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.