The Case Against Nuclear Energy - Passionately Put


DARK CIRCLE PBS, tomorrow, 10-11 p.m. Documentary written and directed by Christopher Beaver, Judy Irving, and Ruth Landy; written by Mr. Beaver and Ms. Irving. Narrated by Ms. Irving. NEAR the beginning of ``Dark Circle'' on PBS's provocative ``P.O.V.'' series, there's a prime example of what nuclear-related documentaries used to be like.

In a clip dating from 1963, a scientist and a reporter tell us about the hazards of plutonium. They don't look worried, and they clearly want us to feel as unflapped as they do. Their attitude conveys seriousness and concern, but no sense of urgency. In every way, they're heirs of the amazing 1950s film clips we see as ``Dark Circle'' continues - depicting the atom as a ``provider and protector'' that will make America a paradise if we nurture its technology.

Well, times have changed. Some filmmakers are no longer so confident, and ``Dark Circle'' is a prime example of their attitude toward the friendly, peaceful atom. Mobilizing a host of interviews, movie excerpts, archival footage, and other documentary resources, its directors - Judy Irving, Christopher Beaver, and Ruth Landy - make a resounding case against hydrogen bombs, nuclear power plants, and everything in between. Their motivation is to stop the atom in its tracks. Their method is to pile on every ounce of persuasion they can muster, from documented facts to the strength of their own unabashed emotions.

The result won't please advocates of nuclear power, believers in nuclear deterrence, or viewers who favor a ``balanced'' approach to controversial topics. In a brief interview preceding ``Dark Circle,'' co-director Irving insists that nuclear issues aren't just economic or political; they're also personal for people like her, who have as much right as any ``experts'' to take a stand. The trick, as Mr. Beaver states in the same prologue, is to take your stand in such a way that audiences know how and why it's been chosen from all the available options. ``Dark Circle'' passes this test, although that may be small comfort for people who don't share its passionately held views.

The strengths and weaknesses of the film are both evident in a portion that chronicles a protest aimed at a California nuclear plant. Feelings run high in this movement, and the film sometimes seems as emotionally charged as the people it's depicting. Yet the outcome of the situation is striking. The plant, claimed to be the most carefully analyzed building in the United States, had to be closed when its cooling systems were discovered to be installed backwards - a gaffe that was as embarassing as it is enormous. And it was those emotional demonstrators who delayed the plant's opening long enough for the mistake to be discovered.

Other portions of ``Dark Circle'' are darker and more horrifying. Medical tragedies (filmed in places as far-ranging as Nagasaki, Japan, and a Colorado bomb factory) are explicitly depicted. Nor are humans the only victims of nuclear activity; one test, graphically shown, exposed hundreds of animals to the full force of an atomic blast. More subtle, yet very poignant, are mental stresses related to nuclear issues. These are exemplified by the dilemma of a woman interviewed in the film. Her house is located in an area affected by nuclear contamination, and she's determined to sell it - even though this means facing her conscience when the buyers turn out to be a young couple with children, who will inherit the potential dangers she has decided to escape.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with ``Dark Circle,'' it's impossible to be unmoved by the incidents and interviews it brings together. The ending is especially hard to shake off: a statement revealing that little has changed since the film's completion a few years ago, except the replacement of some contractors by others, and the fact that government investigators are starting to confirm abuses of various types alleged in the movie. ``Dark Circle'' is advocacy journalism at its most outspoken. It deserves attention and debate.

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