William Tucker Goes to the Movie: Heritage’s New Movie “Powering America” — Real People and Nuclear VirtuesWednesday, March 21st, 2012
Review of Heritage Foundation’s “Powering America”
By William Tucker
The Heritage Foundation has decided to keep abreast of the generation that doesn’t read anymore by producing a 40-minute documentary, “Powering America,” touting the virtues of nuclear energy. It probably won’t be playing soon at a theater near you but the film will make a powerful tool for policy groups trying to convince Americans that nuclear must be part of our energy future.
“Base load power” – that’s the message “Powering America” conveys and we’re going to need plenty of it. Even the most conservative predictions say we’ll need at least 25 percent more electricity by 2035 – which happens to be the exact time when our current generation of reactors, built in the 1970s and 1980s, will be reaching retirement. So it’s not just a matter of providing more electricity. We’re going to have to replace the 20 percent of our electricity that nuclear energy already provides. It’s a big task and building one or two new reactors per decade – the rate we’re currently achieving – isn’t going to come close to solving the problem.
So what’s holding us up? Mostly fear of radiation and accidents. On radiation, the Heritage filmmakers note, most people are inclined to think it was invented in 1945 with the introduction of atomic weapons. In fact radiation is just energy in motion. It constantly bombards us on all sides. Next to what we absorb from outer space, from rocks, from food, from our own bones, the radiation emanating from a nuclear reactor is less than trivial. Living next to a reactor for fifty years would give you about the equivalent of one dental x-ray.
“Powering America” illustrates all this with real people and that’s the film’s great strength. We meet hardhat workers, male and female, who have spent their lives in the nuclear industry and know the score. As with everyone who gets close to the technology, they both understand both the dangers and appreciate the excruciating care the industry takes in dealing with them. They are not afraid. We meet Abby Rodriguez, a dosimeter specialist at Plant Vogtle who says she hasn’t picked up a trace of radiation exposure in 2-1/2 years of work. We meet Daniel and Dani Hackman, a couple who have run Red Hill Farm within sight of the cooling towers of Three Mile Island for a generation and have no worries. “There was a guy here yesterday who wanted to take samples – they come every couple of weeks,” they say. “If there was something in the atmosphere, they would definitely find it in the plants. But they’ve never found anything.”
Things being what they are, however, “Powering America” feels compelled to take on the three major accidents – Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island – and that occupies much of the film’s time. It’s a reassuring walk-through but after fifteen minutes you begin to wonder whether there is anything to nuclear energy except potential accidents. But host John L. King eventually gets around to explaining the tremendous advantages of nuclear – mainly its incredible energy density. One fuel pellet the size of a pencil eraser produces as much energy as 150 gallons of gasoline, a ton of coal or17, 000 cubic feet of natural gas. And don’t even think about wind and sunshine. Matching the output of just one nuclear reactor – as Jim Hopson of the TVA’s Watts Bar station tells us – would require covering the Great Smokey Mountains National Park with 45-story windmills.
“Powering America’s” great strength is that it introduces us to the forgotten players in the nuclear debate – the men and women who work with it every day. Who else could be more knowledgeable about its benefits, more informed about its assiduous safety measures? Strangely enough, though, I think the film could have benefitted by giving a little camera time to some of the more highly exaggerated and uninformed personalities of the anti-nuclear movement. What better contrast with the sober, ground-level assessments of nuclear workers than Pete Seeger glibly telling us that a nuclear reactor can blow up at any moment, Dr. Ernest Sternglass recounting the thousands of babies who have been murdered by reactors or noted renewable energy advocate Mark Z. Jacobson of Berkeley recounting how it doesn’t matter if the wind doesn’t blow all the time because somewhere the sun may be shining.
But these are minor quibbles. The important thing is that Heritage has taken the common-sense case for nuclear energy and turned it into a glossy, contemporary documentary that will have something to say to people of all persuasions.