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Pandora's Promise

Pandora's Propaganda

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Robert Stone's 'Pandora's Promise' film has generated a fresh round of publicity and commentary as it has been shown on CNN and released in more countries including the UK and Australia.

Physicist Ed Lyman trades blows with Stone in opinion pieces published by CNN. Lyman argues that the recounting of the US 'integral fast reactor' (IFR) R&D program in Pandora's Promise is "more myth than reality". He notes that fast reactors can be operated as breeders, producing more plutonium than they consume. He notes that claims about the proliferation-resistance of 'pyroprocessing' are overblown, pointing to a 2008 US Department of Energy review that concluded that pyroprocessing and similar technologies would "greatly reduce barriers to theft, misuse or further processing, even without separation of pure plutonium."

Lyman disputes claims that IFRs could not suffer meltdowns, noting that an IFR prototype, EBR-I in Idaho, had a partial fuel meltdown in 1955 while a similar reactor, Fermi 1 near Detroit, had a partial fuel meltdown in 1966.

Lyman challenges the claim that IFR R&D was shut down in the US in the 1990s: "In fact, the IFR program's demise was a shutdown in name only. The Department of Energy has continued to fund research and development on fast reactor technology to the tune of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars a year."

In response, Stone doesn't rebut any of Lyman's statements but indulges in a hissy fit, describing Lyman as one of the "many henchmen" of the anti-nuclear movement, saying Lyman's criticism "is driven mostly by his life-long aversion to nuclear technology in any form", and accusing Lyman of "deriving his information from the Internet, which is all he seems to have done."

Stone's response also uses a technique used ad nauseum in Pandora's Promise − presenting a false choice. He invites readers to judge for themselves which side of the debate they stand on − with anti-nuclear activists or with climate scientists, i.e. pro-nuclear climate scientists such as James Hansen.

A number of reviews of Pandora's Promise are quite dismissive of concerns about nuclear safety and proliferation (and quite dismissive of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements more generally), but are keenly aware of the economics of nuclear power.

For example Australian academic John Quiggin writes: "So, the fact that the world has not turned to nuclear power as a solution to climate change is a matter of economics. In the absence of a substantial carbon price, nuclear energy can't compete with coal and other fossil fuels. In the presence of a carbon price, it can't compete with wind and solar photovoltaics. The only real hope is that, if coal-fired generation is reduced drastically enough, always-on nuclear power will be a more attractive alternative than variable sources like solar and wind power. However, much of the current demand for "baseload" power is an artifact of pricing systems designed for coal, and may disappear as prices become more cost-reflective."

Victor Gilinsky (former US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner) and Henry Sokolski (Nonproliferation Policy Education Center) write: "The method the movie uses for this purpose is to interview five supposed environmentalists who changed sides on the nuclear issue. The result is something akin to a psywar broadcast to enemy troops by turncoats, urging their former comrades to surrender, too, and it is about as interesting and effective."

Gilinsky and Sokolski comment on economics: "The trouble with the movie's logic is that the "environmentalists" had little to do with the halt in nuclear construction, and have hardly any influence on its future. If your objective is to get nuclear power rolling, the people you need to convince are not environmentalists but rather the supposedly pro-nuclear corporate utility executives and their bankers, nearly all of whom have decided that they are not going to touch new nuclear construction unless the government assumes the commercial risk. The stubborn fact is that nuclear plants are hellishly expensive and US power companies won't buy them unless they get hefty subsidies. And they won't build them, either, unless the accident risks are in large part absorbed by the government."

Gilinsky and Sokolski conclude: "It is undeniable that in terms of carbon release nuclear energy has an inherent advantage, the promise of which we may in time find ways to exploit effectively. But in its current form, including what is on the drawing boards, this advantage is still more than offset by a series of problems − cost, proliferation and safety. The movie's promise is still nowhere near at hand."

References and more information on Pandora's Promise:
Beyond Nuclear:
Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski, 21 June 2013, 'Pandora's Promise − Is the Issue Really Environmental?', Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, Vol.VII No.25,
Linda Pentz Gunter and Kevin Kamps, 7 Nov 2013, 'Don't trade global warming for nuclear meltdowns',
Edwin Lyman, 7 Nov 2013, 'Scientist: Film hypes the promise of advanced nuclear technology',
Alex Macbeth, 24 Oct 2013, 'Pandora's Promise: Is nuclear an option?',
John Quiggin, 8 Nov 2013, 'Reviving nuclear power debates is a distraction. We need to use less energy',
Robert Stone, 8 Nov 2013, ''Pandora's Promise' director defends his controversial nuclear energy film',
'Pandora's Promise' Propaganda, Nuclear Monitor #764, 28 June 2013,

Information on integral fast reactors:
A debate on IFRs between David Lochbaum (Union of Concerned Scientists) and author-advocate Tom Blees:
Edwin Lyman, 7 Nov 2013, 'Scientist: Film hypes the promise of advanced nuclear technology', and see the links provided in Lyman's article
Beyond Nuclear, Jan 2013, 'Pandora's False Promises: The Integral Fast Reactor. Longer Fact Sheet', two-page fact-sheet:
US Office of Technology Assessment report:
FoE Australia, 'Integral Fast Reactors',
FoE Australia, 'Nuclear Weapons and 'Generation 4' Reactors',

Nuclear vs Climate

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Nuclear power is back in the climate headlines after climate scientist James Hansen was joined by three others in posting a public letter in which they jointly urge environmental organisations to stop opposing nuclear power. In the letter they say that more nuclear energy is urgently needed and essential in the fight against global warming − because, in their opinion, wind and solar "cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires."[1]

Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, finds that perspective to be "without foundation or factual support." Research by Jacobson paints a completely opposite picture and says that wind, water, and solar can replace fossil fuels quickly, without nuclear. He said that nuclear power actually takes "10-19 years to plan, permit, and install, compared with 2-5 years for a solar or wind farm." Regarding next generation nuclear power, Jacobson said that it "does not even exist, except in theory and in the lab, and there is no guarantee it will ever exist at the commercial scale."[2]

Dr Daniel Kammen, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment at the University of California, says: "Nuclear power is certainly low-carbon in the use phase, but the problems with the nuclear fuel cycle, as managed today, are of: cost and extreme accidents. Today, nuclear power plants can cost as much as $10 billion for a 1500 MW plant and take a decade to construct … The climate crisis demands significant low-carbon deployment today, and it is not clear if nuclear can meet that immediate challenge."[3]

The US-based Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) said "the authors of this letter (and other nuclear energy proponents) are on the wrong track when they look to nuclear power as a silver bullet solution for global warming. To the contrary, given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly not a practical alternative. Instead, energy efficiency will always be the quickest, cheapest solution to our energy and climate challenges, and clean renewable energy is growing today by leaps and bounds. Inexplicably, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues ignore energy efficiency altogether".[4]

NRDC says the treatment of renewables is inaccurately dismissive. Wind farms and solar arrays can be installed much faster and typically at lower cost than new nuclear plants, and the consequences of any single unit's failure are trivial by comparison. Hansen et al.'s contention that these resources cannot "scale" rapidly enough to make a difference is belied by the recent record – windpower alone added nine times more generation than nuclear plants to the US grid from 2000 – 2012. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has concluded that "renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country."

The co-authors of the Hansen letter hold out the promise of "safer nuclear energy systems" that will somehow turn things around. But the global history of the nuclear industry is littered with costly failures to create advanced reactor designs that could "reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently."

The Sierra Club said: "If Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have taught us anything, it's that nuclear plants are too expensive, too slow to build, and too risky. That's why countries like Germany – one of the largest economies in the world – are going all in on renewable energy sources and decommissioning dangerous nuclear plants."

Joseph Romm, the lead climate blogger with the liberal Center for American Progress, focuses on the cost of nuclear plants in his own rebuttal to the scientists' letter: "I think their letter is mis-addressed and also misses the key point about nuclear power − because it is so expensive, especially when done safely, the industry has no chance of revival absent a serious price on carbon."[5]

Romm writes that it's not the green movement that has prevented construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S. in recent decades. "As a practical matter, environmental groups have had little impact on the collapse of nuclear power in America. The countries where nuclear has dead-ended are market-based economies where the nuclear industry has simply been unable to deliver a competitive product," he writes.[5]

Pandora's Promise

Meanwhile the pro-nuclear documentary, Pandora's Promise by director Robert Stone was released on 15th November and formed part of a mini festival in London's Brixton, showing alongside five other documentaries exploring the pros and cons of nuclear generation and a panel discussion featuring Stone and several of his fellow filmmakers.[6]

For all the globetrotting from Fukushima to Chernobyl to Three Mile Island, the film completely ignores the issue which is actually at the centre of today's nuclear debate: cost. Damian Carrington writing on The Guardian website says there is a serious debate to be had about whether new nuclear power stations are a vital tool in tackling climate change or a damaging distraction from a truly clean energy future. The debate needs to be about which technology should be used, in which countries, at what cost and at what speed of deployment. This film, with its scant cast of writers and octogenarian engineers, says nothing about any of these issues.[7]

US group Beyond Nuclear says "exchanging global warming for nuclear meltdown is not the answer. From a purely practical standpoint − and ignoring for a moment nuclear power's other showstoppers such as cost, unmanaged nuclear waste, atomic weapons proliferation and catastrophic accident − there simply isn't time to choose nuclear power. There are faster, affordable alternatives, including energy efficiency and renewable energy installations such as wind farms and solar arrays that can be completed in months to a few years."[8]

Beyond Nuclear has produced a series of briefings on the film which can be found here:

1. World Nuclear News, 4 Nov 2013,
2. Fairfax Climate Watch, 4 Nov 2013,
3. RTCC, 4 Nov 2013,
4. NRDC Blog, 5 Nov 2013,
5. Grist, 7 Nov 2013,
6. Engineer, 11 Nov 2013,
7. Guardian, 8 Nov 2013,
8. CNN, 7 Nov 2013,

'Pandora's Promise' Propaganda

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Pandora's Promise is a pro-nuclear film written and directed by Robert Stone, with a little help from billionaires Paul Allen and Richard Branson (

The US Beyond Nuclear website has a wealth of material debunking the film (

Robert Stone says: "The film is anchored around the personal narratives of a growing number of leading former anti-nuclear activists and pioneering scientists." The film's website also asserts that nuclear power is "now passionately embraced by many of those who once led the charge against it."

In fact, not one of the film's cast was ever a "leading former anti-nuclear activist". As Beyond Nuclear notes: "The protagonists were either not ever anti-nuclear, or were 'somewhat against it,' but were never a high-profile or an outspoken critic of nuclear power." Stone partnered with the right-wing, anti-environment Breakthrough Institute to produce the film and the institute's personnel feature prominently in the film.

Robert Kennedy Jnr. generously describes the film as an "elaborate hoax". It's not elaborate. The film-makers and their cast claim objectivity and balance which the film clearly fails to deliver. They claim the scientific high-ground even as they repeatedly bastardise science. One critic suggests giving the film a miss and Stone responds by portraying the entire environment movement as authoritarian thought-police, saying they "use their positions of influence to determine what can and cannot be said about our predicament, to claim uncompromising ownership of the issue".

Stone writes glowingly about "people like me who care about the future" and are "open-minded enough to change their minds like I have done." In other words, if you oppose nuclear power, you have a closed mined and you don't care about the future. The film repeatedly ignores or misrepresents serious criticisms of nuclear power. Key problems − such as nuclear power's negative economic learning curve, and WMD proliferation − are all but ignored.

Claims that the script has been carefully fact-checked are laughable. To cite one example − of dozens − a contributor says that Greenpeace claims one million deaths from Chernobyl. A few minutes research gives the lie to claim − a Greenpeace-commissioned scientific study estimates 93,000 cancer deaths from Chernobyl, possibly up to 160,000 deaths from all other causes.

Gushing praise for Stone's propaganda can easily be found on the internet so here we pull together some critical commentary.

Physicist Dr Ed Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes:

By oversimplifying the issues, trivializing opposing viewpoints and mocking those who express them, and selectively presenting information in a misleading way, [Pandora's Promise] serves more to obfuscate than to illuminate. As such, it adds little of value to the substantive debate about the merits of various energy sources in a carbon-constrained world.

"Pandora's Promise," taking a page from late-night infomercials, seeks to persuade via the testimonials of a number of self-proclaimed environmentalists who used to be opposed to nuclear power but have now changed their minds, including Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Richard Rhodes. The documentary tries to make its case primarily by impressing the audience with the significance of the personal journeys of these nuclear power converts, not by presenting the underlying arguments in a coherent way.

This strategy puts great emphasis on the credibility of these spokespeople. Yet some of them sabotage their own credibility. When Lynas says that in his previous life as an anti-nuclear environmentalist he didn't know that there was such a thing as natural background radiation, or Michael Shellenberger admitted to once taking on faith the claim that Chernobyl caused a million casualties, the audience may reasonably wonder why it should accept what they believe now that they are pro-nuclear.

My hand got tired trying to jot down all the less-than-half truths put forth by the talking heads in the film, which could have benefited from some fact-checking. ... One after another, the film's interviewees talk about how shocked they were to read the 2005 report of the Chernobyl Forum − a group under of U.N. agencies under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine − and discover that "the health effects of Chernobyl were nothing like what was expected." The film shows pages from that report with certain reassuring sentences underlined.

But there is no mention of the fact that the Chernobyl Forum only estimated the number of cancer deaths expected among the most highly exposed populations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and not the many thousands more predicted by published studies to occur in other parts of Europe that received high levels of fallout. Nor is there mention of the actual health consequences from Chernobyl, including the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers that had occurred by 2005 in individuals who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. And the film is silent on the results of more recent published studies that report evidence of excesses in other cancers, as well as cardiovascular diseases, are beginning to emerge (

Insult is then added to injury when Lynas then accuses the anti-nuclear movement of "cherry-picking of scientific data" to support their claims. Yet the film had just engaged in some pretty deceptive cherry-picking of its own. Lynas then goes on to assert that the Fukushima accident will probably never kill anyone from radiation, also ignoring studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand. The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which obtained a copy of a draft report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), revealed that the report estimated a collective whole-body dose of 3.2 million person-rem to the population of Japan as a result of the accident: a dose that would cause in the range of 1,000-3,000 cancer deaths. ...

There are also scenes in the film that are downright offensive, such as showing impoverished, barefoot children wandering through slums with the clear implication that nuclear power is all that is needed to raise them out of poverty. The biggest failing of the film, however, is the lack of any discussion of what the real obstacles to an expansion of nuclear energy are and what would need to be done to overcome them. In fact, nuclear power's worst enemy may not be the anti-nuclear movement, as the film suggests, but rather nuclear power advocates whose rose-colored view of the technology helped create the attitude of complacency that made accidents like Fukushima possible. Nuclear power will only be successful through the vision of realists who acknowledge its problems and work hard to fix them − not fawning ideologues like filmmaker Robert Stone and the stars of "Pandora's Promise."

− Ed Lyman, 12 June 2013, 'Movie Review: Put "Pandora's Promise" Back in the Box',

Nuclear power supporter Severin Borenstein writes:

I was surprised at the very narrow bite of the nuclear power issue that the movie takes. It is basically a movie about nuclear power's past safety record and waste management. On that score it is fairly convincing. ... What left me less than completely persuaded on safety is the fact that there are far more thoughtful critics and reasoned concerns about nuclear power safety, including access of terrorists to plants and to fuels. This is particularly true if we are talking about building plants in countries with less stable governments, as the movie suggests we should. The movie says only a bit about nuclear proliferation among national governments and essentially nothing about terrorism. ...

My disappointment with the film is that beyond safety, it has little to say. There are two fleeting references to cost that suggest vaguely that it is cost competitive. It isn't. In the discussion after the movie, Michael Shellenberger agreed with me that nuclear power can't beat coal or natural gas today. The movie briefly beats up solar and wind for being intermittent, but that's probably less than a minute and there is no reference to storage possibilities or demand adjustment to address intermittency."

− Severin Borenstein, 21 June 2013, 'Pandora's Promises - Kept and Unkept: Examining the Nuclear Documentary'

Andrew Revkin writes:

Serious engagement with critics of nuclear power − whether on economics, industry practices or health and environmental issues − is absent. The film also avoids discussing the high costs and logistical and policy hurdles to adding substantially to the country's, or world's, existing fleets of operating nuclear plants. The scale and costs required to cut into coal use using any technology − nuclear, wind, solar or otherwise − is incredibly daunting.

− Andrew Revkin, 13 June 2013, 'A Film Presses the Climate, Health and Security Case for Nuclear Energy',

Mark Hertsgaard writes in The Nation:
The public and the overwhelming majority of environmental groups continue to reject nuclear power. Of the ten leading environmental organizations in the US − the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, The National Wildlife Federation, The Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense, The National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, The World Wildlife Fund − not one supports nuclear power, despite the threat of climate change.

− Mark Hertsgaard, 10 June 2013, 'Pandora's Myths vs. the Facts',

Joe Romm writes:

The five converts featured in Pandora's Promise speak for themselves as individuals; they don't represent large environmental organizations − or small ones, for that matter. Gwyneth Cravens and Richard Rhodes don't even appear to have track records as activists; Cravens is a fiction writer. Stewart Brand helped found the Whole Earth Catalog, but that was over forty years ago; since then, he's spent much of his time as a consultant to corporations, including some in the energy sector. Shellenberger is a PR man who, as he says in the film, used to consult for environmental groups but no longer does. ... Shellenberger has dedicated himself to spreading disinformation about Gore, Congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate scientists, Al Gore again, the entire environmental community and anyone else trying to end our status quo energy policies, including me. Heck he even went after Rachel Carson! ... The only bona fide activist is Lynas, who wrote a fine book about climate change, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet."

− Joe Romm, 17 June 2013, 'Pandora's Promise: Nuclear Power's Trek From Too Cheap To Meter To Too Costly To Matter Much',

Kennette Benedict writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. In fact, there is much to admire in those who recognize altered circumstances, integrate fresh information, and come to a new judgment. What is disingenuous about Pandora's Promise is the way the new judgment is conveyed. The film mocks groups that continue to protest nuclear power, treating one-time colleagues as extremists and zealots. An audience discussion after a preview at the University of Chicago made it clear I was not the only one who sensed the self-righteous tone of the newly converted in the film's narrative. In the end, by dismissing the protestors and failing to engage them in significant debate about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, the film undermined its own message. ...

Solutionists lurch in fits and starts from one extreme position to another, from one answer to the next, failing to understand that the problems we have created are as complex as the societies we live in. We are disrupting the Earth's atmosphere through a combination of carbon-emitting technologies, population growth, overconsumption in industrial societies, and settlement patterns that have cleared huge forests that filter carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. No single technological fix is likely to "solve" the problem of climate change.

A more powerful approach to this complex threat to humanity would be to film a fact-based, passionate debate that explored the alternatives, trade-offs, and consequences of various energy options. Such an exploration might move us from the usual politics of zealotry to new habits of thought, and perhaps to new forms of action based on all the facts.

− Kennette Benedict, 10 June 2013, 'Pandora's false promise',

Manohla Dargis writes in the New York Times:

"Pandora's Promise" is as stacked as advocate movies get. ... In brief − or so the movie's one-sided reasoning goes − everything that anti-nuclear energy activists and skeptics have thought about the issue is wrong. Decades of politically and ideologically driven fearmongering and misinformation have led to its demonization when it could be our salvation. Drawing on original interviews, archival materials, computer animations and even, d'oh, "The Simpsons," Mr. Stone builds his case seamlessly but leaves no room for dissent, much less a drop of doubt. "To be anti-nuclear," another of his experts, the journalist Richard Rhodes, says, "is basically to be in favor of burning fossil fuel."

Certainly there's an environmental case to be made for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, which is exactly what some activists and journalists have been exploring for years. But you need to make an argument. A parade of like-minded nuclear-power advocates who assure us that everything will be all right just doesn't cut it.

− Manohla Dargis, 11 June 2013, 'Pandora's Promise' Advocates Nuclear Energy,

David Roberts writes in Grist:

There is no budding environmentalist movement for nukes. Ever since I started paying attention to "nuclear renaissance" stories about a decade ago, there's always been this credulous, excitable bit about how enviros are starting to come around. The roster of enviros in this purportedly burgeoning movement: Stewart Brand, the Breakthrough Boys, and "Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore," who has been a paid shill for industry for decades (it sounds like the Pandora folks were wise enough to leave him out). More recently George Monbiot and Mark Lynas have been added to the list. This handful of converts is always cited with the implication that it's the leading edge of a vast shift, and yet ... it's always the same handful.

Anyway, if environmentalists are as omni-incompetent as Breakthrough has alleged all these years, why the eagerness to recruit them? I get the media appeal of "even hippies know the hippies are wrong," but to me it smells of flop sweat.

In the movie, Shellenberger says, "I have a sense that this is a beautiful thing … the beginning of a movement." I fear he has once again mistaken the contents of his navel for the zeitgeist. ...

To hear supporters tell it, within a few years you'll have a reactor in your backyard that consumes nuclear waste from past reactors and emits nothing but fresh air, clean water, and the scent of jasmine. There are, of course, lots of folks who think the promise of new reactors is overblown.

− David Roberts, 14 June 2013, 'Some thoughts on "Pandora's Promise" and the nuclear debate',