TELEVISION / Fuel for scandal

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The Independent Culture
PLUTONIUM has an image problem; the safer it is the more dangerous it looks. If, for instance, you were to tune in to a documentary and see two squaddies chucking cardboard boxes of the stuff off the back of a lorry you would have genuine cause for anxiety but would probably find it a bit more difficult to get worked up - the visual language simply wouldn't convey the urgency of the situation. On the other hand, when every image is redolent of extreme caution, you start to get a bit uneasy.

Viewed through three feet of toughened glass or quivering beneath a pool of eerily lit water the stuff looks vaguely hazardous, in a sci-fi manner. But it's when you see how they test the casks it is transported in that you realise those in the know are decidedly nervous themselves. Never mind that all of these are elaborate precautions against leakage, a contrary message seeps through - it's so poisonous that we don't even dare look it in the face.

Documentary makers like to boost this up a bit with a fitting piece of music. In the shooting script for last night's Panorama (BBC 1) it was actually described as 'SFX weird music' but weird really wasn't the message. You weren't meant to think 'isn't plutonium strange and scientific', you were meant to think 'it might get out of its cage and kill me.'

Similarly the appetite of television documentaries for categoric facts can cause problems for the unwary - or the honest. 'You can't rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack, can you?' asked John Taylor. 'Of course not,' replied Ken Jackson of British Nuclear Fuels, a merely sensible response that was converted by the odd alchemy of the probing interview into a virtual agreement that balaclava-clad guerrillas would be swarming over the next shipment out.

Taylor's report on the start of shipments of plutonium from Sellafield to Tokyo was on much more solid ground when he moved away from the thriller plots and on to the economics. Plutonium is a commodity which it was once assumed would be the foundation stone of the nuclear industry but which has become something of an embarrassment as country after country closed down their fast- breeder reactor programmes and the Cold War defrosted. Now, as one witness put it vividly, 'We've got plutonium coming out of our ears' (inadvisable, according to current medical theory).

As a result, Panorama suggested, Thorp, the pounds 2 billion plant set up to reprocess spent fuel and produce plutonium, might be redundant before it had even gone into operation. Faced with facts about the market rather than doomy speculations Jackson looked less comfortable; he responded to suggestions that many of his customers were thinking again about sending fuel for reprocessing with the uneasy body language of a man who has just realised that it might be difficult to ship Tower Bridge back to Texas but doesn't want to admit he's made a mistake.

The colonial officials glimpsed in China Rising (ITV) looked as if they had come straight off a Maoist propaganda poster - grinning capitalists in top hats and business men with panatellas and pince- nez. But then the early section of this three-part history of modern China occasionally felt as if it came from the same source. Hindsight can be trying if overdone, but it still seemed odd to open with a vaguely heroic account of a student demonstration in Shanghai which ended in 11 deaths without the faintest hint that such scenes have some contemporary echoes. That said, the archive footage was marvellous, capturing the exotic seductions of pre-revolutionary China, the militaristic strut of rival warlords and the brutalities of the Japanese invasion. Anne Jarvis, credited as the film researcher, ought to ask for above-title billing.

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