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Movie Review: Pandora's Promise

‘Promise’ aims to restart nuclear power debate (Our grade: B-)
Pandora's Promise
Genre: Documentary
Running Time: 90 min
MPAA rating: Unrated
Release Date: 2013-01-18
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By "Jane Sumner"
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman

Women aren’t the only ones with the prerogative to change their minds. Environmentalists can, too. And Robert Stone’s new documentary “Pandora’s Promise” showcases his own and other green eco-advocates’ about-face on the subject of nuclear power.

Twenty-five years ago, Stone had a different message. His powerful anti-nuke film “Radio Bikini” revealed our military’s ignorance about the hazards of radioactivity during atom bomb tests on a peaceful Pacific atoll in 1946.

Now in polished, provocative “Pandora’s Promise,” Stone asks environmentalists critical of nuclear power to set aside preconceptions and re-examine their convictions in the light of new reactor science, the French example and the growing shadow of global warming.

To make the case for nuclear power, Stone recruits five formidable former nuke opponents: Pulitzer Prize-winner and futurist Richard Rhodes (“The Making of the Atomic Bomb”), “Whole Earth Catalog” founder and publisher Stewart Brand and novelist and journalist Gwyneth Cravens, who has said she regrets ever protesting the $6 billion Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant that was built but never operated on Long Island.

British environmental writer and activist Mark Lynas has also reversed his stand against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming, and author and political strategist Michael Shellenberger co-wrote a controversial essay “The Death of Environmentalism” that sparked a national debate.

Make no mistake. This is advocacy film, not a pro-and-con debate. We never hear from nuclear-opposing groups such as Greenpeace International, Nuclear Information and Resource Service or Japan’s Sayonara Nuclear Power Plants.

Nor do we hear from China, which has 17 reactors and 28 under construction but gets 80 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, or from India, with 20 reactors, an eye toward nuclear technology leadership and reportedly 100,000 annual deaths from coal-fired power plant pollution.

Veteran anti-nuke spokeswoman Dr. Helen Caldicott appears long enough to claim the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster killed more than a million people. The United Nations and World Health Organization put the death toll at 56, which Caldicott dismisses as a cover-up and turns away.

Proponents with hand-held dosimeters detect places with natural radiation readings higher than Pripyat, the abandoned Chernobyl workers’ town. Solar panels and wind turbines, they point out, require natural gas back-up, and no one, they declare, has died from a nuclear power plant accident in the United States.

Apparently, they don’t count the deadly 1961 steam explosion and core meltdown at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.

While proponents argue that nuclear power is greener and cheaper than coal, oil and gas, that wind and solar power can never really supplant fossil fuel and that nuclear waste can be safely stored above ground in concrete towers, there’s no getting around three plant accidents.

Cravens recalls her fears as a parent in New York after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979. Lynas walks through ghostly Chernobyl in the Ukraine, where an inexperienced operator set off a radioactive eruption in 1986 that went on for 10 days.

Near the eerie site of the 2011 Fukushama Daiichi plant meltdown in Japan, which occurred in the midst of Stone’s filming, Lynas dons a radiation suit and suffers a momentary “wobble” in his pro-nuclear conversion.

Worthy of their own documentary are the French, who had “no oil, no coal, no gas and no choice” but to go nuclear. Fifty-eight plants supply 80 percent of that country’s electrical power, run the nation’s trains and even export electricity.

Some of the energy stand-off appears generational. Those who came of age ducking and covering in the Cold War, saw “The China Syndrome” two weeks before Three Mile Island and watched the evil nuclear plant CEO, luminous rats and bumbling safety inspector Homer on “The Simpsons,” will need more persuading.

But with glaciers melting, seas rising and superstorms in the wings, “Pandora’s Promise,” despite its one-sided polemics, revives a desperately needed conversation.

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June 20, 2013 - Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman - Jane Sumner

Women aren’t the only ones with the prerogative to change their minds. Environmentalists can, too. And Robert Stone’s new documentary “Pandora’s Promise” showcases his own and other green eco-advocates’ about-face on the subject of nuclear power.

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