Glowing Green

4 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Early in the new documentary Pandora’s Promise, British environmental writer Mark Lynas travels to the Japanese town of Fukushima, now famous as the site of a 2011 nuclear meltdown. Lynas is a longtime nuclear critic who has since rethought his opposition to atomic power. Dressed in protective equipment and carrying a radiation detector, Lynas roams the spooky, abandoned streets of Fukushima. The desolation is apparent, and it touches even a staunch atomic advocate like Lynas. “There’s no other energy source that does this, leaves huge areas contaminated by its strange invisible presence,” he says. “I could see why we’d want to do without nuclear power.”

That dread is why nuclear power–which provides nearly 20% of U.S. electricity–is considered so dangerous by so many. Yet the Fukushima example actually shows something else. According to a recent U.N. report, there will likely be no detectable health impacts from the radiation released by the Fukushima meltdown. The biggest catastrophe in nuclear power since Chernobyl has turned out to be less catastrophic than it seemed. And that’s one of many reasons that nuclear energy, which has been demonized by environmentalists, deserves a fresh look.

That fresh look is precisely what Pandora’s Promise sets out to offer. Loosely following the stories of a handful of writers and environmentalists who have reconsidered their knee-jerk opposition to nukes, the film makes the case that nuclear energy really does have the power to save the world.

Nuclear plants are the only source of power–other than hydro, which has hit its limits–that can supply base-load electricity on a mass scale without producing greenhouse-gas emissions. (Renewable sources like wind and solar are important, but they’re too intermittent for now to meet growing global energy demand.) The danger from radiation has been overblown by some activists, and even the rare accidents at nuclear sites haven’t caused that much harm–especially compared with the 14,000 American deaths each year because of air pollution from coal plants. In the face of climate change, it is difficult to be fundamentally antinuclear–and yet there’s not a single major environmental group staunchly in favor of more nuclear power plants.

Pandora’s Promise is at its best when debunking nuclear fears, tracing that anxiety to the loathing that surrounds nuclear weapons. “There was a sense that this was not primarily an energy source,” says Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a main voice in the film. “This was primarily a weapon that we feel bad about.” We conflated Hiroshima and Chernobyl and came to dread them in equal measure.

Excess radiation is dangerous: Chernobyl, while not the hellscape it’s often portrayed to be, killed scores of people and contributed to thousands of cancer cases. But that “strange invisible presence” is also a part of life, as the film shows by ticking off the varying background levels of radiation discovered at sites around the globe–including Brazil’s positively glowing Guarapari beach.

If Pandora’s Promise defuses the argument that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous, it’s less successful in making the equally important case that it is economical. Utilities in the U.S. have shied away from building new plants less because of fears about radiation than because construction can cost billions of dollars. New technologies like fast-breeder reactors and thorium-fuel-cycle designs offer more safety and cost savings, but commercial plants are likely years away. If nuclear power is going to save the world, it needs to be safe and cheap.

Critics will argue that Pandora’s Promise stacks the deck–the only nuclear critics onscreen come off as nutty–but this is still a film that should be seen, especially by environmentalists. The effort to fight climate change while providing energy for a planet of 7 billion people will require clear thinking about where we get our energy. Nuclear power needn’t be radioactive for greens.

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