CNN movie touting nuclear energy long on emotion, short on facts

CNN’s movie “Pandora’s Promise” unabashedly supports nuclear power and its role in providing non-polluting power as part of the world’s energy future. But it is longer on emotion than it is on the quantifiable facts it occasionally presents.

With the feel of a narrative endeavoring to be a documentary, the film opens with footage of nuclear opponents making wildly exaggerated, and easily refuted, claims.

“We can get rid of all these [obscene gerund] nuclear plants right away because we can switch to solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, ocean thermal; all that energy is available to do today!” one orator claimed. “We can shut all the nuclear plants, all the coal, all the oil, all the gas plants. We can shut them all down.”

More reasoned voices soon follow as the film, which made its debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, focuses on a handful of environmentalists who came to understand that their previous opposition to nuclear energy was based on facts that had been exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth. Their epiphanies about the realities of nuclear power caused them to move away from the position that nuclear energy is evil.

One of those environmentalists’ realizations countered the activist’s opening salvo about replacing conventional sources of generation with renewable energy.

“It really took us getting clear about how big the gap was between fossil fuels and renewables for us to take a second look at nuclear,” Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute, said. “I ended up feeling like a sucker. The idea that we’re going to replace oil and coal and natural gas with solar and wind, and nothing else, is a hallucinatory delusion.”

Others, including Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” share similar stories about their crises of faith.

“As a lifelong environmentalist, I’m against nuclear,” Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, said. “But what if what I’ve been thinking all this time and what my friends have been thinking all this time, is wrong?”

Along the way, the movie provides some facts that will be familiar to most who work in the energy industry, including a pie chart illustrating the world’s fuel stack. Although it included neither percentages nor a source of the information, approximately 7/8 of the chart was labeled “fossil fuels” while the remainder was labeled “clean energy.” Of that remainder, approximately one half was hydro, one third nuclear, and the balance divided between wind, solar, and “other.”

In another scene, another of the converted environmentalists endeavored to illustrate that coal has contributed to more deaths than nuclear generation.

“Fine particulates from power plants kill 13,000 people a year in the U.S.,” Gwyneth Cravens, author, “Power to Save the World,” said. “Worldwide, three million people die each year from air pollution from fossil fuel plants.”

Ironically, those statistics and several more presented throughout the movie bore a striking similarity to anti-nuclear statistics the movie’s subjects came to reject: they were presented without a source.

Other statistics, however, were provided with credible sources, including figures that refute the belief shared by the environmentalist subjects that many thousands, and perhaps millions, of deaths were caused by the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986.

“28 persons died in 1986 due to [acute radiation syndrome] ARS,” and “Nineteen more have died in 1987-2004 of various causes … not necessarily … directly attributable to radiation exposure,” read an excerpt from a report certified by the United Nations Scientific Committee on Atomic Radiation.

The filmmakers also provide independent context on the level of background radiation that occurs naturally, another concept with which at least one environmentalist said he had been unfamiliar. The camera follows a radiation monitor to various locations around the world and records background radiation levels ranging from a low of 0.09 microsieverts (mSv) per hour in Los Angeles to a high of 30.81 mSv per hour on Guarapai Beach north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The camera also follows the monitor into the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine, where it reads 0.92 mSv.

For comparison, a chest x-ray delivers a dose of approximately 0.10 mSv while a mammogram delivers a dose of approximately 0.40 mSv, according to the web site, which is run by the American Cancer Society.

“Pandora’s Promise” also speaks with two nuclear scientists who were involved with the early projects that resulted in viable nuclear generation. One describes the integral fast reactor (IFR) developed at Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho – now the Idaho National Laboratory – as one that “cannot melt down,” but which will shut itself down in the event of other systems failures like those that led to the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

The program that led to the development of the IFR reactor, however, was cancelled by Congress in 1994.

Another expert tells of the development of fourth-generation nuclear reactors, which can use the waste generated by the current third-generation reactors as their fuel.

The movie’s subjects also assert that there is “a direct correlation between the availability of electricity and the quality of life,” and that energy efficiency has value, “but you can’t keep using less energy forever.” Although the subjects provide no source for either of those statements, they seem intuitive, genuine and acceptable on their face.

While the movie provides interesting perspectives and personal stories along with some quantifiable facts supporting the safety of nuclear generation, its inconsistent mix of assertions easily countered – like those of the protester at the beginning – those that are sourced and quantifiable, and those that seem obvious comprise one of the movie’s shortcomings.

In many ways, director Robert Stone’s use of his subject environmentalists seems to rely on the principle that, “Only Nixon could go to China,” meaning that only an action that seems counter to someone’s expressed ideology and which would not have an impact if done by someone without similar credentials, will be credible.

Consistent sourcing would give “Pandora’s Promise” more credibility as a documentary.

Sourced or not, convincing or not, the 1 hour 30 minute movie closes on a note that the subject environmentalists would have found anathema prior to their conversions. In the opinion of Schellenberger: “Put nuclear in its proper context and we can live energy-intensive, modern lives without killing the climate.”

Pandora’s Promise is airing on CNN on Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. Eastern time, with a repeat at midnight.