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Nuclear Energy Doc Pandora's Promise Getting Mixed Reviews

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
  • Member since 2006
  • 969 items added with 334,624 views
  • Jun 16, 2013

If Robert Stone’s primary purpose in creating Pandora’s Promise was to generate discussion about nuclear energy, it appears that he has succeeded. If his underlying purpose was to generate heated and uncomfortable reactions from people who have invested their entire career identity into being a go-to person for a negative comment about nuclear energy for any reporter who needs to achieve journalistic “balance”, he has wildly succeeded.

I’ve known for years that I am an odd duck, but I still cannot understand why people talk about intuitive fear of nuclear power.

Many people are writing about Pandora’s Promise; I expect that the attention will turn into theaters packed full of people who want to be able to keep up with the conversation.

If you live in one of the following cities, please gather some friends and colleagues and head out to the theater to show your support for the beneficial use of nuclear energy as a way to help avert many of our most pressing challenges. There are openings this weekend in the following cities: New York, Berkeley (I’d love to attend with the Berkeley ANS student chapter), Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Dever, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Houston, and Seattle.

If you are not lucky enough to live in one of the cities where the film is opening this weekend, here is a brief list of the reviews that you might be interested in reading. Many of them have their own comment threads, so go out and share your thoughts.

Ed Lyman, one of the go-to guys for a negative quote about nuclear, wrote a piece titled Put “Pandora’s Promise” Back in the Box that is predictably negative about the film.

It also reveals that Lyman, a man who earned a PhD in Physics but has invested his career into political activism against atomic energy, is not much of a film or literary critic. He does not even acknowledge that a journey of discovery is one of the most established forms of storytelling and persuasion. He attributes the technique to late-night informercials rather than understanding that it dates as least as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the very first heros in literature. It probably goes farther back; to a time when storytellers entertained their friends around cooking fires. As a literary device, it has been used countless times by some of our finest writers, including Hemingway, Thoreau, Cravens and Steinbeck.

“Pandora’s Promise,” taking a page from late-night infomercials, seeks to persuade via the testimonials of a number of self-proclaimed environmentalists who used to be opposed to nuclear power but have now changed their minds, including Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Richard Rhodes. The documentary tries to make its case primarily by impressing the audience with the significance of the personal journeys of these nuclear power converts, not by presenting the underlying arguments in a coherent way.

Another thing that Lyman reveals is that he is way behind in his health physics reading. He has apparently missed the recommendations of virtually all organizations that specialize in understanding the health effects of low level radiation to avoid using “collective dose” to compute hypothetical event consequences.

Lynas then goes on to assert that the Fukushima accident will probably never kill anyone from radiation, also ignoring studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand. The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which obtained a copy of a draft report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), revealed that the report estimated a collective whole-body dose of 3.2 million person-rem to the population of Japan as a result of the accident: a dose that would cause in the range of 1,000-3,000 cancer deaths.

In contrast, here is what the Health Physics Society recommends:

In accordance with current knowledge of radiation health risks, the Health Physics Society recommends against quantitative estimation of health risks below an individual dose of 50 millisievert (mSv) in one year or a lifetime dose of 100 mSv above that received from natural sources.

There’s more to challenge in Dr. Lyman’s piece. Please go and participate in the discussion on the UCS blog. Maybe Dr. Lyman himself can take some time to respond to thoughtful criticism, but I am not optimistic.

In contrast, there are many positive reviews to read.

David Ropeik in a guest post on the Scientific American blog asks Will “Pandora’s Promise” Start a New Environmental Movement for Nuclear Power?. Here is his conclusion:

Pandora’s Promise is open, earnest, unabashed advocacy, and it makes a persuasive case, using images and emotional framings that will resonate with innate affective cues that influence our perceptions of risk. It may not change the minds of baby boomer environmentalists whose fear of anything nuclear grows from deep historic roots and whose self-identities are too tightly bound to the expected tribal opposition to nuclear power. But to younger viewers, and to any viewer with an open mind, Pandora’s Promise may help encourage fresh thinking about the huge pros, as well as the better known cons, of this important, if controversial, source of clean energy.

Lori Huck wrote the following in an Examiner review titled Pandora’s Promise’ review: Surprising new perspective on nuclear power

“Pandora’s Promise” is one of those intelligent and relatable documentaries that resonates, long after the credits roll (probably because you too are against and even afraid of nuclear power due to potential nuclear meltdowns). But after Stone and his co-hosts finish, you may find yourself thoroughly surprised with an about-face view on the energy issue.

Movie Nation published Movie Review: “Pandora’s Promise”

It’s a debate worth revisiting, and only the most dogmatic will resist it. Tilting so far toward one side means that Stone’s film merely brings the topic to the floor. But the day is coming when the world will have to have this argument all over again. As activist Mark Lynas declares, “Loving your children is about loving the future that they’re going to inhabit.” And that future may be either a hotter planet, or one where nuclear power turns the thermostat down.

Tim Wu said the following in his Slate article titled If You Care About the Environment, You Should Support Nuclear Power.

I found watching this film uncomfortable, because, like most of us, I intuitively find something scary about nuclear power. Michael Shellenberger, one of the leading greens for nuclear power, confirmed to me that no major environmental group in the United States officially supports nuclear as of now. But what is the role of science if not to meet our greatest fears with actual data? Tomatoes were once thought poisonous, and doctors once believed it was wrong to treat illness by cutting open the human body. Our fear of nuclear power has gone too far.

Aside: I’ve known for years that I am an odd duck, but I still cannot understand why people talk about intuitive fear of nuclear power. People who do not grow up watching movies or television may not even know that radiation exists. End Aside.

On Quartz, you can find a review titled Everything you thought you knew about the risks of nuclear energy is wrong with the following quote:

That point comes across brilliantly in the film when Robert Stone, the writer, director, and producer, confronts Helen Caldicott, a leading anti-nuclear activist, at one of her rallies, to question why she and others claim that Chernobyl-caused cancer is killing or has killed one million people, a figure exponentially greater than other estimates. “This is the biggest cover-up in the history of medicine!” Caldicott bellows, but she throws up her hands when asked for the reason.

Nick Schager, writing in The Village Voice was not completely pleased with Stone’s relentless point of view and purposeful avoidance of attempting to insert journalistic “balance”, but he offered the following statement indicating he understands the film’s primary message.

The case for nuclear power as the solution to both the planet’s rapidly escalating energy needs and the climate change produced by fossil fuels and natural gas is aggressively, and somewhat convincingly, made by writer-director Robert Stone.

The San Francisco Guardian included the following statement in its review of Pandora’s Promise.

Couching the debate in cultural and political context going back to World War II, Stone builds a case for nuclear energy as a viable method to provide clean, safe power for planet in the throes of climate change that will nonetheless need double or triple the current amount of energy by 2050, as billions in the developing world emerge from poverty.

Ashutosh Jogalekar, in a guest post on Scientific American titled Hope springs eternal: “Pandora’s Promise” and the truth about nuclear energy wrote:

So why would environmentalists of all people support nuclear power? What changed these people’s minds? Two things, primarily.

One was the gap between perception and reality that they uncovered on speaking to the experts and doing their own research. Foremost among their revelations was an accurate appraisal of the nebulous bogeyman named “radiation”. The basic facts are well-known to informed audiences but they bear repeating: we are bathed in a sea of background radiation whose level often exceeds those from even the worst nuclear accidents like Chernobyl.

Aside: Once again, my own oddness makes me wonder why so many people assume it is surprising that people who care about clean air, clean water, and treading lightly on earth would support the use of densely concentrated nuclear energy. After all, it contains 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil! That means you can do a lot more work with a lot less material. That sounds like an environmental mantra to me. End Aside.

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune was also not pleased with Stone’s decision to avoid turning his film into a balanced debate instead of an attempt to expose the truth learned through deep research. His review is titled Complaining about documentary films.

Anthony Kaufman at IndieWire mentioned Pandora’s Promise as an example in his piece titled Lefty Filmmakers Grapple with Left-Wing Backlash

While the attacks against Gibney and his film have been well-documented, by O’Hehir and others (and I can certainly confirm them, as even I was blasted on Twitter for my favorable piece on “We Steal Secrets”), the backlash against “Pandora’s Promise” is just beginning.

In one such paper titled “Pandora’s False Promise,” published for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, executive director Kennette Benedict writes, “A more powerful approach to this complex threat to humanity would be to film a fact-based, passionate debate that explored the alternatives, trade-offs, and consequences of various energy options. Such an exploration might move us from the usual politics of zealotry to new habits of thought, and perhaps to new forms of action based on all the facts.”

But what’s funny to me is that this is exactly what I found “Pandora’s Promise” to be.

Not that I feel compelled to provide any balance on Atomic Insights, I still think it is useful to read widely and understand that other points of view exist. Common Dreams is a predictable place to find a shrill critic of the beneficial use of nuclear energy, so I turned there to find what I later discovered was a press release titled Pandora’s Propaganda: New Documentary Omits Sound Science and Expert Research and Should be Viewed with the Facts at Hand. (Regular readers will be shocked to find that contact is Linda Gunter, writing from Takoma Park, Maryland, an enclave near Washington, DC that has achieve a self-sustaining critical mass of antinuclear activism.)

“When Pandora’s Promise was first publicized, it claimed to feature ‘former leaders of the anti-nuclear movement,’ which got our attention,” said Linda Gunter of Beyond Nuclear who has authored several documents examining the claims made in the film and in its publicity. “But when we looked at who was actually featured, we found that virtually all roads led to The Breakthrough Institute whose personnel appear prominently in the film and none of whom ever ‘led’ the anti-nuclear movement.”

Aside The way I finally recognized this piece as a press release was when I realized that Ms. Gunter seemed to be quoting herself and decided that even an antinuclear activist would know better than that. I guess I should have seen the “For Immediate Release” above the title of the piece. Oops. End Aside.

It is also useful to turn back the clock several months to an Inside Movies review published after the film’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance: What makes ‘The Way, Way Back’ a crowd-pleaser? Plus ‘Pandora’s Promise,’ a radically sane and important documentary about how nuclear power could save us.

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.

You can find more links and reviews of Pandora’s Promise in yesterday’s post titled Pandora’s Promise Review Roundup

The post Pandora’s Promise getting rave and no so rave reviews appeared first on Atomic Insights.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 16, 2013

Opposition to nuclear appears to be based much more on emotion than facts.  Many environmentalist dream that renewables such as (intermediate) solar and wind can replace all (baseload power) energy sources including nuclear, coal, natural gas and even hydropower (eliminate reservoir/downstream environmental impacts).  This definitely is feasible, but generally on a much, much smaller scale than all Developed and Developing countries around the world.  Who knows, some day the biggest weakness of intermediate solar and wind (lack of  industrial scale power storage technology) may become a reality.  In the mean time, if we plan to substantially reduce world carbon emissions in the foreseeable future, nuclear will be a required and critical part of the solution.


As you are aware, France is the largest example of a nation that relies on nuclear.  Their per capita nuclear power generation is 3X the U.S. and many more times all other Nations.  The last time I heard, their population was not suffering from unusually high radiation related cancers.  If this source of zero carbon energy/power was so risky, why haven’t the French planned to abandon their historic and current electric power generation strategy?

Joey Ortiz's picture
Joey Ortiz on Jul 22, 2013

People have to realize that there is this agegroup, age 35-60 perhaps, who are the foundation of this anti-nuclear culture. They grew up knowing the apocalypse could arrive any moment in the payload of a ballistic missile, with a radiation sticker attached.

However, the world is interconnecting at a blistering pace. Its a social change catalyzed by digital technology. Cultural barriers are disolving, and our interests are becoming entangled with the interests of people on the other side of the world. We cannot drop a bomb in very many places without dropping the economic equivelent of a million bombs on ourselves. The apocalypse scare is over; it was over with the birth of the internet.

This new era is less scary. People born today will not grow up with this “intuitive fear of nuclear”. They will be open to physically innevitable changes our society must go through as it progresses through the 21st Century. Perhaps the old dogs can learn new tricks too. Time will tell.


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