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.