The last line in Pandora’s Promise , Robert Stone’s new documentary about the environmental advantages of nuclear power, comes from Michael Shellenberger, co-head of the Breakthrough Institute. “I have a sense that this is a beautiful thing, the beginning of a movement,” he says. Provoking a new environmental movement in favor of nuclear power is a tall order, but a recent screening of Pandora’s Promise suggests that it might play a part, for some intriguing reasons.
Stone’s film premiered at Sundance to positive reviews (Variety, Slate) and is scheduled for theatrical release this summer. It makes a convincing case for nuclear power as a carbon-free source of energy to reduce the harm of climate change in a world in which population is rising and the demand for electricity is soaring as the developing world develops. (For the record, I was already convinced; See Beware the Fear of Nuclear…FEAR) Nuclear power, Shellenberger says, can contribute to “…a world of seven to ten billion people, living resource-intensive high energy lives, without killing the climate.”
But Pandora’s Promise will probably persuade some environmentalists to rethink nuclear power not just because of the facts but because of how those facts are framed. The information in the film is presented in ways that resonate with many of the emotional, instinctive, affective characteristics that shape how people feel about risks in general, and about nuclear power and climate change in particular.
One of the most powerful of those characteristics is the influence of trust, and the central case of Stone’s main characters is “Trust us, we’re environmentalists and we hated nuclear power too.” Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, who helped organize radical environmentalist opposition to genetically modified food in Europe, says “We were against nuclear power. As an environmentalist, those two things go together.” Gwyneth Cravens, author of The Power to Save the World, says: “I grew up in an anti-nuke family. My parents were anti-nuclear.” Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, goes further, and notes how for the baby boom generation, the fear of nuclear power grew directly out of the existential fear of nuclear weapons, and radioactive fallout from atmospheric weapons testing, and cancer, all of which fed the rise of the modern environmental movement. “I grew up having nightmares that my home was bombed into oblivion,” Brand says. “There was Duck and Cover. Those things cut pretty deep. You had the strong sense that this is not a primary energy source. This is a weapon that we feel pretty badly about.”
As much Stone establishes the trustworthiness of the his environmentalist protagonists, he challenges the trustworthiness of prominent anti-nuclear thought leaders, focusing on Helen Caldicott. Caldicott calls those who deny the science of climate change “…idiots,” adding “ How dare they deny science.” But Pandora’s Promise suggests she is doing the same thing by claiming Chernobyl may ultimately kill more than a million people, when more than 20 years of research by the World Health Organization estimates the radiation released from world’s worst nuclear plant accident will cause a maximum of about 4,000 lifetime excess cancer deaths. Caldicott is asked how she can she reconcile doing the same sort of science denial she says the ‘idiot’ deniers of climate change are doing? “I can not,” she stumbles.
The film also directly challenges the groupthink psychology that shapes our perceptions of risk, and certainly has shaped environmentalist opposition to nuclear power. The pro-nuclear environmentalists in the film confess that their original anti-nuke views were more the product of automatic tribal acceptance of what the group believed - Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and Bill McKibben are against nukes? Then so am I. - than informed independent analysis. They acknowledge that it literally felt threatening to change their minds and go against the whole tribe; “I was at no doubt that my entire career as an activist was at risk if I went and talked (positively) about nuclear,” Lynas.
Stone’s effective presentation will resonate with other psychological aspects of risk perception as well. People worry more about risks that are human-made than risks that are natural. Pandora’s Promise highlights how this is more emotional than rational, showing organizers of a rally protesting against the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant handing out bananas, a single one of which contains more radiation than the daily radioactive water emissions from the plant they were so afraid of. (Radioactive potassium 40 is absorbed into the banana from the soil, see Banana Equivalent Dose.
We worry more about any risk we can’t detect with our own senses, an aspect of risk perception that Pandora’s Promise addresses by ‘visualizing’ radiation, having Lynas display a radiation detector in several locations where people are leading their normal lives; Tokyo, Paris, on a mountain top in New Hampshire, on a plane ride. We also see the levels at Chernobyl, and outside trailers in which Fukushima evacuees are living. In all those places, the now-visible radiation levels are similar, and low.
We worry more about risks to children than risk to adults, a psychological ‘fear factor’ relevant to the coming threat of climate change (which the film visualizes with dramatic graphics that show how much the climate has warmed over the last century). So there will be persuasive emotional effect when we see Lynas with his family as he says “Having kids has deepened my commitment to the future and concern about global warming.”
Finally, environmentalist culture generally prefers a society in which people believe ‘we are all in this together’, what the study of Cultural Cognition refers to as communitarians. Communitarians believe in fairness and justice and equal opportunity, and the film appeals directly to that worldview when another central character, Richard Rhodes – Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb - says, “Unless you want to condemn more than half the population of the earth to sickness and impoverished lives, we have to produce more electricity.”
Pandora’s Promise uses these devices instinctively, naturally. They don’t feel overtly manipulative, but just the intuitively applied tools of persuasive story telling. And because they resonate with important psychological characteristics that shape our perception of risk, they will probably persuade some viewers to rethink their opposition to nuclear power. For the same reasons, however, anti-nuclear advocates will probably react to the film defensively, because it threatens their tribal view and their self-identity.
Some will probably bristle at the film’s less-than-flattering depiction of Caldicott and anti-nuclear rallies. Others won’t like how, as we see rows of huge wind mills in California sitting motionless, Shellenberger mocks renewable solar and wind as ‘a hallucinatory illusion’ that can’t supply nearly as much electricity as the world will need. Nuclear opponents won’t like graphics that show how all of America’s nuclear waste would fit on a football field a few feet deep, or video showing that it can be stored safely (the film shows how high level nuclear waste is currently stored in containers outdoors at many American nuclear power plants, and how all of France’s high level nuclear waste is stored in canisters set into the floor in one room at a power plant).
Anti-nukes won’t like descriptions of new nuclear technologies that are safer, and cheaper. They will probably jump on the fact that Pandora’s Promise mentions only in passing that these technologies are probably decades away, and until then, without regulatory assistance, nuclear power technology is way too expensive to compete against cheaper fuels. Nor will nuclear opponents like the way that Pandora’s Promise undermines the claim that nuclear power is a weapons proliferation threat. We see glowing nighttime urban skylines as Brand tells us some of those lights are powered by nuclear material taken from decommissioned Russian and American warheads “Poetic” Brand calls it…swords into plowshares.
Pandora’s Promise is open, earnest, unabashed advocacy, and it makes a persuasive case, using images and emotional framings that will resonate with innate affective cues that influence our perceptions of risk. It may not change the minds of baby boomer environmentalists whose fear of anything nuclear grows from deep historic roots and whose self-identities are too tightly bound to the expected tribal opposition to nuclear power. But to younger viewers, and to any viewer with an open mind, Pandora’s Promise may help encourage fresh thinking about the huge pros, as well as the better known cons, of this important, if controversial, source of clean energy.
(In the name of transparency, I have participated twice in the Breakthrough Institute’s annual Breakthrough Dialogue, a two-day retreat that brings together several dozen experts and thinkers – not sure how I got invited – to ponder solutions to big problems. Shellenberger, Lynas, Brand, Cravens, and Stone, have been part of those conversations.)