On Pandora’s Promise

Pandora’s Promise bravely tackles the post-Fukushima political climate to make the case for renewed investment in nuclear energy. The film seems to be targeted towards a liberal audience, and features prominent liberal opinion leaders and environmentalists discussing the errors of their prior anti-nuclear ways and how they have come to change their minds. Pandora’s Promise is fun to watch thanks to solid production values and an engaging if sometimes overly ominous soundtrack.

Although generally sparse on specific details, appealing more to emotions than facts, I did learn a number of things from the film. I appreciated its review of the history of nuclear power, and was intrigued that the first nuclear power plant had been built in Pennsylvania in 1956, specifically because it was much cleaner than burning coal. The filmmakers dispel several important urban legends regarding nuclear energy, explaining that even wind and solar energy rely on gas to some extent, that producing solar panels can be a toxic process, and that renewables are insufficient to meet the world’s energy needs. They point out that background radiation equivalent to what is produced near reactors is common around the world and generally not correlated with cancer incidence

Pandora’s Promise takes the fear of nuclear disaster head on. Journalist Gwyneth Cravens explains that the Chernobyl reactor had no containment building and was inherently unsafe, unlike today’s reactors. Furthermore, they cite UN studies showing that very few people ever died or contracted cancer from the Chernobyl fallout. Similarly, they explain that while Fukushima was a “worst case scenario” it still resulted in very little increased cancer risk to the surrounding population.

Besides downplaying the risks, Pandora’s Promise sells nuclear energy primarily by presenting it as key to solving the issue of global warming. They cite writer Richard Rhodes claiming that “To be anti-nuclear is basically to be in favor of burning fossil fuels”. They claim that 3 million people die each year due to the burning of coal, and that nuclear power is the second safest energy source after wind power. Superstorm Sandy is even implied to be a direct consequence of global warming, and therefore a result of not embracing nuclear energy.

My main criticism is that the film picks straw men as enemies, interspersing pro-nuclear opinion with footage of hippies protesting a nuclear plant in Vermont and a ranting British anti-nuclear activist whose arguments are compared with climate skeptics like Sen. Inhofe. They also fail to discuss the economic side of the equation, which is the real reason that nuclear energy has struggled to gain traction in recent years. — E.