Following a strong critical reception at the Sundance Film Festival, the new documentary “Pandora’s Promise,” which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, is sparking national debate over whether to embrace nuclear energy to address global warming.
Hailed as “compelling,” “essential viewing,” and “the most important movie about the environment since ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” “Pandora’s Promise” is inspiring antinuclear environmentalists to reconsider their views and call for greater discussion about nuclear power. The film, by Academy-Award-nominated director Robert Stone, charts the personal stories of five leading environmentalists who were once against nuclear but have since come to support the technology: Stewart Brand, Richard Rhodes, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger.
Writing about the documentary in the New Yorker, Michael Specter traced his own opposition to nuclear energy to Three Mile Island: “To be for nuclear power after Three Mile Island (and, even worse, after the accident at Chernobyl, in 1986) was to be for corporations; for lying, callous governments; and for the inane notion that the benefits of new technologies always outweigh the risks.”
Seeing “Pandora’s Promise” forced him to reassess his position.
“Life is about choices, and we need to make one,” Specter writes. “Being opposed to nuclear power, as [Richard] Rhodes points out [in the film], means being in favor of burning fossil fuel. It’s that simple. Nuclear energy — now in its fourth generation — is at least as safe as any other form of power.”
After seeing the film, Terry Tempest Williams, a 30-year antinuclear activist and self-proclaimed descendant of the “Clan of One-Breasted Women” (a reference to cancers in her family she believes were a result of atomic explosion testing), said in the Nation that renewed discussion of nuclear energy was urgent and necessary.
“I am interested in having an open conversation about nuclear energy,” she said. “Climate change is real. We know we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels. So what are the alternatives? Are renewable energy sources enough for the energy-poor around the world?”
More skeptical viewers appeared less interested in having a debate over the issue at all, much less challenging their antinuclear beliefs. In a conversation with Tempest Williams, Mark Hertsgaard, the Nation’s environment correspondent, repeatedly sought to foreclose the discussion she desired — about the trade-offs of embracing or rejecting nuclear — preferring instead to try to discredit the film.
Yet, as Michael O’Sullivan points out in the Washington Post, “Pandora’s Promise” is not simply a vehicle for pro-nuclear ideology. “Although the documentary ultimately argues in favor of nuclear power, an energy source that’s anathema to many tree huggers, it does so in a way that’s less strenuous than strenuously ambivalent,” he writes. “In the end, its somewhat equivocal message — that nuclear power might just be the lesser of several evils — is more convincing than you’d think.”
Perhaps that’s why more discerning critics praised “Pandora’s Promise” for seeking to open up a conversation about an issue that can be controversial and ideologically fraught. “Stone and the people he focuses on are not afraid to display their ambivalence,” Specter writes. “That makes their decisions even more powerful.” Ben Kenigsberg of AV Club called the film “the most counterintuitive enviro-doc of the year” and said it “offers plenty to discuss.” Amy Michaud of Newsday writes, “This compelling documentary pushed me further along my own conversion path. … ‘No nukes’ is how I felt [in 1979], but now I am open to the possibilities.” Andy Revkin of the New York Times’s Dot Earth calls the movie “provocative,” “important,” and “essential viewing.”
David Ropeik, writing for Scientific American, said “Pandora’s Promise” challenges groupthink psychology and how it can imperceptibly (and indelibly) shape our perceptions of risk. Antinuclear views, he said, are often the result of “automatic tribal acceptance.”
Against thoughtless tribalism, Tempest Williams observes, “Pandora’s Promise” plumbs a philosophical “fracture line” among environmentalists.
There are those who believe that, given the global population of 7 billion and rising, “the only practical way we can sustain an energy-rich future is to commit to more development, more technology,” which will ensure the energy-poor have access to what the United States and Europe enjoy. The other side of the movement, she writes, asks “not how can we further promote a lifestyle of living beyond our energy means, but how can we live more lightly on the planet.”
“Pandora’s Promise” raises the larger questions of what is at stake for environmentalism in our time: how we will embrace the high-energy planet of our future, and how quickly we can accelerate energy transitions so that all of Earth’s inhabitants can enjoy modern lives while not ravaging the planet.
Specter puts an even finer point on the discussion: “We can let our ideals suffocate us or we can survive ... This film ought to make anyone who sees it realize that it is not too late for compromise. But we are getting really close.”