Atomic Foes Nuked in New Documentary Film

Pandora’s Promise is more hit job than conversation starter

This article has been changed from its original version. An earlier version of this story accidentally shortened a quote from Michael Shellenberger about renewable energy’s need for backup power and didn’t include full accounting about the energy usage of an iPhone versus a refrigerator. It also misstated the ratio of coal solid waste to nuclear solid waste by a couple orders of magnitude. The Journal regrets the errors.

Everybody loves a conversion story. With their mix of good-versus-evil and personal vulnerability, conversion stories appeal to the hope that each of us can change for the better. Filmmaker Robert Stone tries to tap into the power of the conversion archetype in his new nuclear power documentary, Pandora’s Promise. The film tells the story of five self-identified environmentalists and/or liberals who have come to reconsider their previous opposition to atomic energy. Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes, journalist and novelist Gwyneth Craven, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, British enviro writer Mark Lynas, and intellectual provocateur Michael Shellenberger all once believed that nuclear power was dangerous. But with greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise, they have each come to embrace nuclear power as an essential strategy to keep the atmosphere in a semblance of stability. The director’s strategy is clear: There’s nothing like watching someone recant their beliefs to get you to question your own.

movie poster

I’m not sure it worked – either as a storytelling device or as political provocation. The supposed profiles in courage don’t pass the bullshit test: I have a hard time believing the people followed in the film lost many (or any) friends just because they went from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear. There’s no sense that these folks risked much by changing their minds – and since there’s not much at stake for the protagonists, the film is sapped of some of the force I think the filmmaker was counting on. Over at The Nation, enviro journalist Mark Herstgaard, in a conversation about the film with Terry Tempest Williams, concludes that the film falls into “self-regarding provocation.” Spot on, I would say.

The bigger problem with Pandora’s Promise is how the weakness in form undermines the film’s content. In their eagerness to show how they’ve changed their minds, Stone and his talking heads depict nuclear power critics as wooly headed nitwits. It works – the nuclear foes shown in Pandora’s Promise look like a bunch of whackos. But the caricature comes at a cost. As critics here, here and here have pointed out, Stone doesn’t make any space for reasonable and well-informed nuclear energy skeptics. The movie commits the same sins of elision, omission, and exaggeration that it accuses its targets of. Pandora’s Promise is open-minded, but only within a narrow frame, and in the end it overreaches. We start with a bunch of folks who used to be dogmatically against nuclear power and close with those same folks now dogmatically in favor of nuclear power. The parable ending of Animal Farm, anyone?

All of this is unfortunate, because there’s a great deal that Stone and company get right. The film does an expert job of puncturing some of the most common myths surrounding nuclear energy – and that in itself is a public service.  

For starters, safety. Yes, Chernobyl was horrific and Fukushima was terrifying. But, on the whole, nuclear energy’s 60-year operating record has been pretty good. The fact is that far more people have been killed by the coal industry or the oil industry than by the nuclear industry. The popular fear of atomic power is basically irrational. As the film convincingly demonstrates, our worries about nuclear energy mostly have to do with its connection to fearsome nuclear weaponry and radiation’s spookiness. Since it’s invisible and, when received in large doses, impacts the human body at a cellular level, radiation triggers a special kind of visceral terror. But an average Japanese citizen receives more radiation from a trans-Pacific jet flight than they took in from the Fukushima disaster. You’re more likely to die from coal soot than from a radiation leak at a nuke plant.

The film also does a fine job of correcting some of the mistaken beliefs about nuclear waste. Yes, nuclear waste is dangerous stuff, especially spent plutonium, which will remain radioactive for thousands of years. But here’s the thing: there’s not much of it. A typical nuclear plant creates about 20 tons of radioactive waste a year. A typical coal-fired power plant creates about 16,000 times as much solid waste a year – an estimated 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists – and that doesn’t even include the waste of carbon dioxide and mercury emissions. The nuclear waste issue is serious, but it’s manageable.

I’ve known these facts for a while; none of the film’s punctured myths came as a big surprise. Which is why I have long been agnostic about nuclear power. I don’t know, maybe it’s just a generational thing, but I agree with Grist’s David Roberts, who recently wrote: “Nuclear power is fine, or at least meh, with me. I don’t really get the zealous opposition to it among a certain generation of enviros – I suspect there are cultural currents I don’t grasp, having to do with the ’60s and the Cold War and God knows what else.”

So let’s say we go along with Pandora’s Promise and agree that nuclear power isn’t the boogeyman it’s been made out to be and that its risks are manageable. The question then becomes: Where does nuclear power fit in the planet’s twenty-first century energy mix? It’s on this core point that the film fails so badly.

The most common criticism of nuclear power that I encounter among environmentalists these days is that it simply costs so much. Here’s Bill McKibben, talking about the film in The San Francisco Chronicle last week: “Even before Fukushima, I thought cost was the real obstacle, along with the obvious issues.” And here’s Sierra Club ED Michael Brune in that same article: “You can’t argue that it’s clean. You can’t argue that it’s cheap. You can’t argue that it’s coming online quickly.” The newest nuclear station in the US – the Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia, now under construction – will cost $14 billion. Power plants are so bloody expensive for one main reason: they require safety infrastructure, such as containment domes, that other power plants don’t (for obvious reasons).

The problem here isn’t simply that nuclear power is expensive. Global climate change, after all, is so serious a threat that I don’t think we should worry about the price tag of solutions. But given limited financial resources and scarce time, we need to pursue those technologies that deliver the biggest and quickest bang for our buck.

Pandora’s Promise, unfortunately, only gives passing mention to the cost problem – and when it does so it muddies the issue. The film quotes The Breatkthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger arguing that nuclear power is “a much more economical alternative to very expensive solar panels or very expensive wind turbines that require backup power.”

Well, he’s partially right. But according to the US Department of Energy, a new nuclear plant costs less than solar photovoltaics or solar thermal plants, but is more expensive than a new wind power station, geothermal energy plant, or a hydroelectric dam. For you numbers geeks: An advanced nuclear plant is estimated to be able to generate electricity for about $108/megawatt hour. A wind farm? $86/megawatt hour. Geothermal is $89/megawatt hour. Hydropower is $90/megawatt hour. Biomass basically matches the price of nuclear energy at the cost of $110/megawatt hour. Solar, however, looks like a bad deal. Solar PV comes in around $144/megawatt hour, while solar thermal plants are an exorbitant $261/megawatt hour.

Clarification: In an email sent to me after this review was published, Shellenberger argued that since these figures don’t include the need to supply “100 percent back-up power” to intermittent solar and wind power, I have “compared apples to oranges.” Yes, these figures are just gross numbers on the cost of different types of energy generation, and don’t include baseload backup for wind and solar. But I contest Shellenberger’s claim that renewables require “100 percent” backup. The wind and solar industries disagree with that 100 percent figure – as do federal scientists, as you’ll see here. The issue, it’s fair to say, remains muddy.

(If anything, Pandora’s Promise mostly succeeded in getting me to question the wisdom of large-scale solar installations. Given their cost and their significant footprint in natural areas, they appear less and less like a smart emissions reduction strategy.)

Neglecting the cost issue is bad enough. Even worse, I thought, was how Stone and the other converts so quickly dismiss the potential of reducing energy demand through increased efficiency or conservation. The filmmakers show masses of tangled electricity lines in the slums of Brazil to illustrate the need to provide carbon-neutral, abundant energy on a global scale. “By 2050, we will have to double the amount of energy, and all of that has to be clean energy to reduce emissions,” Shellenberger says.

What about boosting efficiency? For that, the filmmakers treat us to some cartoonish 80s-era footage of Amory Lovins waving around a CFL roughly the size of a softball. Then Shellenberger engages in a bit of hand-waving by proclaiming that “an iPhone uses as much electricity as a refrigerator.”*

Shellenberger’s argument seems to be that it’s simply impossible to use less energy; or that because in the past we have not done a very good job of conserving energy, therefore we cannot do better in the future. Such imaginative impoverishment is always the refuge of the cynic, who takes comfort in confusing today’s status quo for tomorrow’s potential and triages his own hopes for the fashions of realism. I, for one, continue to believe that it’s possible to use far less energy than we do and still live comfortable lifestyles.

Funny thing, but the Department of Energy appears to share this belief. According to this forecast, by 2040 American per capita energy usage will be about 20 percent lower than it was at its height in 2000. (And energy use per dollar of GDP will plummet.) I would argue that we could – with the right political leadership and popular will – do even far better than DOE imagines. Why, just look at per capita electricity usage by state. You know which state has the lowest electricity usage? It’s California, where per capita energy usage has been flat for a generation even as energy usage in the rest of the US has doubled. The country’s biggest economy uses less than half the national average energy consumption and a quarter the amount of juice than the biggest user, the state of Wyoming. You know, California – home of the iPhone.

Nuclear power plant photo by flokru, on Flickr

With its stately cinematography and smart, earnest spokespeople, Pandora’s Promise strives to be high-minded. But because of all the omissions, it misses that mark. Last Friday, at a post-screening Q&A after the San Francisco premier of the film, writer-director Robert Stone defended his decision not to include skeptics of nuclear power. “This wasn’t supposed to be a PBS Frontline investigation,” he told the audience. “I wanted to reflect my own personal process of conversion.” The film, Stewart Brand chimed in, should be thought of “as an essay.” Stone said his main goal was to “start a conversation … to open minds and enlarge the conversation.”

I’m sorry, but I think Stone is being disingenuous here. He’s not just asking questions to spark discussion – he’s trying to make a case in order to win an argument. He wants viewers to change their minds about nuclear power, just as he did. At one point Stone features the writer Richard Rhodes saying, “To be anti-nuclear is to be in favor of burning fossil fuels.” This isn’t “enlarging” a conversation – it’s trying to end one. Worse, it’s like having a conservation with a straw man sock puppet.**

Despite my frustrations with the film, I’d still recommend it. If you’re already in favor of nuclear power, you’ll come away pleased. If you’re wary of nukes, who knows, it just might convince you. But if you’re at all like me, you’ll probably leave the theater with the distinct sense that while an expansion of nuclear power won’t mean the end of the world, neither is it going to save us.

* I originally calculated that an iPhone’s annual energy usage would be around 13kWH. I based my figure on a recent University of Melbourne report showing that the “wireless cloud” used 9.2 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2012, and that there are now 1 billion smart phones on the planet. According to Shellenberger: “Last year the average iPhone customer used 1.58 GB of data a month, which times 12 is 19 GB per year. The most recent data put out by a ATKearney for mobile industry association GSMA (p. 69) says that each GB requires 19 kW. That means the average iPhone uses (19kw X 19 GB) 361 kwh of electricity per year. In addition, ATKearney calculates each connection at 23.4 kWh. That brings the total to 384.4 kWh. The electricity used annually to charge the iPhone is 3.5 kWh, raising the total to 388 kWh per year. EPA’s Energy Star shows refrigerators with efficiency as low as 322 kWh annually. Not only was my specific point accurate, my broader one was as well. The University of Melbourne study you point to calculates that while total wireless energy consumption was 9.2 TWh in 2012, it will rise a whopping 460 percent to 43 TWh in 2015.” My bad. I stand corrected.

** I had the good fortune to spend some time talking with Richard Rhodes and his wife at an after-party following the screening. He seems like the nicest guy in the world. To be perfectly clear, the straw man sock puppet is Stone’s making, not Rhodes’.

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