Begin with several inconvenient truths.
A First World standard of living depends on reliable access to inexpensive electricity.
Much of the population of the Third World aspires to that standard of living, and many have begun to attain it. Why should Nigerians and Indonesians be denied what Americans take as a kind of birthright?
All right then, but the primary means of generating electricity are power plants fired by coal, gas, or oil. Those fuels generate large amounts of carbon dioxide. Coal, the worst offender, is the fastest-growing source. And there’s this thing call climate change. Much of the Republican Party may not believe in it. A whole lot of glaciers and the polar ice cap think otherwise.
So what’s a reasonably concerned person – and reasonably enlightened society — to do? Robert Stone’s documentary contends that the only feasible answer is nuclear power. Yes, there are wind and solar and hydro, but renewable energy can’t do the job at the necessary level of output and reliability.
Such a view is not environmental orthodoxy, to say the least. In activist circles, nuclear is as disagreeable as the other n-word is. What’s distinctive about “Pandora’s Promise” is that the argument for nuclear isn’t made by corporate leaders or members of the military-industrial complex. (Hiroshima is one of two words that lie at the root of our culture’s profound aversion to nuclear power; radiation is the other.)
No, the talking heads here are well-known activists, like British author Mark Lynas and Blue-Green Coalition cofounder Michael Shellenberger and Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame). They have come to the grudging conclusion that nuclear is the only practicable way to go. Another talking head, Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” puts it this way: “To be anti-nuclear is basically to be in favor of burning fossil fuel.”
Stone and his interview subjects recognize that they have their work cut out for them in making this argument. That may be one reason why the filmmaking can be rather gratuitously slick at times, to sexify the subject. A greater obstacle is confronting the widespread fear of nuclear. The film confronts those fears head on. Along with visiting France (which generates 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear power), “Pandora’s Promise” goes to Chernobyl and Fukushima. There are clips from “The China Syndrome” and “The Simpsons” and footage of anti-nuclear demonstrations. Most damning of all, perhaps, is a snippet from the 1957 Disney-produced “Our Friend the Atom.” With friends like these, etc.
So “Pandora’s Promise” acknowledges nuclear fears, then does its best to dispel them. Radiation readings at a Brazilian beach, Guarapari, are higher than at Fukushima, for example. All the nuclear waste that’s been generated in the United States, if gathered up, would fill a football field to the height of 8 feet -- that’s it.
This is all illuminating -- and persuasive. Still, it would have been useful to have a nuclear skeptic state the case against. Someone like Bill McKibben, perhaps, who’s briefly glimpsed in the audience at a conference. Instead, we get Helen Caldicott ranting (that is the word) at a rally and then dismissing questions about exaggerated statistics for the impact of Chernobyl. With friends like these on the other side, etc.
The clearest indication of how forthrightly the documentary is willing to tackle opposition to nuclear power is its title. In Greek mythology, the world’s troubles issued from Pandora’s box. The box was a gift from Zeus, which Pandora had been told not to open. It’s hard to imagine a better, or scarier, metaphor for fiddling with the atom. Except that there’s one more part to the myth. At the bottom of the box was a final item: hope. That’s the promise of the title. Will it be kept? Can it?
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.