Pandora's Promise: Sundance Review

Effectively reframing the anti-nuclear debate will require more than self-serving advocacy.

Eco-doc director Robert Stone attempts to shed light on the dark side of nuclear energy.

PARK CITY – The nuclear-energy and defense industries will be rubbing their hands over this shameless recantation of anti-nuke opinion, led by director Robert Stone, who brought the issue to Sundance back in 1987 with his Academy-Award nominated “Radio Bikini.” With the national appetite for debating nuclear energy extremely low at this point, exposure may be limited to small-screen current-affairs junkies and VOD audiences.

With climate change widely recognized as one of the predominant environmental, economic and political issue of the decade, a reevaluation of the nation’s energy mix is certainly warranted at a time when fossil fuel sources, in particular natural gas, are making a resurgence, while alternative energy continues to struggle in the marketplace. Combining a limited set of perspectives from environmental advocates and nuclear experts, Stone’s film takes a carefully targeted look at the status of nuclear energy in the US and beyond, advocating the position that nuclear should be reconsidered as the primary source to meet the country’s energy needs while limiting emissions that contribute to climate change.

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Beginning with an historical perspective, Pandora’s Promise examines the emergence of the anti-nuclear movement, when “ban the bomb” and “save the whales” campaigns contributed to widespread opposition to atomic energy, along with the movement’s traditional anti-war stance. Nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and most recently Fukushima have helped solidify negative public opinion.

Nuclear experts who’ve worked on advanced reactor research, Len Koch and Charles Till explain that a new generation of contemporary reactor designs offers more efficiency and safety, while generating less waste, then current light-water reactors, the predominant designs used in the US.

Leading technologist and environmentalist Stewart Brand concedes that the environmental movement’s widespread anti-nuclear orthodoxy is based on some legitimate safety concerns, but questions if those opinions are perhaps misguided or misinformed. Author and former nuclear opponent Gwyneth Cravens suggests that the conflation of atomic bomb testing and deployment with nuclear energy led to widespread opposition over fundamental fears of radiological contamination.

British environmental writer and former activist Mark Lynas found his opinion on nuclear shifting after he reevaluated energy options with the potential to minimize climate-changing emissions.  Environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger had a change of heart when he considered the inadequacy of current approaches to mitigating climate change and reexamined the facts and research regarding the ecological and public health impacts of nuclear energy, as well as the potential of “next generation” technology.

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The other, unheard, voice in support of nuclear is of course Stone’s. After completing a number of environmental advocacy documentaries, he's now adopting a pro-nuclear stance. Part of the problem with this shift in viewpoint, however, is that the film’s restricted scope of analysis and limited selection of sources threatens to undermine its conclusions.

Among other salient points, these commentators collectively contend that nuclear energy has contributed to a very small number of direct fatalities and that notable accidents have not had the severe long-term ecological and health effects first anticipated. They also opine that the nation’s nuclear waste problem is not as widespread as widely believed and that the reactor material is safely stored under current conditions. Alternative energy options including wind and solar are criticized for their lack of flexibility and reliance on natural gas for backup power when weather conditions offline the primary sources.

Several of these observers also minimize the potential savings from energy efficiency and conservation, without considering the impact that widespread changes in economic policy, agriculture, transportation and technology could contribute to reducing energy use. They further justify nuclear as a safe, clean method of delivering power for developing economies, although the film never features any speakers from these nations discussing domestic energy priorities. And the contention that nuclear energy is “cleaner” than other sources because it minimizes emissions fails to look at impacts associated with the entire twenty-plus year lifecycle of building, fueling, maintaining and decommissioning nuclear plants, as well as the mining and production of nuclear fuel.

While many of these topics may merit reexamination, Stone never offers subjects with countervailing opinions to challenge his new pro-nuclear doctrine. Perhaps most disconcerting, Cravens, Lynas and Shellenberger admit that they were poorly informed about nuclear energy, as well as some fundamental ecological and policy issues, implying that they’re now better positioned to comment objectively on the technology.

Stone illustrates the documentary’s reframing of the nuclear energy debate with archival clips, computer animation, subject interviews and a globetrotting segment with Lynas visiting both Chernobyl and Fukushima, where he admits that the levels of background radiation are giving him a “bit of a wobble” on his pro-nuclear stance. Overall it’s a slick, attractively packaged advocacy film that will provoke thought and perhaps even change some minds among those unprepared to examine the doc’s underlying methodology.

The irony that screenings of Pandora’s Promise were preceded by presentations of a short documentary from the Focus Forward series, a filmmaking project supported by GE (a leading nuclear reactor manufacturer), was perhaps not lost on some viewers.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres

Production companies: Impact Partners, Robert Stone Productions

Director-writer: Robert Stone

Producers: Robert Stone, Jim Swartz, Susan Swartz

Executive Producers: Dan Cogan, Eric Dobkin, Lynn Dougan, Gavin Dougan, Lady DianaDougan, Steve Kirsch, Ross Koningtein

Directors of photography: Robert Stone, Howard Shack

Music: Gary Lionelli

Editor: Don Kleszy

Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 90 minutes

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