Another Take on Pandora’s Promise

Pro-nuclear power film obscures as much as it reveals

You’ve got to give the producers of Pandora’s Promise credit for gumption. It takes a lot of chutzpah to release a pro-nuclear polemic in the wake of the triple meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. The film also suffered the ignominy of opening the same week that the owners of California’s troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station announced the permanent shutdown of the facility’s two crippled reactors. Even the film’s title takes a bit of nerve; it was Pandora’s Box, after all, that unleashed a host of once-contained evils into the world.

movie poster

So, given the extensive history of nuclear mishaps and near-catastrophes, how do the producers of Pandora’s Promise manage to spin their counter-narrative of a “safe, green” nuclear future? Basically by: (1) at first accepting the criticisms of traditional nuclear power and then (2) arguing that the solution lies in “new, improved” nuclear reactors. Like a smart defense attorney, director Robert Stone begins by admitting all of the defendant’s worst foibles up front, thereby depriving the prosecution of an opportunity to score points by revealing these issues later.

Beauty Shots of Nuclear Devastation

Much of the early part of the film resembles an anti-nuclear documentary, and Pandora’s Promise initially bolsters the anti-nuclear message. This is unavoidable, given the trail of disasters that have dogged the industry. In scene after beautifully shot scene, Pandora’s Promise takes viewers on a series of disaster-tourism visits to Three Mile Island, Japan’s tsunami-ravaged coast, the tangled wreckage of the nearby Fukushima reactors, the crumbling sarcophagus entombing the remains of the shattered Chernobyl reactor, and the Ukranian ghost town of Pripyat. A lingering shot of an abandoned schoolbook’s weathered pages being endlessly stirred by the wind is one indelible, wrenching image.

In Japan, the film crew dons radiation suits and rolls through the contaminated wreckage of Fukushima. The filmmakers pronounce the radioactive contamination “infinitesimal” and proclaim there has been “no evidence of medical consequences.” No citations are offered to support this positive conclusion. The fact that 40 percent of Fukushima’s evacuated children have subsequently developed thyroid abnormalities goes unmentioned.

Where Are the “Anti-nuclear Environmental Leaders”?

Director Stone claims his goal is to share “the personal narratives of a growing number of leading former anti-nuclear activists” who have turned their backs on renewable energy solutions and switched their allegiance to nuclear power. So, who are these people? Well, Stone only managed to line up seven nuclear defenders and, as it turns out, none of them were ever what you would call “anti-nuclear leaders.”

For some reason, the film failed to include the world’s three foremost “green-nukers” – NASA scientist James Hansen, 93-year-old Gaia theorist James Lovelock, and British environmental journalist George Monbiot. Only two of Stone’s talking heads have any real clout – Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, and Michael Shellenberger, president of the contrarian Breakthrough Institute. Two other supposed “greens-gone-nukes” are novelist Gwyneth Cravens and British journalist Mark Lynas. Pandora’s Promise fails to note that both are attached to Shellenberger’s Breakthrough Institute. Cravens is a Senior Fellow; Lynas is a contributing writer.

The film leans heavily on the opinions of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Richard Rhodes. Although he is the author of the excellent book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Rhodes isn’t known for being anti-nuclear energy. In fact, in 1993 he wrote a pro-nuclear book called Nuclear Renewal: Commonsense about Nuclear Energy. The remaining two “independent thinkers” are Len Koch and Charles Till. Neither were environmental activists. Both worked at the government’s Argonne National Laboratory – building nuclear reactors.

In the only attempt at balance, Stone ambushes longtime anti-nuclear crusader Dr. Helen Caldicott in a crowd at a public event. With his camera about two feet from her face, Stone badgers Caldicott until she grows impatient and looses her temper.

It is worth noting that Pandora’s Promise was financed by a small coterie of wealthy men, including billionaires Paul Allen (Microsoft) and Richard Branson (Virgin Group) who, as Allen put it to Forbes, wanted to use the film to “get people thinking about nuclear in a whole new way.”

A Slanted View of Energy Options

Stone’s film is consistently dismissive of solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. The script faults green power for being “intermittent” without mentioning workable solutions such as advanced batteries, smartgrids, microgrids and hydrogen fuel-cell storage, as well as “always-on” geothermal and tidal power sources. Pandora’s Promise also fails to fess up to the fact that nuclear plants are also “intermittent.” Reactors must be routinely shut down every 18 to 24 months for maintenance and refueling, and frequently need to be taken offline for costly repairs. Between 2003 and 2007, US nuclear plants were shut down 10.6 percent of the timefor repairs, while the failure rate for solar stations and wind farms was typically around 1 to 2 percent.

If I heard correctly, during one interview Shellenberger admits to a singular limitation that shadows the proposed nuclear solution – i.e., these new “cleaner, safer” reactors would have operating lifetimes of 60 years. This is clearly not enough time to undo the atmospheric havoc bequeathed by the age of fossil fuels. And rebuilding a nuclear infrastructure every 60 years is not a viable option.

Nukes Are Dangerous: So Blame the Navy

Pandora’s Promise blames our current nuclear dilemma on Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy. It was Rickover, the filmmakers argue, who sent the country down the road of building Light Water Reactors (LWRs), which were based on the same designs used in the Navy’s atomic submarines.

A nuclear engineer from the Rickover era suggests that, instead of going with LWRs, the US should have built breeder reactors capable of recycling nuclear waste as fuel. Instead, the engineer laments, “we wound up producing nuclear waste we didn’t expect.” The viewer is left with the sense that many of the problems of the nuclear industry have to with a technological misdirection – e.g., VHS vs. Betamax – and that everything would be OK if only we went with the right system.

IAEA Experts at Fukushimaphoto by IAEA Imagebank, on FlickrIAEA experts depart Unit 4 of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear
Power Station on 17 April 2013 as part of a mission to review
Japan’s plans to decommission the facility.

A fundamental premise underling Stone’s pro-nuclear argument is the belief in unlimited growth. If growth requires electricity, then mitigating global warming becomes a powerful argument for “carbon neutral” nuclear power. Stone includes a stunning computer animation from NOAA that shows global temperatures inexorably rising over the last century. Stone also found a delicious clip of Margaret Thatcher lecturing the UN General Assembly on how climate change is clearly the result of human activities.

So, to connect-the-dots: if you want to “grow” and you want to “avoid” carbon dioxide, the only “solution” is atomic power. A follow-up graphic shows Earth spinning in space with the continents growing brighter and brighter as the lights of expanding electric grids reflect the demand for increased energy consumption. As night turns into day (presumably powered by thousands of new nuclear power plants), the planet is shown morphing from a tranquil blue sphere into a spinning orb lit up like a disco ball.

The pro-nuclear argument remains tightly focused on the issue of CO2 emissions – as if that were the only environmental threat haunting the planet. There is no recognition that continued consumption of resources and “endless growth” are patently unsustainable practices. If you are a forest, a river, a bat or a bobcat, it makes no difference whether a bulldozer is powered by a gas tank, a solar panel, or a fuel cell.

While Shellenberger is a compelling presence (he radiates sober, heartfelt sincerity), he shows little patience for the likes of Amory Lovins and his “soft energy path” – an engineering approach that promotes increased efficiencies (“negawatts”) and reduced consumption. “You can’t keep using less energy forever,” Shellenberger insists. Why? Because we humans “won’t reduce our energy or consumption.” By way of example, Shellenberger cites the fact that an iPhone’s energy usage rivals that of a refrigerator. This leads to the familiar, lofty-sounding-but-self-serving argument that nuclear is needed to save the world’s poor from a future without electricity – and without electron-sucking iPhones.

Gwyneth Cravens has taken heat for some unfortunate misstatements. In 2007 she assured a WIRED magazine reporter: “If a reactor doesn’t have enough water, it will shut itself down.” In Pandora’s Promise, Cravens boasts: “There hasn’t been one death from nuclear power in the US.” Wrong again. As I note in my book, Nuclear Roulette, eight workers have died in three different explosions at a single US facility – the Surry nuclear plant in Virginia. By focusing narrowly on fatalities, Pandora’s Promise avoids the larger issue of measurable increases in thyroid and other cancers affecting people exposed to tritium leaking from nuclear facilities.

Sure, the filmmakers admit, nuclear reactors routinely leak radioactive tritium gases. But, they argue, you would be exposed to more tritium by simply eating a banana. The film pushes the idea that “radiation is natural” so it’s not dangerous “in an everyday sense.” Stone does a good job of making the point by waving a radiation monitor in front of his lens in various cities around the world. Sure enough, there’s radiation everywhere! On a beach in Brazil the readings soar above the background readings in Chicago, Paris and Tokyo. And inside a bathroom in a commercial jet flying at 20,000 feet, the cameras record the monitor’s highest reading: 18 times greater than the average background radiation on terra firma.

While it’s useful to keep radiation risks in perspective, it seems irresponsible to totally ignore the National Institute of Science’s warning that “there is no safe dose” of radiation exposure (particularly when isotopes are inhaled or ingested). If it makes sense to reduce exposures to lead, mercury and pesticides in the environment, why should radioactivity enjoy the special status of a “protected pollutant”?

An Adumbrated Debate over Deaths and Disease

On the issue of Chernobyl deaths, the film stands by a report from the World Health Organization, which insists fewer than 50 members of the cleanup crew (the “liquidators”) have died. The filmmakers fail to note that, under a 1959 agreement, WHO scientists cannot issue any reports on radiation effects unless they are first cleared for publication by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The film also fails to mention the WHO’s projection that “eventual” deaths from the Chernobyl disaster could top 4,000.

Asked to assess the long-term problem of radioactive waste, Stewart Brand (ironically, the founder of the Long Now Foundation) opines that America’s nuclear stewards have devised a “pretty good” system for handing toxic nuclear garbage: dry-cask storage containers. Once again, there is no mention of the larger, and more problematic, part of the nuclear inventory – the mountains of radioactive “tailings” scattered at uranium mining sites around the world and the growing inventory of intensely radioactive fuel assemblies stored “temporarily” in densely packed spent-fuel pools alongside reactors. These pools need to be constantly cooled to prevent the fuel rods from overheating and triggering catastrophic fires and fallout.

Sure, there are 70,000 tons of radioactive waste in the US, one “pro-nuke environmentalist” suggests, but that’s no biggie since all of America’s nuclear waste could be packed up and stacked ten-feet-deep inside a single football stadium. And only a small percentage of that would be composed of deadly plutonium-239, which boasts a half-life of 24,100 years. What a pity the Department of Energy couldn’t have come up with such a tidy solution. Instead, Washington spent 30 years and $96 billion digging – and then abandoning – a vast, underground storage site 1,000 feet below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Meanwhile, the world’s only state-of-the-art nuclear storage project – Finland’s Onkalo waste-tomb – won’t be able to accommodate more than one percent of the global nuclear industry’s waste.

Pandora’s Solution: Bring Back the Breeder Reactor

One of the more informative sections of Pandora’s Promise involves a discussion of the utility of Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs) – sodium-cooled reactors that eat plutonium for breakfast and “can’t melt down.”

Stewart Brand praises the IFR’s ability to generate electricity by “burning” backlogs of nuclear waste, thereby turning toxic atomic garbage into what a broadly smiling Brand calls “a renewable resource.” The Argonne National Lab’s IFR (aka Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 2), went online in 1965 and ran for 30 years. Back in 1986, the Argonne IFR was famously subjected to several “stress-tests” that were witnessed by a bevy of invited nuclear scientists from around the world. A government film crew captured the event. While the guests looked on (with one eye on the exit doors), IFR operators mimicked the events that led to the explosion at Chernobyl. A second test eerily foreshadowed the chain of events that caused the TMI meltdown. In both cases, the IFR reacted as advertized. Instead of stumbling toward an irreversible calamity, the temperatures inside the reactor vessel continued to rise, and rise, and then … slowly dropped, as the reactor safely shut itself down.

Proponents argue that IFRs not only have “passive safety advantages” over highly pressurized water-cooled reactors, they also can be fine-tuned to achieve three different goals: (1) produce electricity, (2) consume plutonium or, (3) produce more plutonium. Unlike “once-through” LWRs, which consume less than 5 percent of the enriched uranium in a fuel rod, “fast” reactors leave behind only a fraction of the waste. David McKay, chief scientist at the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, believes IFRs could turn the country’s stored wastes into enough power to serve Britain’s energy needs for 500 years. The UK is currently weighing a plan to use a General Electric Hitachi PRISM reactor to burn nearly 120 tons of nuclear wastes stored at the Sellafield facility on England’s northwest coast.

Problems with the IFR

Looking beyond the ballyhoo, there are significant concerns about IFRs that Pandora’s Promise fails to address. To date, no breeder reactor has been commercially viable. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, shares David McKay’s concern about the 250-plus metric tons of excess plutonium moldering away in storage sites around the world. Makhijani, however, believes the idea that “sodium cooled-fast neutron reactors [could] be built to denature the plutonium reveals a technological optimism that is disconnected from the facts.” While some IFRs “have indeed operated well,” Makhijani notes, “roughly $100 billion have been spent worldwide to try and commercialize these reactors – to no avail.”

Fueled by a uranium-plutonium alloy, IFRs can produce (“breed”) more plutonium than they burn. But this plutonium can be used to produce nuclear weapons, which poses serious diversion and proliferation risks. Also, IFRs are cooled by molten sodium, not water. Sodium can explode when it comes in contact with water and, when exposed to air, sodium ignites and burns furiously. Sodium-cooled reactors are prone to coolant leaks. Fast reactor accidents have occurred in France, Japan, Scotland, at the Fermi 1 reactor in Michigan, and twice at a Simi Valley reactor site in southern California.

Several competing nuclear power designs are cited in Pandora’s Promise, but they receive little screen time. There is a brief mention of Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactors, a Traveling Wave Reactor (Bill Gates’ pet project), and the government’s support for “mini-nukes” that could be installed underground and fired up to power urban skyscrapers. How practical and safe are they? Pandora’s Promise provides few answers. There is no in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of any of these alternatives.

Finally (as Beyond Nuclear and other watchdog groups have noted), relying on nuclear power to mitigate CO2-driven climate change is unaffordable and impractical since it would require putting a new reactor online every two weeks.

Still, the IFR’s ability to feast off the world’s otherwise useless stockpiles of nuclear waste is such a compelling argument, one wonders why Pandora’s Promise didn’t spend more time pushing it. Since safe storage of atomic waste has proven so intractable, wouldn’t the better option be to find ways to reduce these deadly stockpiles? It seems a scenario worth investigating.

Ultimately, Pandora’s Promise comes across as a well-executed but disingenuous exercise in special pleading. Instead of devoting 89 minutes to honestly and fully assessing the pros and cons of renewable technologies alongside the risks and benefits of new, untried nuclear power systems, Pandora’s Promise promotes a narrow agenda. As a result, the film winds up as little more than a tunnel-vision exercise in “plutonium Pollyannaism.”

Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green).

For another perspective Pandora’s Promise, read EIJ editor Jason Mark’s review here.

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