The Controversy Over This Documentary Is Likely to Burn Very, Very Hot

Veteran filmmaker Robert Stone’s ‘Pandora’s Promise’ argues that new nuclear reactors need to be part of our energy solution.
(Photo: Peter Baker/Getty Images)
Jan 14, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

The most controversial documentary showing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is perhaps Pandora’s Promise, a full-throated defense of nuclear energy as the ultimate solution to the planet’s rising energy needs.

We need pragmatism on climate, not to trap ourselves into ideological positions where some low-carbon energy sources are “bad” and others “good.”

The film is by prolific documentarian Robert Stone, whose anti-nuclear, Oscar-nominated Radio Bikini premiered at Sundance in 1998, as did Earth Days, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst and, as cinematographer, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.

MORE: U.S. Ramps Up Nuclear Power

Supported by interviews with converted environmentalists who now see the benefits of a “new nuclear” energy, the film builds on what Stone has identified as a groundswell of support for nukes—which, until the accident at Fukushima, included President Obama and many in Washington, D.C.

“I see nuclear power as something the left and the right could compromise on,” says Stone, to TakePart in an exclusive interview. “Greens need to come around on this issue and conservatives need to come around on the climate change issue. Otherwise we’ll just keep burning more fossil fuels, particularly coal.”

It’s obviously a hot-button subject. The film’s premiere and four other screenings in Park City are sold out. Stone promises the film delivers both a thorough history of nuclear power in the U.S. going back to 1945 and is supported with new testimonies from some leading environmental activists whose previous opposition to nuclear energy has lessened.

Since the Manhattan Project began in the late 1930s, nations have dabbled with nuclear power and fuel refinement. There have, however, been quite a few mishaps, accidents and tragedies. Click here to check out the 11 worst nuclear energy accidents in history.

“What if everyone has nuclear power wrong?” asks Stone. “What if nuclear power is the only energy source that has the ability to stop climate change?”

In a telephone conversation last week, Stone did not hesitate in saying that fears of nuclear waste have been exaggerated. “We all know the world needs to triple energy production in the coming century. To do that you have to be for something. You can’t be against everything. And I’m suggesting nuclear rather than more fossil fuels. That’s the premise of the film.”

“I think there is a growing realization among greens that this is the way to go. I have yet to find anybody that I can’t convince in about 10 minutes that this is the way to go. They are shocked to find out that everything they thought they knew about nuclear energy is, well, wrong.”

Sundance anticipates the film’s controversiality. “The project reflects the views of individuals who have clearly given the topic careful consideration,” the festival writes in its promotion of Pandora’s Promise.

One of those individuals is outspoken U.K.-based climate writer Mark Lynas, who Stone interviews in the film to support the evolution of greens-to-nukes. Famed nuclear weapon author Richard Rhodes, the Whole Earth Catalog’s Stewart Brand, and many others are also interviewed.

On the eve of traveling to Sundance for the first time, Lynas shared with me how his own personal transformation from anti-to-pro-nuke evolved.

TakePart: The movie asks, “How do we continue to power modern civilization without destroying it?” Is nuclear one of the solutions?

Mark Lynas: More than just one of the answers. Nuclear is still our only large-scale option for zero-carbon baseload electricity, assuming we don't want more big dams in fragile river systems around the world. The world's 400 or so operating reactors already avoid the emission of some two billion tons of CO2 per year. To have the remotest chance of tackling climate change, we need all the low-carbon options available, including renewables, efficiency measures and technologies which are now in the pipeline.

TakePart: Was there some kind of light bulb moment for you, when you decided that nuclear energy wasn’t all evil?

Mark Lynas: I was at a conference about five or six years ago, and all the speakers were promoting renewable power. It hadn't occurred to me until then just how trivial the amount of power generated by renewables really is. Wave power is still basically at the prototype stage, as is tidal stream. Nuclear massively outweighs them all, which I didn't know at the time. I also didn't know that there were new designs of reactor, which consume nuclear waste. It was Jim Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, who got me thinking about this issue. He has come to the same conclusion that we need new, safe nuclear to avoid runaway climate change.

TakePart: Looking ahead a century, when the planet will host a human population of nine billion, where do you think the additional energy will come from?

Mark Lynas: The main thing to understand is that we will need a lot more of it. Probably three or four times as much energy worldwide will be consumed by 2050, as poverty declines and the population grows. Renewables like wind and solar currently generate less than two percent of primary energy, so expecting them to scale up to 100 percent to replace fossil fuels and also provide all the additional growth is frankly wishful thinking. We need pragmatism on climate, not to trap ourselves into ideological positions where some low-carbon energy sources are "bad" and others "good."

I see too much fetishisation of wind and solar, and too little attention paid to the hard realities. With a nuclear fleet ten times today's size, plus increases in renewable generation of several hundred percent of wind and solar, and full-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage on existing gas and coal power plants, we perhaps stand a chance.

Where are you on nuclear energy—for it, against it, or undecided? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.