The solution to climate change may be hiding in plain sight, and THE NEW FIRE takes a fresh look at nuclear energy

The solution to climate change may be hiding in plain sight, and THE NEW FIRE takes a fresh look at nuclear energy

David Schumacher talks to us about his controversial, provocative film THE NEW FIRE and nuclear energy's potential to to save the planet.


Before we discuss THE NEW FIRE, can you speak briefly about your background and how you became a filmmaker?
I started out as a musician, attending Berklee College of Music and then moving out to the Bay Area and starting a band, but I found myself transitioning from music to film through my experience in audio. I began my film career doing sound for different films and television shows. I guess I got sort of grandiose at some point and decided that I wanted to take the reins creatively, so I started doing branding and identity campaigns, developing TV shows and eventually made a TV series. This is my first feature documentary as a director. I have to admit that I was a bit reluctant to become a director of an independent film like this.

Why were you reluctant to take on the director role?
Over the years I've worked on many documentaries and had opportunities to work with some great directors and I've seen the level of commitment that doing this type of work requires. You have a huge responsibility to the characters and to the story. You're constantly trying to raise money and trying to get things done with limited or no resources. I saw these directors who were just completely consumed with their projects, and frankly, it didn't seem very fun to me--and certainly not very glamorous. At the time, I was used to working on projects where I could just parachute in and work for a few days and then leave.Then, in late 2014 when we were finishing production of Newtown, I was talking to the DP, whom I’d worked with for years, about this story idea that I had come to my attention. He liked it and said “let's do this” and I replied “we don't have any money.” Then, he pointed out that we both had cameras so we could start filming and raise money later. So that's how we started this project, and it's been an obsession ever since, nearly three years later.

I'm really excited to be at this stage right now where the film is in the can. The story is probably more timely than ever and maybe even more so than I had expected it to be when we first started production. I'm just really excited about the potential for this film to inspire and educate audiences and hopefully to help make the world a better place.

As you said, this is a very topical film right now. THE NEW FIRE tackles one of the greatest challenges facing the world today: climate change. What first drew you to this topic and more specifically what encouraged you to look at it from the perspective of the nuclear energy solution?
I've been concerned about climate change and have been following sustainability, environmental matters, and the worldwide energy system for some time. Humanity has enjoyed so much prosperity thanks to its ingenuity in using energy; however, that prosperity is also potentially pushing us toward the cliff in terms of climate change. So we really need to change the way we produce energy. I mean it's not that complicated to see what needs to happen. We need to get off fossil fuels. And if you look at the places where they’ve successfully replaced fossil fuels in their power sector, like France, Sweden and Ontario, they’ve all done it with a large scale-up of nuclear power.Yet, nuclear has this social stigma that is just incredibly powerful. There's all of this inertia with public opinion on nuclear energy that’s mainly driven by fear. But when I looked at the facts about nuclear, considering both the risks and the huge potential of next-generation nuclear technology, it just blew my mind. I thought, why aren't we doing this? Why doesn't everybody know about this? I think we don't talk about it because it's kind of difficult for people to broach the subject of nuclear for fear of the social implications that doing so might have. I'd like to see the stigma lifted from nuclear energy and it seems like that’s slowly starting to happen. Hopefully, by telling this particular story that THE NEW FIRE can be a step in the right direction to getting that kind of conversation started.

You’ve said you made THE NEW FIRE to spark conversation about nuclear and the role next-gen reactors could play in addressing climate change. What are some other ways to address the barrier of public opinion and promote further discussion?
We have to get people to talk about it, to find out the facts for themselves, and to question the hysteria and nonsense that's taken as a sort of gospel on nuclear power. For example, one big issue is the risk-assessment model for radiation that was developed in the 1950’s, the Linear No-Threshold model, which holds that there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation. This model was developed and implemented with money from the oil industry, and it’s never been proven accurate at low doses. Think about that. And, not that it’s directly related, but think about who benefits when a nuclear plant closes -- what fuel is used to fill the void?Making this film has been a real journey of discovery, and I’ve learned that we’re going to need nuclear if we’re going to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The fate of humanity is imperiled by ignorance on this issue. It's time to look seriously at the facts about nuclear energy and its health implications for humans, because we know the health implications of fossil fuel waste. We know what it’s doing to the planet, and we have to change. We've got to find ways to replace fossil fuels.So the stakes are high, especially for young people who are eager to solve the climate problem and who come to it with a different approach, a different attitude than previous generations. I’ve learned this firsthand during Q&A sessions after campus screenings and in other conversations with young folks. It’s cause for cautious optimism.

You keep bringing up this idea of fact vs fear. As you started to prepare for this film and do all the research and work that went behind it, did any of your preconceptions or fears about nuclear power change during your filmmaking process? Did anything surprise you?
I think like most people, I didn’t know much or feel one way or the other about nuclear energy before making this film. I suppose I tended to lean towards opposing it just out of ignorance. For example, I remember driving by a hyperboloid cooling tower and thinking it was a nuclear reactor, and that’s what I thought those things were for years, though it wasn’t the case. There’s actually more cooling towers attached to coal power plants than to nuclear plants. But for some reason the icon of a cooling tower is what we think of when we think of nuclear power. So whenever I’d see one, I would have a twinge of fear, hoping that there was no radiation coming out of it. I had no idea I was completely confused and mistaken, but rather than learn the facts, I thought it would be safer to not have nuclear power plants. I think a lot of people have that opinion. But that must change if we’re going to have any chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.When we started doing the film we would joke that we were going to get shut down. I mean we are talking about nuclear here. We thought that there were all kinds of government secrets. We thought that as independent filmmakers we would have never been allowed to come and film research facilities. I think the surprising thing was that everyone was happy to have us come and film. They were happy to share and talk about whatever we wanted to know. That was pretty amazing.

Another surprise was when we learned about who made up the nuclear industry. When you think about the nuclear industry you think about this big industry made up of massive corporations backed by a lot of money and government interests. But what I learned was that there is no real nuclear industry. It doesn't really exist anymore and what is left of it is tiny.

There used to be two main US companies that were building reactors: General Electric (G.E.) and Westinghouse. Westinghouse went bankrupt and they haven't started building anything in years. And G.E. hasn't built a reactor in decades. I don't even know when the last one was started. So if you look at the nuclear industry and who is left, you see that the field is dominated by utilities. And, while the utilities may own nuclear plants, they also own gas and oil and coal plants, as well as some renewables. So consequently, the utilities aren't really loyal to nuclear any more than they are to any of the other energy technologies. So what I found was that the nuclear industry is actually a very compromised group of companies with only partial engagement in nuclear and with multiple conflicting interests and loyalties. The number of people in business that are dedicated exclusively to nuclear energy is tiny and has been shrinking. But now from those ashes, rising up, you have these young people starting up nuclear companies and trying to save the planet. That was really surprising to me.

Throughout your film, the issue of climate change is discussed as a generational issue, with young people at the forefront for the battle for practical solutions. Why do you think that we're seeing this younger generation raise themselves out of the ashes of the nuclear industry and lead the battle on climate change?
Well I think that desperate times call for desperate measures. And we are kind of in desperate times here. It just might take young people starting nuclear companies, as audacious as that sounds, to really disrupt the current trend and get us on the right footing to address climate change. These are the best and brightest people who could be successful in anything that they chose to do. Indeed many of their fellow alumni from the nuclear programs didn't go and work in the nuclear business. They worked on Wall Street or took other easier, less risky jobs that make really nice livings. Well, the nuclear entrepreneurs could have chosen that path too, but they are really idealistic, visionary people and they’re putting it all on the line for what they believe in. They have decided to start nuclear companies and try really hard to make a go of it in spite of all of the issues, risks, and social inconveniences. They feel like they have a contribution to make and they're determined to make it. 

That’s really interesting that it is this younger generation leading the charge.
Well they’ve got the most to lose, right? My generation is only going to live until the middle of the century or so but this younger generation is going to live until the end of the century. Things are going to get worse and worse. They will see the worst effects of climate change, or at least certainly worse than I will, and we're already starting to see them. I think that this weighs very heavily on the millennial generation, certainly more so than my generation. Young people today are different from my generation in their outlook. I think that my generation was very suspicious and afraid of technology and it still is in many ways. I think the younger generation likes technology and likes using it to solve problems. My generation grew up with the Cold War and the fear of nuclear war. This younger generation didn't have that Cold War threat and thus don’t have many of the fears or associations with nuclear that go along with it.

Young people today think much more globally and like to collaborate. They don't shy away from big ideas. I think my generation is suspicious of things that are bigger and we tend to be a little more xenophobic than the younger generation. And so I think all of these things come together to frame how this younger generation looks at and sees this problem and how, in turn, it approaches finding solutions. And I think that's really exciting.

It is really exciting. So we have already talked about why the younger generation is at the center of the battle against climate change, but how do you think we can encourage the older generations and our politicians to join the cause and enact change? Do you think that’s a possibility?
Well we are certainly trying to do that. If you're truly interested in finding out about nuclear, you can learn about it. Don't take my word for any of this. Get engaged and find out the facts. I feel like my generation has been lied to about nuclear. We've come to our current view of nuclear energy based largely on misinformation and lies. It’s sad - outrageous really. The fate of humanity hangs in the balance here. We really need to get this right in terms of how we address climate and energy and I think the first place to look at is nuclear because, in spite of its huge and under-appreciated potential, there's a tremendous amount of misinformation out there that is only benefiting the status quo. Energy is really fascinating. When we know more about energy, we can make intelligent judgments about what is needed. Is it realistic to think we're going to be able to power the entire world on wind, water, and solar energy? I don't think so. And there is no credible data to support that as a plausible approach to decarbonization.

So does that mean I oppose renewable energy? Absolutely not. Solar and wind have amazing strengths in certain places, but they're not the panacea. I think it is important to consider nuclear and understand the facts. There's tons of information out there about nuclear. One of the guys in the film, Nick Touran, has a blog's a great place to start getting information.

Who is the audience you hope to engage with this film?
I think it's really important to reach the people who are going to be engaged on climate and energy in the future. And I think that starts at universities and in the academy. Young students are thinking about what fields to go into, how to make a difference, and I’m glad to see that enrollment in nuclear engineering is on the rise. But beyond that, I think that there's a lot of people who are studying climate policy. There are a lot of people who are looking at decarbonization and looking at questions of sustainability, climate mitigation, and the social justice aspects of energy and climate. THE NEW FIRE has something for anyone interested in evidence-based solutions to climate change, not just nuclear engineers. I think this film is really about bringing people together. For example at a university, you could gather the engineering department, the public policy department and the environmental science department. All of those departments are stakeholders in this issue of energy and climate. I think THE NEW FIRE speaks to all of those constituencies and raises issues and ideas that all of them should be thinking about and discussing not only among themselves, but with their counterparts as well. Let's get the engineers talking to the public policy people. Let's get the environmental science people involved in that conversation too. Let's get the sustainable development folks and the economists and the business school people in there also. Let's bring together these stakeholders to talk about climate and energy and what role nuclear could play.

That's awesome. So as a wrap up question, what is the one thing you hope people take away from your film?
I hope THE NEW FIRE inspires people to talk about nuclear energy and the role it could play in the energy mix of the future. Be curious about it and learn. Talk to people, ask questions and don’t be afraid. This is not a definitive film. You will not learn everything there is to know about nuclear from watching this film but hopefully you will become curious and get more engaged in discussing and learning more about these issues. Let’s get this conversation started!

That’s really what this film is all about -- catalyzing conversation and developing this dialogue at local, regional, national, and international levels on climate, energy, nuclear, and science. What role does science and technology play in addressing climate and how important is all of this? Is there something good to be done in that space? I think, without question, there is.