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Pandora’s Promise cover image

Pandora’s Promise 2013

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Kino Lorber Edu, 333 West 39 St, Suite 503, New York, NY 10018; 212-629-6880
Produced by Robert Stone
Directed by Robert Stone
DVD, color, 87 min.

General Adult
Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Proliferation, Arms Control, Nuclear Power, Environment

Date Entered: 01/16/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Not too long ago it was assumed that an authentic environmentalist had to be anti-nuclear power. But many environmentalists have undergone a conversion. Convinced that the latest technological developments have made nuclear power safe, many previously committed opponents of nuclear power now see it as the lesser of energy evils. Managed correctly, it could provide cheap power to the impoverished of the world, dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions, and wean the country from political and economic dependency on some of the most unstable countries around the globe. This provocative film tells their story, which has outraged many activists in nuclear disengagement and heartened pro-nuclear lobbies and businesses.

Chief among the converts is Stewart Brand, an icon of the counter culture and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog – which featured the “Earthrise” image from Apollo 8 on its cover. The criticism that Brand and other nuclear converts have received is often brutal, suggesting that intolerance and “group think” is not simply a feature of those on the right wing of the political spectrum. As one convert in the film noted, he would have been better off simply keeping his mouth shut rather than face the wrath of activist colleagues who were not able to tolerate his change of heart regarding nuclear power. Other advocates suggest that public attitudes toward nuclear power were unduly tainted by the military origins of nuclear power, when in fact, in their view, nuclear power is cleaner and cheaper than other sources of power. Original reactor designs were based on military submarine reactors, which produced far more radiation and were inherently more dangerous than alternatives that could have been developed.

In telling the story of the converts the film sometimes dismisses too easily the concerns of those who remain firmly opposed to nuclear power. One issue – and a major concern for anti-nuclear advocates – is the problem of how to dispense with the nuclear wastes created by nuclear power production. The film only briefly discusses the challenges of storing nuclear wastes and assumes that most waste would in fact be reprocessed to fuel the next generation of nuclear reactors. Another concern is the ease with which acquiring the capacity to produce nuclear power leads also to the ability, with little adaptation, to produce a nuclear weapon. That criticism is dismissed on the grounds that knowledge of how to build a nuclear bomb is already widespread and so discouraging the development of nuclear power would not put this genie back in the proverbial bottle.

One of the documentary’s most controversial claims concerns the aftermath of Chernobyl. Based on reports that the health consequences of exposure to radiation after Chernobyl have been greatly exaggerated the film draws the conclusion that even the greatest nuclear disaster in history – caused by an unsafe reactor design that would no longer be possible -- was really not a great health hazard. But this portion of the documentary is based on reports about Chernobyl’s consequences that many experts have challenged. And it ignores reports that draw very different kinds of conclusions. The documentary also shrugs off the potential of solar or wind energy without any serious analysis of the relative economics of various forms of energy, including nuclear power. Since solar and wind energy are supposedly not tenable, the only alternative to nuclear power is fossil fuel. “To be anti-nuclear,” says one of the converts, “is to be in favor of burning fossil fuel.”

Whether pro or anti-nuclear power, viewers will nonetheless find much to debate and discuss after watching this deliberately confrontational film. Too often documentaries on nuclear power preach doomsday scenarios and dismiss advocates of nuclear power as irrational, venal, or both. To believe in nuclear power, noted one former anti-nuclear activist, was to be considered a dupe of Big Utility in certain liberal circles (a point reinforced in the cartoon series The Simpsons, where the evil character is played by a nuclear reactor CEO). That approach often comes at the expense of missing the complex trade-offs inherent in the production and deployment of any large-scale technology.

Ironically, however, the film’s producers sometimes suffer from the same mode of argumentation for which they criticize the anti-nuclear movement. They excoriate former colleagues in that movement as the ones imprisoned by irrational and unchallengeable beliefs. The film suggests that the anti-nuclear activists are really the dupes of the fossil fuel industry, since their faith in solar or wind energy, according to the film, can never be justified by the actual potential of those technologies. To the extent that they succeed in stalling nuclear power development they will only feed the Exxon-Mobiles of the world and continue to allow carbon emissions from coal plants to soil humanity’s nest.

Ultimately, the film is best at telling the story of the pro-nuclear converts. But the faith of some anti-nuclear activists will no doubt be shaken by the seeming apostasy of their former disciples – and perhaps even by some of their arguments.