Just as engineers at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima nuclear plant get ready to move 1,524 fuel assemblies from the spent fuel pool, CNN aired a 2013 “documentary” called Pandora’s Promise by Robert Stone. Before I get into the film, however, I did a double take when I saw that the very first commercial was for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
The premise of the film is how alleged ecological activists have thought about it for a while and have come to the conclusion that nuclear power is good for the environment.
Its takeoff point is that we have to do something about global warming — and that something is to build a lot of nuclear power plants, so that we can power up every place from New Jersey to Namibia (spreading the gospel of cheap electricity to the developing world).
The “documentary” had so many problems (or rather, innovative design features) I am having trouble deciding where to begin analyzing them. I think, however, that the most serious was the point of view of its director, stated in a panel discussion hosted by Anderson Cooper, that as a result of nuclear power, “Nobody has died, nobody has gotten sick and according to the best science in the world, nobody ever will.”
Nobody? Ever? Right. He tried to make the case that everyone who responded to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is fine (well, except for a few who are not, who don’t matter that much), and everyone who responded to Fukushima are all doing great. The American nuclear industry has an impeccably perfect record.
To put it politely, everything in this movie is a lie or delusion told by people who are seduced by the seemingly supernatural power of nuclear technology and who have succumbed to the dark side. Physicists explain how it’s fantastic in theory, skipping over what can go wrong.
Like the rest of the nuclear industry, the documentary does not address any worst-case scenarios, which must be ignored if the agenda is to persist. For example, what happens if there is a power grid outage with the plants shut down, and there’s no electricity to run the cooling systems?
Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, PA, became the visual symbol for all that was wrong with nuclear power. Unit One to the left is still operating; Unit 2 melted down and has not been used since the accident. Photo: Atomic Archive.
Nuclear power plants make energy when they’re on and draw power when they’re off. An energy ejection from the Sun could knock out a huge swath of the power grid. Then what? Not discussed; not mentioned.
What about a meltdown near a big city? You cannot evacuate Tokyo or the metro New York area; there are no plans to do so. Not mentioned.
The idea that the potential for a low-probability but catastrophic event has to be ignored is a central argument of my nuclear power mentor Karl Grossman, who documents how the atomic bomb and nuclear power are the same thing — a fact that the film went to some length to dismiss.
Among those featured were Stewart Brand, devoted pro-nuclear founder of the Whole Earth Catalog; Mark Lynas (a British climate change author and activist), Richard Rhodes (journalist and historian, and author of the Pulitzer-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb) and Michael Shellenberger (alleged environmental policy expert), all of whom came to the conclusion that nuclear power is the only thing that can save us from global warming.
Helen Caldicott, a doctor and anti-nuclear activist, makes a cameo. Actual environmental advocates were portrayed as fear mongers who are the real problem. This is the ‘blame the messenger’ / An Enemy of the People argument that is getting so old I am surprised anyone falls for it, but hey, we’re talking about humans.
What could possibly go wrong? Aftermath of 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine.
Anderson Cooper’s panel, aired several times through the night, included Ralph Nader, whom Shellenberger accused of being the problem. He said that frantic ’60s- and ’70s-styled Earth Day-types — not radiation — were to blame for unfair public perception of the industry as dangerous. That, in turn, shut down development of new nuclear plants after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident (therefore, the industry could not be given a fair chance).
Watching Pandora’s Poison reminded me of my teenage conversations with my father, who was on the public relations team that tried to clean up after the Three Mile Island accident. Prof. Coppolino went on to be a nuclear power industry communications consultant. What I learned from my father is that the nuclear industry believes that its product is absolutely, perfectly, unquestionably safe.
“We don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste,” I once said.
“I’ll give you that,” he replied. Turns out that was extremely generous of him.
Pandora’s Promise would not go that far — they argued that the problem of nuclear waste was solved perfectly by above-ground, dry cask storage. All the waste generated by all the nuclear power plants in the U.S. so far would merely cover a football field. And hey, it’ll be perfect after a few millennia — except of course for the plutonium, which takes a little longer. Unless the fuel in some storage facility reaches criticality and an uncontrolled fire starts. Or unless someone bombs the place, or if there is a quake and the casks break or…
— Eric Francis
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