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Friday, April 8, 2011

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Off limits: Nuke documentary "Countdown to Zero" was postponed after the Daiichi power plant catastrophe. © 2010 NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT DOCUMENTARY, LLC

Two nuclear docs caught in chain reaction


Special to The Japan Times

This isn't the first time that reality has clashed uncomfortably with the movies — recall how the release of "Spider-Man" was delayed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, so that Sam Raimi could digitally erase the Twin Towers from its climax — but the Tohoku earthquake has already claimed a few cinematic casualties.

Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" was pulled due to its disturbingly realistic tsunami scene, while Chinese disaster film "Aftershock," which features not one but two megaquakes, has been held back indefinitely.

One can understand the reasoning here: Digital disasters are hardly entertaining when real destruction is all around you. But beyond the fiction films, a pair of timely documentaries on nuclear issues have also been affected, albeit in opposite ways. Shibuya-based indie distributor Uplink has raced ahead with its release of "Into Eternity," an eerie look at a nuclear-waste storage facility, while major Paramount has pushed back the release of "Countdown to Zero," which examines the continued danger posed by nuclear arsenals.

"Countdown to Zero," which screened for the media last summer, was due to be released in winter, then postponed to April. After the Fukushima reactor crisis began, its release was postponed again. Directed by Lucy Walker and produced by the people behind "An Inconvenient Truth," "Countdown to Zero" argues that while the world is focused on what it perceives as bigger problems — global warming, the economy, Charlie Sheen — the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons has faded in the public consciousness. This complacency — born of 50 years with no nuclear strikes — will not last forever, as we've seen with our similar indifference to nuclear reactors placed on fault lines.

Walker tells The Japan Times that "the film is about nuclear weapons, not nuclear power," but went on to note how it has "a section about nuclear weapons accidents and the theory that accidents are never 100 percent preventable, even when the consequences are so bad. Alas, the terrible recent events do not contradict this. The fact that the stakes are so high does not mean that nothing unexpected or bad can ever happen."

"Countdown" makes this abundantly clear, pointing out how most black-market uranium — eagerly sought by al-Qaida for reasons easy to imagine — comes from Russia, and much of that is from power plants or waste. Even if uranium is not enriched to weapons grade, it can still be used to make a dirty bomb, producing similar effects to the Fukushima disaster — but in the middle of a densely populated area. The sheer number of arrests made of people trying to sell uranium means that it's very likely a few deals have been completed. (One underpaid Russian worker describes selling uranium so that he could buy a stove for his flat.)

This makes the case that it's impossible to remove civilian nuclear power from the equation that feeds into unacceptable risks.

Perhaps it's this angle that made Paramount uncomfortable with releasing the film while the Fukushima crisis was still ongoing, but the film's publicists declined to comment for this article. Walker herself notes: "I hope that people will be able to see 'Countdown to Zero' as soon as possible. The film is designed to equip and encourage the audience to think for themselves about nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy, even though it can be very frightening to think about these things."

Uplink had been planning to open "Into Eternity" (Japan title: "100,000 Nengo no Anzen") this fall, but after a quick decision in late March, it decided to release it immediately. The early screenings last weekend at Uplink X saw full houses, with people turned away at the door, proving that interest is running high. Uplink founder Takashi Asai said he plans to add more screenings to the schedule as soon as possible, and to also open the film widely across Japan.

One can clearly see why: "Into Eternity," directed by Michael Madsen, looks at the the Onkalo facility in Finland, designed to store nuclear waste 5 km underground in a secure and stable environment . . . for the next 100,000 years. Onkalo's designers and critics address the issues involved with planning on a time-frame longer than recorded human history. What languages will people speak? Will they be even higher-tech or neo-neanderthal? Is it better to have warning signs in place, or — given human nature — just cover it up and hope that it's forgotten?

This sounds mad, and it is, but then that's the nature of the deal with nuclear: Its promise of relatively cheap and plentiful energy only makes sense if you don't ever think about tomorrow. Then you realize that the Finns, at least, have a plan. Japan's fuel rods lie in ever-growing pools right next to the reactors themselves — and vulnerable, as we've seen, to hydrogen explosions and cooling failure — with no apparent plans for their long-term storage. One dreads to imagine a situation of the type that "Countdown to Zero" warns: If the storage pools were targeted by a truck bomb or antitank weapon, we'd see a release of deadly radiation that might dwarf what happened at Chernobyl.

The trailer for "Countdown to Zero" can be viewed at www.globalzero.org/film. "Into Eternity" currently screens daily at 10:15 a.m. at Shibuya's Uplink X. For full info and a trailer, visit www.uplink.co.jp/100000.

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