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New Fire, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Optimistic but vague."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: This documentary about the future of nuclear power - one which, it argues, should not be "disappearing as soon as possible" - feels like it's either being made much too early or as a high-level pitch for investors. It has a very optimistic attitude, which is welcome enough, but relatively less in the way of numbers. Not a bad introduction, but maybe it's too simple for the choir that it will inevitably be preaching to.

It makes its initial argument in impressively clear fashion: That while renewable energy sources like wind and solar power have been making great strides in both volume and price per kilowatt-hour, they are far from being able to cover the "baseload" - a predictable, constant supply of electricity not dependant on weather or other variable factors - that the United States and the rest of the world rely upon and which is generally supplied by burning hydrocarbons such as coal and natural gas. Director David Schumacher is fairly quick in terms of outlining why continuing along with that is not a great idea (if you're part of the audience for this film, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with how humanity is driving climate change), but relatively thorough in talking about the size of the hole that needs to be filled.

The film is also fairly competent in talking about the upgraded forms of fission power that could displace coal, oil, and the like, coming at them via start-ups aiming to implement them in the near future: Transatomic, founded by Leslie Dewan & Mark Massie, aims to create safer large reactors cooled by molten salt rather than water; husband-and-wife team Caroline Cochrane & Jacob DeWitte are behind Oklo, which envisions small sealed reactors powering "microgrids". Both groups find themselves bumping up against regulatory agencies that, beyond being properly cautious, are designed to be navigated by large, established players.

They're a likable group, and there's an upbeat logic in Schumacher's decision to focus on relatively fresh-faced subjects in addition to the more established scientists whose work laid the necessary foundations; the younger people are going to the ones who live or die based upon how humanity gets its electricity in the next generation. It's nevertheless impossible to ignore that their new reactors are still vaporware very much still in the research and development stage, with plans for the next step quite vague. Even those with a natural inclination toward optimism (or who haven't been burned by good-intentioned and well-presented pitches before) may want to see more detail and progress on how things are coming together. That feeling is not necessarily helped by segments of smiling activists trying to educate people at a Paris climate seminar - it doesn't seem like much is being accomplished, despite being necessary work.

There's a fascinating point to made about timeframes here, I think - that aside from the need to get the country and world onto a less-polluting power grid (or one whose toxic waste can be contained and potentially recycled into fuel), there's a need to change general opinion about nuclear power which must happen concurrently with development, since the timelines on the science and engineering are so long. Unfortunately, the level of coordination necessary just isn't there. Schumacher does a fair job of jumping the viewer from one subject to another and showing enough nifty things from experiments in an MIT lab to a mostly-mothballed government test center to keep the subject interesting, but he never finds an action that seems as urgent and worthy of passion as the problem stated at the outset.

Again, "The New Fire" may have been made too early; a film made in the 2020s about how these groups are in the process of changing the world or have hit some of their goals might be more informative as well as a more captivating story. Right now, this movie feels like a pitch - one good enough that's maybe good enough for the broad concept of expanded fission power production and research, less that this is the way to get there.

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originally posted: 06/09/18 13:11:15
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