Robert Stone calls Pandora’s Promise his most important work because it discusses our biggest collective challenge – how do we supply a growing world population with the reliable power it needs without slowing choking the Earth’s ability to support our civilization and all of its existing infrastructure. He and the people whose conversions he describes in his film have figured out that the very best answer we have available to us today is to replace as much of our current hydrocarbon consumption as possible with modern nuclear energy technology.
As a long time pronuclear environmentalist, I am happy to see that more and more thinking, caring people are reevaluating what they think they knew about nuclear energy.
One of my favorite conversation starting tee shirts is a dark green shirt emblazoned with the following bold statement on the back – “Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy.” It almost never fails to stimulate questions when I wear it at public meetings about nuclear energy issues. The people who favor nuclear energy read it and smile, asking where they can get one. The people who adhere to dogma and only have a superficial knowledge of nuclear energy as a memorized series of “issues” or talking points ask me what kind of environmentalist I can be if I favor nuclear energy.
My pat answer is that I am the kind of environmentalist who favors clean air, clean water and human technology designed for a minimal impact on the rest of the environment. I tell them that any power source clean enough to run inside a sealed submarine meets my standards of being gentle on the environment.
As a submariner, I was taught that our most important tactical goal was to “remain undetected”. The submariner’s mantra aligns almost perfectly with the environmental philosophy taught to backpackers on the Appalachian Trail – “leave no trace”.
Of course, humans have the ability to goof up almost any of their inventions. In part, the First Nuclear Age was driven by people who believed in the “economy of scale” as a phrase that implied that every instance of a technology needed to be as big as possible. They calculated, often with models that ignored certain diseconomies of scale, that bigger machines could produce power at a lower cost (and higher profit) per unit of electricity. They ignored the scale economies that come with series production and simplicity.
They also ignored the fact that their wonderful new technology was doing something that brought cheer to the hearts of many and great economic threats to the pocketbooks of a few very wealthy and powerful people. While most of the people I knew growing up in the 1970s thought it was great to have power plants that did not need any coal, oil or natural gas, I learned later just how much money companies that sell one, two or all three of those hydrocarbon products make each year.
Those three products supply about 85% of our current energy needs and represent a business pulling in several trillion dollars per year in revenue. One company, with less than a 4% share of the global market for oil and natural gas, recently reported that their 4th quarter 2012 revenue was $115.17 billion.
That is within 50% of the annual budget of the US Navy – including the wartime supplemental funds. Nukes have generally been blind to an important economic reality; when our technology wins sales, our hydrocarbon competitors lose money. Wealthy and politically powerful people don’t like to lose money. They don’t like people to think there are better alternatives that can reduce the demand for their flawed products. They do not mind finding and funding greenwashers or antinuclear activists that campaign against their competition.
Not surprisingly, many hydrocarbon companies love putting warm and fuzzy images of wind turbines, solar panels or algae fuel facilities into their annual reports and into their well-funded ad campaigns. Those unreliable technologies do not threaten sales of their core products. Have you ever noticed the silence of the oil and gas companies when it comes to nuclear energy – even in communications where they are trying to tell the story that they are clean energy companies, not big bad oil companies?
There is one issue that seems to always come up as the reason that people in the “Environmental Community” are taught to reject nuclear energy; they are told that the technology has an unsolvable waste issue. The former antinuclear environmentalists turned pronuclear environmentalists who are featured in Pandora’s Promise have been primarily motivated by recognizing that the truth is just the opposite.
Instead of “the waste issue” being nuclear energy’s biggest negative feature, they have realized that the hydrocarbon energy sources that compete with nuclear energy have the real intractable, massive waste problem. With nuclear energy, the material that is considered to be waste is already tiny and well contained. In addition, there are known solutions that have been proven at a greater than laboratory scale to work to reduce that waste even further while providing massive quantities of reliable, emission free power.
One of the technologies that excites the people in Pandora’s Promise is the Integral Fast Reactor, one of several reactor designs that allows an impressive increase in fuel utilization. Our current machines extract about 6,000 MW-days/tonne of mined uranium; the IFR may approach 500,000 or even 1,000,000 MW-days/tonne when it is fully developed. Higher fuel use means even less waste production.
In contrast, the hydrocarbon industry is only capable of using its massive marketing budget to insert the word “clean” in front of “coal” and “natural gas” into the public mind. Their technology, however, is actually incapable of economically and safely capturing the 30-40 billion tons of gaseous and fine particulate waste products dumped into the atmosphere every single year. A substantial portion of that waste production consists of materials that have causes far more human suffering and early death than any of the materials that have ever been released from a nuclear energy production plant.
However, the fossil fuel industry has also successfully used its marketing muscle to tag the adjective “deadly” in front of “nuclear waste”, even though the record shows few, if any human deaths associated with exposure to the waste material produced in nuclear power plants. That is not to say that the material is benign if not properly handled; it is to say that the material can be properly handled by following rather simple rules.
Stone has purposely rejected any support from the nuclear energy industry because he does not want anyone to think that he has compromised his integrity. He is probably smart to do so, but I believe there will come a time when people recognize that there are tens of thousands of people with high personal integrity that did not need a midlife conversion to realize that developing nuclear energy technology is a highly moral and rewarding way to build a useful career. Some of us experienced good teaching or early personal experiences that allowed us to see through the propaganda and take the road less traveled.
Though I have always been “Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy”, I welcome all converts with open arms and open books. After all, once a curious person gets past the dogma, there is an enormous and growing library of information about the technology with an even larger universe of future developments and opportunities.
Put Pandora’s Promise on your radar. Go out and see it as soon as it comes to a city near you.
PS – I have to share a little laugh with you. Try going to pandoraspromise.org and see who has purchased that domain name and redirected it to their propaganda site.