A new film by award-winning director Robert Stone vividly captures a burgeoning movement of pro-nuclear environmentalists, and, in the words of Slate critic Tim Wu, “makes the utterly convincing case that anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist or takes climate change seriously should favor more nuclear power.”
“Pandora’s Promise,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is expected to open in theaters this summer, earned praise for taking its audience’s nuclear fears head-on.
“A good, politically charged documentary often seizes on what the audience already believes and throws fuel on the fire (see, e.g., the work of Michael Moore),” Wu writes. “A better such documentary tries to convince its audience that what it takes for granted is flat-out wrong. ‘Pandora’s Promise’… does just that.”
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called Stone “the most under-celebrated great documentary filmmaker in America,” and said he was “walking into the lion’s den” at Sundance with “Pandora’s Promise”: “For this isn’t a movie that preaches to the choir. It’s a movie that says: ‘Stop thinking what you’ve been thinking, because if you don’t, you’re going to collude in wrecking the world.’”
Stone, who used to oppose nuclear energy, traces a change in thinking among a growing number of environmental leaders, including British writer Mark Lynas, journalist Gwyneth Cravens, Whole Earth Catalogue Founder Stewart Brand, and Breakthrough Institute President Michael Shellenberger. “Like myself, they changed their minds largely because the climate is changing,” Stone says.
The challenge of averting the worst effects of global warming has pushed many environmentalists to take a fresh look at nuclear, the only zero-carbon source of baseload electricity for a world with rapidly rising energy demand. Renewable sources like solar and wind face technological and financial hurdles, and, despite massive investments in recent years, power just 3.6 percent of the US grid. Meanwhile, the planet continues to warm and particulate pollution from coal continues to kill about 1 million people per year globally (and more than 13,000 people in the United States).
But what about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima? “Carefully, piece by piece, without hysteria and without dogma, he [Stone] looks at the evidence of what actually happened during those three infamous catastrophes: the reality of the damage, and the reality of the aftermath,” Glieberman writes. “The results, if you truly listen to them, are almost spectacularly counterintuitive. They won’t leave you shaken. They will begin to shake you out of your old tired ways of thinking.”
Contrary to popular fears, just 56 people have died from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, according to the United Nations, and 28 of them were emergency workers, who were exposed to much higher levels of radiation. There could eventually be as many as 4,000 premature deaths, but connecting cause of death to Chernobyl becomes more tenuous as the years pass. Moreover, while people continue to stay out of the areas closest to Chernobyl, wildlife has returned in surprising abundance even to some of the most contaminated zones. The most significant costs from the incident that forced the evacuation of 300,000 people appear to be psychological.
As for Japan, the UN recently announced it had found no clinically observable health effects from post-Fukushima radiation. The impacts from the tsunami itself and ensuing resettlement are sure to be far more severe than any from radiation.
Indeed, fear of nuclear, the history and psychology of which is documented expertly in “Pandora’s Promise,” may be more costly than its use. “The anti-nuclear movement is partly responsible for global warming,” Lynas said recently. “Everywhere, pretty much, where a nuclear plant was cancelled, a coal plant was built instead, and that's because of the anti-nuclear movement.”
Whether to pursue nuclear energy is a decision made not in a vacuum but in a world of tradeoffs. “It’s a question of alternatives,” Wu writes. “It’s going to be fossil or nuclear: There is no other choice. Indeed the film alleges that the fossil fuel industry loves solar and wind because it knows they will never pose a serious threat to the supremacy of oil and coal.”
With next generation of designs under development — including reactors physically incapable of meltdowns and others that run on nuclear waste from existing plants — the choice of nuclear is looking better and better.
Where a lesser documentary might close with doomsday predictions or sentimental fuzziness, the message of Pandora’s Promise follows its name. The debate over climate change will be revitalized by those willing to open their personal Pandora’s box, examine their past assumptions, and question how we can realistically meet global energy demand and avert the worst effects of global warming.
“‘Pandora’s Promise,’” Glieberman writes, “is built around what should be the real liberal agenda: looking at an issue not with orthodoxy, but with open eyes."
To watch the official trailer for Pandora's Promise visit pandoraspromise.com.