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06/10/2013 - 08:00

Pandora's false promise

Kennette Benedict

Kennette Benedict

Benedict came to the Bulletin from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where she directed the international peace and...

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Pandora's Promise, a documentary film by director Robert Stone that opens in US cities on June 12th, is the story of one-time anti-nuclear power activists who now advocate using nuclear energy.

The film unabashedly promotes nuclear power as the only energy source that can both meet worldwide demand and help reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to minimize further damage to the Earth's atmosphere. In it, engineers attest to the safety of advanced reactor technologies and disarmament experts comment on their reliability, without any reference to the risks posed by nuclear power. Erstwhile anti-nuclear power activists, including Stewart Brand and Gwyneth Cravens, are the major focus of the film, as they talk about their decisions to support nuclear power after many years of actively protesting against it. The major reason they offer for this change of heart is the growing threat of climate change.

The flaw in the film's approach is its zealous advocacy of one solution -- one silver bullet -- to meet the tremendous challenges of providing for some nine billion people by 2050, while also protecting societies from the ravages of climate disruption. The kind of thinking that led some of these environmentalists to single-mindedly protest nuclear power plants during the 1970s and 1980s leads them to just-as-single-mindedly advocate a push toward nuclear power 40 years later.

Nuclear power may indeed end up being part of the energy mix that leads to both a more stable climate and adequate livelihoods around the world. But the challenges posed by nuclear power -- like the risk of weapons proliferation and reactor accidents, and the need to securely store radioactive used fuel for many generations -- are not adequately addressed in the film.

Rather, Stone and his subjects seem as intent on promoting nuclear power as the one clear solution as they once were in denying that it had any place in responsible energy planning. Since they've now "seen the light," viewers are expected to join their new-found cause.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. In fact, there is much to admire in those who recognize altered circumstances, integrate fresh information, and come to a new judgment. What is disingenuous about Pandora's Promise is the way the new judgment is conveyed. The film mocks groups that continue to protest nuclear power, treating one-time colleagues as extremists and zealots. An audience discussion after a preview at the University of Chicago made it clear I was not the only one who sensed the self-righteous tone of the newly converted in the film's narrative. In the end, by dismissing the protestors and failing to engage them in significant debate about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, the film undermined its own message.

Pandora's Promise ticks off three major reasons for the sea change on nuclear power. First, activists recognize that poor people in developing countries deserve access to energy sources to advance their economies and raise their standards of living. The environmentalists in the film favor the rapid growth of nuclear power over the coal burning that is now common in emerging economies like China and India.

Second, the film's subjects recognize that nothing else has worked as well as nuclear power to reduce dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Solar technologies are still too expensive, and wind power is supplying just a tiny fraction of current electricity despite large investments; only nuclear reactors, they claim, can supply the continuously available electrical power needed for large-scale commercial and household use.

Third, several movement leaders believe that the fight for a carbon tax to discourage the burning of fossil fuel has been lost in the United States, and that the likelihood US politicians will adopt policies to help slow climate change in the next 10 years is remote.
In short, it appears that these environmentalists have discovered poverty, the Keeling curve (a graph that depicts Earth's rising temperature since the 1950s), and the brawling political process for the first time and are shocked, simply shocked, by what they've seen. They're now out to rectify the situation in one fell swoop with the promise of nuclear power. By doing so, however, they have traded one brand of "solutionism" for another.

Solutionists lurch in fits and starts from one extreme position to another, from one answer to the next, failing to understand that the problems we have created are as complex as the societies we live in. We are disrupting the Earth's atmosphere through a combination of carbon-emitting technologies, population growth, overconsumption in industrial societies, and settlement patterns that have cleared huge forests that filter carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. No single technological fix is likely to "solve" the problem of climate change.

A more powerful approach to this complex threat to humanity would be to film a fact-based, passionate debate that explored the alternatives, trade-offs, and consequences of various energy options. Such an exploration might move us from the usual politics of zealotry to new habits of thought, and perhaps to new forms of action based on all the facts.