ABC documentary takes sobering in-depth look at the unleashed power of the atom

The ``maxi-doc'' -- documentary television in depth -- is alive and kicking . . . on ABC. A few months ago ABC News devoted an entire prime-time evening (from 8 to 11 p.m.) to a prizewinning documentary on US education -- ``To Save Our Schools; To Save Our Children.'' It was a broad survey of the problems in education, including past, present, and future trends and patterns. Enough to give viewers an informed overview. Now ABC News has come back with still another superb maxi-doc: The Fire Unleashed (Thursday, June 6, 8-11 p.m., check local listings), a comprehensive examination of all aspects of the nuclear age.

There's nothing extraordinarily new in ``Fire Unleashed,'' since it is basically a step-by-step record of how our society has managed to back itself into a nuclear corner. It takes us back as far as Alamogordo in 1945 and brings us up to the current ``star wars'' controversy. There are startling stills, authentic film footage, augmented animation, and experts from every level -- scientific, political, and moral. Included are such people as Caspar Weinberger, Dr. Edward Teller, Rajiv Gandhi, Shimon Peres, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, Sen. John Glenn, former President Jimmy Carter, and many more whose names are not so easily recognizable but who are in positions crucial to the survival of earth.

Peter Jennings, as host, seems to be taking the role of the conscience of society while reporter Marshall Frady delves deeply into disturbing facts. He uncovers the fact that West Germany has illegally supplied Argentina with the supplies necessary for nuclear production . . . and has not been prosecuted -- or even publicly reprimanded in world organizations.

While this fact is just about the only political revelation in the documentary, it doesn't matter because the startling impact of this maxi-doc is in its cumulative effect. All of the bits of information you may have read in fleeting moments is here stapled together in a comprehensive video, placed in its proper perspective, and handed to viewers on a plutonium platter. This documentary cuts through the scare talk, casual prognostication, and hand-wringing cries of impending disaster to pinpoint several disturbing truths:

Nuclear weapons have become the easy road to prestige for small and third-world nations. And there is a potentially disastrous black market in the tools to make nuclear bombs.

Many (Libya, Argentina, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, India) are already deeply involved in producing their own nuclear bombs. The bombs are described with frightening ingenuousness as ``like guns to a cowboy.''

The world is almost as much endangered by the careless handling of nuclear wastes as it is by the bombs themselves.

There are definitely two valid sides to the ``star wars'' controversy, and both must be studied before any flip decisions are made.

Controversy is already brewing over the program among organizations for the commercial use of nuclear energy, who accuse the documentary of focusing too much on the military and not enough on the safe peaceful applications of atomic power. In a program so comprehensive there is bound to be some unevenness, but the fact remains that ``The Fire Unleashed'' is vital television that may very well affect the quality of our lives today and our plans for tomorrow.

It's time to give a round of grateful acclaim to ABC News for its altruistic dedication in pioneering this new televison news form: the maxi-documentary, in which the network devotes as much time as is needed to dig deep into one important subject. ``The Fire Unleashed'' is American television at its most responsible best. A chat with the producers

Pamela Hill, executive producer of ABC News Closeup and one of the top women executives of commercial television news, can hardly contain her pride in ``The Fire Unleashed'' as well as the other maxi-docs for which she is responsible.

``When the decision was made to devote a major segment of our hours to the great issues of our time, we decided our standard would be issues so important that they affect the way you and your children would grow up. While there has been a proliferation of new programs, what hasn't been done is targeting the most important issues and devoting the proper amount of time to explaining them.''

Senior producer Dick Richter says that ``The Fire Unleashed'' took around 18 months to prepare with 60 staffers working full or part time on it. ``It's our response to Einstein's statement: `The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking. . . .' ''

Mr. Richter says he is convinced that ``people can have their consciousness raised on TV. It's time we realized what has happened in the past is being repeated. We always turn to technology, and it has never been the answer. `Star wars,' even if it is extraordinarily bold, seems to be a turn once again toward technology. It has got to be something else. That's why we are taking another comprehensive look. . . .

``We came into this program without bias and we tried to be evenhanded. But we would be naive to think that many people in the nuclear industry won't be unhappy with it.''

Advance screenings of the documentary this week are planned at the White House and in London, Paris, Bonn, Tokyo, and Moscow, says Mr. Richter. What would he consider success for ``The Fire Unleashed?''

``We're not looking at ratings because we realize it's always difficult to get high ratings for issue-oriented programs. But, if we can help create a substantial new dialogue about nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste in this country and around the world, that would be an enormous success.'' -- 30 --

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