‘Pandora’s Promise': A love letter to atomic energy

PandorasPromise

It takes balls to make a pro-nuclear power film two years after the Fukushima Daiichi, but that’s what Robert Stone has done with Pandora’s Promise.

Over the years I’ve reviewed more than my fair share of ‘right-on’ left-wing documentaries, so it’s only fair that every now and then I spend a little time with one from across the tracks. Of course, Pandora’s Promise (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 14) relies almost exclusively on liberal talking heads to make its conservative point—so perhaps I’m cheating ever so slightly.

It takes some major cojones to make a pro-nuclear power film only two years after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, but that’s precisely what director Robert Stone (whose excellent Radio Bikini earned an Oscar nomination in 1988) has done. A love letter to atomic energy, Pandora’s Promise will provoke considerable controversy in tree-hugging circles.

Half a dozen nuclear skeptics turned atomic enthusiasts (including former Merry Prankster Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Craven, Mark Lynas, historian Richard Rhodes, and Michael Shellenberger) make the counter-intuitive arguments that nuclear is safe, that it can help not hinder nuclear disarmament, and that it doesn’t create an inordinate amount of highly radioactive waste. Notably and surprisingly absent is George Monbiot, a reliable nuclear power cheerleader in the pages of the Guardian.

Wisely confronting the elephant in the room head-on, Stone’s film begins with footage of Lynas donning protective clothing as he prepares to plunge deep into the heart of the Fukushima exclusion zone. Slipping into his jumpsuit, Lynas curiously declares that he “feel(s) like a bit of an idiot really. Because I’m wearing radiation clothing. Shouldn’t be necessary.”

Does Lynas not think it necessary because he simply isn’t concerned about radiation in general, or because he thinks the specific dangers of Fukushima have been exaggerated? Though he never comes out and says it, it seems likely to be the former, as he grants that parts of Fukushima are now dangerously “hot”.

Enter his trusty radiometer. Used by Lynas to prove that background radiation is everywhere—and in some places exceeds legal limits—the device is one of the film’s most prominent characters. In concert with its human operator, the radiometer attempts to prove that while accidents on par with Fukushima and Chernobyl are bad, they aren’t as problematic as our uninformed and fearful lamestream media suggests.

Pandora’s Promise argues that such accidents are the result of poor reactor design, with earlier generations of light-water reactors—such as those in Japan and the Soviet Union—deemed untrustworthy due to their meltdown prone cooling systems. If only there were a safer alternative!

Happily, a knight in shining containment vessel, the Integral Fast Reactor, is ready to ride to our rescue. Because it doesn’t need water to cool itself (apparently it relies on liquid metal—don’t ask me how this works), the IFR can’t meltdown, and produces much less waste than a standard light-water reactor. The snag: There are no IFR’s in existence, a problem the film suggests is a political problem, not a scientific one.

Framing its argument in the context of climate change, Pandora’s Promise also suggests nuclear power is carbon-friendly. Remarkable archival footage of Margaret Thatcher delivering a speech acknowledging the reality of global warming is guaranteed to make 21st century right-wing heads explode.

As for nuke opponents, Stone sets up some straw men and knocks ‘em down with alacrity. There’s “gotcha!” footage of Dr. Helen Caldicott responding poorly to some probing questions, embarrassing snippets of singing hippies at a 1979 concert, and the suggestion that environmentalists claim a million Chernobyl fatalities despite the official death toll being well under 100.

Did Pandora’s Promise change my mind about nuclear power? No. The film is incredibly dismissive of renewables, which it describes (in terms the nuclear power industry strongly echoes) as unreliable and no better environmentally than natural gas. As for the IFR, it’s too far in the future to be of any use in stopping global warming. On this one, I’m sticking with the hippies—despite their awful anti-nuke song.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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  • The_Sharkey

    Interesting review. Might not go catch this one in the theater, but I’ll definitely remember to add it to my Netflix cue.

    It seems like all power generation techniques still carry strong negatives of one sort or another, from the tons of CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels to the hazardous waste byproducts of solar manufacturing. In the end we’ll be stuck choosing the lesser of evils.

    Nuclear power could be the lesser evil, if only we could find some way to safely dispose of the waste. While new and safer generator technology is nice, the real elephant in the room is what to do with the nuclear material once it can no longer be used as fuel.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_France

  • esopusdave

    It’s foolish to repeat death estimates as though they are established facts. For example, thyroid abnormalities have increased greatly in japanese children and American kids on the west coast after Fukushima. This means thyroid cancer for many, perhaps thousands, or hundreds of thousands in the next 20 years. Wind is cheaper, safer and ready today. Forget molten metal sodium cooled reactor fantasies. Sodium explodes in contact with water.

  • esopusdave

    Also- The John Hall nuke song in the movie is lovely. Beautiful lyrics and melody. It will break your heart, not your thyroid. Listen to it.

  • The_Sharkey

    Good point about the lasting effects of nuclear disasters, but the detonation of a bomb and a nuclear reactor meltdown are very different events. Meltdowns don’t spew radiactive waste up into the atmosphere.

    Wind farms are nice, but they can only be placed in limited areas and can’t come near to competing with the power output from nuclear generators.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abeboparebop Jacob Lynn

    For those who are interested in a serious, apolitical take on transitioning to sustainable energy, this ebook is a great read: http://www.withouthotair.com/. (The site needs a new web designer, though.)

    The primary takeaways for me were:

    (1) the foreseeable route to sustainability will be primarily some combination of nuclear and desert solar, depending on your priorities (cost vs. nuclear is icky, basically);
    (2) greening the grid will be much easier than making liquid fuels sustainable (in the quantities we use them). Thus the primary reason to transition to electric vehicles is not actually to reduce energy usage, but instead to allow vehicles to use green grid energy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abeboparebop Jacob Lynn

    Plus the technologies required to smooth out spiky power output from wind turbines (to match supply to electrical demand) are themselves quite expensive. Wind is a useful contributor but probably won’t form more than 5-10% of the energy portfolio anywhere.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I hear that, if we create a smart grid, it will be able to deal with the uneven power output of wind and solar. In fact, I have heard predictions that, if we build a smart grid, that alone will be enough to kill nuclear power.

    A smart grid is, in fact, expensive, but there are many advantages that justify the expense.

    Note that Germany is planning to phase out nuclear and also to transition to 100% clean electricity — and they have much less sun than we do.

  • esopusdave

    Silly. Chernobyl spewed radiation by air currents all over the northern hemisphere. Fukushima spewed mainly into the Pacific and was carried by ocean currents around the globe too. Wind farms widely decentralized and connected by a smart grid eliminates the spike problem.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abeboparebop Jacob Lynn

    See my link in a post below. Currently the grid simply has no way to ramp up demand sufficient to meet spikes in wind supply, assuming a large component of wind energy in the electricity portfolio. The author of that book points out that EVs replacing our current automobile fleet could serve as spiky demand to match the spiky wind supply (smart charging during peaks in wind power), but even that would only allow ~20% of the electrical supply to be wind. Similar for smart refrigerators, computers, lights, etc — those would only get us another 5% or so.

    Basically, if we wanted 25% of our portfolio to be wind energy, we’d need to build massive centralized energy storage facilities of some kind. And those are expensive (as you note, to be fair).

    It’s important to note, too, that we’re just talking about the short-term fluctuations. There’s another looming problem which is even tougher — solar and wind fluctuate seasonally, by about a factor of 2 (though they counter-balance somewhat). So a pure wind+solar solution effectively has to be global, or bi-hemispheric, anyway.

    Nuclear has none of these difficulties, and it’s substantially cheaper to boot, despite the fact that it’s been unfashionable science for the last 30 years. (Though nuclear does have the problem that it can’t be “switched-on” quickly to match demand, like natural gas plants can, so you’d have to build excess supply into the system in some form.) Germany is phasing out nuclear for political reasons, of course, and they never had much nuclear relative to places like France, Belgium, and Sweden anyway. Per capita, Germany is about the same as the U.S.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Nuclear is icky and also costly. According to a recent article in the NY Times, the future of nuclear power depends on attempts to get the cost of construction down at plants currently being built in Georgia and South Carolina, but:
    “with construction now roughly one-third complete, it is clear that
    much is not going as planned, and that the schedule — which is closely
    linked to cost because of growing interest expense on the incomplete
    asset — has slipped by at least 14 months and possibly more.”

    They say there is still some chance these plants will succeed in lowering costs, but if they do not,
    “Nuclear power could become a bypassed technology — like moon landings, Polaroid photos and cassette tapes.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/12/business/energy-environment/nuclear-powers-future-may-hinge-on-georgia-project.html?_r=0

    Incidentally, I agree completely about the reason to transition to electric vehicles.

  • Charles_Siegel

    In France, Hollande has pledged to reduce reliance on nuclear.

    See the NY Times article linked in my other comment in response to the point that nuclear is cheaper.

    With a smart grid, I think it would be possible to respond to spiking in the same way that a hybrid car does. When we don’t have enough solar + wind, the smart grid would shift to natural gas backup plants. I have never seen any quantitative studies of this: it seems it could possibly get us to the goal of 80% reduction of emissions by 2050 – and by then, we will have new technologies.

    At any rate, I have had lots of discussions like this, and I always realize afterwards that they miss the most important point. What we really need is pricing of carbon emissions, which gradually increases quickly enough to get us to the goal of 80% reduction (or more) by 2050. With that pricing, there will be lots of technological innovations in clean energy that we cannot anticipate, and which will make our current discussion obsolete.

    I think you and I probably agree on this last point.

  • Gregory Lemieux
  • Gregory Lemieux
  • Berkeley Resident
  • Charles_Siegel

    Breakthrough Institute is very controversial, and I myself would not rely on their work. The country’s best known climate blogger wrote in 2009, when there was a change of Congress passing a bill that would deal effectively with global warming:

    “The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) has dedicated the resources of
    their organization to trying to kill prospects for climate and clean
    energy action in this Congress and to spreading disinformation about
    Obama, Gore, Congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate
    scientists,…”

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2009/06/17/204250/the-breakthrough-institute-shellenberger-nordhaus-waxman-markey/

  • The_Sharkey

    Not quite.

    Germany is hoping to be nuclear-free by 2022 and only 80% renewable by 2050. And they’re already realizing that their plan may not work at all.

    http://www.thelocal.de/national/20130520-49809.html

  • The_Sharkey

    Sorry, there was some confusion. I read your comment wrong and thought you were comparing Chernobyl with Hiroshima.

    But blaming thyroid problems in CA on Fukishima? Alarmist poppycock. Thyroid problems in the USA were on the increase long before Fukishima ever had their meltdown.

  • The_Sharkey

    Oh, and if you think massive wind farms connected by a nation-wide smart grid are realistic, you’re bonkers.

    We can’t even maintain the pathetic infrastructure we have now, let alone building something on that scale.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Apparently, there are conflicting reports about that. Here are some articles saying they are aiming for 100% clean electricity by 2050:

    http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com/news/200/cleanbreakgermany11122012/

    http://seattleenvironmentalactivists.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/germany-100-percent-renewable-energy-by-2050/

    http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/ecoecon/2008/01/exclusively-ren.html

    but I also see some articles saying they are aiming for 80% by 2050

  • Charles_Siegel

    So, we can build enough nuclear power plants to control global warming, but we can’t build a smart grid?

    We can make massive investments in a 1950s infrastructure that was heavily promoted by President Eisenhower, but we can’t make massive investments in twenty-first century infrastructure?

  • The_Sharkey

    Which do you think is cheaper and would be easier to maintain? Individual local power plants based on proven technology, or building brand-new nation-wide power distribution grid and massive fields of wind farms?

  • The_Sharkey

    I think I’ll trust the German story I posted that was published in May of this year rather than articles from American news sources from as far back as 2008.

  • The_Sharkey

    Electric Cars Fail to Gain Traction in Germany

    http://www.thelocal.de/money/20130529-49975.html

  • Charles_Siegel

    One of my links is from November, 2012. I follow this news closely enough that I would have heard if Germany had changed its policy so dramatically since then.

    Does the article you cite say they are trying to cut emissions from all sources by 80% or emissions from electricity generation by 80%? It isn’t clear to me when I read it. Is it clear to you?

    I said that were trying to cut emissions from electric generation by 100% by 2050. That doesn’t count other sources, such as cars.

  • gneiss

    This article doesn’t mention anything about the risks of siting nuclear power plants in seismically active areas. Four tectonic plates come together in Japan, two in California, two in Wash/Oregon – using nuclear power in areas like these is suicide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abeboparebop Jacob Lynn

    I do certainly agree with you about carbon pricing. I read the NYTimes article a couple of days ago and that statement only sensible in a world without carbon pricing. Indeed, nuclear is a bit more expensive than digging up fossils and setting them on fire.

    But in a world with a reasonable carbon price — as the article mentions — nuclear is the cheapest option and would almost certainly see a huge uptick (absent, again, political considerations). Though I admit that in such a world, money would pour into alternative energy research, and so nobody can really make definitive statements about what would become the most economic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abeboparebop Jacob Lynn

    Nuclear energy is far less dangerous per unit of generated energy than the technologies we use today (and no more dangerous than other clean technologies). See a useful figure here: http://www.withouthotair.com/c24/page_168.shtml.

    Really, the strongest argument that the anti-nuclear crowd has is the huge economic and social costs of cleaning up after meltdowns. But the solution here is pretty simple: just don’t build nuclear plants within ~20 km of a lot of people.

  • Ed P

    Nuclear “waste” is a tiny volume and easily/safely stored. Nuclear waste storage has also been blown way out of proportion to the true risk. Having said that the nuclear waste is 98% unburned fuel that will be recovered and reused once reprocessing and and fast reactors are allowed.

  • Ed P

    Actually more people die due to the fear, worry, depression over the nuclear accident due to lack of understanding of the true low risks of radiation compared to other risks, AND due to alarmist rhetoric, than actually die from the nuclear accident radiation.

  • Ed P

    A very large portion of the cost of nuclear is tied up in anti-nuclear protesting, and non-safety related regulation. Considering that Gen I & II reactors are already safer than any other form of electricity production, and Gen III+ reactors now being built are 10 times safer the regulatory scrutiny and money would be better spent reducing risk in other energy production types or better yet in improving automobile safety on a lives saved per $ spent basis.

  • Ed P

    It is not suicide! Fukishima Daiichi and Fukishima Daiinin (closer to the earth quake epicenter) both rode out the earthquake perfectly fine even though it was much greater than they were designed for. It was the tidal wave that took out F. Daiichi. It is safer to live near F. Daiichi than to live in Tokyo. Some people actually increased their radiation exposure by fleeing to Tokyo, but the increased danger was not from radiation, but reduced air quality in Tokyo.

  • Guest

    Do you have a reliable source for your claims that “…thyroid abnormalities have increased greatly in japanese children and American kids on the west coast after Fukushima. This means thyroid cancer for many, perhaps thousands, or hundreds of thousands in the next 20 years”? Sorry that I have to be skeptical, but this sounds just like one of those exaggerated claims that get thrown around whenever radiation is discussed. Unless you can back it up, I will assume that you don’t have a reliable source.

  • guest

    Apocalypse is what happens while your debating solutions.

  • esopusdave

    Sierra magazine. Thoroughly fact checked.

  • Guest

    Issue? Date? Sources in that story? Reliability of those sources? Sierra magazine is an environmentalist popular magazine, not a reliable source for the claims you are making: if they have any real basis, then they should have been published in a reputable peer-reviewed medical journal or some similar source. If you are believe Sierra magazine in itself is a reliable source, then you are credulous. This is exactly why I am skeptical of claims like those made in your first post: anything can get published in the popular press, and then it can be taken up and spread around by believers, whether or not it is grounded in reliable information.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Except for two things:

    — The cost of solar photovoltaic is going down very rapidly, while they are not doing a good job of bringing down the cost of solar, according to the NY Times article.

    — The cost of nuclear includes a huge hidden subsidy: the legal limit on liability for accidents. Nuclear would never be able to compete if it did not have this subsidy and had to pay the full cost of liability insurance for possible accidents. In other words, the market cost of nuclear power ignores most of the potential cost of nuclear accidents. If it were really so safe, they would be able to buy insurance without this subsidy.

    But, as I said, I think it is pointless to argue based on current costs and current technologies. With a price on emissions that goes up steadily over the coming decades, there would be huge investments in technological innovations. Two innovations that would be game changers would be:

    — affordable storage

    — affordable clean energy that could be used for baseline generation, such as tidal power.

    Either one of these would make the current debate totally irrelevant. We would look like people in the 1970s debating which typewriter is best, and not noticing that personal computers are about to make typewriters obsolete.

    Environmentalists should be using their time to push for a price on carbon, which would drive the needed innovations, rather than wasting their time arguing which current technology is best. Let’s not let the conservative groups who made this film succeed in diverting us from the important battle over carbon pricing into this irrelevant debate.

  • Charles_Siegel

    If it is so safe, why can’t they buy insurance that would cover their full liability for potential accidents?

  • http://www.facebook.com/abeboparebop Jacob Lynn

    I was confused about why you think nuclear is a ‘conservative’ position, and then I noticed that the main article has the same misconception. Let’s don’t let this get turned into a partisan political football like everything else.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I am saying that the conservative groups who made this film want to use the issue of nuclear to divide and weaken environmentalists – and to divert us from the much more important issue of carbon pricing.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I will believe that nuclear is less dangerous, if you can give me a good answer to these questions:

    What are the odds that workers in a situation like Fukushima will act with the same heroism and efficiency as the workers did there, averting a much worse accident? If the workers had not done as good a job and there had been a worst-case accident, how many deaths would it have caused, and how much of Japan would be uninhabitable?

    What are the odds that a rogue nation will use nuclear power as a blind for developing nuclear weapons, which it will then use on one of its neighbors?

    What are the odds that terrorists will strike a nuclear power plant? Or that they will strike a shipment of nuclear wastes going to their ultimate storage site?

    It seems to me that there is no way of knowing any of these things, because the human factor is incalculable.

    In the case of nuclear, we can see that it has been less dangerous in the past than other forms of energy. But we can also see from past experience that there is a real danger of absolutely devastating accidents.

    It seems to me that judging the safety of nuclear based on how much damage it has caused in the past is like playing Russian roulette, getting lucky, and then saying that, based on your past experience, Russian roulette is safer than baseball, since you were once injured playing
    baseball but never injured playing Russian roulette.

    )Incidentally, I owe this metaphor to Berkeley resident Gar Smith, who wrote a book called “Nuclear roulette.”)

  • esopusdave

    Believe what you wish.

  • Guest

    Well, apparently that’s what YOU do…I prefer to make my judgments after examining the evidence.

  • Charles_Siegel

    A review of this movie just appeared in the Climate Progress blog. I think the most important point in the review is that the film avoids discussing cost, and:

    “Climate Progress has published dozens of posts about nuclear power — including two major reports (see here and here). I think nuclear power might provide as much as 5% to 10% of the “solution” to global warming.

    “But in virtually all of our pieces cost is a major — if not the major — focus. That’s because it is the failure of the industry to make their product affordable — not the environmental community’s supposedly
    unwarranted fears of radiation — that has knee-capped the industry (see here and below).

    “Indeed, while solar power and wind power continue to march down the experience curve to ever lower costs, nuclear power appears headed in the opposite direction.

    “Nuclear power has a negative learning curve:

    [Graph of increasing costs]”

    The title of the post also emphasizes this point. Playing on the 1950s claims that nuclear power would be so cheap that they would not even have to meter the electricity, the post is named:

    Pandora’s Promise: Nuclear Power’s Trek From Too Cheap To Meter To Too Costly To Matter Much

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/06/17/2158951/pandoras-promise-nuclear-powers-trek-from-too-cheap-to-meter-to-too-costly-to-matter-much/