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.”

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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.

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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.

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