Pandora’s Terrifying Promise: Can Nuclear Power Save the Planet?
A conversation about a new documentary, its provocative claims—and the facts it leaves out.
A German police officer uses a Geiger counter to measure the radiation of a Castor container on a transport train, during a stop in Neunkirchen near Saarbruecken. Reuters/Alex Domanski
Recently, writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams alerted The Nation about a new documentary she had just seen that caused her to question her long-held opposition to nuclear power. Pandora’s Promise, out in theaters in June and on CNN in the fall, features five “converts” who argue that the dire threat of climate change requires humanity to embrace nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, who has been covering the industry since investigating it for his book Nuclear Inc. (Pantheon, 1983), had a different reaction to the film. What follows is a dialogue between Williams and Hertsgaard about the film, the history of the nuclear industry and alternative solutions to the climate crisis. —The Editors
Terry Tempest Williams: “I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women. My mother, my grandmothers
and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead.” So begins the epilogue of my memoir, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, written in 1991. As Utahns, residents of the Atomic West, we are hibakusha, explosion-affected people bound by the wind. Half of my family has died from cancers that I believe were a result of radioactive fallout caused by above-
ground nuclear explosions tested in the Nevada desert from 1945 to 1962. In declassified materials from the Atomic Energy Commission, Mormons and Indians living downwind of the blasts were considered “a low-use segment of the population.” In the eyes of our government, my people were expendable. Almost
$800 million has been paid in compensation to “downwinders” as an acknowledgment and apology by the government for negligence against its citizens in the testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. My family’s story is just one in an anthology of thousands.
So when I say that Robert Stone’s film Pandora’s Promise challenged my thinking after thirty years of antinuclear activism, it is not a small statement. This crack in my own thinking is heightened by the fact that I am now watching my extended community of plants, animals, rocks, rivers and human beings be ravaged by the oil and gas industry, be it fracking or the razing of vulnerable wildlands. For me, this film’s strength was not that it changed my mind, which it did not, but that it expanded it. I am interested in having an open conversation about nuclear energy. We know we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels. So what are the alternatives? Are renewable energy sources enough for the energy-poor around the world?
Mark Hertsgaard: Questioning one’s assumptions is a good thing, but I have to point out that this documentary’s pro-nuclear argument is neither as original nor as brave as its protagonists seem to think. Watching Pandora’s Promise reminded me that the first time I heard the phrase “global warming” was thirty years ago… from a nuclear
This was in the early 1980s, and the industry was in the doldrums. This executive told me that a number of factors, including something called global warming, would eventually cause citizens and public officials alike to recognize that the world faced a “nuclear imperative,” as he and other executives called it. This is the same message the industry has spent untold amounts of money promoting in recent years. There is no hint in Pandora’s Promise that the film’s director or its protagonists are aware of this history—or, for that matter, that they’re in the pay of the industry. The fact is, however, that they and the film are playing roles in a drama written long ago by the very economic interests that would profit from a nuclear revival.