Pandora’s Promise disrupts assumptions about nuclear energy
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.
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
These additional links were found after the initial post. I will keep adding as more are discovered.
Chenda Ngak, CBS News (June 12, 2013) – “Pandora’s Promise” asks us to rethink nuclear energy
Tom Roston, New York Times (June 14, 2013) A Rebel Filmmaker Tilts Conservative
Hank Campbell, Science 2.0 (June 14, 2013) Pandora’s Promise: Director Robert Stone Takes On The Anti-Nuclear Movement
John Seal, Berkeleyside (June 13, 2013) ‘Pandora’s Promise’: A love letter to atomic energy
Mick LaSalle, Seattle Times (June 13, 2013) ‘Pandora’s Promise’: Opening up pro-nuclear dialogue
Mark Feeney, Boston Globe (June 13, 2013) ‘Pandora’s Promise’: No nukes — or know nukes?
Dave Roberts, Grist (June 14, 2013) Some thoughts on “Pandora’s Promise” and the nuclear debate (Actually, this one is decidedly NOT a review, since Dave is so frustrated with discussing nuclear energy that he refuses to see the film or to participate in the comment thread on his blog post.)
Joe Romm, Climate Progress (June 17, 2013) Pandora’s Promise: Nuclear Power’s Trek From Too Cheap To Meter To Too Costly To Matter Much (Like Dave Roberts, Joe has not seen the movie. He is so certain about nuclear energy that he recommends that others NOT see the movie because he thinks it does not address the issue of cost.)
Stone has been good at 2 more things:
a) He has openly made accessible all of his funding sources, as opposed to many ‘green’ organisations
b) Has refused funding or help in any way shape or form from pro nuclear sources
He made one big mistake. Not to put Rod Adams for 5 or so minutes somewhere in the film. There is nothing wrong from having a live long believer in the movie.
Yes, Rod should be in the movie. He could be on the beach at San Onofre with the meter that shows the low dose on the beach even though there is a nuclear plant there. And Rod, you should wear a yellow Speedo that matches the color of the meter!
Sometimes I suspect that some commenters have done some deep research on my personal history. I was a competitive swimmer; I did wear the old fashioned Speedos. I even once had a deeply embarrassing experience in a yellow Speedo that was made of what was – at the time – a revolutionary fabric called Lycra.
One of my coaches was a marketer for a swim suit company and was asked to have some of us test some new suits. The only one he had in my size was yellow, which was not our team color. However, I was willing to try anything that might be a “go fast”, and besides, I respected Vince; he was a fellow butterflyer.
Can you imagine what a wet, yellow, pre-introductory Lycra Speedo might look like and how it might make a 14 year boy feel to have one of the parents of his teammates hand him a towel while turning her head away?
In other words, NO on the yellow Speedo for me. It was bad enough when I was young and in competitive condition.
Actually, It’s not all just a joke. A scene like that can really make a statement because people will remember you in a yellow Speedo with the confidence to stand in front on San Onofre and know you will not be harmed. Meanwhile, your friend Arnie made a video in front of the place. He used visual aids (plastic pipes and a couple of home depot buckets) to explain about the vibration issue. He was wearing a sportsjacket and tie and he was on the beach. In other words, he looked like an old man. Now, who are people more likely to remember, someone dressed like an old man or you in a Speedo. I mean, you don’t want to see your friend Arnie in one, do you?
Can they do that? After all, Berkeley (like Takoma Park, MD) is an official “Nuclear Free Zone.”
I don’t see why not. It’s not like the opening will have a bunch of demo samples of the stuff that Rod has been working on sitting there right outside the theatre, providing power to the place while the movie is playing or anything. Right?
Dr. Lyman uses UNSCEAR numbers to estimate a number of cancers caused by Fukushima. But this is what UNSCEAR actually says:
UNSCEAR said in its 2012 interim report,
Dr. Lyman uses a counting method that UNSCEAR recommends against.
UNSCEAR says evacuation and sheltering of Fukushima residents reduced their long term risks to undetectable levels. The report also calls for long-term health monitoring. The report says the actual long-term problems will be the psychological effects of relocation and worrying about health. The report also says plants and animals in the Fukushima area will have no adverse effects, with the possible exception of water plants near the power plant.
The press release is at http://www.unis.unvienna.org/unis/en/pressrels/2013/unisinf475.html
The Interim Report is at http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/V12/553/85/PDF/V1255385.pdf?OpenElement
There is a good one liner of that can be applied to Dr Lyman:
“It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.”
― Sam Harris
Re: “This is the biggest cover-up in the history of medicine!” Caldicott bellows, but she throws up her hands when asked for the reason.
Thanks to the aftermath of “Pandora’s Promise” we’ve seen the Swiss Cheese holes of credibility and perception nuclear has in the general public, not to speak of the media, and they are gaping. I know we have a chance when I hear of just one pol or major media personality or celeb whose head was turned by the film — I mean head TURNED, not just “musing over it”. Imus, are you listening? This is where a “Pandora’s Promise” part 2 type film should carry the torch beyond. Total take-down and deconstruction of the arguments of every major anti-nuke personality and top green movement in the world and plaster it all over the web. Ten minutes apiece can do the job. If they don’t wanna volunteer for the grill-down then do it by proxy as quotes. No more Mr. Nice Guy facing serial murderers. No more wasting the super talents of young and upcoming nuclear engineers/scientists on donuts over atom chat teach-in parties. Mass media is where the ONLY action is. The antis sure learned that well enough ages ago. Take down the opposition like literally your career and livelihood and energy security of the nation depended on it. More boldly, pass the hat around to nuclear companies and organizations to freely feature this on cable and webcasting. This is one of the top three issues that nuclear professional organizations were virtually made for. DO IT! What good are you if you can’t promote your own cause?
On this issue, it’s long due that the zoo of assorted nuclear types get their act and heads together and start getting on the same page hawking the records of currents nukes instead of singing about projects that don’t exist and will never see light of day if the public doesn’t trust today’s nuclear. A pox and a half on any molten-salt/Thorium/fusion folks sitting back and letting current plants take all the PR and political hits totally unrebuffed. Why aren’t we hearing more than peeps from the supposed nuke-advocacy likes of Bill Gates and Paul Allen? It’s no good if they’re just preaching in closets. Gotta knock on their doors and spoke OUT — not in cloistered meetings but on the stomp! Also time to start feeling out top pop celebs who support nukes — and race cars don’t sing at the Grammys. Whip up a contest to find that nuclear Carl Sagan to enlighten the public and challenge Arnie and Helen and Doc Kaku (Rod Adams, Steve Aplin or Gareth Fairclough would be good but aren’t sponsored for the massive required free time).
How about it, nuclear professional organizations? Are you all up to it — or are motley rag-tag mobs of antis even effective than all your degrees and coffers and gilded convention awards?
And we now know for sure that Robert Kennedy Jr believes in such a cover up between WHO and IEAE.
You can kiss his credibility goodbye on all things nuclear.
Sir Branson can also put more into the cause.
If this film generates real momentum on the issue, it would surely be sad and disappointing to just let that momentum fissile out. You can bet the antis will be pushing hard against that momentum from here forward, and if there isn’t anyone pushing back we’ll end up right where we were a month ago.
So who can push back against the antis? We can try, but most of us have jobs and lives and can’t afford to make a full time job of this. This is a job which in the real world needs funding and professional handling of the media. That ought to come from the NEI.
But I’m starting to wonder what the NEI sees as their mission.
Do they see the promotion and expansion of nuclear electricity generation as their mission? Or do they just see the preservation of current reactors until wind adn solar take over as their mission?
I realize that the bloggers do not necessarily represent the views of the NEI, but their continued support of “all of the above” even against all sense, makes me wonder. Additionally, my brief interaction with MarK Flanagan in the comments of the article “What Gets Sacrificed in a Nuclear Energy Shutdown” at NEI Nuclear Notes also makes me wonder if the NEI isn’t actually supporting wind and solar to the detriment of nuclear.
Where is nuclear going to get an ongoing and professional voice to advance its interests?
‘…let that momentum fissile out.’
‘ fizzle out ‘ 🙂
Jeff Walther has legitimate questions about NEI. Indeed, I have often wondered if NEI is so interested in ingratiating itself with the current Administration and staying in the NRC’s good graces that it has simply forsaken any real public advocacy program.
BTW, this movie would be a good thing for certain politicians in Washington, DC to watch, starting with the President. I will leave my comment at that.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is a trade/lobbying organization whose mission is to further the interest of its corporate members. If you obtain a list of the members and you then do some due diligence to find out how those members make their money and what they are telling their shareholders about the future vectors for growing that revenue, you will begin to understand more about the actions and positions taken by the NEI.
There are many fine people who are employed by that organization and they produce a lot of valuable information, but it is important to understand that they are not fundamentally motivated to increase the use of nuclear technology. They are, by charter, motivated to serve the interests of their paying members.
Thank you, Rod. That clarifies matters. So there really isn’t an organization with a media relations group to beat the drum for nuclear power. It’s not a case of an organization doing its job badly, there’s just no such animal.
That makes it a really tough situation. My admiration for the work you do grows, given the challenge you face. I try to help a little by arguing the nuclear side in various forums, but that’s such small audiences.
I talked to one of my news contacts and his advice boiled down to somehow you have to get to know reporters and build a relationship with them, but that initial meeting is difficult. They get a lot of calls from crazy people and sorting out the crazy from the informative is an issue, especially since the reporters are dumb as dirt. I keep forgetting to ask the other one.
Playing hooky from work this afternoon to see a matinee showing here in Seattle, been waiting a long time to see this movie. From the small snippets and trailers, I’m looking forward to a well crafted film. My hope is that its success will bring many more filmmakers to the subject.
About the only thing I would have liked to see that could have been crammed into this fast-moving 87 minutes would have been a split-screen at the end that synopsizes the eight micro sievert readings taken from around the world.
Even standing near the Chernobyl sarcophagus, or next to the hottest weed in Fukoshima, didn’t compare to the guy burying himself in the hormetic monazite beach sand of Brazil.
In general, very impressed by this film and believe it will have a positive impact.
Some may be disappointed at Stone’s limited coverage of molten salt reactors and the thorium fuel cycle – almost as if he wanted to avoid any discussion of the relative safety merits of different technologies. I get that, I also get the concept that for many people even bringing up safety in a discussion of nuclear power is a tacit admission it’s unsafe.
If you have to dumb down a complex discussion to the point where you risk being inaccurate, it may be better left unsaid.
Stone is very well aware of the potential of MSRs, and LFTR in particular. When I asked him what his next project was going to be (hoping it would be Oak Ridge and LFTR) he said he wasn’t sure. Too focused on promoting the possibilities implied by this one.
He said the intent of this film was to open the eyes of the general public, not get into a geekophillic comparison of Gen IV technologies (my words, not his). Maybe later, after the generic curse of public radiophobia has been conquered, a deeper dive into the relative merits of different designs might be suitable.
kpbs in San Diego has a surprisingly neutral (and correct) announcement of the film. [ http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jun/14/environmentalists-case-mourning-san-onofre/ ]
I thought it would be a bit more biased considering the area. Also something interesting regarding the San Onofre shutdown: [ http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jun/14/nrc-considers-voiding-key-ruling-san-onofre/ ]. ” NRC Considers Voiding Key Ruling On San Onofre ”
“Friends of the Earth” – lol – should be sued for false advertising!
Not strictly correct. Many organizations (such as the HPS source you provide) suggest health impacts of a hypothetical collective dose of less than 100 mSv over a lifetime is “speculative and uncertain,” but not unwarranted. In Fukushima, the evacuation standard is above 20 mSv/year. As high as 200 mSv/year in some locations inside the evacuation zone (“according to IRSN report and maps published by MEXT“). Presumably, this does place some hypothetical exposures over a lifetime above the level at which collective doses are more certain and reliable. Lyman, UNSCEAR, and others appear to be a little sloppy in this regard (but the “recommendation” is not a firm or absolute one).
In addition, where many organization see such assessments as speculative or uncertain, this does not rule out the methodology for other purposes (on hypothetical doses or otherwise). From NRC assessment of the French Academy Study, it is still seen as useful in a regulatory and management context for work planning and ALARA guidelines.
From this, I take it we are to conclude that the most accurate and reliable assessments of cancer impacts from event consequences will come from actual radiation dose measurements and samples, and not collective doses estimated in the less than 10 mSv or less than 100 mSv lifetime range for hypothetical exposures.
There is a difference between using collective dose for computing predicted health consequences and using dose rates as a basis for regulations or evacuation actions.
The warning against collective dose is simply a warning against applying a tiny risk to a very large number of people and coming up with what sounds like a significant number.
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