Sunday, 20 April 2014

Pandora’s Promise, a film by Robert Stone

Nuclear energy has suffered from bad press. Ask people what the word nuclear evokes and you’ll probably get words like fallout, radiation, meltdown, armageddon, and nuclear winter. The nuclear industry is linked in the public perception to public health concerns such as an increased cancer risk, and to environmental catastrophes such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The popular fiction surrounding nuclear is of a future where vast swathes of the planet have been made uninhabitable by nuclear disaster, either as the result of malignant forces, be they terrorists or a renegade military, or by our own stupidity and greed. Ironically perhaps the images used to promote nuclear energy when it was first introduced in the 1950’s and 1960’s have become the same images which are now the stuff of nuclear nightmares: large glowing giants marching through huge power hungry cities; strings of electricity pylons crossing the landscape emitting powerful invisible rays; faceless scientists in lab coats assuring us that everything is better with nuclear power. 

Robert Stone’s 2013 documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, sets about to debunk these myths. And it does this by interviewing at length environmentalists, scientists and commentators who in recent years have changed sides in the debate, from strongly opposed to strongly in favour. The interviewees include: founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, Stewart Brand; Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Rhodes; science writer, Gwyneth Cravens; and activists, Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger. From the very beginning the “fearlessly independent” film contrasts the calm, scientific opinions of it’s protagonists with footage of emotional anti-nuclear demonstrations, juxtaposing the science with ordinary people’s anger and passion. 

The structure of the film is simple. It outlines the arguments against one by one, being sure to present them as understandable concerns, and then carefully presents evidence to convince otherwise. It claims that people have been scared away from nuclear energy because of the very real dangers of nuclear weapons, and that people are guilty of confusing the two very different issues. It describes nuclear energy as a clean energy and a potentially unlimited source of electricity. 

Many of the arguments put forward in the film are compelling. It talks of our ever expanding demand for energy, saying that, as the developing world catches up with the developed world, energy consumption is set to double by 2050 and treble by 2100. It tells us of the often unseen energy costs of the latest technologies. For example, when you take into account the manufacturing process and the servers needed to maintain everything it is connected to, an iPhone consumes the same amount of energy as a fridge. 

The film makes the argument that the countries that consume the most electricity are the ones with the highest standard of living, which I can see makes sense as these are usually the richest countries who can afford better health care and have better access to water and food, but it then goes on to suggest that these countries have a higher standard of living because they consume more electricity, and that therefore it is a human right for developing countries to consume as much electricity as we in the developed world do. This argument strikes me not only as overly simplistic (there are many other factors involved with having a higher standard of living such as governments and companies controlling access to resources, a hangover from our Colonial past) but also as false logic. The sun is hot therefore everything hot is the sun. It doesn’t work. 

The film acknowledges climate change as a reality and says we need to seriously cut-down on use of fossil fuels, stating that three million people per year die as a result of air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels, primarily coal, but says that to expect renewables such as solar and wind to take up the shortfall is an impossibility. Their power generation capabilities are too sporadic (the wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine) and they usually rely on natural gas (a fossil fuel) as a back up. The film goes on to suggest that the fossil fuel industry, which it describes as being incredibly cynical, has at times helped bankroll the anti-nuclear lobby because it knows that renewables cannot possibly pose a threat to it’s continuing dominance. The film’s conclusion is that only nuclear power can produce enough electricity to satisfy the world’s growing needs.

Finally the film tackles perhaps the biggest stumbling block to the population’s acceptance of nuclear energy: safety. Again, Pandora’s Promise aims to allay these fears. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the result of nuclear weapons not nuclear energy. Background radiation is naturally occurring and, we learn, increases with altitude. The current levels of radiation at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are lower than those naturally occurring in the hills of New Hampshire, and much lower (up to ten times lower) than those passengers are exposed to on an air flight. Accidents which occurred at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island couldn’t possibly happen again as the technology has improved since then to make such accidents impossible. 

Only fifty six people, as reported by the World Health Organization, have died as a result of Chernobyl the film claims. The film compares this number to the “one million” dead as claimed by environmental groups. Far from being a barren empty wasteland Chernobyl has a thriving local environment and many communities have moved back in with no apparent detrimental effects. Having worked in the past with an organisation providing life affirming and life improving activities for children from Chernobyl suffering from Leukaemia I do question these facts. If fallout from such an accident wasn’t as bad as we thought why do such organisations exist? And what constitutes an acceptable level of risk anyway? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? I don’t think anyone has ever been killed by a wind turbine or solar panel.

No matter how ‘safe‘ nuclear energy production is, and I still have unanswered questions after watching this film, I still can’t get beyond the issue of waste. Pandora’s Promise attempts to ease fears regarding the waste issue also (although it doesn’t even mention it until two thirds of the way in): the next (fourth) generation of power stations produces very little waste, most of which can be recycled as fuel to produce yet more power, and the resulting unusable waste from this process is only dangerous for eight hundred years rather than the ten thousand years of the current (third) generation power stations. This waste, the film claims, can be, and currently is being, safely stored on site. But, even if we’re only talking hundreds rather than thousands of years, how can we predict what the world will be like in eight hundred years time? Just think for a moment what the world was like eight hundred years ago, and how alien the twenty-first century might look to someone from the thirteenth century. How can we possibly plan to keep waste safe for such an unknowable future? 

If we were certain of the stability of our future, as a planet and as a species, if we could count on an optimistic outlook for our science and culture, of the continuation of our ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ way of life, then maybe we could be certain of the safety of nuclear. But I am not convinced. I am not convinced of the stability of our present, that our ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ way of life even exists now, let alone being certain of an unforeseeable future hundreds of years hence. There are too many uncertainties to take the risk.

I think the main issue here is one of over-consumption. The idea of the whole planet consuming as much energy as we in the developed world do now terrifies me. We consume too much. Our systems are inefficient. We produce far too much waste. Most of our systems of energy use were developed at a time of apparent super-abundance. We had no idea how much population and demand was going to grow. Rather than bringing the rest of the world up to our level of consumption we need to seriously cut-back on our own. Without denying the developing world improvements in standards of living we need to find a sustainable middle ground.  

Even after watching this film I still believe that we need to develop renewables. The sun is always shining somewhere. The wind is always blowing somewhere. Geothermal and tidal energy are never ending sources of power. Maybe we need to rethink how we access and distribute our resources. But also we need to develop micro-generation technologies. We need a revolution in energy production similar to the one that has been building in recent years in food production - locally sourced and sustainable. Ironically perhaps the very processes we need to be developing, such as small scale, micro-generation, permaculture, and mobile technologies, are being trialled most effectively in the developing world, in places that don’t have the huge infrastructure of the developed world.  

This film is right in that we need a calm, reasoned debate on the issue of nuclear power,  especially now as our government plans for the next generation of power stations. We need to look very carefully at the facts and not be overwhelmed by our often irrational emotions, and Pandora’s Promise certainly adds to this very important debate. But I do question some of it’s conclusions and it’s “fearless independence”. And many of the questions around nuclear power still, unfortunately, remain unanswered.