New Film “Pandora’s Promise” Likely to Unleash Nuclear Energy Revivalists
by Robin Klein
Slick, with a budget of over $1 million, “Pandora’s Promise” is a provocative breeze to watch. Taking cues from effective leftist eye-opening documentary styles, think Michael Moore crossed with the Academy award-winning anti-nuke film “Deadly Deception,” one can see why accomplished director Robert Stone’s “Pandora’s Promise” made the cut into this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And, indeed Sundance anticipated the controversy that’s bound to ensue.
“Pandora’s Promise” jumps off global warming fears and our world’s insatiable accelerating demand for more energy. Real concerns to be sure. The film further makes the case that radioactivity is nowhere near as bad for us as we’ve been told, claiming that man-made radioactivity from nuclear accidents is not so prominent, nor widespread in the environment, nor has it caused any significant harm. Acknowledging mistakes made historically in the decision to use light water nuclear reactors, the film vigorously promotes breeder reactors. Breeder reactor technology, such as the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor ALMR, was deemed too dangerous and too costly by the Clinton administration.
The film calls for nothing short of a nuclear revival using the next generation of nuclear reactors which would be inherently safe, according to the film.
In praise of nuclear power, the film shows the waste from all past nuclear power plant operations together would fill no more than a ten-foot high football field, arguing the physical footprint of the waste is small compared with other energy production, as though occupying space in a landfill is the concern when it comes to radioactive waste. Of course the real concern is the radioactive content and the potential breach of containment. No mention of the waste volume and hazard in mining and milling uranium for fuel, and in the “recycling” process advocated for breeder reactors — a process which has produced millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste at defense facilities such as Hanford in Washington State, with no solution for stabilization or storage. And no mention that a miniscule amount of plutonium for example can harm vast numbers of people and persists in the environment for ages. That’s why we made the stuff for nuclear bombs. And, plutonium is supposed to be kept under careful inventory. The film shows tons of plutonium only taking up a fraction of the football field, doesn’t look like much.
Filming takes us around the globe to nuclear accident sites at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. In all, asserting few to zero victims as a result of the breaches of containment at those facilities, citing many world health organizations’ long-term studies in the case of Chernobyl.
“Pandora’s Promise” asserts solar and wind are not the answer to global warming because the technologies have not advanced to producing enough energy to fill the gap between growing energy needs and the necessary reduction/elimination of fossil fuel reliance, making a big deal out of the fact that they are not a constant supply. No sun in winter and wind doesn’t blow all the time. Power storage technology is not mentioned. Neither are recent breakthroughs in solar implementation internationally such as a University of Delaware study that shows how a major electrical grid, 1/5 of the US power, could operate 99.9% on renewables by 2030; the Island of Tokelau became the world’s first 100% solar-powered country; Saudi Arabia announced last May its massive solar power undertaking in the desert; and Germany exceeded 50% solar in November, with record low costs. All these developments emerged in the last year. Perhaps filming finished before they were reported.
Ironically the short film “The Secret of Trees” about an innovative new design that mimics how real trees use sunlight in a more efficient configuration than current panel geometries, opened the Sundance press screening of “Pandora’s Promise.”
The film further makes claims nuclear power is cheap, without addressing publicized reports showing its exceedingly high costs and subsidies. Perhaps life-cycle costs to the taxpayer were not included. Historically until recently, few dollars have gone toward developing renewables. One can only imagine if solar and wind received development funding similar to what went to nuclear power. Even with smaller subsidies, the growth of wind generation in the US and the world is vastly outpacing new nuclear — and this is expected to continue.
Most undermining, the choices for interviewees. Why weren’t thoughtful interviews of recognized experts/critics on nuclear energy and ALMR’s (Dr. Arjun Makhajani and Amory Lovins come to mind) presented? Instead Stone interviewed advocates like novelist Gwyneth Cravens, Argonne Labs nuclear physicist Charles Till, Jim Hansen NASA director concerned with global warming, pioneer nuclear engineer Len Koch, disillusioned environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus, and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand. Brand can hardly be considered an environmentalist, as he advocates for such far out ideas as allowing amateur tinkerers to do genetic engineering experiments in their garages. This group is juxtaposed with footage of rabid, seemingly paranoid enviros with brief generic clips of recognized outspoken environmental leaders like Ralph Nader, Bobby Kennedy Jr., and Dr. Helen Caldicott. The only one asked to reflect on the film’s subject was Caldicott, her hurried comment was sought at a public function. This does not demonstrate good journalism.
As acknowledged in the film, the nuclear industry is utterly reliant on containment. There still is no real solution to the waste problem, rather a claim that the radioactivity is not all that harmful and a message that any risks of leaching and proliferation are small and worth it.
If there is a criticism of Sundance in this case, it is in the failure to recognize the film’s journalistic shortcomings. The film fails to deliver a single interview of a legitimate expert representing so many people commonly disenchanted with the nuclear industry. Yet pulpits are given to an odd range of voices supporting a new generation of abundant nuclear power production as the solution to halt global warming. The result of such shortcomings is a propaganda piece.
If there is a valid takeaway from this well-made production, it’s driving home the immense need for more energy production and elimination of fossil fuel use.
Robin Klein is a journalist with a bachelors degree in physics, who formerly held a seat on the federal Hanford Advisory Board, reviewed nuclear issues at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state and the use of mixed oxide fuels in advanced nuclear reactors.