Tag Archives: Pandora’s Promise

Why is there strong political support for coal & gas, but not for nuclear power?

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Good question – what do you think? I thought it was probably the strong anti-nuclear lobby feeding a media who know that fear makes for high ratings. I’m sure that’s a contributor – but the dominant causes could be just routine democratic politics. Today reddit.com is hosting a Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Here’s the question “I recently watched Pandora’s Promise and was surprised how many misconceptions that I had regarding nuclear energy and renewable alternatives.”

And Prof. Rachel Slaybaugh’s reply:

The documentary seemed accurate to me (a good rundown can be found here, though I didn’t go through and fact-check everything. I did feel like the end of the film was a bit overly rosy, but not necessary non-factual.

In terms of public sentiment driving politics, the public sentiment about nuclear is frequently viewed as being negative, but polls often show that this is not actually the case. There is a large and active anti-nuclear crowd, however, and they can dominate the air waves (like all loud-but-not-representative groups). I think the reasons behind lack of political support are deeper and more complex than public opinion. In large part the lobbying behind fossil fuel is much larger than other electricity sources. Wind, solar, and geothermal are still small contributors, so don’t have the lobbying support on the same scale. Nuclear produces similar amounts of electricity as coal or natural gas, but because the energy density of nuclear is so much higher than there are far fewer people and sites producing that electricity – meaning they also have a smaller lobby. Further, when politicians are making decisions, they’re thinking about who is in their district or their state. Every single state has coal and gas – that just isn’t true of the other electricity sources.

This reminds me of the “Aha!” that I had when I learned about the power of the American teachers’ unions. Think about – every political district has a population of union members in about the same proportion to the population. If you were a politician would you want to make the unions hate you?

I’m fairly sure that coal & gas interests love wind & solar – because they know that renewables will never threaten their market dominance. Nuclear is different – it can eliminate coal & gas in the electric utility markets, and eventually even in the industrial sectors such as nitrogen fertilizer production.

Why Billionaire Paul Allen Backed Pro-Nuclear Power Film Pandora’s Promise

(…snip…) It took four years for Stone to make the film. He got initial funding from technology types in Silicon Valley. Ray Rothrock {pictured left}, a venture capitalist at Venrock (who majored in nuclear engineering in college), told me he got a call from Jim Swartz, founder of venture firm Accel Partners, and serial entrepreneur Steve Kirsch (founder of Infoseek) asking him to support the documentary. Rothrock met with director Stone to get a sense of his goals, and Rothrock, Swartz and Kirsch seed funded the film two and a half years ago with enough money to make a trailer. Then they hosted a fundraiser in Silicon Valley and raised funds that allowed Stone to complete the film. The budget for the project, according to Stone, was “over $1 million.”

One of the people who watched the screening of Pandora’s Promise at Sundance this year was Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss, director of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Films division. She thought it was so well done that she showed it to Paul Allen, who, after several months of “vetting every detail in the film,” according to Stone, decided to finance a big chunk of the cost of distribution. Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, who is president and CEO of Vulcan Inc., the investment firm she and her brother cofounded, is backing the film as well. UK billionaire Sir Richard Branson also came in as an executive producer after the film was complete. Branson’s representative did not respond to a request for a comment.

A common aim for Stone, Allen and Rothrock is to spark a dialogue. “The goal of this movie is to start a conversation that we are not having as a nation,” explained Rothrock, adding that there has been a ton of innovation in nuclear power technology. (…snip…)

This is an excerpt from a Forbes article by Kerry A. Dolan. I found Dolan’s article because I follow Venrock partner Ray Rothrock on Twitter. From the article, here’s the summary of the heavy hitters who backed Pandora’s Promise – who have I failed to include?

  • Paul Allen
  • Jody Allen
  • Richard Branson
  • Steve Kirsch
  • Ray Rothrock
  • Jim Schwartz

Greenpeace, FOE, Sierra Club, UCS et al will do everything they can to prevent this conversation from starting, so please do what you can to stimulate discussion in your real/virtual community.

Paul Blustein: Everything you thought you knew about the risks of nuclear energy is wrong

Brookings scholar Paul Blustein reviews Pandora’s Promise from Kamakura, Japan:

Chances are pretty high, based on prevailing public opinion, that you will think my wife and I are a tad crazy, maybe even guilty of child abuse. During the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which is a couple hundred miles from where we live, we stayed put while thousands of others fled the Tokyo area and many foreigners left Japan for good. Not only that, we buy as much of our fruits and vegetables as possible from Fukushima Prefecture, the Connecticut-size jurisdiction where the plant is located (we even specially order boxes of Fukushima produce) while millions of others in Japan take extreme care to consume only food from the far west and south of the country. And yes, our whole family, including our 12- and 10-year-old sons, eats Fukushima food. We’re convinced it’s perfectly safe, and we like helping people whose products suffer from an unjust taint.

Are you recoiling in horror, perhaps even wishing the Japanese child welfare authorities would seize custody of our kids? If so, you are the ideal audience member for a provocative new film, titled Pandora’s Promise. This documentary focuses on five thoughtful environmentalists who were once terrified of radiation, and thought nuclear power was imperiling the planet’s future, but after educating themselves, they gradually realized that their assumptions were wrong. For people who are instinctively opposed to nuclear power but open-minded enough to consider evidence that goes against their predilections, this film will, and should, force them to question their certitude.

(…snip…) 

As someone who had to learn about radiation in a hurry after Fukushima, I was gratified to see how the educational process worked with these five environmentalists. Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, recalls being bewildered at first by the plethora of radiation exposure measurements (in millirems, microrems, millisieverts, microsieverts etc.). “You’re looking and squinting. ‘Okay, that looks like a large number. Is that a number I should worry about?’ Compared to what? What’s the background radiation level relative to all this?”

Like me, the enviros in the film were astonished to come across extensive evidence about the minimal physiological impact of contamination from major nuclear accidents. The best example is Chernobyl, where the radiation emissions in 1986 were by far the largest in history; nearly three decades later, studies show that the main effects on the general population in the area have overwhelmingly been on the mental and emotional health of people who thought they were doomed to cancer and succumbed as a result to maladies such as depression and substance abuse. (The chief documented exception is the 6,000-odd cases of thyroid cancer contracted by children after drinking milk from cows fed on grass contaminated with radioactive iodine. Soviet authorities failed to warn people of this danger, though only a handful of the victims have reportedly died of the ailment, which is one of the least lethal forms of cancer.)

Paul Blustein was formerly the Tokyo correspondent for the Washington Post.

Pandora’s Promise: director Robert Stone interviewed at Documentary Channel

A surprisingly good interview, and better questions than I expected, with typically frank answers from Robert Stone. Here are a few snippets: 

The disaster has definitely made this film an even more topical work, which actually is probably good for drawing people to see it. Do you see it as sort of benefit?

Sure. The grim joke among documentary filmmakers is that the worse things get for your character the better things get for your movie. If your central character dies or gets shot or run over by a bus, as sad as that may be, it’s drama for your movie. In my case nothing worse could have happened to nuclear energy, if you consider that my central character, than what happened to Fukushima. But it did provide a level of drama and story that I think does make the issue more relevant, more on people’s minds.

(…snip…)

When you say this was a difficult film to embark on as a documentarian, do you mean because the angle of the film is so against what the popular belief and consensus is on the subject?

If I had decided particularly after Fukushima to make an anti-nuclear film, given my background I could have gotten funding in a heartbeat. I probably could have done a dozen anti-nuclear films. But this film, nobody wanted to touch it. None of the sources of funding that I normally approach — PBS and places like that — wanted to go near it. They didn’t want to do a film that was pro-nuclear. They didn’t want to do a film that profiled people who changed their minds. The whole approach to it ran counter to what was the established thinking in that world.

But I was determined. I wanted creative control over this film. I wasn’t going to change my way to do it. I knew the story of conversion was the way to tell the story, that the same people who are anti-nuclear become pro-nuclear. That was the hook. Rather than having pro-nuclear people and anti-nuclear people, which certain television people had pushed on me.

(…snip…)

Nuclear is simply a means to an end. Nobody thinks… and I certainly don’t; I don’t give a damn about nuclear power; I’d be happy to power the world on algae if that would work. In that sense it’s not a pro-nuclear film, it’s a film that’s offering a viable solution to the climate crisis and is in fact a really hopeful environmental documentary, which is a rare thing these days

 (…snip…)

One of the most amazing screenings I had was at Mountain Film in Telluride, which is an environmental film festival. All the leaders in the environmental movement were there. Wind power people and solar people… There was a big environmental conference going on. There were about ten anti-hydro-fracking movies there. It was an activist, environmental film festival. There were 650 people packed to the gills, and they watched the film and it was like 98% that the people in that auditorium were won over. People were coming up to me saying they completely changed their mind. People who’d been against nuclear their whole life.

 (…snip…)

Now that you’ve seemingly made one of the most challenging docs of all time, what’s next? Or are sticking to this film and devoting your energy to its message for a while?

I do not know what I want to know next for a movie. This is probably the movie that’s going to be on my obituary. It’s probably the most important film I will ever make. It’s more than a movie for me. This really is about something way bigger than anything I’ve ever been involved in. And the people I’ve met along the way are some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.

My mission is to get as many people from the United States and around the world to see this movie and to start talking about this and to truly try to make a difference. As long as I can keep doing that, I’m going to keep doing that. I’m having a great time showing this film around. And I feel like I’m actually making a difference and maybe making a little small dent in the universe, which, who could ask for more than that?

It is just possible that his film could make a “dent in the universe”.

David Ropeik: Will “Pandora’s Promise” Start a New Environmental Movement for Nuclear Power?

Risk expert David Ropeik, is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, and coauthor of Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. So not surprisingly David's review of “Pandora's Promise” is very well-informed. I wish I could say the same of the comments on his piece at Scientific American – please contribute some perspective there.

David explains why Stone's film is so effective in terms of the human traits that lead us to misestimate risk:

(…Snip…) But Pandora’s Promise will probably persuade some environmentalists to rethink nuclear power not just because of the facts but because of how those facts are framed. The information in the film is presented in ways that resonate with many of the emotional, instinctive, affective characteristics that shape how people feel about risks in general, and about nuclear power and climate change in particular.

One of the most powerful of those characteristics is the influence of trust, and the central case of Stone’s main characters is “Trust us, we’re environmentalists and we hated nuclear power too.” Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, who helped organize radical environmentalist opposition to genetically modified food in Europe, says “We were against nuclear power. As an environmentalist, those two things go together.” Gwyneth Cravens, author of The Power to Save the World, says: “I grew up in an anti-nuke family. My parents were anti-nuclear.” Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, goes further, and notes how for the baby boom generation, the fear of nuclear power grew directly out of the existential fear of nuclear weapons, and radioactive fallout from atmospheric weapons testing, and cancer, all of which fed the rise of the modern environmental movement. “I grew up having nightmares that my home was bombed into oblivion,” Brand says. “There was Duck and Cover. Those things cut pretty deep. You had the strong sense that this is not a primary energy source. This is a weapon that we feel pretty badly about.”

(…Snip…) The film also directly challenges the groupthink psychology that shapes our perceptions of risk, and certainly has shaped environmentalist opposition to nuclear power. The pro-nuclear environmentalists in the film confess that their original anti-nuke views were more the product of automatic tribal acceptance of what the group believed – Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and Bill McKibben are against nukes? Then so am I. – than informed independent analysis. They acknowledge that it literally felt threatening to change their minds and go against the whole tribe; “I was at no doubt that my entire career as an activist was at risk if I went and talked (positively) about nuclear,” Lynas.

Stone’s effective presentation will resonate with other psychological aspects of risk perception as well. People worry more about risks that are human-made than risks that are natural. Pandora’s Promise highlights how this is more emotional than rational, showing organizers of a rally protesting against the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant handing out bananas, a single one of which contains more radiation than the daily radioactive water emissions from the plant they were so afraid of. (Radioactive potassium 40 is absorbed into the banana from the soil, see Banana Equivalent Dose.

We worry more about any risk we can’t detect with our own senses, an aspect of risk perception that Pandora’s Promise addresses by ‘visualizing’ radiation, having Lynas display a radiation detector in several locations where people are leading their normal lives; Tokyo, Paris, on a mountain top in New Hampshire, on a plane ride. We also see the levels at Chernobyl, and outside trailers in which Fukushima evacuees are living. In all those places, the now-visible radiation levels are similar, and low.

We worry more about risks to children than risk to adults, a psychological ‘fear factor’ relevant to the coming threat of climate change (which the film visualizes with dramatic graphics that show how much the climate has warmed over the last century). So there will be persuasive emotional effect when we see Lynas with his family as he says “Having kids has deepened my commitment to the future and concern about global warming.”

 

Rod Adams on the Impact of Pandora’s Promise

Impact of Pandora’s Promise. Here’s Rod:

I recently saw an exceptional commentary about Pandora’s Promise from a man who asked to be identified as ‘an angel working in the clean-safe-nuclear field’. He gave me permission to share this.

By the way, this movie Pandora’s Promise shows the path of prominent Green leaders towards the pro-nuclear position.

It is likely to be influential among people who respect these leaders. And useful to nuclear power advocates, green or otherwise.

(…) The point I would make, that the movie fails to make strongly enough, is that what we really need is leadership.

We need an Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy to set the goal of clean safe cheap energy technology within 5 years, and appoint young engineers and scientists to accomplish it.

(…) 

Leadership — exactly right. The US President is in the best position, and actually has the power to make this happen. E.g., to build the IFR through to utility scale pilot (that’s the easy part). More important, he has the power to bring together the US+EU+UK to work with China, India etc. to ramp up mass production of clean nuclear fast enough to really slash the amount of GHG from the coal plants that will otherwise be built. It just needs vision and political will. Sounds like “hope and change” to me.

Pandora’s Promise: Filmmaker Robert Stone describes his process on day of the Sundance premier

Not surprisingly, Robert Stone does a wonderful job of describing how he arrived at Pandora’s Promise:

What if everything you thought you knew about nuclear power is wrong? This is the realization that came to several prominent environmentalists featured in my new movie Pandora’s Promise, premiering today at the Sundance Film Festival.

For decades the standard mantra of the environmental movement has been that nuclear power is evil and dangerous. The stars of my film, all prominent green campaigners including Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, Breakthrough Institute co-director Michael Shellenberger and UK environmental writer Mark Lynas, all used to believe this.

Like myself, they changed their minds largely because the climate is changing. Global warming today is real and increasingly threatening our way of life and our future. As Mark Lynas showed in his book Six Degrees, unless we drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions within a decade, temperatures will likely climb within this century to levels not seen on Earth for 50 million years. This threat challenges us all to get out of our comfort zones and reconsider our opinions.

Given that nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases, and given the world will need to triple its energy production by 2050, it only makes sense to give nuclear energy a second look. But in the course of making this film and interviewing nuclear experts I came to understand that most of the things I once believed about nuclear were simply flat-out wrong.

I never knew that we’ve already developed a new generation of nuclear reactors that are physically incapable of suffering a meltdown, are fueled by the waste from the existing generation of nuclear power plants and are of a far less complex modular design. I call this Nuclear 2.0 because it solves our fuel supply problems — turns out we have enough stockpiled already to run the US for centuries.

I never knew that all of the long-lived radioactive waste produced by all 440 nuclear power plants around the world could fit into an average sized 7-11. Compare that to the waste produced by other industries, like the electronics industry, which deals in heavy metals which remain toxic forever and for which 75 percent of the millions of tons of waste is left unaccounted for.

I never knew that the official UN/World Health Organization certified death toll from Chernobyl (the worst imaginable nuclear disaster) stands at 56, rather than the million deaths propagated by many anti-nuclear groups. Moreover, there is no evidence that anyone was ever born deformed because of Chernobyl. In fact the scientists are now clear that the worst impacts of the disaster came because of the psychological trauma caused by excessive fear of radiation, not radiation itself.

The environmental campaigners who star in Pandora’s Promise have all spoken out about the need for nuclear in order to provide clean power — and all have come under attack for their views. As director, my position on this issue has been particularly puzzling to many people who know my work, especially as my first-ever film was the Oscar-nominated Radio Bikini, telling the story of how U.S. nuclear bomb tests destroyed the lives of Pacific Islanders and U.S. servicemen.

Actually, I am as committed as I ever was to a world without nuclear weapons. Indeed, advanced nuclear reactors are the only way we know of to dispose of the world’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. We can literally turn swords into ploughshares by recycling these weapons, along with todays stockpile of nuclear waste, into clean, carbon-free electricity.

Most anti-nuclear people I have spoken to have an unshakeable belief that we can solve climate change entirely with renewable power. This is another myth — at the moment wind and solar provide less than 2 percent of global electricity, and to imagine we can scale this up to 100 percent in a couple of decades is science fiction. In no way is this an anti-renewables message, however — I believe that we need all the tools we can get our hands on and all of us in the film are strong proponents of wind and solar power.

Making this film has really shaken my beliefs — but in a good way. I no longer believe that we are necessarily doomed to an unpleasant future where human civilization is threatened by warming and overpopulation. We actually have enough energy to eliminate poverty and provide better lives for the 9.5 billion people who will be alive in 2050.

But I now realise we cannot do this without nuclear power. And I hope that after watching Pandora’s Promise, other people like me who care about the future will be open-minded enough to change their minds like I have done.

I wish we could vote at Sundance!

Tim Wu reviews Pandora’s Promise: If You Care About the Environment, You Should Support Nuclear Power

Tim Wu at Slate has another excellent review of Pandora’s Promise: If You Care About the Environment, You Should Support Nuclear Power. Snippets: 

A good, politically charged documentary often seizes on what the audience already believes and throws fuel on the fire (see, e.g., the work of Michael Moore). A better such documentary tries to convince its audience that what it takes for granted is flat-out wrong. Pandora’s Promise, which premiered at Sundance, does just that. It makes the utterly convincing case that anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist or takes climate change seriously should favor more nuclear power.

In the 1980s, nuclear power, never truly popular, contracted an image problem to rival Lance Armstrong or even Penn State football. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were so downright terrifying that the public immediately lost its appetite for the stuff. Invisible, cancerous, deadly: Radioactivity hits all of our deepest fears. Hiroshima, Fukushima, Silkwood—the words themselves seem to poison the air.

But our fears may be way out of proportion to the actual risks, Pandora’s Promise says. Truth is, no one has actually died in the United States as a consequence of a nuclear power accident, while coal kills more than 14,000 people a year (mainly through particulate pollution). In terms of worldwide mortality rates, nuclear is scary, but it kills fewer people per watt of power than coal, oil, and even solar. (People fall off rooftops when installing solar panels.) Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history, though it killed many people at the time, has had surprisingly limited long-term effects, according to scientists. Perhaps, like many people, I picture Chernobyl as Hell on earth—but animals and people are actually living there again, and the radiation is at merely background levels.

It’s a question of alternatives. The film centers on a new breed of scientists and environmental activists who were once ardent foes of nuclear power, but now think there is no better option. Greens are all against fossil fuels, but the new breed think that pinning our our hopes entirely on wind and solar actually increases our dependence of such environmentally devastating energy sources. Everyone loves the idea that we could just install more efficient light bulbs and live off windmills and solar panels, but that’s a dangerous fantasy, one that makes us blind to the hard choices we face.

(…) 

Owen Gleiberman: Inside Movies critic on Pandora’s Promise

Owen Gleiberman knows the typical Sundance slant — very left, very organic, very feel-good-policy preferences. It will be very interesting if Pandora’s Promise gets support in this crowd:

When was the last time you saw a documentary that fundamentally changed the way you think? It’s no secret that just about every political and socially-minded documentary shown at Sundance is preaching to the liberal-left choir. The issue may be dairy farming, human rights abuses in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the marketing of AIDS drugs, or Occupy Wall Street (to list the topics of four festival docs this year), but the point of view is almost always conventionally “progressive” and orthodox. So when Robert Stone, who may be the most under-celebrated great documentary filmmaker in America (watch Oswald’s Ghost if you want to touch the elusive truth of the JFK assassination), arrived at Sundance this year with Pandora’s Promise, a look at the myths and realities of nuclear power, he was walking into the lion’s den. For this isn’t a movie that preaches to the choir. It’s a movie that says: “Stop thinking what you’ve been thinking, because if you don’t, you’re going to collude in wrecking the world.”Pandora’s Promise is built around what should be the real liberal agenda: looking at an issue not with orthodoxy, but with open eyes.

In Pandora’s Promise, Stone interviews a major swath of environmentalists, scientists, and energy planners, all of whom spent years being anti-nuclear power — and then, as they began to look at the evidence, changed their minds. The film begins with a deep examination of the psychology of the anti-nuclear view: how it took hold and became dogma. It goes all the way back to 1945, of course, and the horror of the atomic bomb. From that moment, really, the very word nuclear was tainted. It meant something that was going to kill you, in the form of lethal radiation that you can’t see. By the time of the “No Nukes” protests of the ’70s, to be “anti-nuclear” was to conflate nuclear weapons and nuclear power into a single category of scientific evil, a point of view whipped up, over the years, into a doctrinaire frenzy of righteous fear and loathing by anti-nuclear activists like Dr. Helen Caldicott and reinforced by movies like The China Syndrome and even, in its benign satirical way, The Simpsons.

Stone, a lifelong environmental lefty himself, unravels that thinking. The film’s incredibly articulate — and deeply progressive — spokemen and women explain the nuts and bolts of why nuclear power, manufactured with the sophisticated breeder reactors that are available today, is fundamentally clean, efficient, and, yes, safe. As Richard Rhodes puts it in the movie: “To be anti-nuclear is basically to be in favor of burning fossil fuels.” Pandora’s Promise makes a powerful case that in an age when former Third World countries, striving for modernization, are beginning to consume energy in much vaster amounts (and why shouldn’t they have the right to do so?), none of the alternative energy sources that are commonly talked about by environmentalists (wind, solar, etc.) can begin to fill the planet’s energy needs. Only nuclear energy can. That’s why France, faced with its own energy crisis several decades ago, went nuclear. (Eighty percent of France’s energy is now generated by nuclear power plants.)

Ah, you say, but what about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima? The ultimate issue raised by nuclear power — the one that, according to conventional progressive thinking, stops the pro-nuclear argument right in its tracks — is, of course, the issue of safety. And the very names of those three locales cast a dark mythological shadow. You hear them and think: Meltdown. Radiation poisoning.Death. Disaster. But this is where, as a society, we desperately need more filmmakers like Robert Stone. Carefully, piece by piece, without hysteria and without dogma, he looks at the evidence of what actually happened during those three infamous catastrophes: the reality of the damage, and the reality of the aftermath. The results, if you truly listen to them, are almost spectacularly counterintuitive. They won’t leave you shaken. They will begin to shake you out of your old tired ways of thinking.

The most startling argument mounted by Pandora’s Promise is that the rise of nuclear power is not merely a good thing, but probably inevitable, because it is, in fact, the only way that we can power the planet and save it at the same time. In what has to be the ultimate liberal-documentary irony, Stone demonstrates that the dire threat of global warming all but demands nuclear power as the key to its solution. Without it, the debate will go on, but carbon dioxide will continue to fill the atmosphere, and liberals everywhere, caught up in reflexive modes of environmental “activism” that are now not just complacent but perilously out-of-date, will continue to let their anxieties trump reality.