I’ve seen a lot of documentaries in my time, and most of them exist to further an agenda. Whether it’s to expose a social injustice, right a wrong, or capture a certain subject, most of them take a side on an issue and attempt to evoke sympathy or inspire action from the audience.
Not so with “Uranium Drive-In,” a deeply affecting film that, rather than lashing out for or against one side, chooses to show both sides. The result is a film that doesn’t purport to have all of the answers, but sure knows there’s some kind of problem here.
“Drive-In” centers on a small Colorado town that was once the site of a uranium mill, which brought the town prosperity but might have also caused a rash of cancers in the people who worked it. Regulations shut down the mill in the 1980s, and the town has since fallen upon hard times, where the community of about 1,000 has no industry on which to base its economy.
When a company shows interest in buying the existing mine and reopening it, the town becomes divided: Some are ecstatic at the jobs that are coming, and others fear the health repercussions of stirring up radioactive dust on a daily basis.
So what’s the right answer? As we see, it’s up for debate. Proponents of the mine say the town needs the jobs and that new government regulations will provide protection for the workers’ health. Opponents say they won’t and that the impact to the area could be fatal for many.
There are no easy answers. We get people on both sides: people who lost loved ones to cancer they suspect originated at the mine and those currently suffering health problems related to exposure, as well as business people and environmental activists. There are all of those people on both sides of the discussion: One man suffering from pulmonary fibrosis claims that a new mine would be perfectly safe, and a woman who lost family to cancer she feels is related to their work at the mine says the same thing. (“It was their time to go,” she says in a chillingly matter-of-fact moment.)
And there’s another angle that makes the discussion all the more interesting: the government’s insistence on pursuing nuclear energy, touting its lack of reliance on fossil fuels and, therefore, a “greener” energy source. Environmental activists call shenanigans on that claim, saying mining uranium causes countless health issues and has an adverse environmental impact on the area.
It all adds up to a riveting, balanced and complete look at a complex issue, one that has rightly divided a town, and indeed, on a larger scale at least, an entire nation. It’s fascinating to watch and offers a refreshingly clear, level-headed approach to an issue.