Inside the Atomic Industry: In Germany, Nuclear Power 'Has Been Demonized'

Volker Sattel spent years researching his documentary on nuclear power, 'Under Control,' which premiered at the Berlinale film festival this week. He gained unprecedented access to plants and employees, even filming over an open reactor. Sattel argues the debate in Germany has become overheated.

A new documentary by German director Volker Sattel, "Under Control,"or "Unter Kontrolle," goes behind the scenes at nuclear power plants, both active and disused, around Central Europe.

Nuclear energy is a fraught subject in Germany, with the majority of the population being opposed to long-term use of nuclear energy. Last October, the German government amended a cherished phase-out of the nation's nuclear power plants. The last nuclear facility had been scheduled to go dark by around 2020, but new legislation enacted in October extended the lifespan of the plants for an average of another 12 years, meaning the last plant will only close in 2035.

But even though documentary filmmaker Sattel believes nuclear technology is outmoded and that the utopian vision of clean atomic energy has long been proven false, he also feels the debate in Germany has been far too emotional. This is apparent in his documentary, which is so objective that it feels downright dry at times.

The film is beautifully shot -- a montage of wide-angle pictures of the power stations' intimidatingly large control rooms, all flashing lights, buttons and measuring devices, which look more like spaceflight control centers, contrasts with vistas of pretty, green European countryside studded with giant cooling towers. But there is no real narration. Instead, the engineers and plant workers responsible for safety at the power plants simply talk about their jobs and the various shutdown procedures they would go through, should any problems arise.

As the film progresses, Sattel deliberately moves away from the working power plants and research reactors toward those that have been shut down. By the end of the film, there is barely any human presence. His four-member film crew visits huge, underground storage facilities filled with containers of radioactive waste and abandoned, rusting nuclear power plants where most of the working parts had been bought by Russia as well as a rather bizarre amusement park located on the site of a partially constructed nuclear power plant in Germany that never went online.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Sattel, why did you make this film?

Volker Sattel: In Germany this topic has been discussed very emotionally and with very ideological overtones. For many people, it's a hysterical subject.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you believe an unemotional discussion of nuclear power is missing in Germany?

Sattel: People are frightened that nuclear power plants will explode at any minute or that all the children will get cancer. When we started filming, people would often ask us: "Isn't it dangerous? Have you been contaminated?" There is such a lot of fear -- and perhaps rightly so. After all, Chernobyl was only 25 years ago. But all of this makes it difficult to discuss. It has been demonized. And this documentary is an attempt to lift the fog and bring some clarity to the discussion, so we can talk about it more calmly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your film does feel very calm and very objective. After three years of research and filming in Germany's nuclear power plants, you still don't have an opinion?

Sattel: I do. But it would be presumptuous to try and change public opinion. To do that, you'd have to make more populist films, like Michael Moore does. Some people have seen the film and felt their mistrust in the technology justified. But if an engineer or plant worker sees the film, they see something very different. And actually I believe there are many opinions in the film, but you must look deeply into it to find them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could you explain exactly what you mean?

Sattel: On one hand the film goes into the waste storage facility and you see so many security measures. So the risk, and the difficulty, in controlling (nuclear energy) is obvious. On the other hand, I also show the control rooms, where the technology is fascinating. I think the gap between risk and control, between threat and beauty, tells the story. I have also tried to show the original utopian vision that spawned nuclear energy. But by directing the camera at nuclear projects that are being closed down, I have also shown how that utopian vision has failed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have said before that it required a lot of pre-planning to get permission to film in the nuclear plants. Do you think this makes for a realistic documentary?

Sattel: I agree this can be a problem for documentary makers. But I did get an opportunity to have a look around myself before filming. And of course, you don't get to see everything. There are restrictions. I was told, "there are some things we don't want you to shoot." But it wasn't anything scandalous; it was more about security issues and the potential for terrorism.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What sorts of things were you not allowed to shoot?

Sattel: I can't talk about it. But that is the same as with any other business. Even VW won't let you into some parts of their factories.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You spent a lot of time with workers in the nuclear plants. Do they have an opinion on nuclear power, or is it just a job to them?

Sattel: They certainly know they are in an unusual position. But it is their everyday reality. It is like how doctors operate on people every day. Many of them also come from the mining industry or from the military, so they are used to working situations that are hierarchical and controlled. They are disciplined and generally, they are not scared that the technology will malfunction.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Throughout the entire film, you didn't speak to any opponents of nuclear power. Why not?

Sattel: It would have been a completely different film if I had. Because what do the opponents of nuclear power have to do with the daily running of the plants? Nothing. But they are important for the technology. They are also in control. Without them, improvements in nuclear power plants, which have been significantly upgraded, particularly in comparison to the 1970s, would never have happened. Those improvements did not happen because of the nuclear power plant operators. It was because of outside pressure.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was most difficult thing about the process of making this film?

Sattel: Once a year these plants shut down and are completely disassembled for maintenance. Everything is opened up and there are all these highly radioactive items lying around. The danger of contamination is very high and if we wanted to film it, we needed to be absolutely covered in protective gear. Double gloves, everything. You can't touch anything, you can't put any (camera) gear down and you had to carry everything. It's also very hot and the air is bad.

We were also able to film over an open research reactor as the fuel rods were being changed. This is done in water which is also highly radioactive. It was a very eerie feeling. And there were many moments like that where you were thinking: "wow, standing here with a camera is actually completely crazy." If it wasn't for the passion for this project, you'd think we were mad.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: While you were making this documentary, was there anything that surprised you?

Sattel: Being underground in nuclear waste storage facility in the salt caves, 600 meters (1,968 feet) down, was interesting. I had seen photos but you don't really understand what it means until you are down there, far from the earth's surface where there is no life and you are alone with something that is going to be around far longer than you are. The other thing was when we were filming into a research reactor. You look into it and you see this power, both monstrous and incredible. And you start to understand why nuclear physicists enjoy what they do. It's fascinating.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What sort of reactions has the documentary had so far?

Sattel: For opponents of nuclear energy the film is a clear sign that this technology is past its due date. That is also the impression that I had after visiting all these places. The technology is so monstrous and slow, it is no longer contemporary and it doesn't have much of a future.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what do advocates of nuclear energy think of the documentary? Are they critical?

Sattel: There are not many of those in Germany! But at the premier we did have somebody there who worked on the film with us and he liked it. I hope that for those people it will be a sort of cinematic document.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: After making this documentary and spending so much time observing what goes on at the plants, do you have a solution to Germany's current issues with nuclear power and nuclear waste?

Sattel: We have some huge tasks ahead of us that cannot be underestimated. The dismantling of nuclear power plants here and elsewhere is a major exercise that will cost billions of euros. And obviously there is the problem of what to do with the waste. Our whole society must consider this properly so we can find the right solution. Even though the maximum is being done with regard to safety and security, there is always a risk. Finally though, with this topic, you end up concluding that neither one side, nor the other, is correct. It comes down to a need for careful assessment. It should not be a decision based on emotion.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Finally, Mr. Sattel, having made this documentary and seen what goes on inside nuclear power plants, would you want to live in one of the small towns in which you filmed, where people had a nuclear reactor, literally in their back yards?

Sattel: Not directly next to one, no. But I actually grew up in a city that was only seven kilometers (4.3 miles) away from a nuclear power plant. As a child, the reactor towers were always on the horizon. They definitely left an impression.

Interview conducted by Cathrin Schaer

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