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Robert Stone directed the wonderful environmental movement history documentary “Earth Days,” and that earns him the benefit of the doubt for his latest, “Pandora’s Promise.” He needs that benefit, because what he sets out to do in 87 minutes is upend 50 years of green movement anti-nuclear power dogma.
“Pandora’s Promise” suggests that we’ve been sold a pipe dream, a “Solartopia” and “the religion of energy efficiency and renewable” power. Logic and simple numbers crunching shows that renewable “clean” energy sources like that will never sate the world’s appetite for energy.
As Stone’s expert witnesses, many of them environmentalists who have changed sides in this debate, put it, consuming energy equates directly with “quality of life.” The southern hemisphere, China and other developing countries want and need more power to improve the quality of life. And “You can’t keep using ‘less energy’ forever,” environmentalist Mark Lynas quips.
The answer? Nuclear power. The thesis of Stone’s film is that a lot of mythology has grown up around the nuclear genie since it popped out of the bottle. He sets out to debunk those myths.
And say this for the guy — making this film hot on the heels of the Fukushima disaster, a nuclear power catastrophe that chased the deadly tsunami that triggered it right off the world’s front pages — is pretty gutsy.
“Pandora’s Promise” visits the prohibited zone around that plant, and takes us to Chernobyl. Stone’s experts — from nuclear physicist Charles Till to environmentalist and author Gwyneth Cravens and Pulitzer Prize-wining atomic history journalist Richard Rhodes — detail the history of demonizing nuclear power, and trot out the statistics that show how much cleaner and safer it is than the fastest growing worldwide energy sector — coal.
It’s impossible for Stone to go deep into the Cold War politics that made the far cleaner and more efficient (little waste) “breeder” reactor a non-starter, and “water” reactors the energy-maker of choice. But there’s time for the quick strokes of that history, the ways “The China Syndrome” has been drilled into our brains (“The Simpsons” play a role in that) and the sober-minded cost-benefit analysis that has been ignored.
The arguments — the atmosphere is filling with carbon, the planet is heating up, the energy demands of the world are soaring, and coal particles in the atmosphere kill more people in the average American state than all the people who have died in nuclear accidents since the beginning of the Atomic Age.
Shrill exaggerations of the death toll from Chernobyl are debunked, blunt assessments of how much energy that iPhone in your purse REALLY eats and the like make for a pretty compelling, if somewhat one-sided argument on this subject.
It’s a debate worth revisiting, and only the most dogmatic will resist it. Tilting so far toward one side means that Stone’s film merely brings the topic to the floor. But the day is coming when the world will have to have this argument all over again. As activist Mark Lynas declares, “Loving your children is about loving the future that they’re going to inhabit.” And that future may be either a hotter planet, or one where nuclear power turns the thermostat down.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with snippets of profanity
Cast: Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger, Richard Rhodes, Charles Till
Credits: Written and directed by Robert Stone. An Abramorama/CNN Films release
Running time: 1:27