“Cesium-137 is not your usual topic for a Midtown Manhattan lunch. But if you sit down with Maryann De Leo and Rory Kennedy, who have completed documentaries on the effects on children of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 (Ms. De Leo) and the Indian Point power plant in Buchanan, N.Y. (Ms. Kennedy), it is not long before the subject comes up. (Cesium-137 is radioactive waste, an isotope produced when uranium or plutonium undergoes fission.)
The women, who had not met before, quickly dispensed with the social niceties. Ms. Kennedy complimented Ms. De Leo on her film, which she said she found heartbreaking, then took 15 seconds to show a photo of her second daughter, born six weeks earlier. Ms. De Leo invited Ms. Kennedy to a reception her brother Dominic was organizing in honor of the films, which will be broadcast back-to-back by HBO tomorrow night.
Ms. De Leo said she too had proposed films to HBO about Indian Point and AIDS, a subject Ms. Kennedy tackled with “Pandemic: Facing AIDS,” a five-part series for HBO last year. But Ms. Kennedy, being a Kennedy — she is Robert F. Kennedy’s youngest daughter, born after his death — was able to secure outside funds more readily.
Menus in hand, the women quickly and nearly simultaneously dismissed tuna as a possible choice: “Mercury, ” they said.
Ms. De Leo’s film “Chernobyl Heart,” which won the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary short, is not easy to talk about or watch. It takes the viewer into children’s hospitals in Belarus and Ukraine and into the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the reactor. According to the United Nations, birth defects in Belarus have increased 250 percent since the accident, and the lives of the children in the film are tragic.
One girl, Julia, was born with her brain outside her skull; another child, 4, is the size of a 4-month-old.
“I had to show enough of the kids with deformities, but if I showed too many, nobody would want to watch,” Ms. De Leo said.
Ms. Kennedy’s “Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable” takes a less emotional approach. It features interviews with the plant’s detractors (including her brother Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecutor for Riverkeeper, an environmental- protection group) and a few defenders. Ms. Kennedy, who narrates the film, begins with questions: what if American Airlines Flight 11, navigating along the Hudson valley on Sept. 11, had banked left and hit Indian Point, rather than continuing south to the World Trade Center? Is enough being done to protect Americans from terrorists at home?
Both women offered a quick and categorical no when asked if they considered their films anti-nuclear power.
“I don’t believe in making didactic films,” said Ms. De Leo, born in Brooklyn, one of six children of a sanitation worker. Her television documentary work has taken her to Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, Afghanistan, Angola, Korea and Iraq.
The idea for “Chernobyl Heart” was planted when a friend visiting from Spain suggested that Ms. De Leo see a United Nations photography exhibition about the children of Chernobyl. “It was the most shocking thing he’d ever seen,” she said. “I had really forgotten about Chernobyl. I hadn’t thought about birth defects there, and at the time I was working on a film about Bellevue,” the Manhattan hospital.
But in 2002 Ms. De Leo went to Belarus. She would return two more times, at one point requiring treatment for cesium poisoning herself.
“Indian Point has much more cesium than Chernobyl had,” Ms. Kennedy interjected. “Being in New York City on 9/11, and in the aftermath, there was a lot of concern about where the next terrorist attack would be — Indian Point, bridges and tunnels, waterways, chemical plants. There was a disproportionate amount of fear, some of it grounded, some not. I went into this project with the question, is Indian Point something we need to fear?”
Ms. De Leo asked her about Indian Point’s safety record (“horrible,” Ms. Kennedy said); both agreed on the impossibility of evacuating millions in the event of an accident. Ms. Kennedy talked about the inability of guards to protect the plant adequately because of the stress and long hours detailed in the film. Located on the Hudson, the “exterior is screaming ‘hit me,”‘ she said. “It’s extremely vulnerable by water.”
In the film Mr. Kennedy contends that the pools of water holding spent fuel rods, which contain more than 1,400 tons of spent nuclear fuel, are most vulnerable. His claims are followed by an interview with a scientist from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who details a potential terrorist attack, beginning with an explosive charge interfering with the rods’ coolants and ending with the release of cesium-137 into the air.
In the film such criticisms are countered by representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency, and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association, who describe the robust structures housing the reactors, the stepped-up security after 9/11 and the extreme unlikelihood of an attack of the magnitude Ms. Kennedy suggests.
Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns the two plants at Indian Point, is not interviewed in the film but defended the business in a phone interview. “There has never been an event at Indian Point causing dangerous releases of radioactivity,” he said. “The plants are heavily regulated by the N.R.C.” Since 9/11, he added, the commission has limited the number of hours a guard is allowed to work, and Entergy “has spent well over $30 million on enhancing security at Indian Point.”
Those outside the industry also propose nuclear energy as a viable power source, given the environmental hazards of burning fossil fuels and the political ramifications of relying on Middle East oil. A recent interdisciplinary study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that “the nuclear option should be retained precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of power.”
Spencer R. Weart, a historian at the American Institute of Physics and author of “Nuclear Fear: A History of Images” (Harvard University Press, 1988) offers a context for examining the nuclear option — and, perhaps, for watching these films.
“All industrial systems are liable to accidents, and we have to ask ourselves, where is the most likely damage over the long term?” he said in a telephone interview. “Every energy source has its problems. Bangladesh has been in the news because of the terrible flooding there. This is what will happen increasingly with global warming. The longtime consequences of burning fossil fuels are more severe than nuclear power. Let’s say I’m less a proponent of nuclear power than an opponent of coal and oil.”
Listening to such arguments, Ms. Kennedy nodded and said, “I would have said that before I made this film.”
Scientists also have strong views about the fairness of comparing the Chernobyl disaster to what could happen in this country “Chernobyl was a terrible tragedy,” Robert A. Bari, a physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., said in a phone conversation. “It happened because they operated the reactor out of its specifications. And Indian Point has a very, very different design than the Chernobyl reactor.”
For Ms. Kennedy and Ms. De Leo, who are passionate about their subjects, such arguments have little resonance. Ms. De Leo recalled a warning a Russian scientist made to Americans, imploring them to shut down nuclear plants.
Ms. Kennedy said, “You can’t throw numbers and statistics at children born with brains outside their heads.” Such debates would not be resolved at a two-and-a-half-hour lunch. Running late for a 3 p.m. meeting, she added, “I don’t think there is another side to the conversation.”