Ecocentric

Radioactive Green: Pandora’s Promise Rethinks Nuclear Power

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A nuclear power plant near Liverpool, England

Early in the new documentary Pandora’s Promise, which opens nationwide today, British environmental writer Mark Lynas travels to the Japanese town of Fukushima, now famous as the site of a 2011 nuclear meltdown. Lynas is a longtime nuclear critic who has since rethought his opposition to atomic power. Dressed in protective equipment and carrying a radiation detector, Lynas roams the spooky, abandoned streets of Fukushima. The desolation is apparent, and it touches even a staunch atomic advocate like Lynas. “There’s no other energy source that does this, leaves huge areas contaminated by its strange invisible presence,” he says. “I could see why we’d want to do without nuclear power.”

That dread is why nuclear power—which provides nearly 20% of U.S. electricity—is considered so dangerous by so many. Yet the Fukushima example actually shows something else. According to a recent U.N. report, there will likely be no detectable health impacts from the radiation released by the Fukushima meltdown. The biggest catastrophe in nuclear power since Chernobyl has turned out less catastrophic than it seemed. And that’s one of many reasons that nuclear energy, which has long been demonized by environmentalists, deserves a fresh look.

That fresh look is precisely what Pandora’s Promise sets out to offer. Loosely following the stories of a handful of writers and environmentalists who have reconsidered their knee-jerk opposition to nukes, the film makes the case that nuclear energy really does have the power to save the world. “It’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about,” says Robert Stone, the director of Pandora’s Promise (and the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker of the nuclear weapons documentary Radio Bikini). “They’re ringing a five-alarm fire bell on the climate crisis, so it’s time to rethink that fear of nuclear.”

(MORE: What Open-Air Nuclear Tests Tell Us About the Brain)

Nuclear plants are the only source of power—other than hydroelectric, which has largely hit its limits—that can supply base-load electricity on a mass scale without producing greenhouse-gas emissions. Renewable sources like wind and solar are important and growing, but they’re too intermittent for now to meet growing global energy demand alone. That chiefly leaves coal and natural gas—the former is the single biggest contributor to manmade global warming, and the latter, while considerably cleaner, is still a fossil fuel. And while renewables have been on a tear worldwide in recent years, both coal and natural gas are still growing globally, with the International Energy Agency predicting that coal will pass oil as the world’s number one energy source within a few years. In the face of dangerous climate change—and that is the path we’re on—you can’t really be fundamentally antinuclear. Yet there’s no mainstream environmental group staunchly in favor of building more nuclear power plants.

Pandora’s Promise is at its best when debunking nuclear fears, tracing that anxiety to the loathing that surrounds nuclear weapons. “There was a sense that this was not primarily an energy source,” says Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a main character in the film. “This was primarily a weapon that we feel bad about.” We conflated Hiroshima and Chernobyl and came to dread them in equal measure. Excess radiation is dangerous: Chernobyl isn’t the hellscape it’s often portrayed as, but the meltdown and subsequent cleanup failures did kill scores of people and contribute to thousands of cancer cases. The health effects of Fukushima may ultimately be minimal, but that’s thanks in part to action by the Japanese government to evacuate large swathes of territory around the broken plant and restrict the consumption of potentially contaminated food from the region.

Yet that “strange invisible presence” Lynas speaks of in Fukushima, however, is also a part of normal life, as the film shows by ticking off the varying background levels of radiation discovered at sites around the globe—including Brazil’s positively glowing Guarapari beach. And critics of nuclear power should keep in mind how deadly ordinary air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is. Coal plants contribute to the deaths of 14,000 Americans alone each year. The climatologist James Hansen—practically a patron saint among greens for his very public warnings about the dangers of climate change—published a study earlier this year arguing that nuclear power has prevented the deaths of more than 1.8 million people from air pollution by replacing fossil fuel power. On a megawatt by megawatt basis, nuclear power is safer than just about any other form of electricity production—including rooftop solar power, which claims the occasional installer in a workplace accident. And new plants are likely to be safer than older facilities which, as Pandora’s Promise explains, were essentially scaled-up military designs pushed into service in the interests of Cold War competition.

(MORE: Energy Independence and Other Myths: A Q&A With Michael Levi, Author of The Power Surge)

If Pandora’s Promise defuses the argument that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous, though, it’s less successful in making the equally important case that nuclear is economical—a fact that critics of the film have seized on. Utilities in the U.S. have shied away from building new plants less because of fears about radiation than because construction can cost billions of dollars. That’s an upfront capital bill that’s difficult to justify—especially when relatively clean natural gas is so cheap, thanks largely to fracking. Old nuclear plants are closing in the U.S.—most recently the San Ofore facilities near San Diego—more than offsetting the few new plants being built. In the wake of Fukushima, Germany made the decision to accelerate the closure of its own nuclear plants. That’s bad for the climate—and its a decision that seems to have much more to do with kneejerk fear and Green party politics—but it does show the uphill battle that any nuclear renaissance faces in much of the developed world. Pandora’s Promise argues that new technologies like fast–breeder reactors, thorium-fuel-cycle designs and modular plants will offer even more safety and cost savings, but commercial plants are likely years away—much as inexpensive energy storage is for renewable sources. If nuclear power is going to save the world, it must be safe and cheap—and right now it’s really only the former.

Nuclear power isn’t dying by any means. Over 60 nuclear plants are being built around the world—most of them in growing Asia, where power grids haven’t been fully built out and the demand for electricity is ravenous. “China is going gangbusters on this,” says Stone. (Countries like China, where the state takes a bigger hand industry, aren’t as intimidated by the scale and cost of new nuclear plants.) That’s where the future of nuclear power will be built, and since the vast majority of future carbon emissions will be coming from the developing world, it’s a future environmentalists should hope for. Distributed solar PV and energy efficiency may indeed be the long-term future of electricity in the U.S., but developing countries still need baseload. Far better they get that energy from nuclear than from coal.

Critics have argued that Pandora’s Promise stacks the deck against nuclear opponents. I would have liked to have seen a more meaningful debate on screen—the only opponents of nuclear power that appear come off as bonkers. At the same, I don’t recall popular environmental documentaries like Food Inc. giving a whole lot of screen time to Monsanto executives. I suspect Stone felt that arranging the film around the stories of one-time nuclear opponents turned proponents gave it an inherent balance, but since all of those conversions occurred before the documentary begins, it doesn’t quite track to me.

Still, it bothers me when I see prominent environmentalists essentially telling their audiences to stay away from Pandora’s Promise. This is a film that should be seen, and by environmentalists most of all. (After that we can keep debating the economics of nuclear power versus other energy sources, which, to judge from the last few weeks on Twitter, we will do until the end of time.) The effort to fight climate change while providing energy for a planet of 7 billion people will require clear thinking about where that energy comes from, and what it costs—in all meanings of the word. Nuclear power needn’t be radioactive for greens.

(MORE: Meltdown: Despite the Fear, the Health Risks from the Fukushima Accident Are Minimal

21 comments
macpacheco
macpacheco

Talking about cost...

1 - Nuclear plants today are essentially supplied at cost. Profits come from locking the customer into purchasing nuclear fuel from the same supplier. Even then nuke plants are too expensive, and here's why.

2 - Water reactors has always been fairly expensive. That's because they require a huge containment structure sized to take all the water coolant as steam (plus some extra margin), the skin of the containment requires heavy steel and lots of concrete. The very high pressure reactors operate under requires all metal that is subject to that pressure to be of ultra high grade materials, also ultra expensive

3 - Nuclear plants that use a molten something for cooling (solid at ambient temperature, but liquid at the plants internal operating power) that coolant can't boil, so a containment building with the same protection level (steel / concrete thickness) costs a tiny fraction (water at 150 atmospheres flashes to 1000x the volume at 1 atmosphere, hence the huge size required for the water one), both molten salt and molten metal reactors can have a containment structure about twice the size of the actual reactor core without safety reductions

4 - Active / Passive cooling - If a water nuke looses cooling there could be a meltdown, so besides having a large containment vessel that can hold all the core water as steam, there needs to be several emergency cooling systems (high / medium / low pressure water plus a boron injection failsafe), newer technologies replaces most of those systems with simple, walk away safe features like the drain tank and the salt plug, the LFTR / IFR reactors can't melt, due to fuel being chemically different (fluoride in the case of LFTR versus dioxide in the case of water reactors)


Yes, if an LFTR reactor (Thorium / FLiBe molten salt) could be build up to 1960 safety standards, we could have a final reactor in operation perhaps in less than 5 years, today's safety requirements would add 2-4 years, but that would be basic focus group without large resources. A Apollo project scenario (we need this working yesterday) could shave many years off of that. But LFTR nuclear fuel would essentially be free (there's enough Thorium already mined in storage to provide all power USA for a few decades, and rare earth mining if restarted would produce much more Thorium than the US would ever need).


There are IFR reactors that could be built faster, because they are mostly copies of research reactors killed for political reasons in the Clinton administration, GE S-PRISM being the main one. I like LFTRs much more, but the S-PRISM is build to run on light water reactor nuclear waste, using existing plutonium stockpiles plus depleted uranium. The problem is GE is shopping for a national government to pay for construction of the first few plants instead of taking the billions they have in the bank and doing the first one themselves.


The other bottom line is the current US administration has decided it's not going to invest one cent in nuclear for civilian usage, and the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) cares only about safety, have no incentive to help the plant builders get certified faster.

JoanRussow
JoanRussow

Pandora's Promise is extremely biased film; They neglected to interview or to refer to the work of  physicists who have taken a position against  nuclear energy. In 1992, a Nobel Laureate Declaration was distributed at the UN Conference on the Environment and Development; In this Declaration  was the following demand;

  • to establish a time –table for phasing our fossil fuel and nuclear energy and for the rapid development of solar and other forms of non-polluting energy, and for more efficient energy use;

Signed: Gerd Binnig, The XI Dalai Lama, Leo Esaki, Val L. Fitch, Herbert A. Hauptman, Dudley Herschbach, Gerhard Herzberg, David H. Hubel, Jerome Karle, Gregory S. Kavka, Klaus von Klitzing, Leon M. Lederman, Yuan T. Lee, Wassily Leontief,Bernard Lown, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Barbara McClintock, J.E. Meade, Sinon van der Meer, Bruce Merrifield, Marshall W. Nirenberg, Linus Pauling, John Polanyi, Carlo Rubbia, Abdus Salam, Claude Simon, Herbert A. Simon, George D. Snell, Roger W. Sperry, Henry Taube, Jan Tinbergen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, George Wald, Elie Wiesel, Robert W. Wilson.

AsteroidMiner
AsteroidMiner

In the old days, we recycled spent nuclear fuel.  We don't recycle nuclear fuel because it is valuable and people steal it.   The place it went that it wasn't supposed to go to is Israel.   This happened in a small town near Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970.   A company called Numec was in the business of reprocessing nuclear fuel.   

[I almost took a job there in 1968, designing a nuclear battery for a heart pacemaker.   [A nuclear battery would have the advantage of lasting many times as long as any other battery, eliminating many surgeries to replace batteries.]]   

Spent fuel should be recycled, not stored.

Numec did not have a reactor.   Numec "lost" some nuclear fuel.   It wound up in Israel.   The Israelis fueled their nuclear short cycle plutonium239 plant to make their nuclear weapons by stealing nuclear "waste."   Notice they had to fuel a short-cycle reactor to MAKE Pu239.  Pu239 does not come directly from spent fuel.

My solution would be to reprocess the fuel at a Government Owned Government Operated [GOGO] facility.   At a GOGO plant, bureaucracy and the multiplicity of ethnicity and religion would disable the transportation of uranium to Israel or to any unauthorized place.   Nothing heavier than a secret would get out.

The problem is political:   The Republicans think GOGO plants are socialist/communist, which is nonsense.   If a COCO [Contractor Owned Contractor Operated] plant is the low bidder, it is inevitably a front for Israel or some other country.   We could send our spent fuel to France, Japan or Russia to be recycled.  Those countries have recycling facilities.


amrullahmuhammad
amrullahmuhammad

Use of nuclear energy is very economical but with certain preconditions.1===The radioactivity emerging during the process should be so conta,ined so that the process operators are not harmed2===It is necessary that the plant have to be build near sea,and the left out nuclear waste should be so processed that the waste disposed is not contaminated.3===The staff working on the facility should be extraordinarily duty conscious .

TatianaRomanova
TatianaRomanova

Its too bad that Pandora's Promise doesn't tackle the cost issue because the cost issue is largely caused by the insane environmental movement.  In the early days of nuclear power, it was possible to build a plant that was competitive with coal- and this was back in the days when coal was largely unregulated.  The plants even lacked scrubbers- hugely expensive equipment that would have rendered coal obsolete.


Unfortunately, the anti- nuclear movement, which couldn't win the argument in the forum of public opinion, hit upon the strategy of delaying every plant and demanding insane levels of "safety".  Their number one method was to seize on a silly theory called Linear No Threshold (LNT) to claim that any radiation emission was harmful.  The theory had long before been discredited but that didn't matter to the Environmentalists.  The result is that they imposed standards that drove the cost of nuclear plants out the window.


Its simply quite easy to build nuclear power plants for about one fourth the cost in America (see China and India)

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

I too, am mostly concerned about how we can safely dispose of the nuclear waste.  Nobody can agree among our politicians.  Until we can get that resolved, we shouldn't move forward on more new plants.  I thought we had a solution when that disposal facility was built out west, but of course, the politicians couldn't get re-elected if they didn't take action to stop it's use, and that is the most important thing, right?  Them getting re-elected instead of them taking care of our country's business?

wpamer
wpamer

"prominent environmentalists essentially telling their audiences to stay away from Pandora’s Promise" 

Isn't this the same as someone saying: "I'm a Christian, therefore I need to never read about atheism or hear their arguments".  What creates a society that is afraid of hearing the oppositions case?  I have never understood such a closed off mindset.  It seems to me that people care more about the emotional investment they have made in their mindset and the way they have patterned their life, than in actually discovering what the truth of things actually is.

phil_hamm
phil_hamm

 @krodolfo "mining uranium, milling it, concentrating its U235 content to usable form, and processing it into pellets and rods takes large amounts of diesel and other fossil fjuels"  The mining footprint for U is comparable to the one for rare earths to create wind turbine generators.  Or the mining of minerals to create solar panels.  Considering the energy densities of the materials, U mining means a much lighter footprint on the Earth than the mining required for so-called "renewables".  Plus, in the not so distant future "spent fuel" and depleted uranium will be able to be utilized as fuel, meaning we will use what's already been mined.

"not to mention storing spent rods safely (which we still cannot do) and decommissioning nuclear plants when the time comes" Ask France if they can store spent fuel safely.  Storing and disposing of spent fuel is a political issue in the United States; it is not an engineering or technological issue.

krodolfo
krodolfo

"Nuclear plants are the only source of power—other than hydroelectric, which has largely hit its limits—that can supply base-load electricity on a mass scale without producing greenhouse-gas emissions.:" Walsh is either naive and swallows the pro-nuke line wholesale, or cynically knows but ignores the facts that mining uranium, milling it, concentrating its U235 content to usable form, and processing it into pellets and rods takes large amounts of diesel and other fossil fjuels -- not to mention storing spent rods safely (which we still cannot do) and decommissioning nuclear plants when the time comes



normfarris4
normfarris4

I agree that nuclear has great potential, but I worry that it is an energy source best used in a country with a higher level of political maturity.

SteveKirsch
SteveKirsch

Superb review. People often say "no radiation level is safe" not realizing that coal plants typically emit 10 to 100 times more radiation than any nuclear plant. Yet coal is safe. We've never seen people picketing coal plants for radiation. However, if a fraction of that amount comes from a nuclear plant, it is a cause for picketing and shutting it down. Coal plants kill 14,000 people a year in the US. Nuclear kills zero over the entire 50+ year history of nuclear in the US. However, there may have been one "statistical" extra death caused by the accident at Three Mile Island, that pales in comparison to the number of deaths from coal plants every year. On a deaths per generated watt of power, nuclear is the safest technology we have.

RTDeco
RTDeco

"... the only opponents of nuclear power that appear come off as bonkers ..."

Who says that art doesn't imitate life? Finally, some truth in film making!

You think that they're "bonkers" in the film? You should see them in person.

macpacheco
macpacheco

@JoanRussow The words you used don't explain one little bit why Nuclear is bad. In a large sense environmentalists (even the ones with a PhD) assume nuclear is bad, period. They should all have to justify their positions using hard data, given the fact that we have been using nuclear power for 60 yrs, using the actual safety track of nuclear power instead of hypothetical worst case scenarios.

If we approached commercial aviation like the environmentalists would like us to approach nuclear, we would never set foot aboard and airplane, regardless of the fact it's much safer than ground transportation. Yet we learn from accidents, prevent them, avoid them, but don't stop using aircraft.


"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."

I think you and all those PhD are being typical People.

FeebWillis
FeebWillis

@phil_hamm @krodolfo Yes, the French have done it right but even their neighbors the Germans are not convinced. We do not know over time if the process the French are using (vitrification) works or not. We are NOT proposing to do nuclear the way the French have done it which is to have one management team and one construction team overseen by private and public bureaucracy build every plant.  That is a level of "socialization" that Republicans cannot accept.   We still have individual power companies building plants and that is plain stupid and runs in the face of the French experience.

roy.brander
roy.brander

@krodolfo I can see you've read Dr. Caldicott's book.  So did the (otherwise very right wing) editor of the Calgary Herald, Licia Corbella.   She took the same tack, that nuclear actually produces a lot of carbon that way.  But the arithmetic in her book is very spotty, mixing up units, not following the calcs through.   I did so, after reading a bunch of her primary source material, and put it all together here:

http://www.cuug.ab.ca/branderr/nuclear/

...but to save you from my amateur writing efforts, the upshot is that the figure that was finally agreed upon in the Wikipedia entry on the carbon costs of MWH of various electrical generation strategies is correct: nuclear power plants put out about 6% the carbon of coal plants, even after you figure in massive amounts of diesel to build them, to refine the uranium, etc.  (I actually got higher numbers, over 12%, using extremely conservative assumptions; but they just served to reassure me the Wikipedia number is about right and there's zero chance, even with extreme conservatism, that Caldicott was remotely correct)

The Caldicott book has been thoroughly discredited on this issue pretty much since it came out; she depended almost entirely on one source that estimated the carbon costs of construction based on the amount of carbon per dollar of construction in the larger building industry - but nuclear plants are hugely expensive because of the high standards of construction, not the amount of it.

veebee
veebee

@SteveKirsch People aren't picketing coal plants because of radiation because they don't know that coal and coal slag are radioactive. Likewise they didn't know in southeastern Idaho that the phosphate slag used to pave the city streets and to build house foundations was radioactive because it concentrated the naturally occurring uranium and its daughter radionuclide radon. In order to make rational choices both citizens and consumers need to be in possession of the facts so they can make cost-benefit analyses and combine those with their value systems. People have not been so informed regarding any of these sources of energy.

MichaelFox
MichaelFox

@SteveKirsch Whereas your data might be accurate, it is, like Pandora's Promise, an incomplete picture of a much broader reality.  Don't get me wrong - I favor nuclear energy as a potential source of power.  But there must be a more complete understanding, acceptance, and accountability of/for all challenges associated with producing nuclear energy.  These issues are marginalized or completely ignored during the movie, denting its credibility and positioning it as more of an infomercial for the nuclear industry.

FeebWillis
FeebWillis

@veebee @SteveKirsch Yes, you are right.  In ordinary operation, coal plants release more radiation than nuclear power plants.  But that is only in ordinary operation.  One cracked core can ruin your whole neighborhood and that is the problem which is nuclear power's potential for megadisasters.

SteveKirsch
SteveKirsch

@MichaelFox @SteveKirsch there was only so much time in the movie. But the storage costs are very minor for fast reactors, and much smaller than existing reactors as the movie points out very clearly. There are hundreds of nuclear power plants in use all over the world and all of the issues are not stumbling blocks.


The point of the movie is to explode the myths, and talk about fast reactor technology so that nuclear can expand at a faster rate. For example, the football field graphic helps people understand the storage issue much better.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@MichaelFox @SteveKirsch Agreed. Until costs and storage issues are resolved, I don't think there's much of a future in nukes. Thorium looks promising, but it's unproven.

AsteroidMiner
AsteroidMiner

@FeebWillis @veebee @SteveKirsch

Chernobyl released as much radiation as a coal fired power plant releases EVERY 7 years and 5 months.  You get 100 to 400 times as much radiation from coal as from nuclear.

Coal contains:   URANIUM and all of the decay products of uranium, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, THORIUM, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc.   There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores.   We should be able to get ALL THE URANIUM AND THORIUM WE NEED TO FUEL NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS FOR CENTURIES BY USING COAL CINDERS AND SMOKE AS ORE.   Unburned Coal and crude oil also contain BENZENE, THE CANCER CAUSER.   We could get all of our uranium and thorium from coal ashes and cinders.   The carbon content of coal ranges from 96% down to 25%, the remainder being rock of various kinds.

The uranium decay chain includes the radioactive gas RADON, which you are breathing.  Radon decays in about a day into polonium, the super-poison.

If you have cancer, check for benzene in your past.

See: 

http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html

or

http://clearnuclear.blogspot.com

in case the ORNL site does not work.

Make coal fired power plants meet the same requirements for radiation release that nuclear power plants have to meet.