Depot Docs: Pandora’s Promise

Screening on Jan. 16 followed by panel discussion on nuclear power

By James O’Barr

Pandora’s Promise, next up for Depot Docs on Friday, Jan. 16, promises a lot. “When was the last time you saw a documentary that fundamentally changed the way you think?” asks the promotional blurb. “What if this cube (a sugar-cube-sized chunk of presumably nuclear fuel) could power your entire life?”

The film, written, produced, directed and shot by Oscar nominee Robert Stone (Radio Bikini), proposes that “the one energy source that has the ability to completely replace fossil fuels might be the one technology that environmentalists fear the most: nuclear power.” According to Stone and the witnesses for the prosecution he has assembled, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt: “The rapid deployment of nuclear power is now the greatest hope we have for saving us from an environmental catastrophe.”

Those witnesses, longtime environmental thinkers, writers and activists Stewart Brand, Richard Rhodes, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger, have all had conversion experiences, leaving behind former allies in the environmental movement. These dyed-in-the-wool, fundamentalist anti-nuclear activists, they say, are unable to get over their arms-race-induced fear and loathing of nuclear power.

As a result, they are as dangerous to the ecological health of the planet as climate-change deniers, guaranteeing the continued use of fossil fuels in an increasingly energy-hungry world. Brand and company, on the other hand, are presented as calm, thoughtful, caring, intelligent grown-ups who’ve looked long and hard at the facts, and have decided that to be truly green is to be enthusiastically nuclear.

It seems superfluous to say it in this golden age of documentary film, but Pandora’s Promise is beautifully made, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Gary Lionelli, artful editing by the Depot Docs’ own Don Kleszy, and some breathtaking cinematography (by the director) in the air and on the ground at both Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Showing those scenes of horrific devastation associated with nuclear power seemed at first a daring gamble, until it became clear that the purpose was to deconstruct and dismiss the received wisdom about the actual damage caused by the meltdowns at the plants. But with no other voice or source to serve as a counterargument, one is left entirely dependent on the filmmaker and his witnesses.

For a subject with as dark, difficult and contentious a history as nuclear power, with the fate of the earth in the balance and, especially here in Pete Seeger’s Hudson Valley, just upriver from the very large, very old nuclear facility at Indian Point, this seems a lost opportunity. Stone takes this question up at great length (76 pages) on the film’s website, in a section called “Pandora’s Back Pages: Notes on a Sustainable Nuclear Age” (pandoraspromise.com).

While acknowledging that “some viewers may feel slighted by neglect of anti-nuclear arguments,” he doesn’t include them here, providing instead 76 pages of information and commentary justifying the film’s nuclear advocacy. This would have been a good place to have addressed the serious question of the costs, and the time required, to build the modern fast breeder reactors discussed in the film.

Lucky members of the Depot Docs audience won’t have to wade through all that technical material, or be left wondering if, like the filmmaker, “everything I thought I knew about nuclear energy turned out to be wrong.”

Instead of the usual post-screening Q-and-A, Stone will be present for a panel discussion, moderated by Dot Earth’s Andy Revkin, with Riverkeeper’s Paul Gallay. That’s 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, at the Philipstown Depot Theatre, Garrison’s Landing. Advance tickets are highly recommended, and can be had at brownpapertickets.com. For more information, call the Depot Theatre at 845-424-3900, or go to philipstowndepottheatre.org.

5 thoughts on “Depot Docs: Pandora’s Promise

  1. Calling this a documentary is really stretching a term. Manohla Dargis, movie reviewer for the New York Times, called Pandora’s Promise “as stacked as advocate movies get” (June 11, 2013). Robert Stone took a lot of money from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and selectively included only his side. Dargis also wrote, “There’s an environmental case to be made for nuclear power….but you need to make an argument. A parade of like-minded nuclear power advocates who assure us that everything will be alright just doesn’t cut it.”

  2. Until the nuclear industry and everyone who speaks for it can figure out what to do with the thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste (2,700 tons at Indian Point alone!) that will poison the planet for centuries to come, they have no credibility — I don’t care how good is the latest technology or how beautiful the visuals in the film.

  3. While new designs for nuclear power plants may hold promise, human beings are simply way too fallible and flawed to be trusted with this devastating technology, as history has so clearly demonstrated. We need look no further than Indian Point, where a corporation’s profit motives put us all in danger as they seek to keep running an aged plant well beyond its design life.

  4. Pandora’s Promise promotes the new Gen IV reactors that do not even exist yet, while renewable energy technologies move ahead quickly. The Gen IV reactors IF POSSIBLE, will still have expiration dates and at the end of the road, there will be piles of plutonium, one of the deadliest elements known to man and that has a 24,000 year half-life, so it will be toxic for a quarter of a million years. When Robert Stone eats plutonium for lunch I will reconsider my opposition. BTW, sodium-cooled reactors have been tried in the past and many caught fire because the sodium becomes volatile when exposed to moisture.

  5. Contra NYT’s Dargis, the preeminent nuclear critic Helen Caldecott is prominently featured in Pandora’s Promise. She is on record elsewhere advocating a return to pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-electrical technologies such as in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

    Used nuclear fuel (UNF), a.k.a. “nuclear waste”, retains >97% of its potential energy. Accumulated world stockpiles of UNF are sufficient to generate current electricity demand for centuries without further uranium mining.

    Keep in mind that according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, along with ALL other peer-reviewed life-cycle analysis, even early model fission reactors are thousands of times safer than coal-burning power plants. Nuclear fission is the major U.S. source of non-hydrocarbon, ultra-low carbon emission electricity (2/3rds of generation) compared to hydro, wind and solar combined at 1/3.

    Is plutonium edible? Should that really be the standard of safety? Cadmium is documented to be a far more toxic poison than plutonium. People have lived long, cancer-free lives with old plutonium-powered pacemakers implanted in their bodies. The cadmium waste stream in solar photovoltaics (PV) manufacture is FAR more widespread. In China PV & electronics related cadmium waste-sludge has contaminated a majority of its rice crop as documented by Greenpeace; to date Greenpeace has not found plutonium contaminated farmland anywhere. Even the Chernobyl reactor explosion did not contaminate farmland with plutonium.