An Unjustifiable Risk

“Those who want the British government to build the nation’s first commercial-scale nuclear power station fuelled by plutonium want you and your children to take part in an experiment… they want you to take a risk.”

The potential dangers of nuclear weapons and the planned new breed of plutonium-fuelled reactors are the subject of An Unjustifiable Risk, made in 1977. John Pilger begins by explaining that just a speck of plutonium, the main component of an atomic bomb, can cause cancer, but there is no absolutely safe way of storing, protecting or transporting it. Although the government is planning to build the first commercial nuclear power station fuelled by plutonium – a so-called fast-breeder reactor intended to solve the country’s energy problems – an independent royal commission has declared the process dangerous.

Much of the documentary is filmed in Japan, where, says Pilger, “the world’s first human nuclear guinea pigs live, people whose experiences and suffering might help us to understand”. With people still dying as a result of the fallout from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, witnesses and victims recall the horrors of that day, including a man whose body was covered in puss, with flies and maggots crawling over him.

Britain’s Health and Safety Executive predicts tens of thousands of people dying from cancer over several decades in the event of an accidental explosion at a plutonium-fuelled nuclear reactor, says Pilger. Such an explosion at a nuclear dump in the Soviet Union killed hundreds and contaminated an area as big as an English county, and there had been at least one near-disaster at the Windscale nuclear reactor in Britain. One scientist estimated that fish caught in the Irish Sea contained enough radiation to cause genetic damage to humans. 

Pilger says the alternatives to nuclear energy include tidal, solar and wave power, which are renewable, harmless energy sources but account for only 1 per cent of the energy development budget. Talking about nuclear power and weapons programmes, one Hiroshima survivor says: “We’re afraid of this dependence on nuclear energy. We know the dangers better than anyone else in the world and all the survivors are getting old. Soon, there will be no one left to tell what really happened.”

An Unjustifiable Risk (Pilger, ATV), ‘Personal Report’, ITV, 19 September 1977

Director: Alan Bell; series producer: Richard Creasey (27 mins)