The most counterintuitive enviro-doc of the year, Pandora’s Promise makes the case that nuclear power may be the closest thing Earth has to a sustainable, realistic supply of energy. A group of activists—including Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, author-journalist Gwyneth Cravens, The Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger, weapons expert Richard Rhodes, and the persuasive, conflicted British writer Mark Lynas—share stories of how they became converts, expressing an urgent need for the green lobby to rethink its priorities.
The argument goes something like this: Energy use is growing constantly—an iPhone consumes as much power as a refrigerator—and should continue to do so, given its correlation with an increased quality of life. Wind turbines require natural gas as backup, solar panels are toxic to produce, and a vote against nuclear is effectively a vote for pollution-causing coal and fuel. Going atomic amounts to the least-worst option. Pandora’s Promise suggests that plants can be constructed with designs that would have prevented the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima—which, the film argues in its most eyebrow-raising maneuver, were apparently less catastrophic than advertised. Supplementing WHO statistics, director Robert Stone takes a Geiger counter around the globe, comparing natural background radiation in major cities to what remains in fallout zones.
The arguments fly by persuasively, yet Pandora’s Promise would still be best watched in the presence of a panel of physicists, who could then confirm, disconfirm, or complicate each point. Do most viewers have the critical tools to assess this material at movie speed? (There’s talk of how journalists fail to provide proper context for contamination figures—but don’t expect much clarity on how many microsieverts of radiation are “safe,” or, for that matter, how substantial a microsievert is.) The film gains superficial force from the idea that its subjects seemingly aren’t zealots but, for the most part, former anti-nuclear advocates themselves. (This includes Stone, who was Oscar-nominated for 1988’s Radio Bikini, about U.S. nuclear tests in the Pacific.) Googling only muddies the waters on their various motivations and methodologies. Perfunctorily assembled, Pandora’s Promise is essentially a pamphlet in motion whose goal is to prompt a larger discussion. But it offers plenty to discuss, and that isn’t bad.