'Return of the Atom' ('Atomin Paluu'): TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A dry account of a controversial chapter in the "nuclear renaissance."

Inside the first nuclear plant the West has built since Chernobyl.

A black eye for the nuclear-revival movement, Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola's Return of the Atom watches patiently as the West's first new nuclear power plant since Chernobyl slowly fails to be the trouble-free project planners promised. One might expect a film spanning five or so years of concrete pours, community meetings and construction status updates to be a dry affair, and in this case it certainly is — enlivened only by the righteousness of two or three tireless opponents of the plan. Though it stands as a useful if minor document for further debates over the future of energy production, it will only play well with anti-nuke activist groups.

The small Finnish town of Eurajoki — "a town of electrical vitality," as a welcoming billboard puts it — has since the '70s housed two of the nation's four nuclear power plants. At the dawn of what promised to be "a renaissance of nuclear energy," its operators were granted permission to build a fourth. Taanila and Eerola start watching the project in October of 2004, interviewing corporate spokesmen who assure them that the lessons of the past have been digested fully and this super-modern design has "accounted for the worst possible accident."

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Even if that is true (the Titanic's engineers thought the same, didn't they?), design and implementation aren't the same thing. Within the first few months we meet a workman on the site who says he couldn't do his job on schedule because "they'd forgotten to put in the f---ing drainage"; as a result, rebar was being installed loosely, allowing it to be moved around to accommodate further fixes.

These flaws aren't evident in the time-lapse footage the filmmakers present, in which mammoth cranes deliver tons of concrete. (First-time feature directors Taanila and Eerola have previously worked on experimental short films and gallery installations.) But each time we return to the construction's offices, we learn of further delays.

When they're not talking to blithe PR folks or the worksite's priest (who compares workers to Jesus's parents, for some reason), the filmmakers hang out with the few voices raising objections in Eurajoki. Most notable is an electrician who started work at the plant in 1977 and, after seeing colleagues get leukemia, started fighting his own employers. He eventually gets outside help from a Stockholm professor's investigation into the area's seismic history, but these causes for concern make little difference: Despite the fact that the third reactor has taken over twice as long to build as promised, at three times the original budget — and despite the calamity at Fukushima — the Finnish government has given the thumbs-up for the company to build a fourth.


Production company: Kinotar

Directors: Mika Taanila, Jussi Eerola

Producer: Cilla Werning

Director of photography: Jussi Eerola

Editor: Mika Taanila

Music: Pan Sonic

Sales: Deckert Distribution

No rating, 109 minutes