“Pandora’s Promise”–The Truth About Nuclear Energy
This is a professionally rendered, engaging piece of filmmaking. It is as honest and accurate as any documentary you are ever likely to see, providing a much needed counter-balance to the decades of misinformation from anti-nuclear groups.
My review will be in the form of a critique of Ed Lyman’s review “Put Pandora’s Promise Back in the Box” (9) on the Union of Concerned Scientists and Citizens blog called All Things Nuclear.
I’ll start with the last line in his review:
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.”
Apparently, reversing the decades of misinformation disseminated by anti-nuclear energy ideologues is not on Lyman’s to do list. That’s his prerogative but it needs to be done. Lyman, who I’m assuming is on the staff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Citizens (4) (12) (13), is incensed that this 90 minute film meant to counter the decades of misinformation from anti-nuclear groups does not present the anti-nuclear perspective. Considering that his job appears to be to critique the nuclear energy industry, and judging from the level of vitriol in his review, this film must have elicited a fight or flight response (35). He did not make a single positive statement about the film. After reading his review I couldn’t shake the feeling that the UCS may have an anti-nuclear activist hiding in plain sight.
Lyman uses the first two paragraphs of his review to describe what a good documentary should be in order to spend the remainder of his article demonstrating how this documentary didn’t meet this ideal. While reading these first two paragraphs, I began to suspect sarcasm (it was that over-the-top), which can be hard to detect in the written word, and was warming up for a laugh …until I realized that he was not trying to be sarcastic. He was building a straw man to knock down.
All documentaries, out of necessity, must make their point in a short period of time and that requires triage. Giving weight to opposing viewpoints is not required or even desirable. A documentary about the theory of evolution that gave any credit at all to creationism isn’t one I’d bother to watch. Accuracy is the best that can be hoped for and this documentary provides that. Common sense alone would suggest that because Stone was very aware of the firestorm he would provoke in the anti-nuclear subculture, accuracy would be all-important.
The founders of UCS back in 1968 were primarily physicists and pro nuclear power (5). Officially, the organization is to this day, pro-nuclear power ah, not anti-nuclear power. They say that they only want to improve its safety because:
“Nothing would undermine public acceptance of a new generation of nuclear power plants as much as a serious accident…” (1)
Here’s a direct quote to me from their press secretary:
“A lot of people think we’re anti-nuclear power. We’re not.” (2)
These statements about not being anti-nuclear power, as opposed to being pro-nuclear power, is a smokescreen to avoid attacks from anti-nuclear organizations.
It is mind-numbingly predictable that any given Homo sapiens sapiens (a species I am sometimes ashamed to be a member of), whose job largely entails critique of the nuclear energy industry, would be incensed (i.e., would incur an outbreak of subconscious cognitive dissonance (14)) by a pro-nuclear energy documentary that does such a superb job of gently correcting as much anti-nuclear energy propaganda as 90 minutes will allow.
Where is the equivalent to Lyman’s job for the airline industry, that guy being paid to harangue the FAA as opposed to the NRC (11))? Airplane accidents have killed many tens of thousands of people since the 1950s, and were even used as the weapon in the worst act of terrorism in our history. A recent study from MIT estimated that airliner emissions alone may be killing about 8,000 people a year (6). Compare that to the nuclear energy industry tally of few hundred confirmed deaths, with statistical estimates for the potential of a few thousand more.
There is no airline industry equivalent to Lyman’s position because there is no need for one. Nuclear energy and airline travel are both the safest at what they do per unit energy produced and per mile traveled respectively although they differ in that nuclear power generates gargantuan amounts of competitively priced zero carbon energy while airlines consume gargantuan amounts of high-carbon energy to produce gargantuan amounts of carbon emissions. The FAA and NRC unendingly strive to improve safety quite simply because it is what they are paid to do.
When you shine a bright light on Lyman’s anti-nuclear arguments, they can look quite absurd. I’ll start with some examples.
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.
The report he links to doesn’t use the term “many thousands more”(24). Primarily because we now live so long, almost half of the people in developed nations like the United States and Great Britain will get cancer in their lifetime (32). Out of the millions upon millions of people with cancer in Europe, that study in his link “estimates,” almost three decades after the fact, that a few thousand of those tens of millions with cancer might have gotten their cancer as a result of the worst (out of three) nuclear power plant accidents in half of a century. How is that an argument against nuclear energy? 3,000 Americans alone will die in car crashes this month, 40,000 this year.
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.
Because the word “probably” is meant to convey a measure of “probability,” what the film said is perfectly accurate. Read the latest conclusions from just a month or so ago in this Dot Earth article titled “Experts Foresee No Detectable Health Impact from Fukushima Radiation” (30).
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.
Lyman’s evidence comes from a draft copy of a preliminary report. He appears to be trying to insinuate that the official final report has been censored by the evil nuclear energy conspiracy overlords. Note how he used the phrase “would cause” instead of the more honest and accurate “could cause.”
The population of Japan is roughly 126 million. A thousand cancer deaths would be less than a thousandth of one percent of the population. A thousand Americans are killed by cars every ten days. Again I ask, how rational is it to claim that percentages this small (the potential for less than a thousandth of a percent) make a case against nuclear energy?
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.
The words trivializing, mocking, misleading, selectivity, and obfuscation (and Lyman’s review is certainly guilty of all of these things) are loosely defined, relative terms. This film is not guilty of any of these things. But as is also the case for Lyman, that’s just my unsubstantiated opinion. Don’t take my word for it or Lyman’s advice to put it back in its box …go see the film for yourself.
When the film ended I asked my 19 year-old daughter (full scholastic scholarship to an Honors Collegium who will spend the first half of next semester studying in the Galapagos) if she thought it had “mocked” anybody. She did not, although she did think it was a little aggressive when someone off-camera kept pressing Helen Caldicott (renowned anti-nuclear activist) at an anti-nuclear rally to explain why her claim that many millions of people have been killed by radiation from Chernobyl contradicts the World Health Organization study (among others) that found the number could reach a few thousand. Her answer was something about a cover up. When pressed to explain what would motivate the likes of the World Health Organization to do such a thing, Caldicott’s response was an emphatic…”I don’t know!”
“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.
By comparing this superb film to late-night infomercials, Lyman makes the transition from unsubstantiated opinion to diatribe. These environmentalists are hardly self-proclaimed. Grab a beer, Edwin, kick back and read twenty or so pro-nuclear articles by yet another “self-proclaimed” environmentalist, George Monbiot, Guardian environmental journalist and the author of the book Heat at the following footnote (25).
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.
Raise your hand if you are also wondering what algorithm Lyman is using to measure primary impressibility. The film actually does primarily make its case by presenting the underlying arguments in a coherent way. Did Lyman really expect Stone to choose people nobody has ever heard of to make this case?
“This strategy puts great emphasis on the credibility of these spokespeople.”
I’m with Ed, senior scientist at UCS, credibility is often highly overrated (27).
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.
Considering that deep, willful ignorance, along with an almost total lack of critical thought, is the very backbone of the anti-nuclear movement, and has been for decades, I don’t see how those honest acknowledgements of victims of that propaganda should now be seen as damaging to credibility just because it suits Lyman’s purposes. But that’s the beauty of cognitive dissonance, isn’t it?
His “…hand got tired trying to jot down all the less-than-half truths put forth by the talking heads in the film…” So tired that he only listed one of them, which was summarily debunked in the comment field.
The half truth he details involved a remark about bananas and tritium by Gwyneth Cravens. Cravens appeared in the comment field demanding, and getting from an editor, a correction. Seems to me that it is highly unlikely that anything was going to stay in that film that was not fully vetted by a nuclear energy expert or physicist. Lo and behold this comment from Cravens:
In regard to Mr. Lyman’s mistaken quote of my remark in the film about the tritium leak, thanks for posting my correction.
In regard to Mr. Lyman’s second attempt, I stand by what I said in the film. This information was fact-checked by one Nobel-prizewinning particle physicist, a health physicist, and by four radiation-protection experts. Apart from my own wish only to say what I knew to be the case, Robert Stone wanted to make sure everything in the film was accurate.
To borrow Lyman’s words, “These sloppy soundbites greatly diminish the film’s [his review's] credibility.”
In the comment field Lyman does a nice job of back pedaling when he admits that Cravens was correct in that the release of tritium from Vermont Yankee was not a health threat (the only point that matters). He only brought it up because …hold on a minute, I’m putting on my hip waders …she was “technically incorrect.” As an experienced blogger, I feel Ed’s pain. Nothing more embarrassing than having an astute commenter call you on the carpet.
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 [snip and see note (22)] …and discover that “the health effects of Chernobyl were nothing like what was expected.”
“Egregious example of dishonesty” ..says the egregiously dishonest review. The following footnote contains a short list of 335 works of nuclear holocaust fiction (18). The health effects really “were nothing like we expected.” Instead of mutant armies we got Europe’s largest wildlife preserve (19) , a power plant that continued to be staffed and produce electricity for 14 years after the disaster (20), and a number of deaths and cancers that were so unexpectedly low that to this day people like Lyman and Caldicott refuse to accept it.
Sometimes, what people don’t say is more revealing than what they do say. Nowhere in his review does Lyman mention Helen Caldicott, even though she appeared in the film repeatedly. Apparently, Caldicott was once a “leading member” of the Union of Concerned Scientists (15) . Here is an article I wrote about an op-ed piece by her in the NYT: “Helen Caldicott–Nuclear Power Plants are Bomb Factories?“ (16).
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.
This was a 90 minute documentary. As with Lyman’s review, there were many thousands of pro and con things that did not get mentioned. But I’m glad he brought this one up. Although a spike in thyroid cancers in children was expected, few expected that there would only be 6,000 cases of highly treatable thyroid cancers in the almost three decades since the accident (with a 94% survival rate) (21). Well over 300 thousand people are diagnosed with cancer every year in the United Kingdom alone from other causes, primarily from genetic propensity and aging, but also from the over 400 carcinogens found in our environments (22).
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.
“Diseases beginning to emerge?” I read the study at the end of his link (24). It says in relation to thyroid cancer:
“…no increases were observed among adults. Although cases were relatively few, the increases were very large compared to previous years [for children, as expected, before the accident]..
They were described as poorly differentiated, aggressive tumors that were invasive and metastatic, in spite of which survival has been excellent.
Continued follow-up, including the use of national cancer registries as a resource, will be needed to clarify whether the excess of papillary thyroid cancer in exposed children has plateaued or is beginning to decline …
The results to date from studies of thyroid cancer risk to adult residents of contaminated regions do not allow for ready conclusions and the important questions remain unanswered: Is there an excess risk of thyroid cancer in exposed adults?
As for other Earth shattering revelations found in his link:
…increases in the incidence of other types of cancer, in particular breast cancer, have also been reported but have not been conclusively linked to radiation from the accident…
ECLIS found no evidence of a radiation-related increase in the incidence of leukaemia in Europe in the first five-years after the accident. National studies do not, in general, provide evidence for an increase in the incidence of childhood leukaemia
An association between leukaemia risk and radiation dose was found in Ukraine apparent (but not statistically significant) in Belarus, and not found in the Russian Federation.
Though the ERRs/Gy for CLL are not statistically significantly elevated, this finding merits further study.
Further careful follow-up of these populations, and the establishment and long-term support of life- span study cohorts, may continue to provide important information for the quantification of radiation risks and the protection of persons exposed to low doses of radiation.
As for the Liquidators, those heroes who actually shoveled highly radioactive dirt from one place to another immediately after the accident:
For the more heavily exposed Chernobyl liquidators, the data are more suggestive but additional research will be needed to establish whether there is in fact a risk of thyroid cancer in this group and whether the risk is different for external and internal radiation.
To see those quotes in full context, simply depress the left button on your computer mouse (24).
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.
… says the pot to the kettle. In one scene, Caldicott is shaking a dog-eared copy of some report claiming that a million people were killed by the Chernobyl accident. I couldn’t tell which report it was, but I can guess. Here is what she said in a NYT op-ed:
“The New York Academy of Sciences Report on Chernobyl is absolutely devastating.”
And this from New York Academy of Sciences:
“In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made…”
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.
Now he’s putting words into the director’s mouth. Nobody said it would “solve all of nuclear power’s problems,” which in any case turn out to be relatively diminutive in comparison to any other source of energy with its capability.
However, it glosses over the myriad safety and security problems associated with fast-breeder reactors.
Lyman feels that they should have carved some time out of their 90 minute film promoting the positive side of nuclear energy to explain what these technical hurdles are and how the engineers plan to resolve them. In reality, a main point of that segment was to show the public how politics shut down an extremely promising technology for reasons that in hindsight were misguided. Happens all the time in our polarized political system. This is also an example of why you can’t seriously call nuclear power a mature technology. Also note that the future of nuclear energy does not depend on this new technology.
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.
… says the cherry picker who couldn’t be bothered to elaborate or even provide a link to support his claims.
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.
Actually, that proliferation concern, like just about every claim by the anti-nuclear groups, has been exaggerated to the point of nonsensical. Terms like “large quantities” and “vulnerable” are relative. Building a nuclear weapon takes far more than simply getting your hands on weapon-usable material. Why should this material be allowed to be any more vulnerable to theft than a finished war head? Even if you managed to steal weapon-usable material (instead of an assembled weapon), the technical ability to build a nuclear weapon is far beyond the abilities of most nations, let alone a terrorist organization. The theft of a bomb is the real concern and although Lyman glossed over it, the film points out that much of our nuclear generated power comes from dismantled Soviet bombs. Some countries that decided to make nuclear weapons don’t even have nuclear power plants. You can build a small reactor specifically to make weapons grade material. How do you suppose we made the first bombs? There were no nuclear power plants.
Contrary to its portrayal in the film, reprocessing increases, rather than decreases, the volume of nuclear waste requiring disposal (31).
Another commenter pointed out the half truth Lyman is propagating with his above link:
It is missing their normalization information on the volume. I would suspect a fair unit would be m^3/GW… but this is just volume. I can compare the volume of water from the Mississippi feeding the Gulf to all the rivers of the world feeding the oceans and those number would greatly differ. It appears this report is considering the entire French reprocessing streams (forgetting that much of that “HWL” it is labeling are fissionable transuranics) to storage capacities in Yucca mountain (if you read their references). This is an invalid comparison. I would agree that low level waste levels would increase, but high-level WASTE streams are significantly lower PER UNIT ENERGY extracted and the HWL is typically short-lived as the significant fraction of transuranics are the long-live radioisotopes.
I also pointed out this half truth in an article a few years ago (2):
You never know with the French, but it seemed unlikely to me that they process their waste to “increase” their disposal problems. Which led me to wonder why fuel is reprocessed in the first place. I found the answer…(33)
The UCS downplayed the fact that by creating slightly more of the short-lived, less problematic stuff, reprocessing reduces the amount of the much more problematic long-lived stuff.
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.
There is no such implication, clear or otherwise. You know what I find offensive? When it comes to the Japan quake, anti-nuclear activists ignore the roughly 20,000 dead and missing, focusing almost exclusively on Fukushima. Click here for a heart rending image of one of those 20,000 (34).
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.
Actually, the film dealt at length with the real overarching obstacle to nuclear energy– false information disseminated by anti-nuclear ideologues, although it never once called them that. There are no major technological or safety obstacles. The safety of nuclear reactors improves with every new one built.
In fact, nuclear power’s worst enemy may not be the anti-nuclear movement, as the film suggests, but rather nuclear power advocates …
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the concept that nuclear power advocates are nuclear power’s worst enemy seems somewhat disingenuous*. Clearly, nuclear power’s worst enemy is the anti-nuclear movement or worse yet, the “anti-nuclear activist” in “not anti-nuclear” clothing. * Sarcasm alert.
…whose rose-colored view of the technology helped create the attitude of complacency that made accidents like Fukushima possible.
Unlike Chernobyl, or the other accident, Three Mile Island, Fukushima wasn’t an accident. It was damaged infrastructure. Google the term “images Japan quake” and click on the image link to see endless photos of the carnage that had nothing to do with the damaged reactors. The damaged power plant was one of thousands of infrastructure casualties from a quake that was literally 1000 times more powerful than the one that flattened Haiti except, unlike the natural gas plant that burned to the ground, the dam that failed, collapsed bridges, and on and on, it didn’t kill anyone, which, sadly, really rubs the anti-nuclear crowd the wrong way.
Go see the film. It’s really good.
Notes and references
24) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3107017/Not used
27) About the author: Dr. Lyman … Areas of expertise: Nuclear terrorism, proliferation risks of nuclear power, nuclear weapons policy