Pandora's Promise: Is nuclear an option?

| 24th October 2013
As George Osborne hails a renaissance for nuclear power in Britain, Alex Macbeth reviews Pandora's Promise, a new documentary film that asks whether we've got nuclear energy all wrong.......
Not a single anti-nuclear voice is featured

Pandora's Promise digs deep into the poisoned chalice of nuclear energy to try and convince viewers that its growth is inevitable if we want to save the planet.

Robert Stone's near eulogy to enriched plutonium and uranium to meet growing levels of global power consumption makes uncomfortable viewing - teasing unpopular ideas out of Pandora's pocket - as it seeks to preach to the unconverted, inviting the idea that it's possible to be an environmentalist and pro-nuclear at the same time.

Featuring interviews with ‘environmentalists' Gwyneth Cravens of the New York Times and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, the film challenges the existing stereotypes of nuclear energy, the misapprehensions about the relationship between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy and the fear of disaster.

"We won't get rid of nuclear weapons by forgetting how to make them," says one voice in the film. Probably not, although it's mysterious statements like these that make the otherwise enticing argument suspect.

Shellenberger, from the Oakland-based think tank Breakthrough, argues that environmentalists have refused to compromise their stance in the last 50 years, categorically ruling out any role for nuclear energy in a sustainable world power grid. "No compromise in defence of mother earth."

But as climate change dramatically alters our world, argues the filmmaker, hydro, solar, wind and thermal alone cannot meet demand and contain the long-term detrimental effects on the planet.

The film, released at Sundance earlier this year, has been accused of being a vehicle for nuclear lobbies and the US energy industry. Mainly because not a single anti-nuclear voice is featured.

The US-based anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear published a critical 38-page report in August, calling the film "propaganda". The report says the film makes light of nuclear disasters and the ability for reactors cooled by sodium to overheat. It argues that many of the sources in the film have since been discredited, such as the IAEA's 2005 report on deaths in Chernobyl.

In Pandora's Promise, several experts seek to reassure viewers (consumers?) that the human error factor in nuclear plants since disasters like Chernobyl has been eliminated by new technologies. But as Beyond Nuclear suggest, "expensive new prototypes are commercially unattractive".

Beyond Nuclear's main rebuttal of the film is the number of new plants that would need to be built in a predominantly nuclear world. "In order to displace a significant amount of carbon-emitting fossil-fuel generation, another 1,000 to 1,500 new 1,000+ Megawatt reactors would need to come on line worldwide by 2050, a completely prohibitive proposition," argues the report's author Linda Pentz Gunter.

Nick Touran, a blogger writing on nuclear energy, estimates that 5.7 million wind turbines would need to be built to generate the same amount of power.

While Pandora's Promise never truly convinces, its desire to drum urgency into the energy debate throws a gauntlet to uncompromising environmentalists. Nuclear's strongest asset is in the battle to reduce our reliance on burning fossil fuels, says the filmmaker, which he estimates is responsible for 3 million deaths per year.

The film does resonate more when one considers that consumer rates are higher than ever and driving up energy demands. The infrastructure needed to power an iPhone requires as much energy as a fridge. All the more daunting when one considers that the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that the Smarthphone market in Africa alone will double by 2017. World energy consumption will double by 2040, according to International Energy Outlook 2013, a report by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Solar, hydro, wind and other renewable forms of energy are the solution, says the film: but demand will never be met without nuclear too.

The argument wavers when it comes to the open wound in Fukushima. A brief scene sweeps over the long-term effects of water radiation and food contamination. Previous scenes also make light of past nuclear disasters. A pros and cons account of nuclear versus other forms of renewable energy might also have recruited those sitting on the fence.

Pandora's Promise nevertheless throws a spanner at the anti-nuclear movement, addressing issues such as the relationship between cancer and radiation with contemporary medical research. Whether it will be enough to revamp Pandora's box is another story.

Watch the trailer here.

Alex Macbeth is a freelance journalist and editor based in Berlin. 

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