‘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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