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Atomic bombshells

Two films on nuclear power are worth watching -- if you can bear to.

September 09, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Reviving the double feature, HBO tonight tandem-premieres two short documentaries about the dangers of nuclear power ("When Atoms Go Bad" would be the Fox tagline). Maryann DeLeo's "Chernobyl Heart" documents the continuing fallout, literally and figuratively, of the 1986 reactor explosion, the worst nuclear accident in history. "Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable," by Rory Kennedy, takes a look at the vulnerability to attack and accident of a nuclear power plant 35 miles upriver from New York City.

Neither will help you sleep well at night, but with uranium enrichment currently in the news, from Iran to the Koreas, north and south -- the Atomic Age has, on balance, been a bad, bad thing -- they are worth watching, or trying to. "Chernobyl Heart" is almost impossible to watch. I can't imagine anyone who knows how to work a television set not switching to something less disturbing -- some nice American "reality" programming, about switching moms or getting a new nose, just for fun. I would not recommend it to anyone I cared about, and would have turned it off myself if it hadn't been my job to watch it. As it was, I finished in tears, and am still depressed, and didn't want to write this at all.

Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert Kennedy, is no Sunday filmmaker but an award-winning documentarian. She made "Indian Point" in an attempt to answer a nagging question. Learning (from her brother, Robert Kennedy Jr.) that one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center in September 2001 had flown over Indian Point on its way to Manhattan, she asks what would have happened if the hijackers had decided to take a crack at the power plant instead. If her film is something less than conclusive, it is because there is no way to be sure of the answer, not until it's demonstrated in the real world. In the meantime, there is a nuclear power plant within contamination range of the biggest, busiest and undoubtedly most-difficult-to-evacuate city in America. Is that smart?

That Kennedy's main witness is her brother, who is also the chief prosecuting attorney for the environmental group Riverkeeper, which is trying to shut down Indian Point, is perhaps unfortunate from the standpoint of the appearance of impartiality. But she is in fact more or less evenhanded as regards screen time for industry reps and apologists. (Entergy, the New Orleans-based company that now owns Indian Point, declined to be interviewed, as did New York City's mayor and the state's governor and senators.) There are in any case other concerned voices to give the viewer pause, from insecure security guards and a skeptical police chief to scientists and suits. There is a safety record that speaks (poorly) for itself, and an evacuation plan that, in spite of the objections of state and local officials and a critical independent report, was recertified by the federal government. There is the fact that, while there is a "no-fly" zone over Disneyland, no such restriction holds for Indian Point -- above which the Kennedys hover, in a helicopter, unmolested.

"Chernobyl Heart" won an Academy Award last year for director DeLeo, already a winner of Emmys and a Peabody Award. From "Rape: Cries From the Heartland" to "High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell," her work has concentrated on social issues. Her goal here is to remind the privileged world of a disaster that now seems remote in time, and always seemed remote in place. From any important angle -- social, spiritual, political, practical (in that it might raise money for aid) -- it is an admirable work.

Irishwoman Adi Roche, founder of the Chernobyl Children's Project, is DeLeo's guide into the darkness, from the permanently uninhabitable dead zone around the reactor -- whose concrete "sarcophagus" is leaking -- to cities where millions live in spite of ongoing danger, to the orphanages and asylums where damaged children live with meager amenities and what seems clumsy care. Only a fraction of Belarussian children are born without health problems; childhood thyroid cancer has increased one-hundredfold. Kids with physical deformities are institutionalized willy-nilly with the mentally handicapped, out of ignorance or expediency or economic necessity.

Those who make it to the end of the show will be rewarded with at least one moment of light. Dr. William Novick, the head of International Children's Heart Foundation, which performs pro bono cardiac surgery in developing countries, patches the heart of a 13-year-old girl with a "ventricular septal defect" -- "Chernobyl heart" in the local parlance. (Such repairs are common in the U.S., and usually done in infancy.) He is shy about receiving thanks. "This is what I do," he says. If he would care to run for president, he has at least one vote.


`America Undercover Special -- Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable'

Where: HBO

When: 8-8:45 p.m. tonight

Rating: The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Narrator...Rory Kennedy

Co-producers, Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus, Jack Youngelson. Director, Kennedy. Writer, Youngelson.


`America Undercover -- Chernobyl Heart'

Where: HBO

When: 8:45-9:30 p.m. tonight

Rating: The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Director and producer, Maryann DeLeo. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

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