Whole Lives

Carolyn Jordan throws her life and passion into a film she hopes will make peace

In the wee hours of July 11, 1994, members of the eco-terrorist group EARTH FIRST! and others locked themselves to barriers blocking the road that provides access to the Watts Bar nuclear power plant. A ruckus was raised, attracting national media attention, and workers were delayed in their arrival to jobs related to the completion of that controversial TVA project.

The woods of Rhea County were thick with environmental activists before dawn on that day. College-aged men and women from all over the country and even some Knoxville notables were arrested. Several hardcore, gray-whiskered, and shadowy figures--those who couldn't afford to be arrested or even have their presence in East Tennessee documented after previous run-ins with the FBI--stayed in the mountains away from the action.

The goal of the protesters was to increase public awareness of the issues surrounding nuclear power, which they managed to do for a brief time. Since those arrested had no assets to compensate for the expense of delayed work, their cases were quickly dispatched and ceased to be interesting to the media. The power plant the environmentalists so adamantly opposed has since been completed and is now operating.

Of all the radicals present that day, the one who will probably influence the dialogue involving nuclear science (weaponry, medicine, energy, etc.) more than any other would have seemed the least likely to any observer. Her name is Carolyn Jourdan, and she lives in Strawberry Plains. She's shy, unassuming, and on that morning, was tagging along after the scrambling film crew that was gathering footage for her film, Half Lives.

Half Lives is a balanced look at the 50-year history of nuclear science in America. Without editorializing, it sets the never-before-filmed insights of Manhattan Project scientists and workers alongside the industry's unforeseen problems and the comments of anti-nuclear protesters, including those who locked themselves to barrels at Watts Bar. Review attention to the film has spread its message to over 15 million readers, in publications as diverse as Scientific American and People. Select PBS affiliates near the laboratories involved in the Manhattan Project, as well as stations in Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have already aired Half Lives. Cable in the Classroom, a consortium of cable networks that provides programming to some 82 million school children, will be distributing the film over the next school year. A PBS network broadcast appears to be imminent. And the film will be broadcast on Knoxville public television on Friday, October 4.

Here, near one of the nurseries of atomic energy, Jourdan hopes her film will help shape the dialogue over one of the most divisive issues of our age.

The Filmmaker

"It was a very radical thing to do," says Jourdan, who spends most of her time these days pitching the film to distributors. "Some people did everything they could to prevent the making of this film. I was told over and over by so-called spokespersons that the less people knew, the better. That's a big mistake. Look how well that's worked."

Jourdan is soft-spoken, a far cry from most filmmakers promoting their finished work. She makes it clear that she'd rather be at home than chatting with a reporter. But she's made a film, and it won't do any good unless people see it. She thinks maybe this conversation will help.

Perhaps the most radical thing about Jourdan's decision to make this film is the departure it involved from her previous career. A UT-educated engineer and graduate of UT Law School, she quickly scaled a career ladder that led her to the position of counsel to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. From her Washington office, Jourdan was the liaison between lawmakers tasked with regulating the disposal of nuclear waste and the many disparate groups of the public interested in those regulations.

"You'd get everything from a business organization," she explains, describing the range of calls she answered, "to a radiologist concerned because the government has made it so expensive to dispose of the syringes at St. Mary's that it's driving the cost of the procedures up. It might be a concerned citizen calling about Watts Bar--some normal American who wants to know 'How do I understand what these two sides are saying about Watts Bar? There's no common ground. What's true? How do I know?' Then you'd have activists from both sides calling. Really, they are not interested in exchanging information. They have an agenda that they want you to enact."

Jourdan gives the legislators she worked with credit for making consistently sincere efforts to do the right thing by all parties involved. But there was no satisfying the special interest groups that tried to influence the work of that committee.

"All of the parties involved in nuclear waste make money by fomenting discord and not cleaning up," says Jourdan. "There's no economic incentive to clean up or get a consensus. All the money is going toward chaos and confusion. The environmental groups raise more money through nuclear concerns than any other fund-raising issue. The two sides have been in this entrenched polarization for 30 years."

In 1990, Jourdan tired of standing between two groups that did nothing but scream at each other and call names. She knew from her experience that the public wanted honest and accurate information. She knew that the special interest groups would rather they not have it. From her participation in the limited discourse that did take place, Jourdan had also sensed that the problems of nuclear power--mostly related to the disposal of waste--were being projected upon the workers of the industry, particularly those first involved. People who had acted as heroes, working against all odds and under incredible pressure to invent the force that ultimately stopped World War II, were being cast as villains who had unleashed a pox upon the planet.

"My whole career ended up being centered on nuclear waste politics," says Jourdan. "All I did all day long was talk to people in meetings and write papers and newsletters about nuclear waste, and it wasn't doing any good. It wasn't going anywhere. I realized that there's no point in trying to talk to the pros or the cons. Nothing's going to happen there.

"So who do you talk to? Everybody else. How do you talk to them? I thought of every kind of medium, and thought that television was probably the biggest."

The Film

Half Lives is an engaging film and will probably be enlightening to many. It presents the scientific spectacle of nuclear power--the heat released when an atom is caused to change its structure--not as equations or statistics or molecular models, but as oral history, related by experts at ease in their homes. Usually, when the media gaze is turned toward the end of World War II, the emphasis is on the horror of ground zero. That's a story that demands retelling, without doubt. But equally worth telling is the story of the still-to-be-marveled scientific accomplishments that led to ground zero and were later applied to post-war peace.

The elderly scientists and workers from Oak Ridge, Hanford, Wash., and Los Alamos, N.M., are disarmingly frank and human. They paint a picture of a world that's never seen in period films made for entertainment or more pointed historical films. Before there was a bomb or even the materials with which to imagine making one, the minds of these young people were America's secret weapon. They were the hackers of their generation. Since advanced physics and chemistry had only recently begun to be taught in universities, the majority of the workers in Manhattan Project labs were under 30 years old.

The labs were doing cavalier things with materials that would go on to cause trouble no one could have predicted. But all of the workers in those labs had heard of the very real atrocities taking place in Europe and the Pacific and were justifiably convinced that they would spread to the United States, or at least continue in those places, should the Axis win over the Allies.

After World War II, history carries the film through the advent of nuclear powered electricity and the Cold War--the good news with the bad--and on to the present.

Even if Jourdan were not a first-time filmmaker, Half Lives would be an impressive piece of work. Listed in the closing credits as director, executive producer and producer, Jourdan refuses credit for anything but raising the money to make the film. After forming a non-profit organization, she raised nearly $1 million from sources that ranged from the Department of Energy to private contributors (including the filmmaker's parents and crew members). Though the fundraising process lasted as long as the five years it took to make the film, and is ongoing, there was one 18 month period during which Jourdan allowed herself only four days off. Since her work day was largely paperwork and telephone solicitation, she worked from the beginning of the business day in the Eastern time zone until the end of the day in the Pacific time zone--12 hours. Yet she attributes the film's quality and impact to the serendipity that led her to her colleagues.

Initially, she hired local crewmen to film the interviews. There was the possibility that the film would be eligible for support from the State of Tennessee, so she looked first to Tennesseans. As it happened, the cameramen and other crew she hired were inexperienced with documentary filmmaking, and the result of their work was substandard, she says. With over half of the film's important interviews unusable visually, she turned to the two elements that make Half Lives so memorable. She hired Linda Goldman, an archivist from the National Geographic Society and Smithsonian magazine, to gather the rare or never-before-seen historical images and footage that set the tone of the film and fill in visually.

"It could have been worse," says Jourdan. "The archive images made the movie. It also gave us the chance to use the camera work of the best documentary filmmaker in the industry."

After local resources didn't pan out, she hired cinematographer Allan Moore, who is best known for his work with Ken Burns. He shot the popular PBS programs The Civil War and Baseball, and has won Academy Awards for his fine work. Michael Olmert, the writer of the narration, has three Emmy Awards on his shelf. The man who reads the narration throughout the film, Courtney Vance, is an actor on stage and screen. He can be seen in The Hunt for Red October and has received numerous Tony Awards for his work on Broadway.

While it's clear that Jourdan's colleagues shared her enthusiasm for the project, that kind of talent doesn't get excited unless the price is right. Her exhaustive fundraising paid the film back with excellent work done by people at the pinnacles of their respective professions.

Still, rather than acknowledging responsibility for attracting all that talent, Jourdan maintains that all she did for the film was make a bunch of phone calls. Reminded of one of Olmert's most resonant lines in the narration, "...science was hijacked in the name of war..." she comes clean, however.

"I wrote that line," she says, almost embarrassed. "I wrote three lines, actually."

The People

The title of the film is a scientific term. It refers to the unit of measurement used to describe how slowly radioactive elements decay--or how long it takes to become half of its current quantity. The half-life of Uranium-238, for example, is around four-and-a-half billion years.

Jourdan saw the importance of Half Lives to her generation, but she also made it as a reference to be used by future generations. Every generation from now on will be forced to consider in some way nuclear waste created during this century. One goal for the film was to provide a record of the first workers in the nuclear industries so that future generations would not consider them evil or enemies of mankind. If people watch it in the future, it's likely that she will be successful in that respect.

In the film, K.O. Hackworth, a 73 year-old Clinton native who retired after 41 years as an electrical engineer at Y-12, tells how the Manhattan Project changed his home: "They called it Happy Valley because jobs out here paid real well. Fifty cents an hour is a whole lot better than a dollar a day, which was standard wages then. I bought me a car that wasn't but eight years old. That was livin' way up yonder."

Lately, Hackworth has been calling friends to let them know he's going to be on TV.

"It's an honor to be in the film," he says, sounding more energetic than the average 23-year-old. "It's an honor to be involved in something that posterity can see. To me, that's the way it is."

Hackworth is justifiably proud of Oak Ridge and the work he's done there. There is a recurring debate with which Hackworth is familiar, as to whether or not the nuclear bombing of Japan saved the lives of Allied forces standing by to invade that country. To him, it's a ridiculous quandary. He did work at Oak Ridge that led to the completion of the bomb, and as far as he's concerned, his is one of the lives it saved.

"You may be interested in this," says Hackworth. "I worked at Y-12 when it first started up."

He found out about the secret city through a chance meeting with a surveying crew out in the country near his home. Since he was originally classified 4-F because he'd been electrocuted, Hackworth found work in the burgeoning complex. He worked at Y-12 when the plant made its first successful electromagnetic separation of fissionable Uranium-235 from non-fissionable Uranium-238. Still, he persevered in his attempts to volunteer for the Army. It turns out his fourth time was the charm.

"They said, 'You're just the man we're looking for,'" Hackworth recalls. "I went to Europe with the 82nd Airborne. We whooped that little conflagration over there, and I loaded up on a ship one night headed for Japan for the invasion.

"About that time, they dropped that bomb on Hiroshima. We sat there for three days. People knew I was from Oak Ridge and were full of questions. But I couldn't tell 'em nothing. Anyway, instead of going to Japan, we headed for New York. That was the best trip I ever made in my life. I was apprehensive about going to Japan. I think that bomb saved my life."

The Hackworth clan, which has remained in and around Oak Ridge, also stymies the lore involving nuclear physics and life expectancy. His brothers are all healthy in their sixties and seventies. His mother turned 96 last week ("When she was born, she didn't weigh but two pounds and a half! And here she's seen Haley's Comet twice. It was better the first time."). And Hackworth himself is not to be stopped. When Half Lives airs in Knoxville, he and his wife will be leaf-watching in Maine.

Dr. Waldo Cohn, a biochemist who has retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory but still offers consultant services pro bono, is also in the film. He says that he's not equipped to say whether or not the film will clarify the nuclear waste problem or if he's looking forward to millions of people hearing his remarks. He is interviewed frequently, and the interview in this film, which he hasn't yet seen, took place years ago. So he doesn't remember exactly what he said.

Among other things, he said: "Unfortunately, the modern debate has been fueled by public misconception. Like Chicken Little, people worry that the sky is falling. This fear permeates everything and people think radioactivity is going to attack you if you don't watch out. People think the best thing to do is put the genie back in the bottle. Well, it won't go back in the bottle."

Cohn, now 86, ceased to deal with radiation and radioactivity when the war ended. Up until his retirement, his research concentrated on nucleic acids. Between 1943 and 1946, however, he was part of the Manhattan Project.

"The work that I did up to 1946 was essentially nuclear chemistry," he explains. "It was part of the plutonium project, which was part of the Manhattan Project. I was brought into the project starting in 1943, because it was known that the fission process--whether you're running a power plant or a bomb--produces fission products which are highly radioactive materials of no use. They are not the product that is sought. What is sought is the energy of the fission process itself. The result of my war work was the radio-isotope production and distribution program, which had nothing to do with producing a bomb. It was sort of a side show, if you like."

Since Cohn's work at ORNL after the war didn't involve nuclear science, public perception of things nuclear was not an issue for him. Still, he's well acquainted with the debate.

"I've had no adverse effects from working with radioactivity for all those years," explains Cohn, with an energy that makes you believe him. "You simply know what to do with radioactive materials, how to protect yourself and anybody else. You deal with it by remote control, behind barriers. And when you're through with them, you put them in a safe place and put up a sign saying 'Keep away, because you'll be fried like an egg if you don't.'

"I like to point out to people that there's enough electricity in every one of our houses to kill us ten times over. The reason it doesn't is that we know how to deal with it. We don't stick our fingers in the sockets."

Jourdan is now trying to decide if filmmaking is for her. She's had offers from Hollywood and she's had offers to make Half Lives the first in a series. She even received a call from a filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about her. While she decides, she's trying to do everything she can to get people to watch her film.

"The problem those workers faced was much worse than the problem we face now with the waste," she says. "I hope it will shame others into realizing that those people handled it with no time at all. And we have time. This is not something we can't do.

"That's the ultimate purpose of the film--to keep people from becoming so disheartened that they just throw up their hands."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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