Netflix recently launched History 101, a series of short documentaries that the popular streaming service calls “bite-size history lessons on scientific breakthroughs, social movements, and world-changing discoveries.” Included among episodes on topics such as fast food, plastics, and the growth of China’s global influence, is an episode on nuclear power.
From the series’ academic-sounding name, one would hope for a thoughtful, even-handed discussion of the history of nuclear technology, along with its pros and cons. Yet, with a title like “Nuclear Power: Playing with Fire,” it quickly becomes apparent that the episode provides more heat than light. As one online commenter said of the series, “This is not a history documentary; it’s a middle schooler’s slick history report.”
Certainly, given that the episode is only 22 minutes long, it is difficult to fault Netflix for failing to present a comprehensive and nuanced overview of the history of nuclear technology, from Lise Meitner’s and Otto Frisch’s discovery of uranium fission to the latest developments in nuclear fusion. Yet the episode relies heavily on many of the same tropes used by the antinuclear community, including equating a reactor core to an atomic bomb and characterizing nuclear waste as a technically intractable problem, which gives the episode a decidedly biased view against nuclear.
Steve Redeker, a 40-plus-year ANS member and retired plant operator and engineer, brought the History 101 episode to Newswire’s attention, saying that he was “astounded and angered” by the show’s depiction of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, as the filmmakers make it appear that the devastation caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami was caused by the nuclear meltdown. Redeker also noted that the episode grossly mischaracterizes the radioactivity release from the 1979 Three Mile Island-2 accident.
The synopsis: “It is 1952; the destructive power of the atom bomb is still fresh in everyone’s memory.” So begins the episode, with voiceover actress Natalie Silverman providing the narration. Silverman quickly turns to General Electric and its touting of the peaceful benefits of nuclear power. “What they don’t yet know are the terrible dangers that nuclear power will unleash on the world,” she ominously adds. Stock historical footage of Chernobyl and atomic bomb testing quickly follows. It makes one wonder if GE, which makes electric toasters, considered the “terrible dangers” of that appliance, as more people are killed every year by toasters (around 700 worldwide each year, according to the Liljegren Law Group) than have been directly killed by nuclear power throughout its entire history.
What follows is a quick rundown of the past 70-plus years of nuclear history, starting with the 1939 Einstein-Szilard letter to President Roosevelt, kicking off the Manhattan Project, followed by the familiar litany of nuclear power accidents: Windscale, TMI-2, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Grainy black and white video forebodingly accompanies the description of the TMI-2 accident, while animation of Chernobyl Unit 4 implies that it was the nuclear fuel itself that exploded.
Continuing to mix the divergent paths of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the episode also devotes a significant portion of its short time to the discussion of weapons testing and the growth of rogue nuclear states, suggesting that once a country has nuclear power, it is a certainty that the country will divert that technology to building weapons. Showing footage of antinuclear protests from the 1970s and 1980s, Silverman intones, “No bombs they say, but also, no nuclear energy.”
On nuclear waste, the episode accurately explains that to date, the United States has produced about 80,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, enough to fill a football field 20 meters deep. Yet, Netflix does not put this number in perspective by, say, comparing it to the 140 million tons of coal ash that is generated in the United States every year. Moreover, the episode seems to lump used fuel in with all types of nuclear waste, ignoring used fuel’s potential as a resource rather than a waste. And again, over and over, the screen flashes the familiar images of rusty 50-gallon steel drums whenever the waste issue comes up.
The episode does include a brief discussion of fusion energy, complete with Thomas Klinger from the Max Planck Institute in Germany discussing the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator. Rather than highlighting the technology as a complement to fission, however, Netflix touts fusion energy as a preferable alternative to the “wasteful and dangerous” fission energy.
Summing up all the “dangers” of nuclear power, Silverman ends the episode with the question, “Why are we still playing with fire?” To which she answers, “Because we may have to. . . . Nuclear power may be the only way for humanity and the earth itself to survive.” Here, the show gets at least partial credit by stating, “Nuclear power is still considered to be one of the best ways to wean ourselves off an even bigger threat to the planet, carbon emissions from fossil fuels.” It is likely the only thing saving this History 101 episode from a failing grade.