Mutually assured destruction was a key topic half a century back (link). The notion that the build-up of international arms might result in strikes, counter-strikes and a bleak nuclear winter for everyone was nestled in the global subconscious. Events of recent months have brought around a renaissance of this basal fear. In what appear to be efforts by Iran to enhance its capabilities to provide energy from nuclear power (a reasonable and clean solution for any modern country to achieve), foreign office statements and the media of the West appear to be cranking up the nuclear dogma machine and suggesting that Iran is preparing for a possible strike on Israel or the West (Turkey).
Even the ineffective United Nations have made the suggestion that Iran may be working on a nuclear deployment system. British foreign minister, William Hague has publicly spoken of this so-called threat, and has used literal cold war rhetoric in his public comments (link). It’s unthinkable that the US and the West should launch hostilities against Iran, when in reality, they are a country that would not pose a role as a first aggressor. However, the US military commander, Martin Dempsey, was forced to visit Israel in January 2012, as it was reported that Israel was seriously considering a pre-emptive strike on Iran (link).
What may be behind the hint of hostilities is the control of Iran’s vast oil reserves. Currently, their biggest customer is China (link). As such, China will see no advantage in an invasion of Iran. On the other hand, the West has everything to gain, in order to appropriate this vital commodity, which is currently being sold directly to the US’s number one economic opponent. If there is to be a new cold war, it will be an economic war between the USA and China, where middle-men like Iran prove to be the proxy battlegrounds through which the countries wage war. Very similar to the invasion of Indo-China and Afghanistan during a cold war supposedly between the USSR and the United States. Iran are no angels for sure. Some of the nonsense to have emerged from the mouth of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is frankly strange and worrying. From holocaust denial, to September 11 conspiracy and outright criticism of homophobia, he’s a deeply troubled character (link). And Iran’s human rights record isn’t exactly spotless. However, there is still no sound ground here for all-out war.
Rant over for now! What interests me in this post is our perception of the use of nuclear power, as portrayed in our creative media.
The China Syndrome (1979)
March 16th 1979 saw the release of ‘The China Syndrome’. A well-budgeted film featuring a strong cast (Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas). One of the things about the film that drew me to a rewatch was the subject matter. In the wake of the recent level 7 nuclear alert at the Fukushima plant in Japan, it’s fascinating to watch a doomful film that maps the drama of what is very much a reality today.
The main plot surrounds a scenario in which a faulty gauge at a nuclear power station results in the staff making some potentially catastrophic adjustments to the system. All this plays out in the media through reporters Kimberly Wells and Richard Adams, portrayed by Fonda and Douglas. As the public relations officer at the plant attempts to calm down the media storm, Lemmon’s nuclear scientist, Jack Godell, emerges as a whistle-blower.
One of the biggest ironies to emerge from the release of the movie lay in the fact that 12 days after it hit the movie theatres, the on-screen events played out for real in the Three Mile Island accident (link). On March 28th, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island suffered a partial core meltdown. In particular, the accident was caused by a technician misreading a gauge relating to the reactor’s coolant system. A remarkable case of life imitating art.
The movie stands up well. It was nominated for several academy awards at the time, but emerged trophyless. Nevertheless, the story, performances and camera-work are all good. The film is both well made and gets the right balance of factual basis and narrative interest. Indeed, at the time, it created a scenario in which the general public became very aware of the scientific facts behind what was going on at Three Mile Island. It’s interesting that the movie is described as being within the science fiction genre, as the science is all solid, and indeed the events depicted are at this stage precedented, after incidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. This makes the film more of a scientific drama than truly science fiction in retrospect.
Biosphere – N-Plants (2011)
At the start of February 2011, the Norwegian ambient techno artist/producer, Geir Jenssen started working on a concept album. Jenssen became fascinated by the concept of capturing the atmosphere of Japan’s many nuclear power plants. He produced an album from his explorations. Each track on the album is named after and dedicated to a specific plant. The work represents an incredible and atmospheric journey through a sterile and industrial audio landscape. There is a thinly concealed, sinister underbelly of malignancy, an ominous ambience, which lends great power to the ghostly environments we are placed in. Jennsen wanted to hint at the idea that while these plants represented the height of technology and an unseen contributor to our modern way of living, they also present a great danger.
The album was completed on February 13th 2011, almost a month before the plant at Fukushima experienced its core malfunction (link). In very similar circumstances to ‘The China Syndrome’, we have a case where life has imitated art. The album was well received by critics, the consensus being that it was probably Jenssen’s neatest project since 1997’s ‘Substrata’. Personally, ‘Patashnik’ was always my favourite Biosphere album, with its charactersitically spooky ambient tunes all dedicated to outer space, but then I guess I’m biased.
Despite the negative connotations associated with the disposal of nuclear waste, and history’s tragedies at the hands of nuclear accidents, nuclear power is still a relatively clean source of energy. Society is still evidently troubled by our use of nuclear technology. The link between using nuclear science for energy creation and using it to create weapons could be at the core of people’s fears.