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The Power of Doubt in Pandora’s Promise

Note: Be sure to look at all of Nuclear Notes’ coverage of this important movie, most notably Eric’s review below.

Should you trust a “review” of Pandora’s Promise, Robert Stone’s new movie on nuclear energy, from this particular site? Well, that’s up to you to decide. If I thought the movie terrible as a film going experience, there would still be a lot to say about it – and I wouldn’t want people who have waited a long time for a pro-nuclear movie to avoid it on my account unless it was a briar patch of lies.

But Pandora’s Promise is good. It’s skillfully made, accessible to an interested general audience (in both style and content – this isn’t a dry dissertation) and it maintains a simple interview approach – shots are composed but the compositions are largely determined by the subjects – it isn’t as tightly controlled as an Errol Morris special.

And it allows a more complex point-of-view than is usual for a subject vulnerable to blunt polemics – for example, it shows how decisions made early in the history of domestic nuclear energy exacerbated the current issue of storing used nuclear fuel. (Of course, making different decisions would have opened up different issues.) If nothing else – and there’s plenty else –the movie demonstrates that domestic nuclear energy was founded at the nexus of government, military, scientific, industrial and energy interests, against the 50s backdrop of an escalating cold war.

The history of domestic nuclear energy is fascinating and I’m glad the movie gives such an interesting account of it (Charles Till, of Argonne National Labs, provides a lot of the interesting background.) , but the theme of the film, in brief, is doubt – not doubt about nuclear energy per se but doubt about not nuclear energy. Because: if not nuclear energy, what then?

As the environmental movement expanded from concerns about water and air quality to the more existential issue of climate change, its highly negative view of nuclear energy began to seem, to some movement adherents, more and more untenable. From their perspective, the world would almost certainly experience disaster if  nuclear energy did not exist to provide plentiful greenhouse gas-free base load energy. And that bred another doubt: that nuclear energy was ever as bad as they had believed.

To explore these doubts, Stone spoke to (and sometimes traveled with) various environmentalists, including Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Cravens (her Power to Save the World, at the link, is a great book), Mark Lynas, Richard Rhodes, and Michael Shellenberger. I assume Stone is their interlocutor, but you hear him on the soundtrack only occasionally and rarely see him. Since these are stories about their gathering doubts, the focus is on them.
They’re an impressive crew, and Stone clears space for them to explain themselves. Changing your mind about a key tenet of your guiding philosophy is very hard, akin to deciding there is no God. For many, it would be nearly impossible to fully process.

Doubt for these people occurred because personal curiosity provoked further investigation into nuclear energy; or the terms of their environmental activism changed as the impact of climate change became more apparent; or simply because age burned away some of the certainty (if none of the idealism) of their younger selves.

Most of them still consider themselves primarily as environmental activists (Shellenberger is president of The Breakthrough Institute, for example – NEI’s Insight newsletter has an interview with his partner Jesse Jenkins) but some express very severe doubts about the environmental movement in general. 

Other factors doubtless weighed in, too, notably the arrival of the next generation. Mark Lynas is quite explicit that fatherhood changed many of his views while Gwyneth Cravens never loses sight of her children in any of her activism. Her original distaste for nuclear energy and her current advocacy both root in her concern for her kids – and by extension, all kids everywhere, otherwise known as the future. Others, such as Stewart Brand, seem to have bypassed the experiential and gone straight for the cosmic. Whatever road they traveled down, they arrived at a place where nuclear energy is the most potent solution to climate change, the issue that now most engages them.

One might reasonably have expected some stridency or pugnaciousness from these activists, after lives speaking and arguing and protesting. But, no, this is a very amiable crowd. There is a photograph shown of Shellenberger in younger days that suggests he could bring it when required, but in the new footage, he’s so relaxed he can barely bother with shoes.

Is the movie perfect? Is there such a thing?

From my perspective, there is one serious misstep. One small bit of footage shows Stone making a fool of Dr. Helen Caldicott, a long-time anti-nuclear activist. (Nuclear Notes has a long history with Dr. Caldicott’s brand of mendacity.) Leaving aside how easy this is to do, it inserts a Michael Moore-style mean-spiritedness into a very friendly show – the same thing could probably have been done to Gwyneth Cravens or Stewart Brand in their anti-nuclear days. It’s there for pro-nuclear people to snicker at, which in this context has no useful purpose.

I’ve read some reviews that say the film should have aimed for more balance – i.e. included some anti-nuclear activists in the mix – but this isn’t that kind of film. This is a documentary not a news report and it need not aim for any balance at all. In many news stories, after all, such balance is very often a route to confusion, with information mixed so completely with misinformation that the truth recedes into the distance.

Pandora’s Promise is clearly Robert Stone’s film about nuclear energy and he’s not in the least conflicted about nuclear energy – so there’s no reason for the film to generate artificial conflict. Think of it as an essay, not a news story. An anti-nuclear Robert Stone can have a go at his or her own film essay, but in the meantime, this is what it is.

Like many documentaries that aren’t by Ken Burns and 12 hours long, the goal here is to present a viewpoint as fully as possible and then leave it in our hands. There isn’t time to tell everything, but there is time to suggest a lot of routes for further research, including into the biographies of these people and their plentiful writings (few of them are well-known outside their sphere of interest) and the information provided about nuclear energy (for example, I had no idea that Chernobyl continued operation after the 1987 accident there well into the 1990s, but it did). Such research is unlikely to go unrewarded and I know the perfect place to start.


onyerleft said…
I disagree about Stone "making a fool" of Helen Caldicott.

He instead does a masterful job at letting her hang herself with a loony, fringe, uninformed and dangerous diatribe.
Luke said…
Stone doesn't make a fool of Caldicott. He just provides a camera, and lets Caldicott be Caldicott.
SteveK9 said…
Someone should have recorded RFK at the premier. From the reporting at this site, I would say he did the same thing to himself that Helen did to herself.

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