‘Outside’ at Sundance: Going Pro-Nuclear

Robert Stone, the Academy Award-nominated director behind Radio Bikini, has done a complete 180, embracing nuclear power in Pandora's Promise, his latest documentary. What caused him to come around?

Mina Hochberg

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In 1988, director Robert Stone received an Academy Award nomination for his anti-nuclear documentary Radio Bikini. Twenty-five years later, he pulls an about-face with Pandora’s Promise, in which he interviews respected environmentalists about their evolution from anti- to pro-nuclear. As Stone states in the press notes for his film, “I’ve learned that just about everything I thought I knew about energy turned out to be wrong.”

One refrain among activists like Michael Shellenberger and Gwyneth Cravens is that their former anti-nuclear stance stemmed more from dogma than from facts and research—and that anti-nuclear activists are failing to consider the whole picture. The movie goes so far as to compare the rigidity of nuclear naysayers with the rigidity of climate change naysayers: both cling to beliefs despite evidence to the contrary.

So what are the facts? For one, the documentary contends, the safety risks of nuclear reactors have been blown out of proportion. The death toll and rate of birth defects are, in fact, quite low, statistically speaking. (For example, the death toll from Chernobyl is officially 56, a lower count than many might guess.) The film also asserts that today’s generation of nuclear reactors are much safer than their predecessors and are basically meltdown-proof.

What about renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power? Stone makes the argument that no matter how hopeful environmentalists might be, the world simply cannot power itself on solar and wind energy, which currently provides less than two percent of electricity around the globe. It’s neither a practical nor a viable solution. Ergo, Stone concludes, nuclear energy is the only alternative to fossil fuel resources that can reliably provide power on a global scale.

It’s hard to embrace the message of Pandora’s Promise when you’ve been raised to believe nuclear energy is evil. As Richard Rhodes says in the film, the public all too often conflates nuclear energy with nuclear weapons. Which is exactly why Stone decided to tell the story through the eyes of converts: These are people who had much to lose by outing themselves as pro-nuclear. Shellenberger admits he feared for his reputation as an environmentalist, and yet he couldn’t in good conscience stay quiet about his newly found beliefs.

Stone’s documentary really does give you pause. It’s fairly one-sided, but perhaps this is because Stone assumes we’re already familiar with the other side. An urgent and ultimately pragmatic film, Pandora’s Promise implores you to examine everything you knew—or thought you knew—about nuclear power.

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