Mid-October’s Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis included the premier of a new pro-nuclear documentary entitled The New Fire. The movie focuses on the rise of reactor startups, particularly Transatomic and Oklo, illustrating how young inventor/entrepreneurs are striving to bring advanced nuclear power designs to market. The director, David Schumacher, hopes to not only educate and inspire his audiences to learn more about nuclear power, but to expose young people to the possibilities and excitement of a career in science or engineering.

Several of the people who appear in the documentary were invited to attend the premier, and to participate in the Q&A sessions that followed the movie’s screenings. SCGI president Tom Blees appears at various points in the documentary, and joined David and several others in Indianapolis, engaging the audiences after the showings. Both were sold out, and after the limited Q&A time was filled the conversations continued in the theater lobbies afterwards, and even the next day when film festival-goers recognized Tom and wanted to engage in conversations about nuclear power issues.

Following the Indianapolis festival, David flew to Europe for screenings in Paris and at Cambridge University in the UK. The reception reportedly is as enthusiastic as at the Heartland premier, which bodes well for the goal of engaging and educating the public about nuclear power, particularly about advanced nuclear power systems that are struggling through the design certification process in the USA and elsewhere. The noted physicist Freeman Dyson had some insights on this problem way back in 1979 when he wrote Disturbing the Universe:

The fundamental problem of the nuclear power industry is not reactor safety, not waste disposal, not the dangers of nuclear proliferation, real though all these problems are. The fundamental problem of the industry is that nobody any longer has any fun building reactors. It is inconceivable under present conditions that a group of enthusiasts could assemble in a schoolhouse, and design, built, test, license and sell a reactor within three years. Sometime between 1960 and 1970, the fun went out of the business. The adventurers, the experimenters, the inventors, were driven out, and the accountants and managers took control. Not only in private industry, but also in the national laboratories, at Los Alamos, Livermore, Oak Ridge and Argonne, the groups of bright young people who used to build and invent and experiment with a great variety of reactors were disbanded. The accountants and managers decided that it was not cost-effective to let bright people play with weird reactors. So the weird reactors disappeared and with them the chance of any radical improvement beyond our existing systems. We are left with a very small number of reactor types in operation, each of them frozen into a huge bureaucratic organization that makes any substantial change impossible, each of them in various ways unsatisfactory, each of them less safe than many possible alternative designs which have been discarded. Nobody builds reactors for fun anymore. The spirit of the little red schoolhouse is dead. That, in my opinion, is what went wrong with nuclear power…

…Is there any hope for the future of nuclear power? Of course there is. The future is unpredictable. Political moods and fashions change fast. One fact that will not change is that mankind will need enormous quantities of energy after the oil runs out. [Dyson worried about oil running out, not about climate change, which wasn’t really on the radar when he wrote this in 1979. He’s a bit of a gadfly regarding climate modeling, in keeping with his sometimes cantankerous habit of questioning orthodoxies and prevailing opinions on a variety of topics.] Mankind will see to it that the energy is produced, one way or another. When that day comes, people will need nuclear power reactors cheaper and safer than those we are now building. Perhaps our managers and accountants will then have the wisdom to assemble a group of enthusiasts in a little red schoolhouse and give them some freedom to tinker around.

The New Fire might well be seen as a peek into the little red schoolhouses Dyson talks about. Fortunately there are more and more people (including some influential members of Congress, from both parties) who are trying to allow the tinkerers to operate. SCGI has been active since its inception in such efforts, in many countries.

As of this writing, The New Fire hasn’t yet been picked up for distribution so it’s uncertain when and where it might be available to the general public. If you wish to check out where screenings are scheduled in case you can catch one nearby, you can find an updated schedule on the film’s website here.

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