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Seeing a movement emerge: My reflections on Atomic Hope

A new documentary on the rise of the pro-nuclear movement is out, featuring Ben Heard. Here he looks back on what it meant to stand up for nuclear in those early years, and how it has since become a much more acceptable position in green circles.

By Ben Heard

Image: Ben Heard during a conference in Japan

Far away, people in cinemas are seeing my face, hearing my voice, sharing some of my experiences, and considering some of my ideas.

It is a surreal privilege to be included as one of the protagonists in the documentary Atomic Hope. The film has had a successful breakout in festivals, a cinematic release, and a slew of warm four-star reviews, including in The Guardian. For a tale of a rag-tag effort of little-known people fighting for an idea, it seems so improbable.

Director Frankie Fenton has said he didn’t set out to make a pro-nuclear movie, and from my observation he’s telling the truth. Frankie sensed a story that needed telling, and found characters that personalised this most impersonal of our energy sources. He delivered the human faces and stories of those who saw the vast promise of a maligned technology to address rising greenhouse gas emissions, falling energy security, geopolitical instability, and unmet aspirations for billions worldwide.

The movie has arrived in cinemas at a time when everyone from Greta Thunberg to Jane Fonda, from Bono to AOC, seems to be changing their mind about the atom. As I have personally experienced, that ‘changing your mind’ about nuclear power doesn’t do the process justice. It is a change of identity, and that can be terrifying and paralysing – especially when you can’t see what lies on the other side. Atomic Hope shows audiences that other side. While everyone won’t automatically agree with our stance, many will recognise what they see. Parents. Workers. Passion. Exhaustion. A tango of hope and hopelessness by people who are too under-resourced to possibly win, but too committed to possibly stop. Alliances and camaraderie, and also loneliness and struggle.

‘Changing your mind’ about nuclear power doesn’t do the process justice

As I watched the film I recalled all the above. Atomic Hope captured a time of transition, both for the global effort and for me. Seen from without, it might have looked like my advocacy was flying high – shooting an amazing episode of 60 Minutes, finding my way to Bonn to protest the exclusion of nuclear power, submissions and testimonies to government enquiries, and a nascent NGO in Australia – Bright New World – that was achieving recognition and impact.

From within, it felt different. I had an unfinished PhD, an unfunded NGO, no dependable salary, and was finding my way as a single father. I was nearly a decade into a personal mission that had come to shape much of my life. That was my context of fighting for a cause which often felt hopeless, mired in mockery and derision, apathy and sarcasm, hypocrisy and cynicism. This is some of what Atomic Hope captured from me. I felt like I couldn’t put down the hope I was carrying. We had made a loose movement in Australia where I, as much as anyone, seemed to catalyse action and unify ideas. My phone kept ringing and my email kept pinging, wanting me to step up – while generally assuming someone else was footing the bill.

I felt like I couldn’t put down the hope I was carrying

As the shooting of Atomic Hope was winding down, I realised I was too. I had found work with an organisation of exemplary values where I could learn, develop, and grow even more in my topic. Finally, I was part of a professional team with mentors and support, no longer a renegade outsider. I had found love with an extraordinary person, where I could build the most important and rewarding partnership of my life. A new life was opening, and Bright New World was closing. It had to; the dear friends and I who sat at its heart badly needed to place ourselves and loved ones first. As for the issue we cared about, what would be, would be. I was burning out, and I had to bow out.

In the relative quiet that emerged I found an ally to hope – faith. With a lot of help from my partner, I gradually saw a calmer path, with faith that the next development was never far away and my place in it would be clear. My treading of this new path was and remains wayward, and my faith sputtering. It’s difficult to quiet the voice that so wants change, that wonders if one more push might do it. But I am getting better at it. I began to see that my contemporaries and I had done a good job. What is following us is better, bigger, smarter, cooler, more organised and energised. The movement is moving. Truly the best thing I ever did was offer something to those coming next. There is no finale to my story, only a new chapter.

Atomic Hope is a story without a finale either. Its invitation to audiences is empathy and connection. Fenton says it serves as a ‘thawing’ influence, on a topic that has been frozen in identity battles for too long. Those you meet in this film had little status, standing, organisational heft, access, support, or certainty beyond that we had carved out for ourselves through dedication, compelling argument, and a willingness to take risks.

What is following us is better, bigger, smarter, cooler, more organised and energised. The movement is moving

We extended ourselves, in ways that exact a toll, to do what Atomic Hope seems to be doing – to connect. I was among the first people to see an unknown Eric Meyer sing public arias about fission at a Conference of Parties.

I watched Kirsty Gogan take a long road from passionate advocate to industry leader. I met Heather Hoff and Kristen Zaitz as they were choosing an uphill fight, on behalf of a seemingly disinterested industry. I watched as they actually started to win, with Michael Shellenberger and many others in the same battle. Their struggles mirrored my own.

(Left to right - Kirsty Gogan, Ben Heard, Rauli Partanen)

Frankie Fenton captured this time of tension in a nascent movement, and he and Kathryn Kennedy delivered a movie that can connect at a new scale, right when we need it. Theirs was its own journey of hope and faith, sacrifice and disappointment, and I am grateful.

The reception Atomic Hope has received is the greatest reward for them I could hope for.

Its cinema season in the UK is only the next of many chapters in this story of atomic hope – I hope an Australian season of the film might be one of them.

Ben Heard is an environmental consultant and a member of RePlanet Australia.


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