A nuclear disaster that hasn’t happened yet

Spanish film, The Leak, dramatizes what might happen when a radioactive waste storage facility goes wrong

By Linda Pentz Gunter

La Fuga Radiactiva (The Leak) is a 30-minute Spanish drama that imagines what would happen if a Centralized Temporary Storage (CTS) facility for high-level radioactive waste (still stalled under immense opposition) in fact opens. And then has a serious accident, leaking radioactive gases across Spain.

In 2010, the Spanish town of Villar de Cañas (Cuenca) was indeed assigned the CTS, slated to house high-level radioactive waste from the seven still operating nuclear power plants in Spain. As the pre-amble to the film explains, a coalition of environmental justice and other groups has so far succeeded in blocking progress on the plant. But what if they should fail? That is the premise of The Leak, directed by Eduardo Soto Pérez and set in 2028.

The story imagines an earthquake combined with torrential rain that has set in motion an accident at the CTS. The narrative touches down briefly on the lives of those who would be involved — local officials, reporters, site workers, government leaders, a doctor with a pregnant wife and bewildered local residents. There is at first skepticism, denial and disbelief that a serious accident might have occurred or could not be safely contained. As the realization of the immensity of the disaster grows, we see just how unprepared the authorities, surrounding communities, and even the nuclear workers are for such an outcome. No one has the “manual” to solve the crisis. Evacuations ensue. 

And then there’s the actual cost. “Don’t they have a civil liability insurance policy for this kind of emergency?” asks a top government official straight to camera as his aide packs a bag loaded with bank notes. “No,” replies his aide.

“You need one even to ride a bike,” the official insists. “Yes, but a facility like that, that puts at risk the lives of millions of people, believe it or not, they are not made to have an insurance policy,” comes the all too familiar answer.

FugaHospital

“Do what you have to,” one doctor tells another as they realize evacuation of patients is the only option. (Still shot from La Fuga)

Who pays the price for a nuclear accident is one of the questions posed in the film, and not just fiscally, but at every level. The Leak shows us all to poignantly the injustices inflicted on us by the nuclear industry and the technology’s monumental unknowns that remain beyond human capacity to adequately control. And it also reveals, as the story unfolds, the level of misinformation and confusion about radioactive waste. The public simply hasn’t been told the truth about the risks.

Each character is given a little tract of explanation as part of his/her dialogue, so that as we watch the drama unfold we are at the same time getting a lesson on how it all works — or in this case, goes dramatically awry. This technique can feel a little recited at times but perhaps it is intentional, a deliberate reminder that this is a theatrical rendition of events. A fiction. For now. But a fiction that asks that chilling question, “what if?”

Thus, we live through the experience with each of the characters in the story. We cannot escape their sense of dread and even panic, or sometimes a resigned, almost emotionless calm in the face of something so unexpectedly dreadful. Instead, we share it.

Watch footage of one of the Cuenca anti-nuclear demonstrations:

The most moving moment arrives at the finale, when a group of young people breaks into Cuenca’s famous paleontological museum to rescue a large dinosaur nicknamed Pepito who is, they say, their “cultural legacy,”and who they therefore insist must go with them as they flee. At first, a museum guard on by now pointless night duty in the already deserted city, tries to protect the collection and Pepito from the intruders. But the group reminds him that his job — and his life if he stays — is over. The guard wonders how this handful of youngsters will move the heavy dinosaur fossils.  “We are not alone in this” the activists say as a crowd of comrades steps forward from the shadows.

Pepito is indeed real, one of the world’s most famous dinosaur skeletons, found locally and considered the most complete skeleton ever discovered on the Iberian Peninsula. He appears in the feature film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, directed by another Spanish filmmaker, Juan Antonio Garcia Bayona.

Pepito’s rescue in The Leak is of course weighted in symbolism: It is the power of people coming together and supporting each other for right and against adversity. And, given Pepito’s immense age — he considered to be 125 million years old  — it is a reminder of the longevity of high-level radioactive waste as well.

Which one would we prefer to be with us forever?

If you would like to screen the film, please contact the director at: eduardosotoproducciones@gmail.com

Headline still shot from the film courtesy of the Eduardo Soto Pérez.

And watch a short film about the struggle for Cuenca.

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