Moto-Yasu Kinoshita, chief nuclear engineer with Thorium Tech Solutions (TTS), rides the Tokyo metro and thinks about the future.
All around, other commuters nap, listen to music and tap away at their phones unaware of the monumental concerns on Kinoshita’s mind.
Above ground, Kinoshita thinks out loud, talking of the need for Japan, and the rest of the world, to “overcome our history” and embrace nuclear power as a decarbonising electricity source.
As he says this the camera pans up toward the power lines that crosshatch the Tokyo skyline. A formation of birds fly overhead, as much a part of the urban landscape as the crosswalks and skyscrapers.
It’s at this moment, at the very outset of Atomic Hope, Frankie Fenton’s observational documentary following the pro-nuclear movement that we see the “hope” of the title expressed most clearly. From here, things get murkier.
The opening credits play over a montage of news footage and other archival material. We see scenes of devastation and fallout. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the tens of thousands dead, babies born with deformities, men and women with growths and sores.
We see Cold War-era reels. Then, the Chernobyl disaster, followed by footage of birth defects and disabilities. By the end of this opening montage it’s difficult to see how Kinoshita or anybody could begin to, or look to, “overcome” this history.
Some introductory text outlines a small but – we are told in the intertitles – growing pro-nuclear perspective throughout the world that advocates argue could help mitigate the climate crisis. Shot over 10 years, Atomic Hope gives screen time to a range of nuclear proponents.
We meet John Kutsch, executive director of the Thorium Energy Alliance. Thorium is a weakly radioactive metallic chemical element that Kutsch and other like-minded enthusiasts see as the key to a safe, relatively clean nuclear future – instead of uranium. Kutsch has the nervy excitable manner of any number of niche hobbyists.
The thorium conventions and meet-ups that we see on film are not dissimilar in atmosphere to a lowkey Magic the Gathering tournament. In one sequence an attendee who looks like a Michael MacDonald impersonator bangs out an ode to thorium on a piano. The crowd, John included, seem genuinely moved.
Fenton later spends time with another activist, Eric Meyer, the director of Generation Atomic, an organisation advocating for a place for nuclear energy in the clean energy conversation.
Early episodes see Eric and other activists attending climate action demonstrations and marches. They always participate from a distance, apart from the other climate protestors, who, unsurprisingly, can’t or won’t hear the case for nuclear power.
A major hurdle in bringing hearts and minds to nuclear energy is its destructive potential. Atomic Hope’s subjects are quick to draw a distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and move on.
This tactic of ignoring the issue of nuclear weapons is unconvincing. It’s estimated that Japan, because of its advanced nuclear-energy technology, could produce a nuclear weapon within a year – despite not having an active nuclear weapons program.
But there are no counter-arguments or interrogations of any of the claims put forth by the pro-nuclear activists in Atomic Hope. It’s a pervasive issue with the film, which observes rather than interrogates the pro-nuclear cause.
Despite frosty receptions and outright hostility Meyer and Generation Atomic put a great deal of effort trying to stand out and fit in.
Their main tactics involve gags and stunts; when they’re not offered space at a climate convention they assemble a flatpack table outside the venue. This doesn’t generate much in the way of goodwill.
After a particularly dispiriting episode featuring inflatable polar bear costumes, one of Generation Atomic team questions their role as “the best or, uh, some of the only activists for nuclear power”. By this measurement, showing up might be enough to make the cut.
In contrast to Generation Atomic’s prankster approach is that of Michael Shellenberger, another key figure in Fenton’s documentary. Identified as an author and the CEO of Environmental Progress, Shellenberger is a seasoned PR man and climate lobbyist, He is a smooth operator and brings a Bay Area slickness to proceedings.
Shellenberger was a regular on the TED circuit, talking up the benefits of nuclear energy over renewables. He has a particular interest in taking renewable energy to task.
It comes up again and again in his speeches and in his conversations with the camera. We even learn of a past life when Shellenberger was, it seems, an ardent supporter of renewable energy sources.
Shellenberger is perhaps too experienced for the Generation Atomic set. When we see him attending rallies alongside Meyer and the others, Shellenberger easily dominates the conversation with the rhetoric and manner of a keynote speaker at a Silicon Valley tech giant. This is a man whose manner was forged in the fire of public relations.
In recent times, Shellenberger’s approach to climate science, which calls out prominent scientists in writing and downplays the effects of climate change on the environment, has earned him spots on right-leaning media and “alt tech” platforms. In Atomic Hope, we see growing tension between Shellenberger and the other nuclear power supporters.
It’s in the unraveling of these relationships that we see the limits of passion, the differences in ideology and the burden that these activists place upon themselves. It’s lonely on the outside.
Fenton captures many crises of confidence in the nuclear cause on camera. Ben Heard, director of the NGO Bright New World, visits the Fukushima power plant and surrounding area – site of a 2011 nuclear disaster, the most severe since Chernobyl in 1986.
He quips that flying there on an airplane is likely to expose him to more radiation than visiting the plant itself. Heard takes a banana along with him as a prop, his theory is that his packed lunch will prove more radioactive than his body after visiting the nuclear site.
Measurements after his visit show much higher levels of radiation than he anticipated, exceeding the banana and the airplane. Heard is surprised and shaken. His jokey attitude gives way to doubt. Fenton’s observational camerawork captures Heard’s daring eyes, eyes that only a scene ago were full of a mischievous confidence.