Critical Generation: Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century

Autumn Bordner, Lauren Chadwick, Mingming Feng, Daniel Listwa, Ana Lobo, Giovanni Scuri
June 01, 2013

The world has to make some major decisions about whether and how to pursue nuclear energy, and millenials are going to soon find themselves at the center of the debate.

In the wake of Fukushima, the world became awakened once again to concerns involving nuclear. The concerns are not limited to the issues of accidents, but also questions of cost, waste disposal, fuel supply, and proliferation. The state of nuclear energy is now in flux. After years of dormancy, the debate over nuclear energy has again taken center stage. Germany is abandoning nuclear power. But in France it has remained largely unchanged. On the other hand, China is dramatically increasing its investment in nuclear. It is uncertain what the future of nuclear will be.

In this film, we speak to diplomats, politicians, scientists, specialists, and reporters from various nations to discover the current state of civilian nuclear power. Each interview presents a unique perspective of the issues at hand, painting a wide view of the current nuclear energy landscape.

By looking at the current challenges that face it as well as what new improvements wait on the horizon, the documentary aims to shed light on what directions the world may take regarding nuclear energy. By approaching these questions directly, the K=1 Project team hopes to spark informed debate among the public.


From the Director

As early as 1908, Nobel Prize winning chemist Frederick Soddy imagined that the power of the atom would give rise to a new generation that “would have little need to earn its bread by the sweat of it brow… and could transform a desert continent, thaw, the frozen poles, and make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden."

The immediate contribution of the fission technology was not so idyllic—in World War II, the atomic bomb proved itself capable of unprecedented destruction. But as soon the war came to a close, significant scientific efforts turned toward turning that tool of war into a promise of prosperity—a source of seemingly unlimited, cheap, safe, clean electricity. By the mid-1950s, nuclear power was being lauded as the energy of the future, with many believing that the atom would soon be providing electricity at a cost “too cheap to meter” as Lewis Strauss, chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, famously said in 1954. Soon nuclear power plants were being built at an accelerating rate.

That trend quickly reversed when one of the promised pillars of nuclear energy—safety—crumbled. April 1986, the Chernobyl plant in what was then the Ukrainian SSR exploded in a catastrophic accident which left a legacy of death and sickness that is still not fully understood today. As people began to learn about the accident at Chernobyl, fear and opposition to nuclear power swelled. In Italy, for example, a 1987 referendum resulted the planned phase of its nuclear reactors. In the U.S., where confidence in nuclear has already been eroded by the events of Three Mile Island less than a decade earlier, support for civilian nuclear energy sharply dropped causing the nuclear industry to lie largely dormant for decades.

During this period of relative quiet, although construction of new nuclear plants ceased, reactors around the country remained active—continuing to provide electricity to an increasingly energy hungry public. As the decades past, the memory of Chernobyl faded and support for nuclear power saw a slow, yet significant revival. As concerns about meeting environmental goals and energy needs grew more pressing, approval of nuclear power reached unprecedented levels in some countries, including the U.S.—many even began to speak of a Nuclear Renaissance.

Then, in 2011, the bubble of nuclear optimism burst again. In the midst of an unprecedented natural disaster in Japan, the roofs of three of Fukushima’s reactor buildings blew off. Uncertainty, fear, and anxiety overtook the entire world as worries over the potential of deadly radiation reached as far as the California coast. In reality, the health hazards were minimal—most likely no one was harmfully irradiated as a result of the incident. But the economic costs were real—with thousands displaced from their homes, and significant decontamination and clean-up required.