The Nuclear Option: Is Atomic Energy the Key to Ending Climate Change?
Southern California is now nuclear-free. Last month, the utility that operates the region’s sole remaining nuclear power plant, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, opted not to bring the facility back online.
While most environmentalists are ecstatic over the closure of the troubled plant, documentarian Robert Stone believes it’s a very bad thing.
Stone, the director of the new pro-nuclear documentary Pandora’s Promise, points out that the lost energy will likely be replaced by gas, resulting in significantly higher carbon emissions.
Los Angeles may not have a nuclear meltdown in its future, but it may now be at greater risk of fallout from climate change, such as rising sea levels, drought, and scarcity of drinking water.
Stone, who directed the Academy Award-nominated 1987 documentary Radio Bikini, which is about the United States’ nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific, has undergone a significant change of heart in regard to nuclear technology. “I started researching it and really came to the conclusion that this was the elephant in the room when it came to climate change,” Stone says of nuclear power. “It was something that could potentially have a huge positive impact, but no one was talking about it.”
After coming to the realization that, “the tools and tactics of the environmental movement that had been so remarkably effective in combating air and water pollution hadn’t made a dent at all in climate change,” Stone tracked down environmental activists who had similarly come around to being pro-nuclear. The core group of five individuals—including journalist Stuart Brand and British activist Mark Lynas—are the main voices in the new documentary, which opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles today.
Pandora’s Promise charts, quite critically, the history of nuclear power in the United States, digging into the history of an industry that was born both “in sin, with the bomb,” according to Stone, and in the bowels of Navy submarines—and then rushed to the consumer market. “It was developed in a really idiotic way,” Stone says, “Especially in the United States.”
But notwithstanding the past errors and disasters like Three Mile Island, Powers says, “nuclear electricity in the Untied States now, with the installed plants that are there, is the cheapest electricity that we generate—and it’s remarkably safe.” And, as the subjects in the film suggest, it can only get better.
Pandora’s Promise argues that that, essentially, we’ve been doing nuclear all wrong since the beginning. The problem lies with the heretofore exclusive use of light water reactors, which critics say were the wrong design to promote; they should have been a means to an end in developing real nuclear power, as one engineer states in the film, produced by breeder reactors.
The key difference is that a breeder reactor can run off of the fissile material it generates, fuel it produces at a higher rate than it consumes. The bred fuel can be cycled through the reactor multiple times rather than just once, as is the case with light water reactors.
The thing is, they’ve never been operated in a commercial capacity. But new, smaller designs are being developed, so-called modular reactors, which, according to Stone, could be built at far lower costs if they were manufactured more like commercial aircraft—produced on an assembly line. “As long as we’re building one-off plants, these gigantic one-off things one at a time, with all of the components being built on site, the costs are going to be astronomical,” says Stone.
Frank von Hippel, the codirector of the Program on Science and Global Security at Stanford and a longtime critic of breeder technology, is unimpressed by the push for such new reactors. “I haven’t seen the film, but my understanding is that it is an attempt to revive the 1960s dream of plutonium breeder reactors,” he wrote in an email.
In addition to higher costs associated with the technology, von Hippel notes that the proliferation risk is too high: “That dream almost turned into a nightmare because it ignored the fact that plutonium is a nuclear-weapons material. As it is, the U.K., France and India all used breeder programs as a cover for their nuclear weapons programs—and many other countries that did not go all the way did as well.”
But even the likes of Al Gore, who has been skeptical of nuclear power in the past, are coming around to the new generation of reactors. In a recent conversation about climate change commemorating the seven-year anniversary of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore said, “If they can successfully build these smaller, safer, passably safe modular reactors that come in smaller increments at an acceptable cost, then I think we could see a renaissance in the nuclear industry, 10, 15, 20 years from now.” However, such a timeline may not be short enough to address the current problem: “We need to move forward quickly right now. [Nuclear power] may come back, but right now we need to focus on the renewables in my opinion.”
Kennette Benedict, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a journal founded by Manhattan Project scientists, after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which aims to warn the public and the scientific community about the dangers of nuclear technology, wrote critically of the film in a blog post titled “Pandora’s false promise.” She believes the film’s flaw is its “zealous advocacy of one solution—one silver bullet—to meet the tremendous challenges of providing for some nine billion people by 2050, while also protecting societies from the ravages of climate disruption.”
The stars of Pandora’s Promise, conversely, believe it’s naïve to think that climate change can be effectively combatted without nuclear energy. “The idea that we’re going to replace oil and coal and natural gas with solar and wind and nothing else is a hallucinatory delusion,” says Michael Shellenberger, a former consultant to environmental groups, in the film.
Stone’s pro-nuclear subjects’ anti-nuclear pasts are the main window into critiques of nuclear power, something Benedict says is a drawback. “The film did not go deeply at all into the problems. The issue of what we do with nuclear weapons proliferation in spreading this nuclear technology as a silver bullet wasn’t really addressed at all. The fuel cycle, the very same process that leads to civilian nuclear fuel, can be used to produce military nuclear fuel and bombs, is the very same process.”
Another fear Stone seeks to allay regards the deadly effect of nuclear reactor meltdowns. The film reports that World Health Organization’s estimate of the death toll from the Chernobyl meltdown was a mere 56—far lower than the 17,000-68,000 reported by the European Environmental Agency.
Stone points to a concept known as the nonlinear threshold as the reason why the death toll varies so wildly. As he explains, the concept suggests there’s no threshold below which radiation doesn’t have a harmful effect.
“The new science is that there is a threshold below which radiation seems to have no epidemiological effect at all,” says Stone. “So that’s why these numbers can be played with and they might seem alarming, but people forget the huge number of people that die of cancer anyway.”
Benedict considers the numbers to be complicated too, but for different reasons. Speaking about the methodology behind the WHO report, she says, “What the physicians do in those situations is they will only count cancers when they know what the dose of radiation was and when it was. So in the case of Chernobyl, they would only count as a Chernobyl-related mortality or morbidity if they could trace the illness back to a particular dose of radioactive materials.” And since the Soviet government wasn’t all that exacting in documenting the exposures, it’s possible that there’s a lot that researchers don’t know.
“This isn’t to say that we should be mortally terrified by nuclear reactor accidents, but it’s a very tough subject,” Benedict concludes, going on to cite a figure mentioned in the film, that particulate matter from coal-burning power plants kills a whopping 13,000 people a year. “So maybe this is a much better solution. But I think it also needs to be taken in comparison to solar and wind and others that might also be put into the mix.”
Despite the apparent anti-renewable tone he takes in his film, Stone is in agreement.
“To solve the climate crisis we’re going to need wind, we’re going to need solar, we’re going to need geothermal—we’re going to need everything. If someone came up tomorrow and said we could power the world on algae, that would be cool too. Maybe we don’t even need nuclear power and we can power the world with algae. I don’t know. I’m not wedded to nuclear energy.”