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Pandora’s Promise: Marshalling Hope for Yet Another Nuclear Comeback


The Greek God Zeus sent the first woman, Pandora, to Earth where, compelled by curiosity she let evil escape from the jar gifted to her. But the Patriarchs apparently had a covert plan, for at the bottom of Pandora’s Box was the promise of “hope”. The Breakthrough Institute funders and Robert Stone, director of the new film Pandora’s Promise, want us to place that hope in a new generation of nuclear breeder reactors called the Integral Fast Reactors (IFR), to avert a climate crisis. The film was shown Oct. 1st to a nearly overflow audience at Saskatoon’s Roxy Theatre. Cameco and Areva pre-bought the majority of tickets. I was asked to sit on a panel along with Clean Green researcher David Geary, the Canadian Nuclear Association’s Heather Kleb and Ron Oberth of the Organization of Candu Industries.

Nuclear Maze

The film shifts fears about nuclear weapons and reactors into fears about climate change. This isn’t done by exploring cost-effective ways to reduce carbon but through denigration, omission and hyper-emotion. The film is like a maze: once you enter all non-nuclear pathways are dismissed to steer you towards the nuclear exit. Using the “straw man” approach the film paints a picture of anti-nukes as irrational zealots. It features six people who have had a radical conversion to being pro-nuclear. Their language is revealing; one convert, a past activist in Earth First, says he previously believed “nuclear power is evil”, yet his new-found conviction remains similarly moralistic. The film claims that U.S. light water reactors were chosen by the military and promoted by utility executives who “didn’t anticipate wastes”. Nuclear wastes are sometimes treated as hazards and the IFR technology is then promoted as the solution. However the film has a mixed message when later on a radiation measuring device is held by tanks of cooling spent fuel to imply there isn’t any danger. There is a purpose to such premeditated dissonance; Pandora’s Promise is a shock and awe film, intentionally unsettling us into awe of the IFR.

Confused About Solar

The film uses personal attacks of anti-nuclear “celebrities” along with block-busting visuals and melodramatic music to slam the door on non-nuclear considerations. It is disinformation by omission. One convert implies that it was oil money that funded anti-nuclear demonstrations to oppose a local nuclear plant because, she says, they knew solar couldn’t replace oil as a domestic heat source. But solar thermal can heat domestic space and replace fossil fuels. Buildings can be designed to use passive solar for space heating; I live in one. The dualistic approach equates anti-nuclear with pro-fossil fuel. One male convert is asked why he didn’t accept that nuclear is carbon-free; he answers he was “too scared”, creating the stereotype of bigoted anti-nukes. When you analyze nuclear, from mining and refining to enriching and reactor construction, it is not carbon-free. As the grade of uranium lowers and the carbon-mining footprint grows, nuclear could even surpass natural gas in carbon. And decommissioning and nuclear waste storage is going to be extremely fossil-fuel intensive long after electricity is shut off.

Play On Ignorance

The film closes the door on international treaties. It goes for the jugular, making the energy gap between fossil fuels and renewables seem so huge that it’s impossible to fill without going all-out nuclear. There’s much ado about renewables being intermittent and lots of pictures of motionless wind turbines. The film takes the viewpoint of centralized utilities that plants must operate 24/7 for reliable base-load power. It’s out of sync with new technology; like the internet a renewable grid can be built around distributed resources. There’s no mention of smart grids using an energy mix to shape reliable energy production. We get confessions, not investigation. One male convert says he “was a sucker” when “he bought the renewable myth”. The film degenerates into more denigration, this time of Amory Lovins, who isn’t given any voice but edited for the predetermined effect. It pitches that electrical growth is fundamental to quality of life, implying the anti-nukes are condemning “one half the world’s population to poverty and sickness”. A similar righteous ploy was used by the Blakeney NDP when it expanded Saskatchewan’s uranium mining in the 1980s. In 1987 the UN’s Bruntland Report called for a revolution in renewables so electricity could get to billions not living on costly industrial grids. The film goes to great lengths to convince us that “a steady stream of electricity” is necessary to protect our modern life, including our cell phones; no mention that 3 of 4 of the world’s largest economies (Germany, China and Japan) now get more electricity from renewables than nuclear.

Normalizing Radiation

The film uses the dirtiness of coal to make nuclear seem benign, but it doesn’t show any pictures of the huge coal plants used to enrich uranium in the eastern U.S. It claims that nuclear is safer than solar and that not a single death has occurred in the U.S.’s “history of nuclear power”. The newly converted claim one banana has more radiation than drinking the water discharged from a nuclear plant. The converts hold their radiation measuring device up at various nuclear sites to show low (mSv) readings. It all depends where and when you go; a recent leak of radioactive water at Fukushima measured 1,800 mSv, a deadly dose. The nuclear worker limit is 100 mSv over 5 years. There is no mention that ingested radiation can alter DNA. The film is selective with World Health Organization (WHO) research, noting that the UN body is on the very low side of studies estimating Chernobyl’s cancer rates. It ignores mainstream Russian reports that many of the thousands in clean-up crews (liquidators) are now invalids, aging prematurely and have higher than average rates of cancer and psychiatric disorders. Many thousands have already died. UNSCEAR reports congenital deformations among thousands of children. The filmmakers don’t explore controversies over radiation epidemiology nor do they mention that the WHO also says radon gas, a byproduct of natural uranium, is the world’s second cause of lung cancer. Also remember that the rates of skin cancer have mushroomed in part because of the thinning of the ozone that protects us from UV radiation. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013 has recently indicated that Tepco cannot control radioactive water going into the Pacific near Fukushima, noting that if a LOCA (loss of coolant accident) and fire occurs with the spent fuel at unit 4 they still might have to evacuate 10 million. Though the incidence of catastrophic nuclear accidents may be small relative to reactor years, the magnitude makes the risks unacceptable.

Punch Line

The film claims that those promoting non-nuclear approaches are using the “same tactics” as those “used by climate deniers”, another version of “if you’re not with us you are against us”. Such fundamentalist thinking has no place in evidence-based energy policy. The film sets everything up for its punch line; the IFR is a God-send and France is the nuclear utopia. It mentions that France has a lower carbon footprint than Germany but not that during recent droughts linked to climate change some reactors had to be shut down due to lack of cooling water. Nothing on what happened at Monju, Japan where after spending $10 billion dollars the breeder reactor only produced one hour’s electricity. Nothing on why the U.S. Congress cancelled funding of the IFR in 1994. New, improved nuclear is presented as magical: it can burn up waste, disarm nuclear weapons and will “withstand any calamity”. In any emergency “no action” will be required. “This is not a dream – this is real”, says the narrator. The film claims to “put nuclear in its proper context”. Actually it destroys context to shut the door on balanced, critical investigation. At the end when the hard-nosed music softens it says this is the “beginning of something beautiful”. Something beautiful may be happening: two years ago the UNEP reported that “close to 80% of the world’s energy supplies could be met by renewables by mid-century”. In 2013 nuclear is down from its high of 18% to 10% of global electricity, while according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) renewables are set to surpass natural gas (2016) and double nuclear production by 2018, becoming the second major source of global electricity. All this without opening Pandora’s Box! Go to Beyond Nuclear website for a detailed, referenced critique of this overrated film.

R-Town # 205 October 13, 2013