Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer lives up to its hype by being true to its source material, the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The book was my summer beach reading, and it’s a must-read for anyone who found themselves thinking about the film long after the credits rolled.
One subject important in the book that I wish Nolan had developed in more detail is that of Oppenheimer’s extensive efforts to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy. As the book recounts:
In hindsight, and at the time, Oppenheimer’s approach seemed both profoundly visionary and naïve. This is a theme in Oppenheimer’s life that runs throughout the book and which Nolan and actor Cillian Murphy captured well on film. Oppenheimer was like a driver who saw the valley and vista ahead before cresting a hill but often neglected to check his rear-view mirror and blind spots along the way.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States wasn’t remotely close to giving up its national control over nuclear weapons, and Oppenheimer badly mishandled a key meeting with President Truman in which he could have influenced the trajectory of American policy. Instead of artfully persuading Truman, who was in denial about the inevitability of the Soviets getting the bomb, to avoid a counterproductive and potentially catastrophic arms race, Oppenheimer used the meeting as an awkward confessional. He said he felt like he had “blood on his hands” after the bombings in Japan to the man – the President – who gave the orders. Truman later described Oppenheimer as a “cry-baby scientist.”
As a thought experiment that’s relevant to our times, it’s worth envisioning an alternate history. What if instead of begrudgingly embracing aspects of Oppenheimer’s strategy (future administrations embraced arms control treaties starting in the 1960s and Eisenhower pitched “Atoms for Peace” in 1953), the United States wholeheartedly embraced this vision and strategy in 1945? Nuclear weapon proliferation may have happened anyway, but the nuclear industry could have taken off and been broadly accepted and embraced. Vexing issues like nuclear waste storage may have been depoliticized and shown to be benign. If government took a light touch, innovation could have happened on a much faster timeline. Instead of small modular reactors coming online in the 2020s, we may have seen them in the 1980s or 1990s at far less cost.
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In this alternate timeline, the benefits to the planet and its people could have been astonishing. Oppenheimer’s colleague and sometimes nemesis, Edward Teller, who later developed the hydrogen bomb, warned industry of the dangers of CO2 emissions in the 1950s. If the nuclear industry had flourished since the end of World War II what would global temperatures and CO2 levels be today? Would climate change be a rallying cry for degrowth extremists or the destabilizing threat multiplier it has proven to be with the war in Ukraine?
In his essay Nuclear Salvation, MIT professor Kerry Emanuel challenges readers to look forward and consider the lives that could be saved by transitioning to nuclear energy. He estimates 7 million lives end prematurely due to fossil fuel-related respiratory diseases around the world every year. Looking back with a comparable population-adjusted death rate, more than 300 million people have died prematurely due to fossil fuels since 1950. Oppenheimer’s proposed energy transition, which he presciently noted was key to the survival of the industry, would have saved more lives than those lost in nuclear bombings, tests, and accidents by many orders of magnitude.
In promotional interviews, Nolan suggests he does want his film to be a cautionary tale about the proliferation of disruptive and potentially dangerous new technologies like AI. That’s a wise observation yet he fails to explore the cautionary tale in his own film as it relates to nuclear energy.
The film ends [SPOILER ALERT] with Nolan using true to character dramatic license to leave the audience with a haunting question. Oppenheimer asks Albert Einstein if he remembered reviewing the calculations of the “near zero” chance that a nuclear explosion might ignite the atmosphere and trigger a chain reaction that would destroy the world. Oppenheimer says, “I believe we did.”
Nolan certainly succeeded in provoking thought and debate. I would argue that Oppenheimer’s script isn’t finished. Nuclear fission still has the potential to start a chain reaction that could save the world.
Oppenheimer’s case for nuclear energy doesn’t fit nicely into any ideological or political box. Oppenheimer himself was a New Deal Democrat who was unfairly crucified for his associations with communists during the McCarthy era. And his vision for energy policy was obstructed by right-leaning policymakers in his era. Yet, if he’s fairly remembered as a hero of the progressive left, it’s ironic that today’s champions of Oppenheimer’s vision for nuclear energy tend to be on the right. Progressive governors like Wes Moore of Maryland lament asthma and air pollution that afflicts children in Baltimore, yet he is way behind Republican governors like Glenn Youngkin of Virginia when it comes to championing next generation nuclear technology. Youngkin is arguably doing more to serve kids in Baltimore from Virginia than Moore is doing from Maryland.
The next best thing to undo the mistakes of history is to stop repeating them. The nuclear industry in 2023 faces an unnecessary and tragic legacy of lost capacity, regulatory confusion, and high costs. Policymakers on both sides are charting a new course with legislation like the ADVANCE Act, which I recently discussed with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Perhaps films like Oppenheimer can inspire more policymakers to put themselves on the right side of history.