Pandora’s Promise is an exposé on the past and future of nuclear energy that readjusts a lot of public assumptions in a rather explosive way. By featuring a coterie of respected, world-renowned environmentalists who have had a change of heart on the issue, the film, although clearly on the pro side of the debate, shines light on a paradigm shift afoot. The crux of its argument is “to be anti-nuclear is to be in favor of using fossil fuel.” In other words, despite all the strides made towards renewable energy sources, we remain mired in the climate-destroying reality of oil and coal usage for energy production and this state of affairs is not tenable from any perspective. The film astutely observes that nuclear power has been forever imprinted into the public’s psyche as a “weapon we feel badly about” and seeks to destigmatize it, remove it from its Armageddon-esque milieu, and put it in a different and less malevolent context.
Pandora’s Promise does rely a bit heavily on the “if these environmentalists and scientists had a change of heart, does that not indicate the general public should as well” persuasion tactic. The film features appearances from Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog), Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Mark Lynas (formerly of Earth First and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet), and Gwyneth Cravens (Power to Save the World). It also has references to extra star power for added ammunition – Richard Branson and Microsoft’s Paul Allen have joined in – and Bill Gates has formed a nuclear power company that is working on a reactor for use in the developing world. Nonetheless, it occasionally veers into the territory of portraying the anti-nuclear movement as stodgy fear- mongers in a rather sweeping sense.
The documentary thoroughly covers the history of the use of nuclear energy, bringing in many of the original nuclear scientists to speak about its development. Charles Till explains that in the 50s, two types of nuclear reactors were being developed: the breeder reactor, which breeds plutonium and recycles it, and the light water reactor, which creates much more waste. The selection of the light water reactor to use as a commercial reactor appears to have been made very short-sightedly and, not surprisingly, not by a scientist but by a military official. Since then, technology has progressed in a significant sense with many breeder reactors built successfully and progressing to a third generation reactor which recycles all waste. More importantly, disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are now much more preventable by implementing containment chambers and adequate cooling systems. The film also brings up a lot of lesser-known examples of how political pressure and public opinion has prevented a lot of facilities from opening—for example, a nuclear waste storage facility was constructed in Nevada and never used, despite the success of other such pilot projects in New Mexico. There were other plants which were built and never went into operation; the Integral Fast Reactor program was shut down.
The main point of Pandora’s Promise is that not until recently has it become apparent how huge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is. Electricity is the one thing that causes the most significant improvement in the quality of life. With the growing development of the “Global South,” the need for energy is only expected to rise; energy consumption of the planet is expected to double by 2050. Use of coal is, shockingly, accelerating and it has cemented its role as both the most common source of energy and the fastest growing. The environmental effects of this fact are clearly destructive. One pound uranium is the equivalent of 5000 barrels of oil in energy output. Thus, it quickly becomes apparent why nuclear energy is viewed as “clean and efficient.” The film brings up the example of France which derives nearly 80% of its energy from nuclear power, has the cheapest energy in Europe, and the lowest carbon dioxide emissions.
The film stumbles when it addresses the specter of nuclear accidents and the eerie aftermath of contamination for generations, glossing over the dangers in a rather dismissive way. It argues that in terms of the mortality rate, nuclear is the safest industry, second only to wind. The assertion about Chernobyl and Fukushima that “there were so few casualties,” may be factually true but it does not really address the afterlife of radiation and its health risks. The assertion that “only” plutonium is long-lived and that nuclear waste is volumetrically non-significant (e.g. all the fuel rods could be fitted into a football field) is meant to assuage fears yet is not explored as in-depth as it could have.
Director Robert Stone relies on many detonative revelations to make a very compelling case for nuclear energy. The presence of environmentalists advocating for it certainly gives its credibility a strong boost. The assumptions we have held to be true for so long will indeed need some processing before they can be dispatched away as “we were wrong.” A more measured response might be that global warming is a serious threat and nuclear energy certainly poses a very promising solution, but one can’t help but feel as though it is a solution *only* because of our insatiable energy thirst and its ensuing pollution. With technical advances, the risk of accidents and toxic waste leaks is also decreasing; nevertheless, it will take some time before the general public can be thoroughly at ease about it. When Stone asks Lynas if he is still pro-nuclear when he visits Fukushima, his retort back to Robert Stone, “Are *you* still pro nuclear?” is not exactly entirely fear-allaying.