Axios Pro Exclusive Content

Nuclear energy gets the Oliver Stone treatment

headshot
May 10, 2023
photos of Oliver Stone and Joshua Goldstein surrounded by rectangles and cutout photos of atoms

Photo illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios; Photos: Courtesy of New Element Media

Joshua Goldstein sent a spec script on nuclear energy to legendary director Oliver Stone. The professor emeritus in international relations' idea for a feature film about a Navy scientist and her climate-activist daughter never made it out of drafts — but it led to the new documentary "Nuclear Now."

Why it matters: Stone has directed some of Hollywood's most provocative films, among them "JFK," "Platoon," "Nixon," and "Wall Street." Now he's throwing his weight behind, of all things, nuclear energy.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Of all the topics out there, why this one?

Goldstein: I looked at the numbers — how could you really solve climate change, not just do a bunch of things in a panic? It became clear that you need nuclear power, which was difficult for me because I didn't like it.

Stone: We're getting a lot of confusing messages on energy. Every media story in The New York Times about nuclear energy includes the word "dangerous," like it's a set mentality.

What did you think of nuclear energy before this project?

Stone: I watched "Silkwood" and "China Syndrome." These films were poisonous. The reality is, when I walked around these nuclear reactors, it's so ordinary and uneventful. Like it says in the movie, any industry needs to be safe and handled well.

I think that gets to the heart of it: Bad things can happen with any resource. But when things go badly with nuclear, they go really badly, no?

Goldstein: Chernobyl, that was one fatal accident in 40 years. That's as wrong as things can go — and nobody's building reactors like that anymore. It killed a few hundred people. When things go wrong with, like, a hydroelectric dam breaking, it can be hundreds of thousands of lives.

Stone: Climate change is a hell of a lot worse. In the film, one of the scientists says it's too bad that we didn't have more accidents, because then people might realize the scale and understand that you need plane crashes for the plane industry to grow.

Goldstein: But fewer plane crashes over time. Planes crash and people are scared of flying — but we keep doing it because it's convenient, it works, and compared to driving it's safer. But with nuclear, it's like nothing must ever go wrong — it must be horrible if anything does. And I think behind that is this paranoia about radioactivity. The idea that was planted in our minds early on that low-level radioactivity is a danger to humans.

Let's talk about the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Japanese industry has built this reputation for fastidious attention to detail. And I think there's this sense of, if Japan can't get this right, how are we supposed to?

Goldstein: The Fukushima plant did what it was supposed to do. In the face of the worst that nature could throw at it, and everything that went wrong, the containment system worked.

Stone: There's going to be accidents. But as long as there's a technical generation that can do the work, I don't see any other solution. Fusion may happen, but I'm not waiting.

Goldstein: We need to develop the nuclear technologies that can roll out really fast and really cheap to compete with fossil fuels, especially in Asia and other fast-growing places. That's where the action is.

Stone: The problem with the United States is that we love fancy technologies. "We got a cool looking SMR, man. Oh, wow." Everybody's got a Tesla. But that's not going to solve the basic problem of electricity. We need to build big, and Americans are not thinking about that because they're not threatened.

Go deeper