The Atomic States of America, based on the memoir, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, by Kelly McMaster, presents an unsettling look at the aging infrastructure of nuclear reactors in the U.S. Directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, Atomic States disturbingly relates how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is influenced by the nuclear industry, creating weak and barely enforced oversight of these potentially dangerous sites.
The film weaves together facts and personal stories to present a broad understanding of how the industry developed and how people in neighboring communities are at risk. The impetus for the film was plans for a revival in building nuclear power plants. In 2010, the U.S. announced the first new construction in over 30 years. However, concerns about the safety of these plants were heightened by the Fukushima disaster a year later.
As with many environmental documentaries, a sense of hopelessness pervades the film. The potential problems are dire and the government (both local and federal) seems unwilling to take the necessary precautions. As with the oil industry, the nuclear industry has the money and power to exert an unhealthy influence. Unlike many documentaries, The Atomic States of America offers few solutions, seeming, at times, to be resigned to the fact that things are bad with a potential to get worse. As one interviewee says near the end, “We’re all downstream from something.”
The Atomic States of America is an important documentary. Many viewers will be as surprised as the people in the film as to the deafness of the regulatory bodies to the calls for action.
The film touches briefly on the issue of how to store nuclear waste and makes an interesting companion piece to Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which focuses on the concerns about the long term storage of such volatile compounds.
Using the festival’s scoring system, I rank The Atomic States of America as Very Good or 4 out of a possible 5.
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