Filmmakers Examining the 'What Ifs' of Nuclear Power
September 8, 2004
By NANCY RAMSEY
Cesium-137 is not your usual topic for a Midtown Manhattan
lunch. But if you sit down with Maryann De Leo and Rory
Kennedy, who have completed documentaries on the effects on
children of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 (Ms. De
Leo) and the Indian Point power plant in Buchanan, N.Y.
(Ms. Kennedy), it is not long before the subject comes up.
(Cesium-137 is radioactive waste, an isotope produced when
uranium or plutonium undergoes fission.)
The women, who had not met before, quickly dispensed with
the social niceties. Ms. Kennedy complimented Ms. De Leo on
her film, which she said she found heartbreaking, then took
15 seconds to show a photo of her second daughter, born six
weeks earlier. Ms. De Leo invited Ms. Kennedy to a
reception her brother Dominic was organizing in honor of
the films, which will be broadcast back-to-back by HBO
Ms. De Leo said she too had proposed films to HBO about
Indian Point and AIDS, a subject Ms. Kennedy tackled with
"Pandemic: Facing AIDS," a five-part series for HBO last
year. But Ms. Kennedy, being a Kennedy - she is Robert F.
Kennedy's youngest daughter, born after his death - was
able to secure outside funds more readily.
Menus in hand, the women quickly and nearly simultaneously
dismissed tuna as a possible choice: "Mercury, " they said.
Ms. De Leo's film "Chernobyl Heart," which won the 2003
Academy Award for best documentary short, is not easy to
talk about or watch. It takes the viewer into children's
hospitals in Belarus and Ukraine and into the 30-kilometer
exclusion zone around the reactor. According to the United
Nations, birth defects in Belarus have increased 250
percent since the accident, and the lives of the children
in the film are tragic.
One girl, Julia, was born with her brain outside her skull;
another child, 4, is the size of a 4-month-old.
"I had to show enough of the kids with deformities, but if
I showed too many, nobody would want to watch," Ms. De Leo
Ms. Kennedy's "Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable"
takes a less emotional approach. It features interviews
with the plant's detractors (including her brother Robert
F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecutor for Riverkeeper, an
environmental- protection group) and a few defenders. Ms.
Kennedy, who narrates the film, begins with questions: what
if American Airlines Flight 11, navigating along the Hudson
valley on Sept. 11, had banked left and hit Indian Point,
rather than continuing south to the World Trade Center? Is
enough being done to protect Americans from terrorists at
Both women offered a quick and categorical no when asked if
they considered their films anti-nuclear power.
"I don't believe in making didactic films," said Ms. De
Leo, born in Brooklyn, one of six children of a sanitation
worker. Her television documentary work has taken her to
Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, Afghanistan, Angola, Korea and
The idea for "Chernobyl Heart" was planted when a friend
visiting from Spain suggested that Ms. De Leo see a United
Nations photography exhibition about the children of
Chernobyl. "It was the most shocking thing he'd ever seen,"
she said. "I had really forgotten about Chernobyl. I hadn't
thought about birth defects there, and at the time I was
working on a film about Bellevue," the Manhattan hospital.
But in 2002 Ms. De Leo went to Belarus. She would return
two more times, at one point requiring treatment for cesium
"Indian Point has much more cesium than Chernobyl had," Ms.
Kennedy interjected. "Being in New York City on 9/11, and
in the aftermath, there was a lot of concern about where
the next terrorist attack would be - Indian Point, bridges
and tunnels, waterways, chemical plants. There was a
disproportionate amount of fear, some of it grounded, some
not. I went into this project with the question, is Indian
Point something we need to fear?"
Ms. De Leo asked her about Indian Point's safety record
("horrible," Ms. Kennedy said); both agreed on the
impossibility of evacuating millions in the event of an
accident. Ms. Kennedy talked about the inability of guards
to protect the plant adequately because of the stress and
long hours detailed in the film. Located on the Hudson, the
"exterior is screaming 'hit me,' " she said. "It's
extremely vulnerable by water."
In the film Mr. Kennedy contends that the pools of water
holding spent fuel rods, which contain more than 1,400 tons
of spent nuclear fuel, are most vulnerable. His claims are
followed by an interview with a scientist from the Union of
Concerned Scientists, who details a potential terrorist
attack, beginning with an explosive charge interfering with
the rods' coolants and ending with the release of
cesium-137 into the air.
In the film such criticisms are countered by
representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a
federal agency, and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade
association, who describe the robust structures housing the
reactors, the stepped-up security after 9/11 and the
extreme unlikelihood of an attack of the magnitude Ms.
Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast,
which owns the two plants at Indian Point, is not
interviewed in the film but defended the business in a
phone interview. "There has never been an event at Indian
Point causing dangerous releases of radioactivity," he
said. "The plants are heavily regulated by the N.R.C."
Since 9/11, he added, the commission has limited the number
of hours a guard is allowed to work, and Entergy "has spent
well over $30 million on enhancing security at Indian
Those outside the industry also propose nuclear energy as a
viable power source, given the environmental hazards of
burning fossil fuels and the political ramifications of
relying on Middle East oil. A recent interdisciplinary
study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
concluded that "the nuclear option should be retained
precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of
Spencer R. Weart, a historian at the American Institute of
Physics and author of "Nuclear Fear: A History of Images"
(Harvard University Press, 1988) offers a context for
examining the nuclear option - and, perhaps, for watching
"All industrial systems are liable to accidents, and we
have to ask ourselves, where is the most likely damage over
the long term?" he said in a telephone interview. "Every
energy source has its problems. Bangladesh has been in the
news because of the terrible flooding there. This is what
will happen increasingly with global warming. The longtime
consequences of burning fossil fuels are more severe than
nuclear power. Let's say I'm less a proponent of nuclear
power than an opponent of coal and oil."
Listening to such arguments, Ms. Kennedy nodded and said,
"I would have said that before I made this film."
Scientists also have strong views about the fairness of
comparing the Chernobyl disaster to what could happen in
this country "Chernobyl was a terrible tragedy," Robert A.
Bari, a physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in
Upton, N.Y., said in a phone conversation. "It happened
because they operated the reactor out of its
specifications. And Indian Point has a very, very different
design than the Chernobyl reactor."
For Ms. Kennedy and Ms. De Leo, who are passionate about
their subjects, such arguments have little resonance. Ms.
De Leo recalled a warning a Russian scientist made to
Americans, imploring them to shut down nuclear plants.
Ms. Kennedy said, "You can't throw numbers and statistics
at children born with brains outside their heads." Such
debates would not be resolved at a two-and-a-half-hour
lunch. Running late for a 3 p.m. meeting, she added, "I
don't think there is another side to the conversation."