Last Sunday I attended a screening of Pandora’s Promise in a strongly air conditioned Sydney cinema (probably fossil fueled).
I was curious to see the make up of the audience. Would I see the usual suspects, all my old (and I mean that quite literally) pro- (as well as anti-) nuclear colleagues? Would there be a younger audience, a new generation sufficiently open-minded to help bring the discussion out of the guilty shadows and show risk-averse politicians the way to take a dispassionate look at the role of nuclear energy in generating reliable low-carbon energy in an energy-voracious world? Could it move the discourse in Australia from an argument to a debate?
The audience was rather 'mature', but that balance will probably be restored when the film is globally launched on iTunes on 3 December. In the Q&A, director Robert Stone was optimistic that the message would have particular appeal to a younger, solution-focused demographic.
But to the film. With only 80-90 minutes to cover a huge canvas, Robert Stone’s film is a creditable effort to demonstrate nuclear power’s tested potential to deliver clean, relatively safe base-load power, in contrast to unreliable renewables such as wind and solar (despite recent improvements).
The film was dominated by testimonials from environmentalists and why they changed their opposition to nuclear energy, which most admitted was based on a 'feeling' rather than science. This may account for a couple of slightly clunky moments: in one scene, British environmentalist David Lynas goes to Fukushima with his Geiger counter and, after a fairly high reading, is asked by the film maker whether he is 'still pro-nuclear'. The notion that elevated readings at Fukushima is all it will take to change his mind suggests that the new pro-nuclear stance is about as simplistic as the anti-nuclear stance which preceded it. Perhaps this short cut is due to the exigencies of the editing room.
It was encouraging to get an open minded perspective from the converts. Pro-nuclear wonks, who tend to dismiss criticism of the dangers and costs of nuclear energy as ignorant or deluded, could take a leaf out of their book.
The film throws light on nuclear power, its history and potential as the technology becomes safer. It sheds light on the big fossil fuel business bias against nuclear energy and the fact that, despite entry into the market of renewables, global use of coal continues to rise inexorably. It nicely dramatises the fact that hopes for a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions in a timely fashion to reduce the risk of a global environmental catastrophe is a delusion, and that the demand for global growth, with its voracious energy needs, are unstoppable.
Pandora's Promise suggests that the green movement is betraying its own values by continuing to perpetuate the myth that a global treaty and energy efficiency will achieve the required environmental outcome. In this the greens are complicit with the fossil fuel industry and the growth in global coal consumption.
The film shows the irony of pro-nuclear politicians, mostly on the right side of politics, who are not in favour of energy policies to help reduce carbon emissions, while those on the left who oppose nuclear power are, by their opposition, complicit in the rise and rise of carbon emissions. Here lie the seeds of a bipartisan approach to a nuclear energy policy with extraordinary potential for the environment.
The film is less strong in tackling the argument that nuclear power increases weapons proliferation dangers, although the reduced proliferation risks of new-generation reactors is covered.
My main criticism of the film would be its almost exclusively North Atlantic, developed-country focus. There are images of Brazilian poverty, suggesting the need for reliable clean energy for growth and development. But there is nothing on the world’s most populous, fastest growing but still developing countries India and China, both of which have active civilian nuclear programs which face strong grass roots opposition due to justified concerns about corrupt governance and lax safety.
The laxness of the regulator in developed Japan would have reinforced these concerns. The IAEA knows that without a dramatic improvement in safety, the nuclear industry will never increase its global share of energy supply.
A large problem with the nuclear debate has been the inability of advocates to explain, in plain language, what the benefits and risks are, and why the benefits outweigh the risks. Trying to explain complex science without being simplistic is a challenge, and the film is a good first try.
Director Robert Stone says he has been thrilled by the global response, even before the global launch on 3 December. He thinks it signals the start of a movement. When I look at the history of other movements, such as the women’s movement, which touches 51% of the world’s population, or even the environmental movement, I am not sure his expectations will be fulfilled. But if even half of the environmental movement were to switch to supporting nuclear power, he might be onto something. Stone is to be congratulated for getting the ball rolling.