The design of many of the world's nuclear reactors – like the one at the center of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant – were thought to be risky from very early on. But warnings by officials were repeatedly ignored, under the significant political, industrial and commercial pressures that fed the rise of nuclear power in America, Britain and the Soviet Union.
In the wake of atomic energy disasters like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, the often controversial documentarian Adam Curtis focused on the subject as part of his 1992 BAFTA-winning series on politics and science, "Pandora's Box." The hour-long episode, "A is for Atom," was named cheekily after the old propaganda film on atomic energy. Watch it above to see Curits' typically genius use of archival footage and hear sobering comments like this one, from the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, speaking about General Electric and other plant manufacturers:
I don't think we had the power to stop them. We could have refused to license them, but again I think that in the context of that time, it's not a question that makes much sense.
The film's a big, disconcerting lesson in innovation: technologies aren't simply inevitable outcomes of science and rationality. They are designed and controlled by people with particular interests – interests that don't always coincide with those of the public.
After you're done, read Leon Neyfakh's excellent recent piece on the technological "lock-in" of 'light water' reactors.