Return of the Atom, UK Premiere

Return of the Atom (film still) Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola (2015)
Return of the Atom (film still) Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola (2015)

ICA, The Mall, London
Thursday 19 Oct 2017

8:15 pm, Cinema 1
Tickets £7.00 - £11.00

The UK premiere of Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola's film 'Return of the Atom' will be followed by a discussion between director Mika Taanila and Ele Carpenter.

This event launches an epic London-wide survey of Finnish modernist artist Mika Taanila's moving image work. With a powerful score by Pan Sonic, Return Of The Atom is a satirical documentary on this millennium's nuclear renaissance, exploring the first nuclear power plant built worldwide since the Chernobyl disaster and its implications on the local and global community. The feature will be preceded by Zone Of Total Eclipse, a 16mm experiment in which sound is used to measure the passage of time, and Man And Science, a flicker piece exploring the dominant themes of Taanila's practice: human engineering, utopias, failures and man as machine. The screening will be followed by a wide-ranging debate between the director, Mika Taanila, and curatorial researcher in Nuclear Culture, Dr Ele Carpenter.

Return Of The Atom, dir. Mika Taanila & Jussi Eerola, 2015, 110 mins, colour, DCP
Man And Science, dir. Mika Taanila, 2011, 37 secs x 6, 16mm
Zone Of Total Eclipse , dir. Mika Taanila, 2006, 6 mins, 16mm x 2

Ele's notes on 'Return of the Atom':

It was an honour to include still from 'Return of the Atom' in The Nuclear Culture Source Book, which launched at the ICA this time last year with a talk by Susan Schuppli about her film and essay ‘Trace Evidence’.

'Return of the Atom', provides a valuable understanding of the concepts of nuclear modernity within the 21st century, and situates nuclear power generation with the discourse of the nuclear anthropocene. Previously the concept of the nuclear anthropocene draws on fallout and inserting high-level radioactive waste into the fossil record, but Taanila and Eerola's film highlights the importance of considering the massive industrial construction and contamination of nuclear power sites.

I first came to hear about the Finnish nuclear programme whilst at a radioactive waste management conference in Luxembourg; where from people at Posiva, the Finnish nuclear waste decommissioning agency, explained to me how positive the Finnish people are about nuclear power and waste storage; in a similar manner to the opening scenes of your film. And like you, I almost believed them. Since then I’ve been working with Bildmuseet in Umea, northeast Sweden, which is downwind from the new planned nuclear power station at Hanhikivi in Pyhajoki. And Stockholm is downwind from Olkiluoto, the plant so beautifully documented in 'Return of the Atom'. The Swedes remember the fallout from Chernobyl and the resulting reindeer cull, so they don’t want to be the next ‘down-winders’ from Finnish plants.

In response Umea-based film-maker Frederick Oskarsson has made a film called Nuclear Neighbour, based on the story of Hanna Halmeenpää, a local resident who became politicised by her campaign against the Pyhajoki plant, and is now a Green Member of the Finnish Parliament. And a young Swedish filmmaker, Leon Berthas, has made a short documentary called Sissu Meltdown 3.0 about the direct-action protests to disrupt the building works at Pyhajoki.

Yet ‘Return of the Atom’ is quite different in its broad access to all the key stakeholders in the local nuclear economy; and in how it addresses the deep time geology of seismic movement and the role of activists as informal nuclear regulators. So I’d like to reflect for a moment on how the political enquiry of the film takes the viewer on the emotional rollercoaster from nukespeak to resistance as two sides of the same project.

The psychic effects of the nuclear are not just a symptom of radiation, but of the whole conception of the nuclear industry and its protest movements. The industry is particularly renowned for its utopian rhetoric that operates as a whitewash and closes down debate. At the same time the activist movements can be equally self-righteous, and scare-mongering can also close down debate. It’s very complex to negotiate this convoluted double-language of nukes-speak and paranoia to find meaningful human threads to the nuclear story. So I’m particularly impressed by how Taanila dealt with this in the edit.

In the archival footage, the Finnish nuclear industry is described as “modern,” “avant-garde,” and compared to building cathedrals, in terms of duration and commitment. But of course, the comparison goes further, the unwavering belief in the nuclear can be easily compared to religion: An invisible energy harnessed by institutions with the promise of a utopian future, and sold to big business as a crusade with complete denial of the consequences of the waste, where radiation is considered “insubstantial”.

In the nuclear religion – “There is no alternative to electricity production” - says someone from Siemens in the film. And we’re starkly reminded of Mark Fisher’s discussion of how “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism”. At Olkilouto there is no space to un-think the nuclear. And Return of the Atom keeps us focused on the everyday experience of living with the nuclear economy.

Here the out-takes are included in the narrative. So the moments of doubt, troubled distraction, absent meandering, late-night anxiety are all included. We get a strong sense of individuals negotiating a technology over-which they have little agency or understanding; when they can, they fly away; if they have to stay, their words are not heard.

The second half of the film situates the plant in the wider discussion about nuclear technology in Finland, demonstrating the important ways in which activists operate as regulators of the industry. At Olkiluoto, you follow Arto Lauri, an electrical engineer who is still employed by the company, and is challenging the safety case of the plant. And this reminds by of the way in SKB (the Swedish waste management company) funds MKG, an independent NGO to consult on its proposals for a geologic repository. It’s the ‘safety valve’ of opposition, the ‘acceptable opposition’, evidence that public consultation has been carried out. The difference is that in Sweden the organisational infrustructure protects individuals, whilst in Finland, the activists at Olkiluoto are very isolated and vulnerable.

Whilst Return of the Atom represents the beginning of the nuclear cycle, and Michael Madsen’s Film Into Eternity represents the final end game for potential waste storage; it might seem strange that one might be used to justify the other. That the tenuous solution for waste might be used to justify the production of yet more waste. Perhaps responsibility of cause and effect, nuclear power generation and its waste products has been seperated for too long in Finland. And it will be interesting to see if the scale, cost and efficacy of the Onkolo repository has any long term impact on the committment to increasing nuclear power generation. What the two infrastructure projects have in common is the impact of long construction timescales on institutional memory and intergenerational memory. In the film the workers explain that no-one remembers how the old plants were built. The staff at Areva / Siemens move onto the next project when they can. So there's a lack of continuity of skills and knowledge. A problem also apparent in activist networks here in the UK.

When the film takes us to Onkolo, the narrative doesn't attempt to create a mystical atmosphere of deeptime responsibility as so effectively achieved by Madsen. Instead the figures of water flow through the Onkolo site are calculated on screen. A poignant moment considering that the safety case for the repository and its copper canisters is predicated on an absence of water.

Towards the end of the film we follow our Arto Lauri and a Paleo-geo-physicist on a journey to look for geologic spikes in sand sedimentation that indicate historical seismic movement in the region. It seems possible that future seismic movement could disrupt the geologic waste repository and the power plants. Suddenly the 10 year delay of the Olkiluoto 3 plant construction seems to shrink into irrelevance.