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.”


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

  1. Our present nuclear technology, i.e., PWRs, is probably the lesser of two evils. However, I’d feel much better with a better nuclear technology, including the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR).

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