Published Sep 11, 2015When Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola's socio-political enviro-doc, Return of the Atom, starts, it shows great promise. An archival on-screen animation denotes the science behind nuclear energy in hilariously convoluted terms before the premise, wherein Eurajoki, Finland is selected as the site for the first post-Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Western Europe, is outlined. Then, an interview clip with the French contractors planning the project, which outlines the efficiencies and expertise involved, is juxtaposed with the candid observations of a construction worker noting the constant last-minute architectural and structural changes, in addition to the many shortcuts taken to cut costs and keep things on schedule.
While this is an obvious parallel that lacks any sort of subtlety — the next clip has the French contractors discussing a new American venture, which is followed by a comedic insert of a plane taking off — it does set a tone and a framework for what to expect. And since the construction of the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant (OC3) has devolved into farce, being delayed nine years in projected completion and costing nearly three times as much as the plans called for, this sort of approach seems entirely apropos. Unfortunately, after the premise is outlined, Return of the Atom devolves into a complete mess.
Taanila and Eerola have an abundance of interview and archival footage at their disposal. Since the project technically started back in December of 2000, when TVO (Teollisuuden Voima, a Finnish nuclear power company) applied to the Finnish cabinet for approval, there are many years and many obstacles to cover. Rather than take a linear approach or divide the documentary into thematically similar segments, Taanila and Eerola take a scattershot approach that jumps between years and arguments without a great deal of logical progression.
Initially, the discussion appears to be environmental. TVO spokesmen outline the environmental benefits of nuclear energy, citing the lack of natural resources involved, comparing it to coal mining, while others discuss the adverse effects of radiation exposure (leukaemia) and the need to utilize another source of energy to deal with the excess waste. A longtime employee of Areva, the contractor building the site for TVO, currently on long-term disability, is the most vocal opponent of nuclear energy; the film crew follows him around, partially, from town halls to board discussions as he speaks against a mostly pro-nuclear status quo.
In between these discussions, which are edited to make the TVO spokesman seem as inept as possible, there are conspiratorial discussions, throwback discussions about Chernobyl, news reports about construction delays and sidebar points about Eurajoki potentially being on a fault line.
The problem here is that Return of the Atom isn't sure what it wants to be. It floats between tones and styles as it shifts between subjects and intent, having just a general sense of satire that's eventually only represented by the image of a train crashing into a car (a train metaphor is used by a TVO spokesman early in the film).
It's often difficult to determine where things are on the construction timeline or what aspect of the issue is being debated. It's messy. Worse, they avoid providing many statistics. There's an onscreen acknowledgement of water pollution information, but when they bring up the leukaemia issue or make broad statements about corporate influence, they never back it up with specific examples or provide any sort of tangible proof. It's a lot of hearsay, slapped together to exaggerate the absurdity of the endeavour.
With some focus or structure, Return of the Atom could have easily been the horrific comedy of errors it wants to be. But Taanila and Eerola had too many points and ideas thrown into the mix that never really form a solid idea or assertion. It's really quite a shame, because their opening was so strong.