'Welcome to Shirley' focuses on effects of nuclear energy

The nuclear meltdown in Japan caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami in March has been monitored by citizens the world over — and none more than doc team Don Argott, Demian Fenton and Sheena Joyce.

The Philadelphia-based filmmakers’ latest work examines the history of nuclear energy in the U.S. largely through stories of reactor communities — and after the Japanese tragedy, the team mulled how to reframe issues in their work-in-progress doc.

Fully financed via private sources and targeted for completion early this fall, the untitled doc is inspired by Kelly McMasters’ memoir, “Welcome to Shirley,” about her Long Island hometown, situated near the leaky reactors of Brookhaven lab. The filmmakers’ manager, Danny Sherman, handed them the book (initially optioned with a feature in mind) at a meet during the 2009 Toronto festival, where their doc “Art of the Steal” was preeming.

“A few months later, President Obama announced federal subsidized loans to restart America’s nuclear energy programs,” recalls Joyce. “With so many people wanting to get away from coal and oil, the nuclear industry was touting itself as green and clean, so we thought it was a perfect time to see what has happening in reactor communities.”

Argott says the topic offers two very strong sides — those who say the U.S. needs nuclear energy to become less dependent on foreign sources, and others who warn it’s only a matter of time before something terrible happens here. “And in the middle, you have nuclear energy itself, the affects of which are invisible,” he adds. “When you have an oil spill in the Gulf, you see it in the water.”

The Fukushima incident catapulted the topic front and center in the U.S. media. “It’s been interesting for us to see how the industry responds to re-convince the public that nuclear energy isn’t scary,” Argott says. “But our main focus remains the communities, and what we’ve seen is that nobody wants to be labelled pro- or anti-, because then it’s impossible to navigate out of that. These are people who just want answers.”

A year and a half of production has given the doc team time and space to explore and re-evaluate the issues in a way mainstream news audiences don’t get to see, Joyce says. “Even with the disaster in Japan, it still comes back to our three original questions: What is nuclear energy? Why do we need it? Is it safe?”

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