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.
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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.