A Critical Look at ‘Pandora’s Promise’

June 28th, 2013 · 2 Comments · energy policy, environment

By Denise Tessier

I’d like to digress from local media criticism to expand on a link  I placed in my June 14 post, which directed readers to a New York Times blog discussing the pro-nuclear energy film, “Pandora’s Promise.”

I had included the link because it gave credence to the notion that despite Fukushima and the still unsolved problem of radioactive waste disposal, nuclear power production is said to be on the cusp of an upswing, which would bring with it a rise in uranium prices – the latter an idea that had been proffered by the manager of the proposed New Mexico uranium mine that would be the nation’s largest, as quoted in the Albuquerque Journal.

Pandora’s Promise” has created a stir and some interesting conversations, with even staunch anti-nuclear power critics finding themselves wavering and reconsidering, wondering if nuclear power indeed might be “greener” than the burning of fossil fuels.

As Andrew Revkin wrote in the first of two June 13 New York Times blog posts on the subject:

“Pandora’s Promise” is essential viewing because of the way it challenges people, including its protagonists, to examine their own fears or predispositions.

In that vein, I’d like to direct readers to a well-worth-reading dialogue on the topic between one of my favorite naturalist authors, Terry Tempest Williams, and Mark Hertzgaard, environment correspondent for The Nation.

To clarify, I have not seen the film, which opened in several cities the week of June 12 and is scheduled to show in Santa Fe July 12. But because, as Revkin and others have written, it provides a compelling case for nuclear power, it merits scrutiny and discussion.

Revkin and others who have seen the film say five central characters originally opposed to nuclear power came around in support of it in the film.  Revkin’s first blog includes a round-up of reviews by film critics toward the end, which I won’t repeat here, and his second, “Seeking Constructive Debate on Nuclear Energy,” includes an entire post by Richard Rhodes, one of the five characters in support of nuclear power.

Revkin also moderated a contentious debate about the film between the film’s director, Robert Stone, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the latter of whom kicked off the discussion by telling Stone his film was “an elaborate hoax,” adding:

Almost every fact in it that’s presented as facts is untrue or misleading.

Revkin wrote:

Stone initially rocked in his chair as if absorbing a body blow, but held his ground. Kennedy’s most convincing points were on the economics of nuclear energy (an area the film avoids tackling), while Stone effectively challenged assertions about health risks.

Toward the end, I said we’d need to do a blow-by-blow fact-checking exercise to test which assertions were correct. Nonetheless, the video is worth watching as a vivid illustration of how people with deep concerns about human-driven climate change can have starkly different visions of how to blunt warming and limit risks.

However, the primary point of my post is to draw attention to the conversation in The Nation. Tempest Williams made the conversation happen when she wrote to The Nation about her unexpected reaction to the film, given her family history with breast cancer after living downwind from nuclear bomb tests in Nevada.

In that letter, she wrote:

. . .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?

The resulting conversation — “Pandora’s Terrifying Promise: Can Nuclear Power Save the Planet?” – is full of valuable observations, but for purposes of this post, I will include just one, again from Tempest Williams:

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.

Speaking of imagination and “what it might bring forth” gives me a transition toward linking to two projects that are neither fossil fuel nor nuclear, but deserve a bit a publicity for the imagination they exhibit.

The first is a proposal for a biomass plant in the north of England, an “area of acute deprivation that was once an industrial heartland.” That’s how the area is described by Heatherwick Studio, home of the architect Thomas Heatherwick, who designed the Teesside plant and of whom I became aware via this TED video.

As Heatherwick says in the video, “We used to be quite proud of where our power came from,” but now instead of showcasing actual plants in advertising, power companies are prone to showing anything but, such as children running through grass (similar to the drug company ads, attempting to show an improved quality of life).

Heatherwick’s design for the plant creates a park where children may actually run on grass. Industrial buildings are grouped together instead of spread out, buttressed with dirt to muffle sound. The plant itself is a destination for locals, including a deck from which one has a rare high vantage view of the surrounding area. As Heatherwick says, instead of littering a vast landscape with random buildings, the plant is integrated into one form, insulated by soil to make it almost silent.

The other intriguing project proposal, designed to open in 2020, is a combination desalinization/power plant proposed for location off the coast of Cancun, Mexico.

According to the web site Inhabitat, the “eco ethos” of the Grand Cancun Eco Island, designed by Richard Moreta Castillo, “is all-encompassing:”

The entire surface of the offshore platform will be covered in solar panels that will provide energy for both Grand Cancun and the main city’s national grid. Vertical wind turbines and underwater tidal wave energy collectors will produce even more clean energy. A rainwater collection system allows water to be collected and then reused, which combined with a mini desalination plant will make the complex completely self-sufficient.

The zero carbon footprint Grand Cancun mega project is the first marine platform that doesn’t seek to exploit its natural resources. Instead, it seeks to remediate the ocean site in which it is placed. In this case, the platform will filter out hydrocarbons and pollutants to ensure that marine creatures will benefit from a healthier ecosystem and the beachfront’s natural beauty is restored.

In The Nation article, Hertzgaard says “Pandora’s Promise” gives short shrift to alternatives, both established and imagined:

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.

Note: This post has been updated to correct the film’s release date in New Mexico, which is July 12 Santa Fe.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Michelle Meaders

    I haven’t finished reading your article yet, but this caught my eye:
    “To clarify, I have not seen the film, which opened in several cities June 12, including Santa Fe. But because, as Revkin and others have written, it provides a compelling case for nuclear power, it merits scrutiny and discussion.”

    I thought it wasn’t here yet — it’s scheduled to open July 12 at the CCA in Santa Fe:

    In an email from Nuke Free now on June 13:
    “Secondly, on July 12th the film Pandora’s Promise will open at the CCA. Pandora’s Promise sets out to convince us that nuclear power is the best way forward for sustainable energy production. Many of us believe that this is a short-sighted and, for many reasons, dangerous route to follow. Linda Pentz-Gunter, of Beyond Nuclear, who presented at the Nuke Free Now conference last year, calls the film, “blatant propaganda.” Beyond Nuclear have provided a flier that debunks many of the myths presented in the film and is coordinating efforts to make this information available wherever the film is screening. If you would like to help hand out fliers outside the CCA on July 12th, please let us know and we will organize a group of people. In case you feel conflicted about participating in an action that could be seen to be as being in opposition to the CCA, please know that the CCA have been informed about this possibility and have no opposition to this action, indeed they say that they, “encourage the debate.””

  • Denise Tessier

    Michelle, Thank you for writing to point that out. The post has been updated to correct the Santa Fe date.

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