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Sundance guest review: “Pandora’s Promise”

by on January 29, 2013

Matt Pacenza, policy director for the Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah (better known to some as HEAL Utah), took in Sundance Film Festival documentary Pandora’s Promise, a film that tracks some environmentalists’ shift to believing nuclear power is a legitimate energy solution after years believing otherwise. Below is Pacenza’s take on the film.


At the heart of Pandora’s Promise – a new documentary film from award-winning filmmaker Robert Stone which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this past week – is the notion that where we get our electricity is the most fundamental issue humanity has to grapple with.

At HEAL Utah, a non-profit which focuses on nuclear and energy issues, we couldn’t agree more: Starting with the effects of climate change, and moving into the existential question of the long-term sustainability of modern civilization, how we choose to power our world is critical.

Which is why Pandora’s Promise is ultimately such a disappointing film. It’s a study of a half-dozen well-known environmentalists who have come to embrace nuclear power as the solution to the world’s climate and energy crisis – after having shunned it for years, like most of the green community still does. While the exceptionally well-made film has its provocative moments, the gaps in its focuses and its reliance on cheap propaganda ultimately doom it to little more than a clever piece of agit-prop.

The film’s nearly exclusive focus is on what it posits are the wildly-exaggerated dangers of nuclear power. Pandora’s Promise hammers home one main message: Nuclear power is relatively safe, especially when compared to fossil fuels, which indisputable kill tens of thousands of people a year. The film argues that the nuclear industry’s trio of high-profile accidents — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima – in fact was much less devastating to public health and the environment than is popularly believed.

Now, we can dispute that notion: There is decent evidence suggesting that not just nuclear accidents but day-to-day operation of nuclear power may be harmful. But, even if we acknowledge that Stone and his cadre of pro-nuke evangelists have a point, it’s odd how the film proposes that safety issues are the only concern of the anti-nuclear community.

There is a very brief discussion of nuclear waste, which is ultimately superficial and unsatisfying. No mention of low-level waste, for example, an issue that matters in Utah, home to the nation’s large such dump site. No mention of the uranium fuel cycle, the pollution generated by mining, milling and processing the fuel needed for nuclear power.

Water also never comes up – another glaring omission in Utah, where the massive amount of water nuclear power needs has emerged as the key issue in the battle over the Green River reactors. Given that so much of the world’s future will be shaped by the availability of water, it’s strange to not mention that as a factor in decisions about where we get our electricity. It’s like making a film about the future of agriculture without discussing soil.

And, most bizarrely, money never comes up. One would assume, after watching Pandora’s Promise, that the main reason we haven’t built more nuclear reactors is because of the fear of accidents. Irrational hysteria explains the lack of success nuclear power has experienced over the past 30 years, after its boom in the 1960s and 70s, the film suggests.

Of course that’s not true: Cost is what has doomed nuclear. Despite significant subsidies, the power the industry makes is simply too expensive, especially when compared to coal and natural gas. If you go and talk to the people who actually make decisions about how to make electricity, you won’t have lots of conversations about reactor cores melting down, but you will discuss skyrocketing pricetags and construction delays.

Lastly, and perhaps most depressingly, the film asserts we need nuclear because it’s the only alternative. Its pro-nuke environmentalists – like so many of us – are very worried about carbon, about our warming planet and about how we will generate enough electricity to rapidly move away from coal- and natural gas-fired electricity.

What about renewables? What about wind, solar and geothermal energy? The quick way the film dismissed those sources is disappointing, and kind of sad. “What do you do when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?” one voice in the film posits, as if intermittency is an unanswerable problem that will forever doom renewables. No mention of energy storage, which is growing increasingly viable.

The film notes that renewables and energy efficiency don’t yet contribute much to our overall energy pictures, but accepts that reality as a death sentence, rather than largely-political obstacles which can be overcome.

The film may fail to engage with most of the issues surrounding nuclear power, but what also makes it ultimately unsatisfying is the gimmicks it uses to prop up its side of the nuclear debate. The pro-nuke environmental evangelists are shot beautifully, often in soft focus. They’re handsome, and are frequently shown strolling along the beach, playing with their families and sitting in their homes and offices.

Its best voices – American Michael Shellenberger and Brit Mark Lynas – are young, and very well-spoken. Each makes his pitch very artfully, explaining how he slowly transformed from hating nuclear power to embracing it. They’re likeable guys, experienced activists and deep thinkers whose portrayal screams thoughtful and reasonable.

The anti-nuke folks, on the other hand, are shown nearly exclusively in protests. While demonstrations may be a valuable activism tool, the rhetoric and images they produce are admittedly not terribly nuanced. The footage of those protests – depicting puppets, drums and the unkempt activists chanting and singing – stands in sharp contrast to the careful, warm, sympathetic voices of the pro-nuke crowd.

An anti-nuclear activist is interviewed just one time in the film – and the moment sadly shows Stone’s lack of faith in his own theses. He interviews prominent anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, 74. However, Caldicott’s interview clearly wasn’t scheduled – nor is she allowed to explain herself at length. She is apparently ambushed, as she leaves a demonstration where she had spoken.

Caldicott is asked several pointed questions about why she doesn’t believe health studies which indicate the health toll of the Chernobyl disaster was fairly low. And, frankly, in her hurried responses, she comes across poorly, fearful of science and stuck to her pre-conceived notions about scary nuclear power, regardless of the evidence.

The message is clear: Who do you believe? The handsome, rational folks who thoroughly explain how they came to support nuclear power – or the bedraggled activists who hate facts?

If Stone really wanted to provoke a debate among environmentalists about nuclear power, he’d treat each side with respect. He’d interview people in similar ways, and give them a chance to speak at length. He’d grapple with the wide range of issues that nuclear power raises – not just safety, and waste, but water usage and cost. And, lastly, he’d engage in a more informed discussion of alternatives, especially renewables.

–Matt Pacenza

  1. Corey Barcus permalink

    Conventional nuclear certainly has issues with both cost and liability, but there is hope that some of the new nuclear technology can directly address this (see molten salt reactors, or specifically, Dr. David LeBlanc’s IMSR). High temperature reactors can use dry cooling (at some extra cost and loss of efficiency). Far higher efficiencies in fuel, heat use, conversion, and material use can significantly reduce product costs. Inherent safety features combined with high efficiency should go someways towards improving the economics.

    This energy debate directly concerns the shape of our economy, and the decisions we make today will impact how many people can be supported at what quality of life in the near future. If you think our economic situation is precarious today, just wait as the cost of energy significantly increases.

    The potential in nuclear is roughly a million times greater than chemical fuels (which greatly outperform renewables), and we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible with this technology. Compact, efficient, modular nuclear machines conveniently delivered via a semi-trailer to plug into standardized dry coolers. 650 MWth (300 MWe) placed right where the energy is needed, minimizing transmission costs and losses. A market of tens of thousands of these machines should also see significant cost reductions due to the learning curve effect.

    The alternative would be to try and use renewable energy farms and expensive storage solutions to cobble together some sort of reliable system with massive redundancy in both transmission and production. I think anyone serious on the subject has long concluded that it is basically impossible to build out a renewable system with any kind of parity to the fossil-industrial one we have grown accustomed to. Not only are renewables still subsidized in their markets, the low cost production of these machines depends upon fossil fuels, and will for the foreseeable future. While renewable proponents have been shouting about the great low cost of PVs, it is those low costs which have hurt the industry globally. Recent simulations of large scale wind farms strongly suggest that power density will be limited to around 1 watt/meter^2. Large scale storage will be limited by geology and materials (esp. molten salt batteries). Global renewable systems have been priced out at well over $100 trillion, and they assume incredible advances in efficiency that will greatly surpass growth.

    Today, global energy production is on the order of 17 TW and very unevenly distributed. While global average energy-per-capita is close to 2 kW, in the United States it is closer to 10 kW. Raising global average energy-per-capita to 5 kW would entail a production capacity of 50 TW by 2050. There is no way we can even contemplate that meager future without something like nuclear at our disposal. The risks we face by not rising to the challenge to develop the technology we need to bridge this gap are enormous and largely esoteric. Let’s hope that those with the power to influence the future of our economy do so with the understanding of the role of energy and what is possible technically (though maybe not politically).

  2. Jeffrey E Ehrlich MD permalink

    I enjoyed reading your review. I take some issue regarding the reason why no nuke plants have been built in the US. I remember seeing China Syndrome while 3-Mile Island was undergoing its crisis. People were panicked! Nuke plants were cancelled quickly and permanently. Yes, people talk about costs, but those costs are due to ever-changing safety requirements for any new proposed facility, and fear is part of the reason for these safety standards changing. It is my understanding that the cost electricity generated (at least by FPL here in Florida) is at or below that from other sources. I am not an expert in nuke power but I do know that we need to take global warming seriously and come up with a solution. The indifference of the last 30 years cannot continue.

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