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Pandora’s Promise

June 15, 2013
Pandora's Promise

Nuclear power is scary. Just the words call to mind disasters like Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl, and even just a few years ago the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. I mean, do you have any idea how many people have died as a result of Fukushima? I do: not a one. But still, it’s scary.

We, as humans, are terrible at intuitively assessing risk. We focus on big, singular events like nuclear meltdowns and terrorist strikes while we ignore low-grade, widespread risks like car accidents and air pollution. Or, indeed, like climate change. More and more environmentalists are coming around to take a serious look at nuclear power, and they’re finding that not only is it not the evil that they’ve always said it is, it’s the only serious alternative to fossil fuels. Pandora’s Promise lays out the case.

The first application of a nuclear fission chain reaction was, of course, the atomic bomb; its devastating effects on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrified a generation, and rightly so. But to turn and say that this technology can then not be used to generate power is like looking at Dresden and saying we should no longer cook our food. The peace and environmental movements are found so often in each other’s company that the wartime uses of nuclear fission have blinded many to more beneficial applications.

But what about radiation? Well, pretty much nobody involved in the discussion seems to really know much about it. The word is used as a discussion-ender — an insidious, deadly poison, unsafe at any level. Scientists describe it with obscure units like “rads”, “Becquerels”, and “Sieverts”, and the general public has no idea of the scale. Filmmaker Robert Stone cuts right to the heart of the matter by whipping out a handheld radiation detector, set to measure the rate of exposure. Standing in the middle of various cities — London, Paris, New York — the meter pings at about 0.1 microsieverts per hour. Altitude affects the measurement; in a plane over the pacific the meter reads around 2 or 3. On a certain beach in Brazil: 30.

Through the rest of the film, Stone regularly shows the meter. Standing outside a nuclear reactor? about 0.1 or 0.2, the same as living in the mountains of New Hampshire or Colorado. The reading is the same when standing among the dry-storage casks of nuclear waste out back. Chernobyl reactor number 4 is still very hot, but half a kilometer outside the concrete sarcophagus? only about thirty times the background in London.

Chernobyl, though, raises the specter of nuclear disasters. How many millions have died both directly in the meltdown and as a result of long-term health effects? If you believe the World Health Organization, about fifty. Sorry, that’s not “fifty million”, just fifty. And if you believe the WHO is engaged in a massive conspiracy you’re in the same camp as the climate change deniers.

The area around Chernobyl is still not a place I’d want to live, but that doesn’t mean nobody does. Locals started moving back into the “exclusion zone” within a few years. Stone interviews an Orthodox priest who has been back since 1987. And when we’re talking about nuclear waste and the contamination from the worst possible nuclear accidents, why don’t we ever bring up things like fly ash from coal power plants?

True: nuclear waste is directly dangerous for longer than coal waste, but it causes no greenhouse effect, and we don’t intentionally allow it into the groundwater. What’s more, fourth-generation reactor designs like the Integral Fast Reactor that was shut down in 1994 can actually use their own waste as fuel, cutting down the actual amount to be stored and the time it has to be stored a hundredfold. They can even burn waste from third-generation reactors, and even decommissioned nuclear warheads. Swords into plowshares, indeed.

All told, commercial nuclear power, over its entire life cycle, causes fewer deaths than any other source but wind. Even solar power is more dangerous, given the toxicity of the current production of solar cells. And a cube of uranium the size of a fingertip could yield as much energy as burning thousands of barrels of oil.

Pandora’s Promise will hardly convince everyone, and it’s not perfect in making its case. I, for one, would have loved to see more of a technical explanation of what goes on in a chain reaction, and how a modern reactor is designed to prevent — yes, not avoid but prevent — catastrophic failures. On the other hand I can see how that would be difficult to put into a ninety-minute documentary. But it’s a compelling point of view that I hope can at least get a reasonable conversation started.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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