildfires or stay in a now loveless and sometimes dangerous marriage with the atom?