Pandora’s Promise delves into nuclear energy’s past, present and future

By Marlee Ellison


Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Is nuclear energy secretly sinister? It depends on whom you talk to. When one lauded expert provides scientific research to support nuclear energy, another fiercely refutes it. 

A panel of national experts addressed the promises and perils of nuclear energy at MU on Thursday night. The discussion followed a public viewing of Pandora’s Promise, a 2013 documentary screened at True/False Film Fest and Sundance Film Festival. Though panelists quarreled, they came to a consensus that Pandora’s Promise leaves some gaps in its portrayal of nuclear energy.

The event was part of a workshop for journalists that focused on how to cover the burgeoning technology.

Pandora’s Promise pushes a pro-nuclear slant, encouraging viewers to dispel previously-held fears. Director Robert Stone and a troop of activists claim that nuclear has a bad rapport with first generation environmentalists simply because of negative connotation. If you’ve witnessed the devastation in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl, nuclear energy is a malevolent force and catastrophe waiting to happen.

The activists, however, paint nuclear energy as the cure-all to our climate change crisis- the answer at the bottom of Pandora’s mythical box. Surely the answer isn’t so simple.

Pandora’s Promise focuses intently on activists who were once anti-nuclear, including Gwyneth Cravens, Michael Shellenberger and Stewart Brand. This is an intelligent move; it gives the movie a sense of credibility and objectivity. The cast is highly knowledgeable and dissolves anti-nuclear arguments like it’s second nature.

The film was convincing, but it’s up to viewers to remain objective. Like any ideological film, the statistics are cherry-picked and pitfalls are brushed aside. It’s our job to question everything and trust hunches.

With this idea in tow, Pandora’s Promise leaves viewers with some important questions.

The activists undercut the perceived damages of the Chernobyl disaster, and granted, human error and irresponsible construction were to blame. However, the filmmakers downplay the devastation, initial and generational, caused by nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why whitewash these 135,000 deaths?

Those in tune with economics may also wonder about the cost of nuclear plants. Unfortunately, Pandora’s Promise brushes this issue under the carpet. Nuclear power plants have become increasingly expensive – the anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists estimates up to $9 billion per unit– and use a hefty amount of water to cool their cores. This process can disrupt ocean ecosystems and kill marine life.

There’s also some deceit involved: activist Gwyneth Cravens claims that eating the potassium in a banana will expose you to more radiation than living next to a nuclear power plant for one year. Panelist Roger Witherspoon refuted Cravens. Though potassium-40 is radioactive, it plays an important role in the human body. Once the body’s potassium needs are satiated, it rids of the extra isotope rather than bioaccumulating it. Cravens uses this information to convince people who do not have scientific backgrounds, he said Thursday. 

David Ropeik, who has spent most his professional career breaking ground in risk perception, praised the film in Scientific American for its in-depth exploration of nuclear energy and ability to resonate with environmentalists. Stone interviews sources that we can trust– environmental activists standing on the front lines of their cause. They work to dispel our irrational fears of anything “nuclear” and bring up Cold War paranoia. 

“The information in the film is presented in ways that resonate with many of the emotional, instinctive, affective characteristics that shape how people feel about risks in general, and about nuclear power and climate change in particular,” Ropeik wrote.*

He remains pro-nuclear, but he singled out some issues at Thursday’s panel. Pandora’s Promise is “dishonest about the cost of nuclear; it’s dishonest about the new nuclear generation being immediately available,” he said.

Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment cited a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to the study, “weather-driven renewable resources” like wind and solar are more promising than the film depicted; NOAA calculated that we can slash greenhouse gases and meet increasing energy demands by 2030 with renewables other than nuclear energy.

Despite this, we can agree with the filmmakers that there’s hope at the bottom of this metaphorical box. Everyone understands that humanity’s penchant for coal and natural gas are choking out Mother Earth. Though imperfect, nuclear energy is undoubtedly cleaner and perhaps the lesser of two evils. We must find a clean mix that incorporates wind, solar and geothermal energy.

The filmmakers also make a solid point about energy consumption. How are we expected to abide by energy slashes outlined in the Kyoto Protocol without implementing more green energy? It’s not as if we can magically cut off power to third-world countries; the world’s population will only increase. As a society, we have to figure out whether implementing nuclear energy is worth these costs.

If you’re on the fence about nuclear energy, Pandora’s Promise provides some good perspective. Regardless, it’s imperative that we do our research. The future of green energy depends on it.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not accurately portray David Ropeik’s stance on the film. That section has been clarified.

Rating: 7/10


2 thoughts on “Pandora’s Promise delves into nuclear energy’s past, present and future

  1. Your depiction of David Ropeik’s view of the film is entirely contradicted by his review of it, to which you provide a link. Did you even read it? If he’s now calling the film “dishonest” this is news to me since he’s highly praised it in many other forums.
    Nowhere does the film “whitewash” the deaths of 135,000 Japanese who were victims of the atomic bomb. All data included in the film related to the epidemiological effects of ionizing radiation come directly from UNSCEAR and WHO. They represent the scientific gold standard of what’s known in this area.
    The argument over economics is complex and not nearly as cut and dry as you imply. Most of the world, outside the US, has made nuclear energy much more cost competitive. They key thing is whether nuclear is necessary to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. For every study you can present that says renewables alone can do the job, I can show you dozens that show you cannot. Unless you’re 100% certain the renewables-only approach will displace fossil fuels and power the entire planet, the wise move is to put every clean energy source on the table, not just the ones that are ideologically in line with environmental orthodoxy.

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