Pandora’s Terrifying Promise: Can Nuclear Power Save the Planet?

Pandora’s Terrifying Promise: Can Nuclear Power Save the Planet?

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 
industry executive. 

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. 

TTW: I didn’t know that history myself, Mark. But is it fair to say that you and I both agree with Pandora’s Promise that climate change is such an urgent threat that even a technology as problematic as nuclear power should not be automatically excluded from our options? And even if this argument fits a story line envisioned decades ago by the nuclear industry, don’t the voices in this film deserve a hearing?

One of the five converts in the film, Richard Rhodes, is someone for whom I have great respect. His book The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a serious historical synthesis of the nuclear age. Among the other converts, I do find the work of Michael Shellenberger suspect on grounds of being intentionally incendiary and provocative. I am also troubled by the assertion in Mark Lynas’s book The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans that we humans are now in control of all things wild and must turn to technology, including genetic engineering, to rescue ourselves. This kind of “pragmatic environmentalism” strikes me as a dangerously arrogant way of seeing our interdependent relationship with the earth. 

Even so, I’m interested in the nature of change—how it occurs and why. If I am asking people to change their way of thinking, especially regarding climate change and the adoption of an ethic of place, then it seems only fair to ask that of myself. A reassessment of nuclear energy becomes part of that inquiry.

MH:  That’s the conceit of the film, and it’s an angle that has animated more than a few recent media stories about a supposed split in the green movement over nuclear power. My own reporting on the movement suggests that nothing so grandiose is under way. A small number of individual environmentalists have advocated nuclear, as have some scientists who rank as climate heroes—notably James Hansen, formerly of NASA, and David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the British government. Other prominent backers include Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen; in fact, Allen is one of the producers of Pandora’s Promise. But the overwhelming majority of green groups and leaders continue to oppose it.

The five converts featured in Pandora’s Promise speak for themselves as individuals; they don’t represent environmental organizations. Gwyneth Cravens and Richard Rhodes don’t even appear to have track records as activists; Cravens is a fiction writer. Stewart Brand helped found the Whole Earth Catalog, but that was over forty years ago; since then, he’s spent much of his time as a consultant to corporations, including some in the energy sector. Shellenberger is a PR man who, as he says in the film, used to consult for environmental groups but no longer does. The only bona fide activist is Lynas, who wrote a fine book about climate change, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. I know and respect Mark and think he is sincere. 

To answer your question, Terry, it is absolutely valid to reconsider nuclear power—and other controversial technologies as well—in light of the fast-accelerating climate crisis. It is also true, as the film emphasizes, that coal is a dirty, deadly technology that needs to be retired as quickly as possible. But one of my objections to Pandora’s Promise is that it pretends all of this is news to environmentalists. The truth is that environmentalists hate coal and are fighting it tooth and nail. And quite successfully, I might add: a grassroots campaign led by local environmentalists and coordinated by the Sierra Club has helped end the building of new coal-fired power plants in the United States.

TTW: The fracture line that I do believe is present and widening within the green movement is a philosophical one that cuts to the core of Pandora’s Promise. Given that our species numbers 7 billion and rising, there are those who believe the only practical way we can sustain an energy-rich future is to commit to more development, more technology—nuclear energy included—as we continue on the trajectory of progress to fuel more consumption. The energy-poor deserve what we have in places like the United States and Europe. There is no turning back. We have no historical evidence of stopping the arrow of progress. Developing nations deserve America’s privilege. This is a core belief that saturates the logic of this documentary and its converts.

The other side of the movement is less human-centered: it asks for restraint, seeing ourselves as a species among a cacophony of other species, interdependent and interrelated, where what is called for is not new technology but a new planetary consciousness. This includes the choice to embrace an ethic of conservation that honors biodiversity, wild lands and wild lives. That includes plants and animals—all living species, not just our own. Allow me to quote Robinson Jeffers: “Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty…the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man/ apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.” The question becomes not how can we further promote a lifestyle of living beyond our energy means, but how can we live more lightly on the planet?  

My primary critique of Pandora’s Promise is its reliance solely on facts that serve the assertions of the five converts. People opposed to nuclear energy are uniformly portrayed as naïve, ill-informed, irrational freaks. Regardless of how you view 
Dr. Helen Caldicott (she remains a hero of mine for her early alert call), she is hugely maligned in this film, appearing as an antinuclear wingnut shrieking to her Grateful Dead choir. It is a gross oversimplification and displays prejudice. Not one well-spoken opponent of nuclear energy appears on the screen—not one. 

And when the film’s converts speak to their preferred facts that there have been no deaths from radioactive fallout since the Fukushima meltdowns in 2011, and that the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 caused only fifty-six deaths, my first complaint is the one lodged within my own cells and the cells of my family members, now buried: it’s too damn early to tell. Cancer from radiation exposure usually takes time to present itself; it is not immediate. My second complaint is that there are plenty of scientific studies refuting the notion that radioactivity is all but harmless, though one wouldn’t know this from watching the film. 

MH:  You can say that again. Even the UN Inter-
national Atomic Energy Agency, an organization committed to promoting nuclear power, concluded in a 2005 study that the radioactivity released at Chernobyl would cause 4,000 cancer deaths. A study by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded in 2008 that Chernobyl had caused 6,000 thyroid cancers among children, and “many more” such cancers are projected in the years ahead. But the UNSCEAR study didn’t take into account the long-term impacts of radioactivity, as the European Environment Agency pointed out earlier this year. Applying the stand-
ard risk estimates established by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the EEA said that Chernobyl will cause between 17,000 and 68,000 cancer deaths over the fifty years following the 1986 accident, as well as additional cardiovascular and immunological diseases.

Instead of confronting this multidimensional mosaic of scientific findings, Pandora’s Promise portrays all nuclear critics as clones of Helen Caldicott, whom the film shows claiming Chernobyl caused 
”a million” deaths. Caldicott’s figure is derived from an analysis published in 2007 by former Soviet environmental adviser Alexey Yablokov and two colleagues, which had severe methodological shortcomings. But that doesn’t mean Chernobyl hasn’t killed many thousands of people to date and won’t kill many more in years to come.

TTW: Pandora’s Promise continues to tell us that not only are antinuclear activists confused, but we, the public, have conflated nuclear power with nuclear weapons, and this confusion is responsible for nuclear power’s image problems. As a writer, I understand the power of imagery and how it enters our imagination: we see the mushroom cloud, and we equate its destructive power with the dangers inside a nuclear power plant. But I don’t believe this equation is a myth. The power of plutonium both to create and to destroy is a hard-edged truth. No one knew this better than the scientists themselves, from Einstein to Oppenheimer. So another question arises: Can we separate nuclear power from its military applications? Plutonium can be a force for good and a force for evil, just as humans are.

MH:  Once more, this film echoes a lament I heard from corporate executives while writing Nuclear Inc. One exec, complaining about the public’s “irrational” fears, said he’d come up with the perfect antidote: utility companies should paint cooling towers bright colors and add daisies, too. The bosses, being mainly no-nonsense engineers, didn’t see the genius of his plan, he grumbled.

But a paint job isn’t enough to sever the link between the military and civilian applications of nuclear energy. It’s an inalterable physical fact: nuclear fission produces plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. The weapons risk is especially high in the type of reactor that Pandora’s Promise champions, a breeder reactor. This is because breeders don’t just produce plutonium; they also use it as fuel. A “reprocessing” plant then recycles the burned fuel, producing yet more plutonium that the breeder can burn anew. Advocates therefore praise breeders for providing a virtually inexhaustible source of fuel—enough to power not just the United States but the world for centuries to come, allowing humanity to leave fossil fuels behind. As Brand says about plutonium in the film, eyes twinkling, “That looks very much like a renewable resource.”

The problem is that this same miracle fuel is a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. In fact, it was by exploiting the dual nature of nuclear fission that India acquired nuclear weapons in 1974—much as Iran is believed to be trying to do in 2013. Publicly, India’s leaders pledged to use reprocessing only for power production. In reality, they used the first batch of plutonium they reprocessed to fuel what they called a “peaceful nuclear explosion.” This earth-shaking event caused rival Pakistan to beg, borrow and steal until it detonated its own nuclear weapons in 1998. Other nations have followed suit, creating a world where many different hands now hover over many different nuclear triggers.

None of this inconvenient history is mentioned in Pandora’s Promise. Instead, the hot-button words “breeder reactor” are only uttered once, in passing, after which the film refers only to the “integral fast reactor,” though the IFR is in fact a type of breeder reactor. It’s a remarkably one-sided presentation.

TTW: I am a strong advocate for documentary films. I also believe artists have a right to their own creative vision. And I admire Robert Stone’s courage to tell a different story. What becomes problematic is that facts matter when there is so much at stake, from plutonium getting into the hands of terrorists to the issue of nuclear waste and public health, not to mention the astronomical costs of building nuclear power plants. Even so, I remain open to learning about new strategies for nuclear energy; this is the conversation I am seeking.

At my invitation, Robert Stone screened Pandora’s Promise at Dartmouth College this spring. It was a spirited discussion, to say the least. Many in the audience appreciated bringing nuclear energy back into the conversation on climate change and supported nuclear power and the film enthusiastically. There were also antinuclear activists from Vermont who were deeply upset by the film, having fought the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant for years. And there were others, myself included, who didn’t understand the nuances of the integral fast reactors, which the film posits as the solution to climate change. So I now turn to you, my friend, to provide clarity.

MH: As it happens, the integral fast reactor was the Bush/Cheney administration’s favorite reactor design. In Pandora’s Promise, it is Charles Till, who headed an aborted government program to develop the IFR in the 1980s and ’90s, who makes the case.

The film accepts uncritically Till’s claim that the IFR is inherently safe. IFRs are, however, cooled by sodium, which reacts violently upon contact with air or water; nearly all of the world’s sodium-cooled reactors have suffered fires, like the one that closed the Monju nuclear plant in Japan in 1995. (“Monju” is another word absent from this film.) The delicacy of working with sodium has made repairs and maintenance very time-consuming, causing long power outages. In France, whose enthusiastic embrace of all things nuclear Pandora’s Promise urges the United States and the world to emulate, the defunct Super Phoenix breeder reactor generated less than
7 percent of its electricity capacity during its years of operation. Today, after global expenditures of $100 billion, there is not a single commercially operating breeder reactor on earth.

But the reprocessing plants built to supply plutonium—for all the breeders once envisioned and for nuclear weapons manufacturing—have kept operating. As a result, there are now an estimated 250 tons of plutonium at these plants, enough to make approximately 30,000 nuclear weapons. Is it really wise to go further down this road, even in the name of halting climate change? The government has not thought so. Under Republican and Democratic administrations alike and with bipartisan congressional support, Washington halted the development of breeder reactors in the 1970s and canceled Till’s beloved IFR program in 1994. Yet all the film has to say about proliferation risks is this statement by Rhodes: “There are thirty-seven countries around the world that could produce nuclear weapons, according to the CIA. But none have produced them.” As India’s example demonstrates, however, that is faulty reasoning. 

TTW: When Pandora’s Promise was screened at Dartmouth, some of the strongest objections voiced by audience members concerned the film’s dismissal of all noncarbon energy sources except nuclear. Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, took issue with the film’s claim that renewable energy sources are available only intermittently—because the sun doesn’t always shine or the wind always blow—and therefore can’t be relied on. That is not true, especially of geothermal energy, Bradford noted. “Saying that nuclear energy can solve climate change is like saying caviar can solve world hunger,” he said.

Gus Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, found fault with the film’s assumption that humanity is moving inevitably toward a future that will require producing more energy. “Many of us who have been carefully studying this issue just don’t believe that,” he told Stone, adding that without a more informed discussion of the potential of energy efficiency, Pandora’s Promise loses credibility. Stone’s response was to invoke the inhabitants of developing countries, who, he said, “want and deserve” the same material goods as we have in America, and to argue that conservation measures just aren’t enough, nor can renewables carry the energy load. 

For me, all of this raises one overall question: What energy sources can we employ that do the least harm to life on earth and at the same time can meet the expanding needs of the human family? 

MH: If our options really were as simple as Pandora’s Promise maintains—either go nuclear or incinerate the planet with more coal—it’d be a tough call. But that’s not the case. To make it seem so, the film trashes all nonnuclear alternatives. It is especially dismissive of wind and solar in what I found to be, frankly, an embarrassingly dated critique, though it fits the meta-narrative of Shellenberger’s Breakthrough Institute, some of whose funders helped to finance this film. 

Five or six years ago, one could make a plausible argument that solar and wind power were unreliable, unaffordable niche products. But in 2013, when wind power is by far the fastest-growing source of electricity here? (It’s poised to supply 40 percent of the power in Iowa, for example.) And when solar is growing nearly as fast? Not to mention what is happening overseas. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, is well on the way to leaving nuclear and fossil fuels behind as it embraces a panoply of noncarbon energy sources. 

If nonnuclear sources of renewable energy are really as chimerical as Pandora’s Promise would have us believe, why is the military accelerating its pursuit of them? How did the National Renewable Energy Laboratory come up with its conclusion that the United States could employ them, in conjunction with a smart grid, to reduce its consumption of carbon-based fuels by 80 percent by 2050? Are these establishment institutions and many others like them really less informed and savvy than the five converts featured in this film? 

TTW: Michael Totten, whom I regard as one of the world’s leading thinkers about green technologies and ecological sustainability, has set forth these criteria when exploring energy alternatives:

Is it economically affordable, including for the poor?

Is it safe throughout its entire life cycle?

Is it clean throughout its entire lifespan?

Is the risk low and manageable?

Is it resilient and flexible to volatility, surprises, miscalculations and human error?

Is it ecologically sustainable, with no adverse impacts on biodiversity?

Is it environmentally benign in maintaining air, water and soil quality?

If it fails, does it fail gracefully, not catastrophically?

Does it rebound easily and swiftly from failures?

Is it an uninteresting target for malicious disruption, off the radar of terrorists and military planners?

And I think about this: it is possible we haven’t come close to understanding the true nature of forms of energy that have little to do with fossil fuels or the splitting of atoms. We cannot talk about the future without talking about the imagination and what it might bring forth.

MH:  Ironically, your point applies particularly well to a source of renewable energy that is generally seen as anything but imaginative: energy efficiency. As the work of Amory Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute has demonstrated, improving energy efficiency is by far the quickest, safest and most cost-effective route to reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Indeed, it is the potential of energy efficiency that leads Lovins to argue that going nuclear would actually make global warming worse, not better. 

How can that be so, you might ask, given that nuclear produces carbon-free electricity? The answer is rooted not in arguments about nuclear power’s safety or lack thereof, but in its severe economic shortcomings. Nuclear power is fantastically expensive—so expensive that private investors long ago stopped financing large nuclear plants. So for society to allocate scarce capital to nuclear power amounts to pursuing the slowest, costliest route to displacing fossil fuels, while diverting capital from the fastest, cheapest route. Data collected by Lovins and his colleagues demonstrate that each dollar invested in improving energy efficiency produces seven times more reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than a dollar invested in nuclear. Seven times more. 

Nevertheless, energy efficiency is yet another common-sense solution to climate change that this film disparages. Shellenberger, who “felt angry” after having bought the “seductive” myth of energy efficiency while reading Lovins in college, declares: “People think we’ll reduce our energy consumption [after improving energy efficiency], but in fact we’ll just find more uses for it.”And it is true that, as the Breakthrough Institute is forever arguing, there is a “rebound effect”—whereby better efficiency can lead to extra use of the underlying technology, as when a buyer of a more fuel-efficient car then uses it more often. But the institute itself has acknowledged that this effect is “relatively small”—a crucial detail Pandora’s Promise leaves out. The film similarly neglects to note how McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s foremost management consulting firms, has shown that improved efficiency could cut US energy consumption by 23 percent by 2020, while saving $680 billion and abating 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Of course, a documentary film is not a PhD thesis, but this is the posture not of a seeker of truth, but a propagandist who cherry-picks “facts” to fit his agenda.

TTW: For me, Pandora’s Promise is still a compelling film, even if its “facts” are cherry-picked. That is one of the reasons I am glad we are having this public conversation: to hold the film accountable. There is much about this film that I disagree with. I do not feel antinuclear activists have any kinship whatsoever with climate deniers, as the film repeatedly asserts. I resent this comparison. My eyes have been opened by death, not fear, and I remain a respecter of science and a seeker of facts. But, Mark, this film made me think; it created a disturbance in my mind and prompted me to question my most tightly held assumption—that nuclear energy is not a viable solution. I do not take this lightly. The shadow side of nuclear power killed my family. I have been jailed for my convictions, and they contain my own conversion story of how I have tried to transform my anger into sacred rage. But twenty-five years later, as I watch my beloved American West suffer from the ravages of oil and gas extraction—including the perils of fracking and developing tar sands in arid country—I believe something has to shift if we are to remain human beings who care about sustaining life on this planet. We are not just living on a planet in crisis; we are a species in crisis. The big question for me is if we will come to our senses soon enough to help. 

I remain uncertain about what the right course of action is regarding energy. We have a nuclear power plant proposed on the banks of the Green River in Utah. Am I in favor of it being built? No. Am I in favor of investigating the next generation of smaller nuclear reactors that are more localized and decentralized? Yes, I am. But committing ourselves to thousands of years of nuclear waste remains the largest and prohibiting factor for me. Can we really trust ourselves as nuclear guardians through the millennia? We have a less than stellar track record.

Humans are now the most influential geomorphic agent on the planet’s surface. We are living in the Anthropocene epoch. Some see this development as reason for restraint, for taking into consideration the health of diverse ecosystems, human and wild. Others, like the converts in this film, assert the inevitability of human expansion, with technology the only cure for our collective hunger for more and more energy. For my part, I submit that the solutions to climate change are as much about will and evolutionary consciousness as they are about technological choices. It is also about humility. Humans are not “the God species.” We are simply one more breathing, struggling species, one that has been gifted with a large imagination that has a propensity to shape the environment around us. Our task is not to unleash a box of demons upon the world. It is to nurture a space for serious dialogue about our energy choices, while employing our imagination and sustaining what we should love and cherish most: life.

MH: This critique gets at what may be the most basic shortcoming of the film: its blindness to the political-economic context of nuclear technology. Personally, I have no ideological beef with nuclear power. As the father of an 8-year-old daughter who, like billions of other young people around the world, is fated to spend the rest of her life facing higher temperatures than our civilization has ever confronted, I would be grateful if a miracle technology could deliver us from the gathering storm. But history teaches that every technology comes wrapped in a set of social, economic and political constraints. If we ignore those constraints, we will likely be surprised—and not in a good way—by what unfolds. Pandora’s Promise shows no hint of recognizing such nuances. That is hardly a surprise in a documentary backed by a Microsoft billionaire, but it makes the film less a contribution to public dialogue than a self-regarding provocation.

Pandora’s Promise peddles dangerous myths, even though the facts are out there. Read through Mark Hertsgaard’s factsheet on the film and on the nuclear industry as a whole.

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