The Atom: A Love Affair

Debates around climate change, environmental justice, sustainability and the type of energy we use and produce continue to be at the forefront of our societies. We have come to appreciate the importance of our relationship with nature in different ways during the pandemic but despite the emergency of greener and renewable types of energy, such as wind and solar energy, we continue to use and rely on other industries. In this context, understandings of nuclear power remain contested and challenging.

So, to enrich our knowledge of these debates, on 26th January 2021 the first virtual educational screening in the UK of the recently released independent feature documentary ‘The Atom: A Love Affair’ was hosted by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural politics (SECP) and the Cities, Injustices and Resistance Research Group (CiRes) at the University of Brighton. This lunchtime event was a great success with over 40 people attending, including students and staff from the university of Brighton, as well as activists and members of the public. The film was followed by an online Questions and Answers (Q&A) discussion with the director, Brighton resident Vicki Lesley, hosted by Dr Roxana Cavalcanti.

Originally due to play in UK cinemas in summer 2020, due to the ongoing pandemic the film was instead released digitally with Curzon Home Cinema, where it was the most-watched new film on the weekend of its release and garnered positive national press reviews. It was also recently longlisted for the Discovery Award at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs). With her distributors Dartmouth Films, Vicki is now embarking on the next phase of distribution of the film, with educational, institutional and community screenings (all virtual for the time being), with accompanying panel discussion/Q&A sessions allowing the opportunity to discuss the issues the film raises in more detail.

This alternative virtual screening provided a unique educational opportunity to learn about the history of nuclear power, and consider how nuclear power relates to temporal, political and national contexts in which it operates. The Q&A allowed participants to learn more about the research that was done to produce the film and discuss the challenges faced by some of the activists interviewed for the film. Particularly telling were the stories of sexism encountered by the activist group Mothers for Peace, whose desire to challenge oppressive structures of power and environmental harm through the longevity of their activism inspire us to continue trying to advance social, environmental and legal justice causes.

During the lively post-screening discussion, participants were keen to know more about the story behind the film and also draw links both to their own academic research and personal experiences. By way of example, one attendee shared his own memories of the anti-nuclear campaigns at Sellafield in the 1980s, which are vividly depicted in archive footage in the film and remembered by both sides in the shape of then-British Nuclear Fuels director Harold Bolter on the one hand and the head of campaigns at UK Greenpeace at the time, Pete Wilkinson, on the other. Another attendee kicked off an interesting discussion of how the debates and campaigns around nuclear displayed in the film parallel current protests and discussions about fracking, which she is currently engaged in researching. Ultimatly, the event brought attention to the importance of continuing our work to shift consciousness relating to social and environmental issues that remain normalised through harmful industries and technologies that continue to operate routinely around the world.

A true labour of love independently funded and over a decade in the making, the film tells the turbulent story of the West’s rollercoaster love-hate relationship with nuclear power over the past 75 years, exploring the social and political impacts of this most controversial energy source with the scientists, engineers, politicians and campaigners who experienced them firsthand. With a wealth of archive footage from the UK, US, France, Germany and Japan, the film frames the experience of nuclear power in these countries as a love affair, with passion and hope, belief and betrayal, blunders, crisis and reinvention playing out across the decades. And it asks important questions about the nature of big, impactful technologies like nuclear – about where the balance of power should lie between government, big business and civil society, and who should own these technologies and share in the benefits or shoulder the risks that they pose.


About the authors:

Dr Roxana Cavalcanti is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. She is the author of A Southern Criminology of Violence, Youth and Policing: Governing Insecurity in Urban Brazil (Routledge) and is currently working on a project about the persecution of activists in Brazil.

Vicki Lesley is a documentary maker, independent producer and director at Tenner Films, which she set up to develop work on environmental and social justice issues. You can sign up for updates about the film at ; Twitter @tennerfilms