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Why Divisive Pro-Nuclear Power Film ‘Pandora’s Promise’ is the Right Kind of Doc for CNN to Air

Why Divisive Pro-Nuclear Power Film 'Pandora's Promise' is the Right Kind of Doc for CNN to Air

Is nuclear power the solution to global warming? “Pandora’s Promise,” a documentary from Robert Stone (“Radio Bikini,” “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst”) that airs on CNN tonight, November 7th at 9pm after a premiere at Sundance and a theatrical release in June, attempts to make the counterintuitive case that as an energy source, the glow of radioactivity is actually the green choice. Stone, who chronicled the start of the environmental movement in his 2009 film “Earth Days,” enlists a group of pro-nuclear experts that includes Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Cravens and Mark Lynas, some of whom came around to the idea of nuclear power after initially being against it.

“Pandora’s Promise” really presents half an issue, which is not uncommon for docs produced to make a particular argument, but is always more evident when you’re not already on board with the argument being made. In this instance, it’s that nuclear power is far cleaner than fossil fuels and less dangerous, even taking into consideration the accidents on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

To its credit, the film doesn’t shy away from this most recent meltdown, sending Lynas to walk through the abandoned streets of the area around the Japanese plant, talking about how he feels “like a bit of an idiot” for wearing radiation clothing because “it shouldn’t be necessary.” He takes reads on an electronic radiation counter, and the film later shows us the numbers in different locations around the world, from Los Angeles to Brazil’s Guarapari Beach to a plane over the Pacific to demonstrate the levels of background radioactivity we’re exposed to all the time.

That our fears about nuclear energy are disproportionately fed by atomic weapons imagery and ideas about seeping, unseen, cancerous contaminants is the strongest point “Pandora’s Promise” has to make — the number of people who’ve died, directly or indirectly, due to nuclear disasters is far below the estimates of how many die each year due to air pollution from fossil fuel sources like coal. The film, which is handsomely made, summons up footage from both crowds of witnesses putting glasses on to watch a test explosion to Homer useless at work at “The Simpsons” to sketch out our fretful feelings toward nuclear power, ones the film suggests are outsized and skewed and don’t take into account how much radiation has always been part of our lives.

Asked about plants leaking tritium, Cravens notes that eating a banana would give you “more radium exposure than if you drank all the water that comes out of the plant for one day,” as on screen protestors are shown having no problems taking a break to scarf down said fruits.

“Pandora’s Promise” has its series of experts calmly countering anti-nuclear power arguments, sometimes while posed in the midst of natural landscapes. But its claim that “to be anti-nuclear is basically to be in favor of burning fossil fuels” is a shaky one — not the least because it’s based on the idea that conservation and curbing energy use on any global scale is off the table, as is larger reliance on alternative energy sources like wind and solar power which are by nature sporadic and requiring of some kind of backup, like oil.

Discussions about the economics of different power sources and the expense of building nuclear plants are likewise not brought up. The anti-nuke forces are represented mainly in shots of crowds gathered outside plants holding signs, or Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or Helen Caldicott addressing them (“There is no safe level of radiation!” she shouts) or scattered addressing questions from the filmmaker at an event — never through sit-down interviews.

“Pandora’s Promise” is certainly firmly if not blindly one-sided, but like “Blackfish,” the previous doc acquisition that CNN aired last month to much ratings and social media success, it feels like the type of film it makes sense for the cable news outlet to air. While something like “Our Nixon,” which was more art film than straightforward historical account, felt out of place in the context of news programs, advocacy works like “Blackfish” and “Pandora’s Promise” fit in more easily as programming.

And more importantly, they allow the network to use the films as a starting point for discussion of the topics on which they’re centered — especially as CNN feels an obligation to present a more balanced viewpoint on the issue than the docs may offer by themselves. As with “Blackfish,” “Pandora’s Promise” will be followed by an Anderson Cooper-hosted special entitled “Nuclear Power: The Fallout of Fear,” and CNN has already published a piece from Natural Resources Defense Council co-director Ralph Cavanagh and nuclear energy expert Tom Cochran rebutting some of the film’s claims. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Robert Stone debated nuclear power on Wednesday night on “Piers Morgan Live.”

In theaters, advocacy docs tend to attract audiences who are already interested and prone to agree with the arguments being made. And it’s worth mentioning that just as “Pandora’s Promise” calls out anti-nuclear scare ads that were placed by oil companies, the film does count as one of its executive producers Paul G. Allen, whose Vulcan Capital invests in “advanced nuclear technologies” in addition to solar and geothermal power — untangling individual interests is only part of the complicated reality of this issue. But the wider access offered by CNN provides a platform on which preaching to the choir isn’t necessarily going to be the case — which makes it an interesting one for these films, one that, regardless of how you feel about the safety and environmental friendliness of nuclear power, makes the airing of “Pandora’s Promise” a potential starting point for a more in-depth conversation.

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Gord Adams

Funny how some of the commenters here complain that both sides are not presented in this documentary. What is the other side they are seeking? In this documentary, nuclear power is presented as the only real credible alternative to fossil fuels currently available. It makes the point that more coal is now being burned than at any point in history, and more is being taken out of the ground every year. Coal, and oil. These are ‘the other side of the story.’ The film stresses that modern reactor designs don’t have the flaws that made older reactors dangerous. And it compares the waste of nuclear energy to the pollution of fossil fuels. People who criticise this documentary as ‘one-sided’ have no critical thinking skills.

Save the world

In a time when the burning of fossil fuels kills hundreds of thousands of people each and every year just in North America, and nuclear power has never killed anyone, even less than solar panels have, can we all at least agree that even if it is somehow dangerous, it is by far the best option we currently have to save the planet.

Don't even mention conservation either. Reducing power needs at best only delays the inevitable. The fossil fuels still all get burned, just over a slightly longer period of time. So my kids get to live to 50 rather than 40? Great solution!

Our air is getting toxic, our oceans are dying, and our own extinction is approaching faster than ever thought possible and you're all arguing about a remote possibility that even as a worst case scenario could only ever affect a few thousand people. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying, the world is dying, because you're so scared of an extremely remote possibility of harm. We're already being harmed. We're being destroyed!!

Wake up. Open your eyes.

You can't wait for solar or wind power to catch up. It will be too late. It probably already is!

ken miller

According to several studies, the levelized all in in cost of large scale solar is already cheaper than nuclear without the risk. And the cost of solar (according to a McKinsey study) is dropping by 50% every seven years – not so with nuclear. Within the next decade, solar modules will simply be built into conventional roofing materials and will new homes and commercial buildings with come with their own solar plant. Elon Musk's company Solar City (in collaboration with Tesla) is developing a battery that homeowners can use to store the solar energy for use after hours. Nuclear energy is going to go the way of burning wood and coal. (We closed 100 coal plants last year.)


Early in this documentary, the (now laughable) 1950's nuclear industry film "Our Friend The Atom" is mentioned. We are then shown a small group of people in the present day who claim to have been remarkably ill-informed about nuclear issues, but who — now they know — are True Believers. This echoes the personal journey of film-maker Robert Stone, and indeed there is a flavour of the "reformed smoker" about this film.

Through the eyes of these individuals we are told that global warming is a serious threat, coal is the real villain, nuclear isn't as bad as you might think and that a technical fix for the few small problems remaining with the technology (accidents and waste, for example) is just around the corner if only governments would invest a bit more money. We're also shown a series of frankly insulting images of anti-nuclear activists.

Frankly, I was disappointed. The journey of people who change their minds is potentially rich and interesting territory, but this documentary fails to do justice to any serious consideration of the issues. We have enough material on the nuclear topic that repeats errors and makes selective uses of opinion and speculation, presented as facts. Robert Stone omits any discussion on the economics of nuclear power, simply says that renewables and energy conservation won't work and makes fallacious and often insulting statements about the opposition to nuclear power, simply in order to shoot them down.

These are cheap tricks, and it's not clear whom the film is intended to convince. It will appeal to the existing pro-nuclear crowd, and it may confuse a few people who would have said that they didn't know much about the issue. But it fails as either a thoughtful examination of the often complex issues, or even an intelligent explanation of the pro-nuclear side.

Having reminded us of the cartoonish 'Our Friend The Atom', film-maker Robert Stone would have been well advised to learn that simplistic and one-sided movies don't change minds, convince the un-converted or stand the test of time. Unfortunately, he didn't.

Marcia Gomes

Pandora´s Promise? Its just one film. And one swallow doesn't make a summer. There are many more films about nuclear energy worth watching: See International Uranium Film Festival. Next Festival starts in Albuquerque Nov. 27.


The people commenting here are the ones the film addresses quite well – Luddites and flat-earthers who would be more at home with the climate change deniers.

Your unfounded fears need to be addressed – by you. Stop being nutty. I'm looking at you "Nuclear is not the Answer". You're not the answer.

This "the film doesn't show both sides" schtick is a left-wing reviewer cop-out.


Creepy, irradiated Earth graphic. It seems like CNN did that Sea World doc to gain some cred before they started pushing the real propaganda at us.

Nuclear is not the answer.

Nuclear is madness

It can so easily be the road to our extinction, if not by war then by these uncontrolled incidents.

Let those who are pro nuclear ,put there names on a list, and when (not if) the next disaster comes, then these people with their names on the list, should personally go and do the dogmatic clean up themselves, as well as fork out the dollars to do it.
And clean up is not possibly, as only time can solve the problem.
Non of us can live in a hole for 600 years to wait for the eco system to recover.

Please go an make sure you know what the Price Anderson Act is and how it will affect you. The nuclear industry knows, that the technoly is not safe, and therefore they have made effort to use insurance to make sure they will not be liable for the costs when it happens, but you the tax payer will be liable for the cost, and everyone on the planet will suffer the debt to the biosphere .
Go and research what the current cost of the Fukushima disaster is. The Nuclear industry will not pay these amounts, and as in the case with Japan ,it will become the tax payers problem.

We only have this planet, and the value of that exceeds any financial matters.

Nuclear is not safe, if is was safe, we would not have had any incidents in the past 40 years. If is was not safe there would be no need for insurance…Let those who sell nuclear, do away with the insurance and take the responsibility personally. If they don't want to, don't trust them, because the reasons why they want to cover themselves is as apparent as the insurance.

The matter of the fact is ,there was already 3 major incidents, not to include the amount of active isotopes which were dumped into the biosphere with the test of those ungodly weapons, made to mame and kill.
Radiation can't be seen, tasted, smelled or detected by any of your senses and therefor you will only likely become aware of the consequences of these particles when it is already to late.

The matter of the fact is ,there was already 3 major incidents, not to include the amount of active isotopes which were dumped into the biosphere with the test of those ungodly weapons, made to mame and kill.
Radiation can't be seen, tasted, smelled or detected by any of your senses and therefor you will only likely become aware of the consequences of these particles when it is already to late.

Nuclear is not clean, as we don't know how to deal with the waste. No matter where you put it, there is not way to know that the integrity of those storage areas will stand the movements of the crust, volcanic actions, the consequences of asteroid impacts, the possibility of uncontrolled leaks as is currently the case with Fukushima. And yes, the probability of asteroids impact are on the increase, just listen to the authorities, they will be making you more and more aware of this, and yes, there is a reason why they are doing it.

Nuclear is not cheap. Just do the math. Add the costs of the clean up of 3 mile island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

And to put a value on the life of people who is dying of cancer indirectly from fall out of these incidents, as well as the military application of the ungodly science, is impossible.

Don't listen tho those who say it happens to infrequent. Humanity has already been close to the extinction a few times, due to this monstrous technology.
If the industrial world is affected by a solar flare, such as with the Carrington e
event in 1859, it will not be one or 2 reactors which suffer the same fate as Fukushima, because there would be no power to drive the pumps which keep the unstable rods cold.

Do your homework.
Solar flares, melts conductors…no conductors = no electricity = no way to cool reactors.

Don't be fooled to this madness.

Listen to people like Dr Helen Caldicott and Arnie Gunderson to make sure you have all the facts, including the ones in Pandora's Box, because when they are out, they can't be put back in the box.

These incidents are not set backs, they are a wake up call.

Nuclear simply is not the answer, no way how you try to sell it.

informed consumer

CNN's name attached to a doc is enough for me to not see it.


We'd love to get your review. Please check out our crowdfunding campaign for the film, The Lunatic, by the director of The Perfect Age of Rock and Roll.

Christina Macpherson

Australian premiere of "Pandora's Promise" reviewed at – "Robert Stone and “Pandora’s Promise”
The film’s Australian premiere was shown in Melbourne on October 8th, with director Robert Stone answering questions afterwards.
I found myself liking Robert Stone , for his enthusiasm, and sincere concern about climate change.
I found myself disliking the film, for its sins of omission, and manipulative way of discrediting anti nuclear people….."


The Children of Chernobyl

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