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The Nuclear [Movie] Renaissance, or: Bad Idea, James Cameron

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I'm noticing what might be a curious trend lately in Hollywood: movies are being made about nuclear weapons again. Much like the so-called "nuclear renaissance," which captures the current renewed global interest in nuclear power to address energy needs, there seems to be a revitalization of interest in making movies about nuclear weapons.

Take, for example, the star-studded, Lucky Walker-directed Countdown to Zero, produced by Lawrence Bender of Inglourious Basterds and An Inconvenient Truth. Also, there's Nuclear Tipping Point, a much more sober, History Channel-style film released this year by former Senator Sam Nunn's Nuclear Threat Initiative organization. And then there are smaller films produced by activist groups and non-profit organizations, like the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation's U.S. Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World, which can be ordered for free.

But going back over 60 years, one of the earliest nuclear-themed films was the 1949 French movie, La Bataille de L'Eau Lourde, or The Battle For the Heavy Water. It's a fascinating story, based on actual events, about how a daring group of French physicists played a pivotal role in preventing Adolf Hitler from developing the world's first nuclear bomb. The real-life story is so incredible, I have to share it here:

Before the Manhattan Project in the United States ever took off, there was the German Uranverein, a group of brilliant nuclear physicists dedicated to exploring revolutionary concepts of fission in uranium atoms. Their wartime objective: to develop the German nuclear program, and to, at the very least, successfully sustain a nuclear chain reaction.

Quickly the Uranverein realized that they needed some way to moderate the chain reaction -- that is, to be able to slow down the speed at which already fast-moving neutrons hit other uranium atoms, since a neutron moving too quickly would pass right through a uranium atom without splitting it. The physicists decided on heavy water as a medium, which would slow down neutrons just enough to sustain a chain reaction. At the time, however, the only place in Europe creating heavy water was a fertilizer plant in Vemork, Norway that was producing it as a by-product.

By this time, French physicist and Nobel laureate Frédéric Joliot-Curie (son-in-law of Marie Curie) had identified the potential use of heavy water in uranium fission as well, and informed the French Ministry of Armaments of its importance in nuclear research. When approached by a representative of the French government, the managing director of the Vemork plant handed his entire supply of by-product heavy water over to France at no cost, saying: "Our company will accept not one centime for the product you are taking, if it will aid France's victory."

A total of 185 kilos of heavy water was smuggled eventually to Paris in the spring of 1940. But in May and June, as Nazi forces advanced on France and marched towards Paris, it became apparent that the heavy water, which still was crucial to the development of the German atomic program, could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. So a group of French scientists, carrying the heavy water in jerrycans, embarked on a perilous journey to deliver the precious cargo into British hands.

Fortunately, they completed their mission, and the Allies were thus able to thwart, not for the first time, Germany's attempts to develop its nuclear program.

Nine years later, the French film La Bataille de L'Eau Lourde was produced, starring -- believe it or not -- many of the original physicists playing themselves. I've been trying to find a copy of this old black-and-white; if anyone has any leads, please contact me.

But back to the topic of movies. What prompted me to write this piece was last Thursday's news that James Cameron is revisiting a script that he had optioned earlier this year, for a movie based on the Charles Pellegrino book Last Train From Hiroshima. It recounts the journey of the only person officially recognized to survive both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who passed away in January of this year at the age of 93.

Yamaguchi-san had become a vocal proponent for nuclear disarmament, and his story has been told by Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakamura in Twice Bombed Twice Survived, as well as in Pellegrino's book. He was our generation's reminder of the horror nuclear weapons can unleash, and his death this year gave us reason both to remember his terrifying experience and to ask ourselves again why these weapons still play such a tremendous role in our and other nations' defense strategies.

I think this movie idea is going too far. Remember, Cameron is the guy who brought us Avatar, which, though it was entertaining, could hardly be called social commentary. And he's credited for creating the Terminator series, Aliens, and, of course, Titanic -- which no one remembers now as an historically accurate account of the tragic sinking of the cruise ship, but rather focuses on a romance that transcends social class divides and is most famous for Leo DiCaprio's famous line, "I'm king of the world!"

Aside from the 1949 French film, the recent spate of nuclear-themed movies is a serious look at the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. I have a feeling James Cameron would take the Pellegrino book, which already has an alarming number of falsifications, and will turn it into a mega-blockbuster with a romance-driven plot that either minimizes or completely ignores the real issue, which is the horror of the atomic bomb.

If Cameron seriously does Last Train, it had better be done well. I, for one, am not holding my breath.