Film Rankles Environmentalists By Advocating Nuclear Power

A new documentary argues that environmentalists should favor nuclear power, not oppose it, on the grounds that the world's growing appetite for energy can't be met solely with wind and solar. Pandora's Promise is in theaters now, and not winning friends in the mainstream environmental movement.

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In a new documentary, filmmaker Robert Stone explores this paradox. Why do so many environmentalists concerned about climate change reject the most abundant source of low-carbon energy, nuclear power? The film, "Pandora's Promise," follows five people who changed their anti-nuclear stance in light of climate change.

NPR's Richard Harris has our story.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Robert Stone started out his career with an anti-nuclear documentary, focusing on testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. And a few years ago, he finished a film sympathetic to the environmental movement.

ROBERT STONE: It was really coming out of making that film that I grew increasingly alarmed about climate change and concerned that the approaches that the environmental movement has been taken towards climate change in the last 25 years simply have not worked.

HARRIS: The world's demand for energy is going to double or triple in the coming decades to meet the needs of two billion more people, as well as those in India and China who are building middle class lifestyles.

STONE: And you can't at the same time as you're delivering clean energy to this whole new group of people - at the same time displace the entire fossil fuel infrastructure, and do it all with just wind and solar. It's simply not going to happen.

HARRIS: Stone said the old-line environmental movement has not been willing to acknowledge that. And if they did, he argues in his film that they would embrace their long-time nemesis, nuclear power, as a critical way to power the planet without making climate change vastly worse.

To tell this story, he found five authors and activists who have changed their minds and now favor nuclear energy. They include Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog; British environmentalist Mark Lynas; and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes, who singled out journalists for building the case against nuclear power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PANDORA'S PROMISE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I came to realize they basically avoided looking at the whole picture and only looked at the questions that seem to prove to them that nuclear power was dangerous, as I had, too.

HARRIS: The film then lays out the argument that we can't do without nuclear power. It talks about new generations of much safer plants, ones that could burn the nuclear waste that people fret about today. And it argues nuclear energy, even with its few traumatic accidents, is much safer than fossil fuels.

In one scene, Stone confronts Helen Caldicott, one of the leading anti-nuclear voices. She's at a rally in New York, where she's arguing that the United Nations is part of a huge conspiracy to cover up a million deaths from the Chernobyl accident. Stone asks Caldicott to explain how her conspiracy theory about the U.N. is different from the conspiracy theory that comes from climate skeptics, who say the U.N. has fabricated global warming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PANDORA'S PROMISE")

HELEN CALDICOTT: That by denying science, we're going back into the Dark Ages.

STONE: You're saying the same...

CALDICOTT: How dare they deny science? Not to understand science and medicine in this day and age is more than irresponsible.

STONE: How do you square these two conflicts?

CALDICOTT: I can't.

HARRIS: Stone's spends very little time on two big issues related to nuclear power - that is, whether an expanded nuclear industry could also end up spreading nuclear weapons and the matter of cost. Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists says the environment movement isn't killing nuclear power, economics is.

EDWIN LYMAN: The capital cost of a new nuclear power plant simply renders it unaffordable.

HARRIS: And he argues the biggest challenge facing nuclear power going forward is finding a way to make it safe enough at a reasonable cost. That core technical issue isn't addressed in the documentary.

LYMAN: There have always been devotees of the technology who believe that it has this promise that simply has not yet been realized. But if you actually look at the facts on the ground, nuclear power has been a very, very difficult technology to bring from the pads and pencils of the designers into the real world.

HARRIS: Lyman's group has a deep concern about climate change but it has not come to the conclusion that nuclear is an essential part of the response.

Writer and director Robert Stone said his film - which was funded by left-leaning thinkers, not the nuclear industry - was intended to trigger a conversation about nuclear and it has.

STONE: There's no perfect solution. If you're going to wait around for the absolute perfect technology, where there's absolutely no downside ever, well, I'll show you the technology that simply doesn't work.

HARRIS: And he adds, if someone does the math and shows that we can stop climate change without nuclear power, he'd be happy to take another road. He just doesn't see it.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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