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Robert Stone/Still from "Pandora's Promise."

How radioactive is your town? To dispel preconceptions, filmmakers measured radiation across major cities and nuclear disaster sites worldwide using a Geiger counter, shown here in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Guarapari, Brazil clocked in with a normal background radiation of 30.81 millirems.

Change of heart: Environmentalists revisit nuclear in a new film

by Rachel E. Gross
Jun 11, 2013

Trailer to Robert Stone's movie, "Pandora's Promise."


Clad in a gas mask, a protester holds up a sign. 


That's the start of director Robert Stone’s new documentary, "Pandora’s Promise." By the close of the film, though, we’re hearing something different.

“This is the beginning of something really beautiful,” intones the voice of Michael Shellenberger—president of the Oakland-based think tank the Breakthrough Institute and one of the environmental stars of the film. “I feel like it’s the beginning of a movement.”

How did we get from an end to a beginning? The same way we got from Pandora's sinister box to hopeful promise: by reexamining some of our most closely-held beliefs about the perils and possibilities of nuclear power.

True changes of heart are rare. But the film follows several environmentalists who profess to a 180 on nuclear power. The film adds up the kilowatts of solar, wind and hydropower to show that greening tomorrow's energy demands the addition of a nuclear fix to avert climate change crisis.

While the first nuclear power plant to be approved in more than 30 years has been licensed for construction in Georgia, a moratorium remains in Illinois.

But one by one, "Pandora's Promise" unravels some of our deepest fears about nuclear power in terms of safety, affordability, feasibility. Some choice mind-blowers from the film: bananas are naturally more radioactive than wastewater from a nuclear plant. Places in Brazil are naturally more radioactive than Chernobyl. One pound of uranium provides the energy equivalent of 5,000 barrels of coal.

“Making this film has really shaken my beliefs," says Stone, who plans to spend the next year and a half promoting the film and its message around the world. He’s hoping to shake up yours, too.

"Pandora’s Promise" premieres in Chicago at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., on June 14 (you can order tickets here.) Stone and Shellenberger recently answered questions after a special screening of the film at Northwestern University.

MEDILL: The film gains a lot of power from the stories of Shellenberger, as well as thinkers like anti-nuclear author Gwyneth Cravens and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, who all made a profound conversion regarding nuclear power. Was there a particular moment during filming when you experienced a turnaround?

ROBERT STONE: There was one moment for me that crystallized how wrong I’d been about nuclear power. It was the second or third shoot I’d been on for the movie, and I was in France. I got ushered into the room where they stored all the long-lived waste, the stuff that’s got to be buried underground for 100,000 years. And this room is the size of a basketball court and it’s got a bunch of steel tubes that go down about 10 meters. And that’s all the waste from powering the entire country of France for 30 years.

I was like, how do I get my head around this? So I asked the guy who was there with me: how much stuff is left over just from powering Paris—greater Paris, 10 million people—for 30 years? Four tubes. Four little cylinders. That’s the waste we’re talking about. I was like, my God, you compare that to the gargantuan amounts of CO2 coal plants spew into the air. What in the world have I been thinking? That really hit home. What a tiny amount of resources are required to produce just a vast amount of energy.

MEDILL: Let’s talk about cost. We talk about how France scaled up really fast and made this large initial investment in nuclear. But are there technologies that can make this a viable option for other countries?

RS: I liken it to airplanes. We need to be making nuclear power plants like we make airplanes. They’re remarkably safe and they’re mass-produced. Millions of people a day are flying around in these metal tubes in the sky hundreds of miles an hour, and they’re not falling out of the sky. What we did in the United States is we built every nuclear reactor like we were building a 747, just one at a time and changing the whole thing every time we built another one. It’s incredibly expensive, and you learn nothing from the process building the next one. The French did it a different way. They standardized it, it worked, and now they’ve got the lowest electric rates in Europe and the cleanest air in the industrialized world. So cost can be dealt with. I don’t think that’s an impediment moving forward at all.

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: There’s one nuclear plant that is the poster child for expensive nuclear power. It’s this plant in Finland that’s been over budget and out of schedule, and it’ll come in at about 10 or 12 billion dollars when all’s said and done. That one plant will produce as much electricity as all of Germany’s solar panels, and to date Germany has spent $100 billion (on solar). So when people say, well nuclear power’s really expensive, it’s always like, well in comparison to what? In comparison to natural gas, nuclear is more expensive, no question. In comparison to coal, it’s more expensive. But in comparison to solar and other renewables, it’s quite affordable.

MEDILL: Could nuclear energy solve the ethical quandary that we face when it comes to developing countries that want to industrialize, but are being pressured not to burn fossil fuels?

RS: Yes. We’ve got to make it cheap. It’s all about cost and making these things simple so you don’t need a sophisticated, high-technology society like in order to operate these things. Another thing is that we’re going to need a lot of energy to desalinate water because we’re running out of water. The population’s growing, there’s more agriculture, and there’s more need for fresh water. And that requires vast amounts of electricity.

MEDILL: What about renewables? Can they be part—or most—of the answer?

MS: The problems with renewables are twofold. The first is they’re intermittent. The second is that they’re energy-diffuse. So yes, there’s a lot of sunlight and wind, but it’s spread all over the place. Whereas, in this tiny amount of material you can generate huge quantities of energy. Last year we generated 0.18 percent of our energy with solar and we generated 3.5 percent from wind. When we naively began this a decade ago, we thought, in 10 years we’ll scale up renewables and it’ll provide a lot of power. That didn’t happen. Renewables remain totally dependent on subsidies. So to put all your eggs in the renewables basket and imagine that you’re going to be able to scale up these technologies that have so far been incredibly difficult to scale—it’s a very risky bet.

RS: We’re in sync on this, although I have nothing bad to say about renewables or wind. I’m in favor of any solution. But the renewable energy concept that was articulated by Andrew Levin so beautifully back in the 70s was really a larger sort of all-encompassing philosophical vision. It was about small, beautiful, anti-corporate, anti-bigness. And nuclear symbolized everything that this philosophy was against.

Now we’re working from this as a practical matter. We’re in an emergency here in terms of climate change. We do not have time to dick around. And to say no to the most scalable, incredible source of clean energy because of some philosophical opposition that had to do with things that were going on in 1970s and the Cold War seems irrational. But it’s not like the whole world needs to go nuclear tomorrow. If China and India and Europe and the United States and Russia— the big emitters of CO2—went nuclear and everybody else started burning fossil fuels for the next 50 years, I still think we’d be out of the woods.

Interview questions by reporters Chris Bentley, Megan Morrison, Stephanie Novak and Rachel E. Gross.