Pandora’s Promise: A Recap


This is an unwieldy recap that I wrote after watching Pandora’s Promise with my writing buddy, Julie Kelly. It might be meaningless to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie and there’s probably no point in reading a recap of a movie you’ve already seen but I had fun writing it.

Translation: Not even my husband should feel obligated to read this.

There’s nothing better than putting the kids to bed on Christmas night after a long day that starts with pre-dawn Santa hysteria and ends with wondering if it’s okay to throw away a fully decorated tree. With the kids asleep, it’s time to open a bottle of wine and your Netflix app so that you can find a cozy post-holiday movie.

This year, I’m recommending that you take a break from Love, Actually and curl up with Pandora’s Promise, the heart-warming story of brave environmental activists who go on a soul-searching journey that leads them to into the loving arms of…nuclear energy.

That’s right, these huggers of trees and shunners of shoes stop worrying and learn to love their friend, the atom. So, grab your cat and a box of tissues(not really) and prepare for a sweeping cinematic treat full of intrigue, pensive stares, and a musical score that will make you want to sleep with the light on.

As someone who grew up in the Age of Reagan, I am in touch with nuclear anxiety. Images of mushroom clouds and Jason Robbards’ flapping scalp are seared into my brain thanks to The Day After. I was only able to sleep at night after that movie because my dad assured me that nobody on the planet, especially Russians, cared about Atlanta.

So, I’ll admit to being anti-nuclear until a few years ago. I will also admit to a little apprehension the first time I watched Pandora’s Promise but mostly because of the musical score which was cool but oddly sinister. After shaking up the world of environmental activism when it was released in 2013, it once again sparked a debate over nuclear power after its sold-out screening during the UN climate change conference in Paris this month.

The movie opens with a protest and a woman yelling something about the nuclear Death-Bomb-Cancer Industry. There’s also a wild-eyed guy hollering about “Solartopia” which sounds kind of hot and shiny. We’re then introduced to our movie stars, lifelong environmentalists and former anti-nuclear activists who have made the difficult journey to a pro-nuclear position.

We have Stewart Brand (pensive ocean gazer and founder of Whole Earth Catalog), Richard Rhodes (Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” – he even looks like a Pulitzer Prize winner), Gwyneth Cravens (obvious badass and author of “Power to Save the World”), Mark Lynas (also a badass and author of “The God Species”), and Michael Shellenberger (barefoot so possibly not a badass, co-founder and senior fellow at The Breakthrough Institute).

In the first story, Mark Lynas, clad in a Tyvek onesie and shower cap (withdrawing badass status for the moment), takes us to visit Fukushima where an earthquake and tsunami have leveled everything for miles and caused a nuclear accident. He admits to “a bit of a wobble” and says he can see why we’d want to do without nuclear energy.

He and the rest of the group hadn’t been pro-nuclear all that long when Fukushima happened so they had to force themselves not to panic. We’re starting now to understand that the panic during the evacuation may ultimately end up being the deadly part of the nuclear accident.

By the way, it’s almost impossible to overstate what a big deal it is for traditional greens to break ranks from their tribe where being anti-nuclear is part of the ideology. As Lynas states:

“I was under no doubt that my whole career and my whole reputation as an environmental activist/communicator was at risk if I talked publicly about having changed my mind about nuclear power. It would have been easier to keep my mouth shut.”

Gwyneth Cravens then gives us a little backstory about the early days of nuclear power along with a bit of nostalgia for Boomers and Gen-Xers. Remember the Disney move, Our Friend, the Atom? The one with the creepy guy throwing the ping pong ball neutron to set off a chain reaction? I have a case of the Olds now.

Then we move on to a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory who educates us a little – a piece of uranium the size of his finger tip is the equivalent to about 5,000 barrels of oil. Amazing. He tells us how reactors work to produce electricity but this is the part where I would have gotten in trouble for talking in class. He makes the point that the atomic energy business was started for bomb-making so it caused a negative association. Ya think?

Now we have Stewart Brand (he’s awesome – check him out) showing us Hiroshima footage and discussing this negative association as well as the fact that the nuclear weapons testing went on and on back in the 50s. Those images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki are impossible to shake. It’s common sense to want to stuff this genie back in the bottle. Drinking during this movie may have been a bad idea.

Thank god we shift over to Michael Shellenberger and his trip to a nuclear power plant in high school because the Connecticut (Vermont?) Yankee promotional video is hilarious. No joke – one of the guys in the video is chilling with a cigarette while he tries to sell us on nuclear plant landscaping.

More on the journey of Mark Lynas and Richard Rhodes and then a lesson from a nuclear physicist on reactors which means it’s a good time for me to pour another glass of wine.

A little history lesson on the commercialization of the reactors with footage of…men golfing.

Maybe the nuclear industry’s image problem isn’t giant balls of fire so much as middle-aged white guys in golf sweaters. Just a thought.

Remember Three Mile Island and everybody freaking out? Me either because that would make me sound old.  Jane Fonda is shouting about radiation and a cancer epidemic at a huge 1979 No Nukes rally in New York.  Everyone looks vaguely like Son of Sam. Ralph Nader yells that stopping atomic energy will stop inflation – huh? James Taylor and Carly Simon sing something about the restless nature of the wind which makes me want to punch someone. This movie has ruined James Taylor for me.

New protest but this time it’s mothers freaking out about radiation getting into the food supply. This is sort of a 1980’s version of March Against Monsanto. Same arguments, different hair.

Oh, there’s Margaret Thatcher, being awesome at the U.N. and taking everyone to school about climate change. “We can’t just do nothing!” Hold up. That was Margaret Thatcher, conservative darling, talking about climate change. What the hell happened there?

Now Shellenberger and Lynas give us reality checks they’ve had to face on the huge gap between fossil fuels and renewable energy sources as well as the unfortunate problem of intermittency with wind and solar. Also, humans are just finding more and more ways to consume energy.

The idea of us all agreeing to use less energy is a nice one but perhaps it’s time to give up on that fairytale? Cutting back is only a good idea when it’s someone else doing the cutting. Admit it.

Brand and Cravens bring up the great point about human quality of life being inextricably linked to electricity.

If you’re one of the 10 people who are reading this, you probably take lights, refrigeration, and air-conditioning completely for granted. Hell, you probably even get mad when your WiFi goes out. Many people in the world don’t have electricity or if they do, it’s only enough to power a fan and a few lightbulbs. A recent trip to the ER with my son drove home just how incredibly important energy is to our well-being.

Shellenberger also reminds us that we’re finding more and more uses for electricity. How many times have you wandered around a hotel room, trying to find enough outlets for everybody’s devices?

The whole next part is basically a lecture set to background music so I’ll try to sum it up.

  • We’re probably going to double our energy use by 2050 and triple it by the end of the century.
  • If we’re going to stabilize our emissions to a reasonable level, we’re going to need a clean energy infrastructure.
  • Coal is the most widely-used energy source worldwide and it’s the fastest growing. That’s not good because…
  • Coal kills lots of people every year.
  • 3,000,000 per year are killed by fossil fuels
  • Guess what is the second safest after wind? That’s right, nuclear. It’s even safer than solar panels which involve a toxic process.
  • There hasn’t been one death associated with nuclear power plants in the United States.

There’s a fun scene next about radiation. No, really – it’s interesting. It points out how we’re all clueless about how much natural radiation is around us (a lot in some places). It makes you want to carry a Geiger counter around which is exactly what one of these guys does when he takes it into an airplane bathroom where there is lots of radiation. Gross. Okay, now the scene isn’t fun anymore because Lynas brings up cancer.

Which brings us to…Chernobyl. This looks like one of the coolest places to visit. Did you know there are people still living in Chernobyl? They even have perfectly healthy chickens running around. (Atomic Chicken will be the name of my book.) The movie points out that the WHO reports of how many people died as a result of radiation from Chernobyl is vastly different than the public’s perception.

The activist we saw in the opening scene, Helen Caldicott, is hollering that a million people were killed by Chernobyl and millions more will die which would mean there was a massive cover-up by the World Health Organization. An interviewer confronts her and confuses her and it’s a little sad because she’s old and has a frog brooch. Stop picking on dodgy old ladies, you guys.

More radiation chat and Geiger counters so it’s time to pour a little more wine and take a trip to Idaho where we meet another white guy in a sweater vest. Wait. Are we back at Argonne? Okay, yes, a nuclear plant that can’t melt down. We see an experiment where they scare everyone with a test to see if the reactor really is meltdown proof which is a fun party trick.

We’re going to fast forward through this lesson about an integral fast reactor because…we can. It’s cool. It works. I’m still bored.

Cut to John Kerry and his spectacles shutting the fast reactor program down and Larry “Touch My Balls” Craig is mad about it.  More Kerry yammering and then the camera rests on the nice, sweater-vested nuclear guy sitting all alone in his big old reactor control room. God, that’s depressing. Maybe the frog brooch lady could cheer him up.

Brand, Craven, and Lynas try to teach us about nuclear waste. It’s basically just sitting there and hopefully can be used one day as fuel in future generations of nuclear reactors. How incredible would that be? To repeat, all of that nuclear waste that’s sitting around (and it’s not nearly as much as I thought) could be used as fuel – the ultimate renewable.

Now we touch on the success the French have had with nuclear energy. 80% of their electricity is from nuclear so I assume the French are very smug about how “green” they are.

Richard Rhodes (the one with the Pulitzer) admits that the knowledge of the technology can be used for weapons. Yeah, that’s a bit of a hiccup. Rhodes says:

“We won’t get rid of nuclear weapons by forgetting how to make them; we will get rid of nuclear weapons by deciding that we don’t want them around anymore.”

Not sure that mutually assured destruction thing is going away anytime soon but it’s a hopeful thought.

Brand tells us that the U.S. has been buying up nuclear warheads from the Russians and recycling them into nuclear power which is really cool. There’s actually something a little poetic about the things that we feared would blow up our cities, now lighting up them up instead. Let’s turn all warheads into electricity and sing James Taylor/Carly Simon songs.

As we approach the end of the movie, here’s my takeaway:

The idea of nuclear power is scary to a lot of us but that could be because a) we’ve conflated it with weapons and b)we’re terrified of another Fukushima or Chernobyl. Both things are understandable but it might be worth it to step back to make sure we’re looking at it realistically. When you’re talking about 3,000,000 people a year dying from burning fossil fuels plus the likelihood of the planet warming an alarming amount in our children’s lifetimes, the risk of doing nothing (or not doing enough) could be much greater. Nuclear is a clean energy source that we can’t afford to reject out of hand.

Michael Shellenberger wraps up the movie with a speech about the next generation. People who came of age in the 60s may never change their minds about nuclear energy but younger generations may put nuclear energy in its proper context and lead high energy lives without killing the climate.

And he might be right. A high-energy world with clean air sounds like a hopeful, beautiful thing. It’s in our reach. It’s a moonshot for sure but we might just be sitting on technology that could help us get there.

Thanks for hanging out. You can get back to Hugh Grant movies now. Have a wonderful holiday and a hopeful 2016. – Love, Amy








6 thoughts on “Pandora’s Promise: A Recap

  1. The fast neutron reactor is what makes the new generation of nuclear plants work. It utilises far more of the energy in conventional waste, uranium, depleted uranium, plutonium or thorium. Essentially unlimited energy rather then the 1% energy use in enriched uranium of conventional plants – which leads to exhausted uranium reserves in 20 years if all power were to be derived from nuclear plants. There is sufficient conventional waste in the US to power the US for hundreds of years. The waste from these new plants is only 3% of that from dangerously unstable and accident prone light water reactors – such as the one at Fukushima. The waste from the new reactors can be separated by molecular mass into lighter fission products and heavier transuranic elements. The fission products cool within 300 years and can be disposed of. The heavier and longer lived transuranics can be recycled as fuel in a further burn cycle where it is transmuted into fission products. The waste from light water reactors is hot for 10’s of thousands of years and the disposal problem is intractable. Structures cannot be engineered for 10’s of thousands of containment. The new plants can’t melt down, they don’t need water cooling necessarily and the waste can’t be used for bomb making. They can be built in factories – delivered to site and work without refueling for decades. They are small, modular and – importantly – are far cheaper and a much less risky investment than conventional nuclear.

    Fukushima was evacuated because it had to be – not because there was an unwarranted panic. The accident resulted in a hundred plus cases of thyroid cancer in children – which is a cancer with a short latency – which says that many more cancers will appear in the years to come. There have been hundreds of nuclear accidents globally – and many nuclear tests – the world is awash with synthetic radionuclides. It creates a risk that is minimal at the individual level but which becomes significant at the population level.

    The old technology is never redeemable despite the liberal gloop that is Pandora’s Box. Aren’t you glad that the new technology – which bores you – redeems it.


  2. Pingback: Parsing Bill Nye’s Anti-Nuclear Energy Keynote Speech | Model Airplanes

  3. Pingback: The Unofficial Recap of Dialogue 2016: Great Transformations – An Ecomodernist Mom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s