Adam Curtis, 1992
6. A is for Atom
[From unidentified 1950s promotional film featuring father and son characters looking across a bay at a city]
[Son:] "When did all this begin, Dad?"
[Father:] "Well, son, it's a very old story; it's... so old, it's hard to say when it really began...
Could've been back in 1540, when Copernicus identified the Earth as a speck of dust moving in
an orbit around the Sun... or it could've been in 1905, when a young [Swiss] German physicist
arrived at a fundamental truth – that matter could be converted into energy – and expressed it
in the equation E = mc2. Then there were other dates... 1937: the first industrial atom-smasher;
1942: the first nuclear chain reaction; 1945: the Bomb. Somewhere in the course of these events,
the dawn came up on the atomic era. It's going to have a tremendous effect on our town down
there, son... It'll be felt in every town in America. And it won't matter whether they make ships
or shoes or sealing wax; with atomic power will come benefits to mankind that we can as yet
A is for ATOM
In 1945, in the aftermath of war, scientists were heroes – particularly the physicists, who had built the atomic bomb. "They are men", said Life magazine, "who wear the tunic of Superman and stand in the spotlight of a
In the public imagination, atomic scientists had harnessed a terrifying power which could literally reshape the world.
[From footage of] Robert Oppenheimer, chief scientist, Manhattan Project [in The Decision to Drop the Bomb (1965)?]
"I knew the world would not be the same. I remembered the lines from the Hindu scripture,
the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
"I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."
Many of the scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb felt a deep sense of guilt about what they had done. They were convinced they now had a moral duty to use the immense forces they had unleashed [for] better, peaceful purposes. What they did not foresee were the demands that would be made of them when their science came out of the laboratory and into the world of politics and big business. They would lose control and be forced to compromise and to deceive.
Dr. Chaunc[e?]y Starr, physicist, Manhatt[a]n Project 1943–1946
So, all of a sudden we found... that, as scientists and technologists, we were capable of changing
in a massive way the framework in which society functioned.
I and many others felt that nuclear power represented a major energy future for the world. You
have to understand that... this was the first time that mankind had ever found an energy source
which wasn't a routine natural phenomenon [on Earth]. Fire, of course, comes every time 
lightning strikes a forest; nuclear power was something else completely – we made it. And our
ability to give the world  what appeared to be – and still does appear to be – a limitless energy
source for the future, was, to any scientist and engineer, probably the most exciting philosophic[al]
concept you could find.
[From footage of a TV address made by] President Eisenhower, September 1954
"Today, [in] Shippingport, Pennsylvania, we began building our first atomic power plant of
"Mankind comes closer to fulfilment of the ancient dream of a new and a better Earth.
"The scientists have provided us with an example of nuclear science at work. In this baton
[which he is holding in his hands] there is a small source... of neutrons. I bring this source of
neutrons over to this place in which we have uranium and we set up a bit of atomic fission.
This will move the marker on the scale and finally light the light [to which he points] and the
project will be started."
In this general mood of enthusiasm for science, politicians began to look to atomic power as more than just cheap electricity. It became the way to a better world.
Prof. Yurii I. Koryakin, Head of Research, USSR Institute of Power Research [subtitled]
They were years of great hope. Stalin had just died [and] Khruschev had come to power. We
believed atomic power would lead to a better life for everyone. On top of all this, we were
hypnotised by Lenin's slogan: "Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the
Atomic power was seen as the way to communism.
At the very same time as Eisenhower began construction at Shippingport, Russia suddenly announced [that] it had already built the world's first nuclear power station. What the Soviets did not reveal was that it took more
electricity to run the plant than it produced.
Then, in 1956, another country entered the nuclear race. In this case, the atom's role was to recapture the glories of the past.
[Footage of (presumably) 1950s Britain]
[Voiceover:] "Tomorrow, Her Majesty the Queen, here at Calder Hall in Cumberland, is to open the
first nuclear power station in the world to operate on an industrial scale."
"Our prosperity in the Victorian era", wrote the government's scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, "was due to the men who put Britain eighty years ahead in the use of steam power. Our prosperity in the coming century will depend on learning how to exploit the latent energy in uranium."
[From TV footage of] Richard Dimbleby [presenting the] BBC outside broadcast [of the] opening of Calder Hall [nuclear
"Uranium... [He picks up and holds a cartridge in his hand] Well, now, that is uranium. That little black
thing I'm holding in my hand: two pounds of that [form] of uranium. And the potential energy
which could be given off by this when properly used is equal to the energy – or the heat, if you
like the word better – produced by two-thousand six-hundred tons of coal. That is uranium."
[From footage of the Queen's opening address]
"...atomic scientists, by a series of brilliant discoveries, have brought us to the threshold of
a new age ... It is with pride that I now open Calder Hall, Britain's first atomic power station."
The British government announced that by 1965, half the country's electricity would come from nuclear power.
In the late fifties, the [United States] Atomic Energy Commission made films that portrayed an "atomic future" in America. Scientists designed nuclear cars, planes and rockets. Others predicted whole new cities powered by vast atomic engines. If, somehow, a product could be "atomic", it had to be good.
Vladimir I. Merkin, designer of first Soviet civilian reactor [subtitled]
It was a golden age. Scientists and engineers were bursting with ideas. Suddenly anything
seemed possible; the power of science was limitless.
[Unidentified footage, mostly landscapes filmed from low-flying aircraft (American, 1950s?)]
[Voiceover:] "Science for the world – a dynamic world, moving rapidly, flying, reacting to flashes
on the radar screen; watching schedules where everything is calculated down to seconds and
fractions of seconds ... Science has permeated our very existence and can no longer detach
[More unidentified footage, here (presumably) of the site for a nuclear power plant]
[Voiceover:] "The station is to be situated on the shores of a forest lake. During the rest period, a
magic silence reigns around the building site ..."
But now, just when the scientists were being swept along on a wave of publicity, they began to discover it was going to be far more difficult to produce nuclear power than they had first thought. The problem was the cost of building the reactors; they were proving too expensive to compete with conventional fuels. In the Soviet Union, this led to increasing pressure to build fast, often without proper protection from nuclear radiation. In February 1957, the planner in charge of the whole nuclear power programme died from an accidental burst of radioactivity.
[Vladimir I. Merkin]
We came under pressure to cut costs; there was a desire for this energy to be cheap and widely
available. Although we understood [that] reactors had to be safe, we always had to keep costs
uppermost in our minds.
We moved so fast [that] there simply wasn't time to take all the precautions. Maybe that's why
safety began [sic] to be neglected – in particular, the possibility of a huge accident.
Then, in October 1957, there was a major accident in Britain.
[Voiceover:] "Emergency at Windscale atom plant [sic] – and the milk from two-hundred square
miles of farmland is condemned as radioactive."
The core of the reactor caught fire and spewed high levels of radioactivity across northwest England. The radioactivity released was far worse than the public was told. It led some scientists to question the speed at which the technology was being pushed to compete with fossil fuels. They included the scientist who had built
Windscale, Christopher Hinton. He had been put in charge of implementing the Government's plans for cheap electricity.
Sir Kelvin Spencer, Chief Scientist, Ministry of Power 1954–1959
Hinton was a thoroughly honest man; and when he found that all sorts of bogus tales had been
told about the relative costs of electricity from nuclear energy, he was shocked – he told me this,
that he was absolutely shocked.
He realised that the estimates of the cost of nuclear energy compared with the costs of coal
energy were cooked; and when I [asked] him "Why didn't you do anything about it?", he said:
"Well, I couldn't, because the thing's gone too far."
You see, so much had been committed [by] then to a nuclear future ... It must've been some billions
that they'd already spent. It was too late.
[From Harold Wilson's address at the] Labour Party Conference [in] 1963
"It is, of course, a cliché that  we're living at a time of such rapid scientific change that our children
are accepting as part of their everyday life things which would've been dismissed as science
fiction a few years ago.
"We're living, perhaps, in a more rapid revolution than some of us realise."
The politicians were now committed to nuclear power. In 1960, a Labour politician, Anthony Wedgewood Benn, suggested an idea for a party political broadcast. To the hymn Jerusalem, the camera would rise from waving
fields of corn to reveal an atomic plant.
[Back to Harold Wilson's conference address]
"... the conscious, planned, purposive use of scientific progress, to provide undreamed-of living
standards and the possibility of leisure, ultimately, on an unbelievable scale."
Nuclear scientists were now being carried along by a political enthusiasm for what science could achieve. Yet few of them, in Britain, America or the Soviet Union, knew how to fulfil the promises they had made.
[From] ATOMIC ACHIEVEMENT, [a] Westinghouse promotional film
[Voiceover:] "There's a new dawn breaking over our world: the hopeful dawn of the atomic era.
But two large American corporations, Westinghouse and General Electric, had already invested millions of dollars in nuclear technology. For them, there was no way back. In 1961, the new chief executive of General Electric told
his staff: "We're going to ram this nuclear thing through."
[Voiceover:] "... we can move forward to new and even greater achievements in the atomic era.
This is the hope that awaits us, in this new dawn's early light."
Control over nuclear technology had passed from the scientists to the industrialists. They were now about to take an enormous gamble: to make nuclear power not only practical, but profitable.
[?[Bertram Wolfe], ?[General Manager], GE Nuclear Energy]
I'm Bert Wolfe [sp?]; I head General Electric's peaceful nuclear power programme.
...and this is a building which is made to model an actual [sic] boiling-water reactor ... We can
come right over here to a facility where down low in the cavity there is the boiling-water reactor.
General Electric and Westinghouse took the simplest form of nuclear reactor – originally designed for
submarines – and redesigned it on a gigantic scale. These were then offered to power companies at knockdown prices. The manufacturers decided to bear any extra costs themselves. They gambled they could start a bandwagon which would make the nuclear business profitable. The key figure was the salesman.
We would sell one at a time; and each time we sold one, we'd have a celebration – I can recall
when we had meetings and someone would come in and [say] "We sold a plant to (somebody)!"
and we'd all stand up and shake hands and... go out for lunch and have wine and toast each
other... It was a great celebration.
Then, in the late sixties, we began selling these by the tens, so it became a real business.
The plants were sold often before they had even been designed. The power company accepted on faith the manufacturer's claims that because the reactors were big, they would achieve economies of scale. These sales were then cited to the next buyer as proof of the soundness of the manufacturer's claims. In the process, the reactors became bigger and bigger – and it worked. The two corporations [Westinghouse and GE] sold dozens of plants, at home and abroad. Only Britain refused to succumb.
[From a] General Electric promotional film [A is for Atom (1952)?]
[Voiceover:] "A giant of limitless power at man's command. Man is building a brighter future for
his children – and his children's children – in the new world of the Atomic Age ..."
But senior nuclear scientists were worried about safety in these enormous plants. At the centre of the reactor was the uranium core. Its heat powered the generators. The cores were now so large that if, for any reason, the flow of water to keep them cool were lost, they would melt. The scientists feared that such a core would then burn its way through the floor of the containment shell. In theory, there would be nothing to stop it emerging on
the other side of the world. They called it the "China syndrome".
The doubters included Alvin Weinberg, the man who had designed the original submarine reactor.
Alvin Weinberg, Director, Oak Ridge National Laboratory 1955–1974
As long as the reactor was as small as the submarine intermediate reactor – which was only sixty
megawatts – then the containment shell was absolute. Now, that's not quite right, because –
[Adam Curtis, interviewing off-camera, interrupts:] When you say "the containment shell was absolute",
do you mean it was safe? [Weinberg:] It was safe. But when you went to six-hundred megawatt
reactors and thousand megawatt reactors, you could not guarantee this – because you could,
in some very remote situation, conceive of the containment being breached by this molten mass...
...and that change, I would assert, occurred as a result of this enormous economic pressure to
make the reactors as large as possible.
In 1964, a team of scientists working for the [US] Atomic Energy Commission studied the possible consequences of a nuclear accident. They concluded: "We have found in our present study nothing inherent in reactors, or in safeguard systems as they have now been developed, which guarantees either that major reactor accidents will not occur or that protective safeguard systems will not fail. Should such accidents occur, very large damages could result."
... and that's when the nuclear dream began to fall apart.
In 1965, scientists advising the [US] Atomic Energy Commission tried to force the manufacturers to make their reactors safer.
[From an unidentified (black-and-white) TV current affairs or news-style programme]
[Presenter:] "Good evening. Well, as I'm sure you've heard, we're going to have an atomic power
plant here in New York. The Atomic Energy Commission has granted to Consolidated Edison
permission to build a nuclear steam electric generating [sic] station at Indian Point in Westchester
Westinghouse had already built a small atomic plant at Indian Point. Now they applied to the AEC for a licence to build a giant reactor on the same site. At the same time, General Electric proposed a massive plant just outside Chicago. The scientists on the [AEC's] Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards were worried that a core melt
so close to large cities could cause a disaster.
They drafted a letter to the chairman of the AEC, Glenn Seaborg, which would, by law, have to be published. It said they would only agree to the plants if the manufacturers redesigned all future reactors to stop a molten core escaping if an accident, however unlikely, occurred. Seaborg was an ardent proponent of large reactors.
Glenn Seaborg, interviewed 1966
"We think that it will be possible to build huge nuclear power reactors that will produce electricity
at the rate of millions of kilowatts and [use?] salt seawater at the rate of hundreds of millions of
gallons a day..."
Seaborg asked for the letter not to be published. "The impact on the industry might be serious", he said, "and the public might misunderstand it." He and his fellow commissioners would deal with the problem in private.
Dr. Glenn Seaborg, Chairman, AEC 1961–1971
All I can say is that we... tried to take such steps as we could to follow their advice [and] make the
changes that would make them safe.
[Adam Curtis, interviewing, off-camera:] So what did you say to the manufacturers?
[Seaborg:] We... had meetings with the manufacturers and discussed the issue with them. I think
they were doing the best they could and I don't know if we ever made a tremendous push to try
to get them to change their whole manufacturing system.
[Curtis:] Why not?
[Seaborg:] Oh, I think it was at that time not regarded as a feasible approach.
Dr. David Okrent, Chairman, Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards 1966
We asked General Electric to come in and discuss how they might cope with this; and, in effect,
they came in and showed problems that would arise with their containment and indicated that
they didn't think they wanted to continue selling power reactors if they were going to have to
deal with the core-melt problem.
Westinghouse showed something called the "core catcher", but no proof of how it would work.
Neither company was anxious to deal with the problem, obviously.
[Adam Curtis, interviewing, off-camera:] Weren't General Electric, in effect, threatening you? They're
saying "If you insist on this, then we'll just pull out of – "
[Okrent:] It was a kind of threat, I think, yes.
[Back to Glenn Seaborg]
[Curtis:] What would've happened if you had said "I think these plants that are being built – these
enormous plants – by General Electric and Westinghouse are potentially dangerous."? What
would have happened if you'd said that?
[Seaborg:] Well, that's a hypothetical question... I –
[Curtis:] You had the power to do it. What would've happened?
[Seaborg:] I don't think we had the power to stop them... well, we could've refused to license them,
of course, but, again, I think that in the context of the times, it's... not a question that makes
Indian Point and the other reactors were built without the redesign the Committee had asked for. Instead, the AEC ordered a massive upgrading of the capacity of the emergency cooling systems, to prevent a core from ever
melting. In effect, the manufacturers had got their way. But they had set a terrible trap for themselves.
In contrast, in the Soviet Union, the grandiose nuclear plans of the 1950s had remained on the drawing board. The Soviet planners were unconvinced they could be constructed cheaply. The physicists and engineers spent
their days designing reactors that would not get built.
Then, in the mid-sixties, Brezhnev came to power. He believed that the road to communism lay through giant technological projects. The nuclear power programme began again. It was dominated by Anatoly Alexandrov, a famous physicist who had designed what was known as the "RBMK" reactor. His team planned giant versions to be built around Soviet cities.
[Anatoly Alexandrov (presumably), subtitled]
I believe and I've always believed that nuclear power is incredibly important. No other fuel – neither
gas nor oil, nor, to a lesser degree, coal – can see humanity through even the next thousand years.
Atomic energy is ecologically cleaner than any other form of energy.
The idyllic picture of a nuclear Eden masked a reality in which safety was barely even considered. The reactors were built at great speed to cut costs and to fulfil the Soviet plan. Some had no protective containment at all, despite the high[?er] pressures of steam. Large amounts of water, contaminated by radiation from the reactor core, were pumped into giant open ponds.
Prof. Yurii I. Koryakin, Head of Research, USSR Institute of Power Research [subtitled]
A decision was taken to build huge million-kilowatt reactors. The first was completed in 1973 and
many others followed. But, in the headlong rush to finish on time, all sense of proportion was
[Film excerpt featuring workers at a (presumably) Soviet nuclear plant showering and checking themselves for radiation]
[Voiceover (in English):] "Complete safety for the attending personnel is ensured at the atomic power
plant. The slightest radioactive contamination can be detected with the aid of radiation monitors.
At the exit of the washroom, there is a [..?..] installation. This will not let you out if there is the
slightest trace of radioactivity about you."
[Yurii Koryakin (subtitled)]
Under Brezhnev, things started to fall apart. Theft and negligence were rife. In the late seventies,
the Brezhnev era reached new heights of corruption just as we were building more atomic plants
than ever. Our efforts to solve this problem internally failed completely, so we went public.
Koryakin and a fellow engineer wrote an article in the [journal] Kommunist. It openly challenged Alexandrov.
It criticised the lack of safety in the design of the plants, where they were sited and the growing question of what to do with the nuclear waste. It caused a sensation.
[Yurii Koryakin (subtitled)]
At a press conference, our article was called a pack of lies, but people knew we were right. The
scientific mafia led by Alexandrov was firmly in the saddle – all those medals and foreign trips.
There's a Russian saying: "Cake for some, knocks for the rest." Ordinary engineers like us got
kicked in the teeth. It often happens like that in life.
Britain, meanwhile, struggled just to make her plants work.
[From an episode of] Tomorrow's World [broadcast in] 1975
[Presenter (Michael Rodd?):] "So far, the first of the advanced gas-cooled reactors being built here
on the Kent coast at Dungeness hasn't produced a single watt of electricity. Ordered at a cost
of £80 million and due to be commissioned in 1972, it might just start producing electricity in
1977 – and really, nobody has a clue how much it's going to cost us.
"So, why is it that things have gone wrong? For a start, – "
Christopher Hinton, interviewed 1974
"When Calder Hall was opened, we were leading the world by three years ... I can only feel terribly
sad, because I've seen that lead... thrown away – I find it difficult to put it any other way."
In America, the enormous nuclear plants ordered in the sixties were nearing completion. The engineers in charge were beginning to discover the trap they had set themselves by failing to redesign the containment. If a molten core could not be contained, then the emergency systems to prevent a meltdown would have to work, whatever happened. The engineers had to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong. In the enormous complexity of the plants, this was proving impossible.
Robert Pollard, reactor engineer, AEC 1969–1976
One of the main things we began to discover is that our theoretical calculations... did not have a
strong correlation with reality. While the regulations required emergency cooling systems – pumps
and valves – we didn't really have any basis for knowing that those pumps and valves would
actually prevent a meltdown of the reactor, because the degree of complexity of trying to predict
what will happen inside a huge reactor in the midst of a pipe-break... we couldn't make any
judgements because we didn't have any facts on which to make judgements.
During the winter of 1971, a series of tests of emergency core cooling systems [using water] were performed at the AEC's private testing site in Idaho. Accidents were simulated in a small model of a reactor. In each case, the emergency systems worked, but the water failed to fill the core. Often, it was forced out under pressure. Despite this, both the industry and senior members of the AEC argued that the full-sized safety systems were safe enough.
I think what happened was... the federal government and the nuclear industry decided that the
absence of proof of danger was almost as good as proof of safety. In other words, even though
we had done experiments that cast doubt on whether the safety systems would actually work if
we had an accident, we still had that backup [of] "Well, maybe an accident won't happen while
we continue to work to perfect the design of the emergency system[s]."
Now, we couldn't announce to the public that we – having told the public that the plants were
safe –  now had to disclose to them [that] we were wrong and [that]  all these safety systems
we told [them] about  might not do any good... my goodness, the uproar would've been... we all
probably would've been fired, there would've been the end of this wonderful technology – from
[our] standpoint  – and we just couldn't... admit that we had been wrong; plus, of course, you
understand with this one experiment [that] it didn't prove the emergency systems wouldn't work
in all circumstances.
28th March 1979, Pennsylvania
On March 28, 1979, a series of human and mechanical errors at the Three Mile Island plant exposed the core. It reacted with steam and produced hydrogen, which exploded. None of the emergency teams could understand what was going on inside the reactor. Then, suddenly, this helicopter [from which (presumably) the footage onscreen was shot] detected a large radioactive cloud drifting towards the nearest town. The voices of the commissioners in charge of the disaster were recorded by a dictaphone that had been left running on a table.
[From the dictaphone recording (various voices)]
"...What was [?your time scale] involved there?" "Hour." "Hour before what?" "Before we had
a core melt." "Before you had a core melt?" "You... you would have hours 'til when you were
generating fission products in a core-melt kind of situation through the containment..." "I think...
you know, we got the best we got, Joe; and they're not coming up with answers – we got the..."
"Well, don't you think as a precautionary measure there should be some evacuation?" [long pause]
"Probably – but I must say it's operating totally in the blind and I don't have any confidence at all
that if we order [an] evacuation, we won't move people... [from?] a place where they've already
gotten a piece of the dose they were going to get into an area where they will get... you know,
they will've had point-five of what they were going to get and now they move someplace else
and get one-point-oh..." "...Joe?" "Yes, sir." "I think [..?..] I've got to call the Governor – " "Yes, sir,
I do think you've got to talk to him immediately –" "to... do it immediately; we're operating almost
totally in the blind... [?this] information is [?ambiguous], mine is non-existent; I don't know... [we're
like?] a couple of blind men... [..?..] stay around, make a decision here..."
"Don't we know that it's been stopped?" "...just lost all communications with the control room..."
For four days, the engineers at the plant watched helplessly as a bubble of hydrogen grew inside the damaged reactor. What they feared most was a further massive explosion. But they knew that if they tried to force the bubble out of the reactor, it might move downwards and completely uncover the core. They would then face the
nightmare of a meltdown.
The engineers were trapped by the consequences of an accident no-one could've anticipated. It was a point they made to the commissioners again and again during the incident.
[Back (presumably) to the dictaphone recording]
"... this is a failure mode that's never been studied; it just... it's unbelievable."
Dr. Victor Gilinsky, Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner 1975–1984
Well, the thing that impressed me was... how little we really knew about the situation. It was very
hard to figure out what was happening...
There was a lot of confusion on everyone's part – both on the company's part and the government's
part – and [on the part of] a lot of other people who were participating; and I think this had a very
strong effect on the public – basically, to see all the men in the white  lab coats, who are supposed
to know, on TV  scratching their heads... I mean, a lot of people wondered whether things were
as much under control as they had been told.
[From an American anti-nuclear power TV endorsement]
[Voiceover:] "Three Mile Island. The President's Commission estimated the cost of the accident could
reach $1.8 billion. That's a lot of money to pay for a power plant that may never work again.
"But Three Mile Island wasn't the first nuclear accident and it won't be the last. In 1979 alone, there
were twenty nuclear incidents that could've led to the catastrophic meltdown of an American
nuclear power plant.
"Don't get sold on nuclear power. We can't pay the price."
[Jane Fonda addressing the crowd at an anti-nuclear power rally in front of the US Capitol building, September 1979]
"...their energy policy will benefit the nuclear industry and the oil companies; and they've given
only lip service to the solar industry..."
There were protests against nuclear power throughout the world. In the public's imagination, it was transformed from something good to something bad. Much of the anger was turned on the nuclear scientists. It emerged that they had deliberately concealed many of the risks and uncertainties they had discovered at the very time when they were publicly promoting the wonders of nuclear power.
Dr. Alvin Weinberg, interviewed 1966
"We would, in effect, have solved the energy problem forever – permanently – which, in itself, is
just an extraordinary new dimension in human experience; to have energy, which is the ultimate
Alvin Weinberg, Director, Oak Ridge National Laboratory 1955–1974
We recognised there was a risk, but we always deemed the risk to be really [i.e. genuinely?] acceptable.
But now I guess I'm more mature – older... [and] I realise that the decision [that it] was acceptable
is not something that we technologists can make; it's something that the public makes.
[Adam Curtis, interviewing, off-camera:] Why did you think it was something you could make then?
[Weinberg, after a long pause:] You know, I guess it never occurred to me to... to ask this question.
The nuclear enterprise had always been... well, it started out as a secret enterprise, of course; and
the notion of the public being intimately involved in very complicated technical issues – issues which
went way beyond the competence of any member of the public – it just didn't seem that that was
the right way to do it.
And I think the basic question is: "Can modern intrusive technology and liberal democracy co-exist?"
[Voiceovered translation of what ultimately is revealed to be the playback of a cassette tape]
"I keep in my safe records of the operators' telephone conversations on the eve of the accident. It
makes one's skin crawl to read them. One operator telephones another and asks: "The program
here states what must be done, but a lot has been crossed out..?" The other thinks for a moment
and then says: "Act according to what has been crossed out."
"In Kiev, we set off for the nuclear power station. It didn't enter my head that we were moving
towards an event on a planetary scale. On the following day, when I went into the ruins of the
reactor in an armoured troop carrier, I had that sense of anger that there were no solutions, no
technical remedies worked out in advance. Of course, we had said such an accident could only
happen once in a thousand years; but who said that this once would fall in our year 1986?"
Yurii Scherbak, Ukrainian journalist and MP [after switching off the tape playback; subtitled]
That was Valeri [sic] Legasov, one of the heroes of Chernobyl. He suffered a strange and tragic fate.
I met him in autumn 1986.
Legasov had been one of the main architects of Russia's nuclear programme. Now he led the fight at Chernobyl,
repeatedly flying through the radiation above the blazing reactor.
As with Three Mile Island, an improbable sequence of errors had led to an explosion and a molten core that had now started to burn its way through the foundations of the reactor. A tunnel was frantically dug directly under the plant by hundreds of volunteers. Liquid nitrogen was poured in to freeze the ground underneath. By luck,
the nitrogen gas also began to stifle the graphite fire. And then, on the fifth day, for reasons that still no-one
understands, the core began to cool.
Despite this, [Legasov remained a staunch defender of nuclear power] [throughout the disaster and the terrible dangers].
[From TV footage of Valeri Legasov and ?volunteers; translation provided by voiceover]
Valeri Legasov, Deputy Director, Atomic Power Institute
"... The maximum dose was 0.7 röntgens per hour; over the reactor, we got 0.3 and 0.5 röntgens..."
[Someone:] "Do you think we'll be able to have children?"
[Legasov:] "Yes; don't worry."
[Someone:] "Are you sure?"
[Legasov, laughing:] "I've been working with radioactivity since 1964 and I've got kids – don't worry!"
In the months that followed, Legasov changed his mind. In a long taped interview with the then-Soviet MP Yurii Scherbak, he gave a damning criticism of the whole nuclear power programme. The problem, he said, was the demand that was made of the technology.
[Yurii Scherbak (subtitled)]
I had an amazing conversation with Legasov. Suddenly he began telling me, very openly, about
the agony he'd been through at Chernobyl.
Extracts [translated] from Scherbak's interview with Valerii [sic] Legasov
[Voiceover:] "It's easy to think or imagine that the enemy is the nuclear reactor. But the enemy isn't
technology. I have come to the paradoxical conclusion that technology must be protected from
man. In the past – the time that included the old reactors; the time that ended with Gagarin's
flight into space – the technology was created by people who stood on the shoulders of Tolstoy
and Dostoyevsky. They were educated in this period of the great humanitarian ideas; in this
period of a beautiful and correct moral sense. They had a clear political idea of the new society
they were trying to create; one that would be the most advanced in the world. But already in the
generations that succeeded them, there were engineers who stood on their shoulders and saw
only the technical side of things. But if someone is educated only in technical ideas, they cannot
create anything new, anything for which they are responsible.
"The operators of the reactor that night [thought] they were doing everything well and correctly –
and they were breaking the rules for the sake of doing it [trying to do it?] even better. But they had
lost sight of the purpose; [of] what they were doing it for."
Then, two years to the day after the accident – and for unknown [unconfirmed?] reasons – Valeri Legasov committed suicide.
[An extract from the Buchanan Brothers' 1946 country-music hit "Atomic Power" plays as footage from the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster continues]
Joseph Morone, nuclear [science] historian
In the golden age of science – at the time when society had its most optimistic view of science – it
basically had a wrong-headed view of science. It had the view that... this form of the technology
[he is gesturing toward the reactor containment building behind him] was the inevitable form that it had
to take; and that if that was the form it took, then it must be the right form.
Forty years later, we have a similarly naïve view – it's no longer tinged by hope and optimism; it's
tinged by pessimism and fear – but we still have this view that society can't shape technology; that
that the form  the technology takes is the form we must accept. And, just as [this] wasn't true in
1950, it's not true today.
This is not a story of technology run amok, although that's how many people understand it to be;
the history of nuclear power is a history of political and economic and social decisions being made
about a technology – and the key decisions weren't made by the technologists; they were [made] in
the [realm of] business . What science and technology gives you is a range of possibilities; and
those possibilities can take you in any number of directions. It's potentially a liberating force; but,
to get there, society has to stop sleepwalking and start realising that it's not a scientific choice, it's
not an engineering choice – it's a moral choice.
[Back to the 1950s promotional film used at the start of the documentary; the father and son are now inside and have just
finished watching a film via a movie projector]
[Father:] "Well, George, does that answer your question?"
[Son:] "It sure does... [It's] given me a whole new perspective – "