The Atomic States of America
Directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce
2012, 95 minutes

In 2010, the United States approved the first new nuclear power plant in 32 years. As part of what was called a nuclear renaissance, nuclear energy was heralded by experts and by President Obama as the answer to climate change. This renaissance abruptly ended when a year later the Fukushima accident in Japan renewed a fierce public debate about the safety and viability of nuclear power. Between these two events, filmmakers Don Argott and Shenna M. Joyce began filming The Atomic States of America, a documentary about the safety of nuclear power reactors. They explore what it is like to live in a so-called reactor community and give a detailed overview of the history and impact of nuclear power.

The documentary is based on Kelly McMasters’ book Welcome to Shirley (2008), a memoir about growing up in the shadow of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Brookhaven—established in 1947¬—had three nuclear reactors on its site for scientific research. In January 1997, ground water samples taken by Brookhaven staff revealed concentrations of tritium—a radioactive type of hydrogen—that were twice the allowable federal drinking water standards. Some samples taken later were 32 times the standard. It was concluded that the tritium was leaking—and had been leaking for 12 years— from one of Brookhaven’s reactors into the aquifer that provides water for nearby Suffolk County residents. In her book, McMasters discusses the many health consequences, including a childhood cancer cluster, documented by the people living in Shirley.

Besides exploring the evidence gathered by McMasters, the film also looks at other communities situated near nuclear facilities. The residents of these communities call into question who can be trusted to provide truthful information, and how much influence the nuclear industry has over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its decisions.

Residents are particularly concerned about the fact that the NRC has re-licensed virtually every single plant that applied for a new license. The majority of the United States’ commercial reactors were built in the 1950s and 1960s and were, structurally, only supposed to last for 30 years. However—despite the aging internal structures of the reactors—the NRC has been re-licensing such plants for twenty or thirty more years.

In an interview with Film Maker Magazine, Directors Argott and Joyce said that their goal with The Atomic States of America was “to take the intimidating topic of nuclear power, and to make it accessible and personal by telling the individual stories of people living in reactor communities, working as NRC inspectors, and advocating on both sides of the issue.” This goal isn’t exactly met. Even though they’ve included interviews with a couple of NRC inspectors and a former government leader, activists are the bulk of the interview subjects. Furthermore there is a serious lack of hard, epidemiological data to back up the claims made by activists and residents of reactor communities. To achieve a more balanced account, the filmmakers should have included more voices from the pro-nuclear energy camp and nuclear and medical scientists. Nevertheless, The Atomic States of America is a passionate and well-made film that keeps the conversation going about a topic that is so often dominated by money and politics, but affects us all.