Put “Pandora’s Promise” Back in the Box

Written by:
Ed Lyman
Senior Scientist
Union of Concerned Scientists

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good documentary: one that makes its case in a compelling way without resorting to crude propaganda techniques or insulting the intelligence of its audience. A good documentary treats opposing views with respect but then demolishes them with iron-clad arguments and well-supported evidence. And in addition, it should be a piece of engaging filmmaking.

A documentary of such caliber on the issue of nuclear energy would be very useful.  Nuclear energy is such a polarizing issue that the films it inspires tend to play to the extremes. Yet it is a complex subject that does not lend itself to a simple black or white treatment. A film that gives the question of the merits of nuclear energy the respect that it is due would not shy away from the messy middle.  It should instead provide a sound framework for how viewers should think about the debate and assess the available facts in order to come to their own decisions.

Unfortunately, “Pandora’s Promise” is not such a movie. By oversimplifying the issues, trivializing opposing viewpoints and mocking those who express them, and selectively presenting information in a misleading way, it serves more to obfuscate than to illuminate. As such, it adds little of value to the substantive debate about the merits of various energy sources in a carbon-constrained world.

“Pandora’s Promise,” taking a page from late-night infomercials, seeks to persuade via the testimonials of a number of self-proclaimed environmentalists who used to be opposed to nuclear power but have now changed their minds, including Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Richard Rhodes. The documentary tries to make its case primarily by impressing the audience with the significance of the personal journeys of these nuclear power converts, not by presenting the underlying arguments in a coherent way. This strategy puts great emphasis on the credibility of these spokespeople. Yet some of them sabotage their own credibility. When Lynas says that in his previous life as an anti-nuclear environmentalist he didn’t know that there was such a thing as natural background radiation, or Michael Shellenberger admitted to once taking on faith the claim that Chernobyl caused a million casualties, the audience may reasonably wonder why it should accept what they believe now that they are pro-nuclear.

My hand got tired trying to jot down all the less-than-half truths put forth by the talking heads in the film, which could have benefited from some fact-checking. Here’s just one example.  Gwyneth Cravens, when prompted by the interviewer about the leak of tritium from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, stated that someone would get more radiation from eating one banana than from drinking all the water coming out of the plant. Well, I thought I would double-check this one. The dose from eating a single banana is about 0.01 millirem. Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s owner, estimated in a 2011 report to the NRC that the leak detected in early 2010 released 2.79 curies of tritium into groundwater.  Assuming someone consumed all of this tritium in the form of tritiated water, that person would receive a dose of 185,000 millirem. Ms. Cravens was only off by a factor of twenty million. Perhaps she was referring to the actual amount of tritium that would end up in the wells of the plant’s neighbors, given dilution effects—but that isn’t what she said. These sloppy soundbites greatly diminish the film’s credibility.

A more egregious example of dishonesty is in the discussion of the health effects of Chernobyl. One after another, the film’s interviewees talk about how shocked they were to read the 2005 report of the Chernobyl Forum—a group under of U.N. agencies under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine—and discover that “the health effects of Chernobyl were nothing like what was expected.”  The film shows pages from that report with certain reassuring sentences underlined.  But there is no mention of the fact that the Chernobyl Forum only estimated the number of cancer deaths expected among the most highly exposed populations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and not the many thousands more predicted by published studies to occur in other parts of Europe that received high levels of fallout. Nor is there mention of the actual health consequences from Chernobyl, including the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers that had occurred by 2005 in individuals who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. And the film is silent on the results of more recent published studies that report evidence of excesses in other cancers, as well as cardiovascular diseases, are beginning to emerge.

Insult is then added to injury when Lynas then accuses the anti-nuclear movement of “cherry-picking of scientific data” to support their claims. Yet the film had just engaged in some pretty deceptive cherry-picking of its own. Lynas then goes on to assert that the Fukushima accident will probably never kill anyone from radiation, also ignoring studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand.  The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which obtained a copy of a draft report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), revealed that the report estimated a collective whole-body dose of 3.2 million person-rem to the population of Japan as a result of the accident: a dose that would cause in the range of 1,000-3,000 cancer deaths.

The film also puts forth the Integral Fast Reactor, a metal-fueled fast breeder reactor, as a visionary nuclear reactor design that could solve all of nuclear power’s problems by being meltdown-proof and consuming its own waste as fuel. However, it glosses over the myriad safety and security problems associated with fast-breeder reactors. The film makes much of an experiment conducted at the EBR-II, a fast reactor prototype that purported to demonstrate the safety of the reactor. However, again engaging in cherry-picking, it did not discuss the fact that the tests only simulated some kinds of accidents, and that such reactors are inherently unstable under other conditions. It also does not bother to explain the very real proliferation concern that led the Clinton administration to terminate development of the reactor: the fact that spent fuel reprocessing, needed for the fast reactor fuel cycle, produces large quantities of nuclear weapon-usable materials in forms that are vulnerable to theft. Contrary to its portrayal in the film, reprocessing increases, rather than decreases, the volume of nuclear waste requiring disposal.

There are also scenes in the film that are downright offensive, such as showing impoverished, barefoot children wandering through slums with the clear implication that nuclear power is all that is needed to raise them out of poverty. The biggest failing of the film, however, is the lack of any discussion of what the real obstacles to an expansion of nuclear energy are and what would need to be done to overcome them. In fact, nuclear power’s worst enemy may not be the anti-nuclear movement, as the film suggests, but rather nuclear power advocates whose rose-colored view of the technology helped create the attitude of complacency that made accidents like Fukushima possible. Nuclear power will only be successful through the vision of realists who acknowledge its problems and work hard to fix them—not fawning ideologues like filmmaker Robert Stone and the stars of “Pandora’s Promise.”

Update 6/13/13:

Gwyneth Cravens pointed out that I missed part of the quote that I attributed to her. She writes that her actual quote was “If you ate one banana which has a potassium isotope that’s a little hot, you would get more radiation exposure than you would if you drank all the water that comes out of the plant in one day.” I had missed the phrase “in one day.” However, her statement is still wrong by a large factor.

The leak of 2.79 curies appears to have occurred over a period of a few months at most.  It was detected as part of routine quarterly monitoring, and Entergy terminated the leak after about a month. If the leak took place at a constant rate over, say, four months (assuming it started just after one quarterly inspection, was detected three months later at the next inspection, and then took a month to stop), then her statement is incorrect by a factor of more than 150,000. Even assuming, very conservatively, that the leak took place at a constant rate over two years, her statement is still wrong by a factor of more than 25,000. If there are calculations that disagree with mine I would be happy to see them.


This article was first posted on the All Things Nuclear blog by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

About the author:

Dr. Lyman received his PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1992. He was a postdoctoral research scientist at Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, and then served as Scientific Director and President of the Nuclear Control Institute. He joined UCS in 2003. He is an active member of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management and has served on expert panels of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. His research focuses on security issues associated with the management of nuclear materials and the operation of nuclear power plants, particularly with respect to reprocessing and civil plutonium. Areas of expertise: Nuclear terrorism, proliferation risks of nuclear power, nuclear weapons policy