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In Search of Balance for the Pro-Nuclear-Energy Doc “Pandora’s Promise”

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Image from the documentary Pandora's Promise

Robert Stone’s pro-nuclear-energy documentary Pandora’s Promise shows one side of the debate. Doc Soup Man Tom Roston talks with author-journalist Mark Hertsgaard for some context.

Boy, did I step into it this time.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published my article on Pandora’s Promise, a documentary that advocates for nuclear energy as a valid way to combat climate change and the seemingly inevitable destruction of our planet. My story focused on how the documentary is unusual in that it doesn’t preach to the choir, as most documentaries do.

I didn’t have a bone to pick, and I reported the facts. But just by bringing Pandora’s Promise more attention, I was helping to support it, in a way. That’s fine by me. But, whether right or wrong, Pandora’s Promise offers just one side of the story. Director Robert Stone told me that that was entirely intentional. He didn’t want to present a Crossfire-like debate. He wanted to give the pro-nukes side in his film, and to provoke a discussion.

So, for those who have seen the film, where’s the other side of the debate? And that’s when it hit me. Well, actually, it was sent to me — in the form of an email about articles in The Nation that refutes many of the major claims in Pandora’s Promise. And here they are: a discussion between environmental writers Mark Hertsgaard and Terry Tempest Williams and a list of five myths vs. facts.

There’s more debate on the film and the subject to be found on The New York Times environmental blog Dot Earth — make sure to check out the comments thread.

I emailed some questions to the Nation writer, Mark Hertsgaard, just to get the balance right.

Doc Soup Man: I saw in your articles what you thought of its arguments, but can you tell me a little about your personal reaction to Pandora’s Promise?

Mark Hertsgaard: My overriding personal reaction to Pandora’s Promise was, pardon the cliche, “I’ve seen this movie before.”  The arguments were virtually indistinguishable from what I was told by nuclear industry executives in the interviews I did 30 years ago for my book, Nuclear Inc.: The Men and Money Behind Nuclear Energy.  As I mentioned in my Nation piece, the very first time I heard the term “global warming” was from a nuclear industry executive, who assured me that sometime around the turn of the 21st century “global warming” would help politicians and the public alike to understand that the world faced what this executive and many of his colleagues liked to call “a nuclear imperative.”  That climate-nuclear link wasn’t the only cause of the deja vu I felt while watching Pandora’s Promise; most of the documentary’s arguments for why nuclear is a superior option I had heard in greater detail from the scores of executives I interviewed for Nuclear Inc.

I hasten to add that this regurgitation of nuclear industry talking points is by no means ipso facto proof that the documentary is wrong.  I don’t believe in arguing guilt by association or asserting that someone’s economic interests or ideological perspective automatically disqualifies them from being correct.  I further believe that any filmmaker, or writer, has the right to portray his or her vision of the truth, and as passionately as desired.  I also believe, however, in examining the factual basis for whatever argument is being advanced.  I wish the documentary had shown the same intellectual honesty, instead of presenting such a one-sided picture, especially of environmentalists and other critics of nuclear power — not one of whom is portrayed as anything less than a hysterical nutcase.

Personally, I am a critic of nuclear power, but by no means a reflexive one, and I came to my position through years of independent investigation and diligent study, not because I was somehow brainwashed by the tribal identity of 1960′s environmentalists.  (For one thing, I’m too young to belong to the Sixties generation.  For another — and this is but one of many logical mis-fires in Pandora’s Promise — Stewart Brand is undoubtedly a 1960s’ environmentalist, thanks to his role in the iconic Whole Earth Catalogue, and yet he is now the loudest voice calling for all-out pursuit of nuclear power.  Kinda undercuts the film’s assertion, as voiced by Michael Shellenberger in the closing frames and, more recently, in a front page San Francisco Chronicle story this week, that Sixties generation environmentalists are beyond persuasion about nuclear power, doesn’t it?)

In terms of filmmaking, I thought Pandora’s Promise was okay, not great.  Certainly it was more viewer-friendly than Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but at the end of the day Pandora’s Promise is a movie of talking heads making an intellectual argument.  That is a difficult thing to bring to life on the screen, and I thought Stone did a resourceful job of tackling the challenge.  He owes a great debt to Mark Lynas, apparently the only one of the five converts willing to venture forth from a darkened interview studio and be filmed exploring the situation on the ground, for example at Fukushima.

Doc Soup Man: Stone says that most people go in to seeing his film feeling anti-nuclear, and come out, feeling pro-nuclear. Do you believe this? If so, why do you think this is happening?

Mark Hertsgaard: To my skeptical journalist’s ears, this sounds like decidedly wishful thinking, spun for the benefit of a NYT interview.  I note your NYT story says that Stone did “polling” of his audiences.  Maybe.  But I’d like to see the methodology and practices employed in said “polling” before I would give Mr. Stone’s characterization of the results much credence.

Meanwhile, the public as a whole appears to be voting with its feet, and the results so far are underwhelming, to say the least.  On this, its opening weekend, Pandora’s Promise has reportedly grossed a mere $20,421 in ticket sales.  Averaged across the 16 theaters where it has been shown and assuming a ticket price of $10 a seat with ten showings over the course of Friday and Saturday, these numbers suggest that most showings are attracting about a dozen viewers.  A groundswell, this is not.

Doc Soup Man: Is your anti-Pandora’s Promise attack getting traction?

Mark Hertsgaard: First of all, I don’t accept that what Terry and I wrote was an “attack.”  It was a critique of the film’s claims, in which I in particular compared its assertions with the established record of evidence.  I came to the conclusion that the film cherry-picked its evidence and presented a woefully one-sided perspective, and that’s what I wrote. Had the film dealt differently with evidence and argument, I would have written a different critique.  I make this point because to say that our article was an “attack” is to accept the narrative frame that Stone and the film wrongly insist upon: that everyone else’s minds are irretrievably made up and if one disagrees with the brave converts in the film, then it must be because of an ideological rejection of nuclear power.

As for whether the Nation piece is “getting traction,” I confess that I always find it hard to answer this type of question; the necessary data are elusive and the phenomenon itself can’t be linearly measured anyway. For example, it’s a rule of thumb in most newsrooms that only the people who DON’T like a given story write a letter to the editor about it; you never hear from the many folks who do like that story. (Books, I’ve found, are somewhat different; I’ve gotten many appreciative letters from readers over the years — far more than the letters accusing me of being a communist, idiot or pick your insult.)  Anyway, I know our exchange was highlighted in Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog and I expect it will continue to generate interest as it spreads to other venues over time.

Pandora’s Promise is now screening in a handful of cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. For a full list and show times, visit pandoraspromise.com.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • John Sanbonmatsu

    Very disappointing, to see Mark Hertsgaard’s much too kind treatment of this horrific bit of pro-nuclear propaganda. I personally grew up in the shadow of Pilgrim I in Plymouth on the South Shore of Massachusetts–a reactor with one of the worst safety records in the nation. And what I have seen over the years has frightened and angered me: NRC officials lying to the public, and shutting down debate; near-constant safety lapses, radiological crises, and releases of radiation; the lack of any viable evacuation plan; thousands of highly dangerous spent fuel rods building up on site; a decrepit reactor operating way past its prime, yet kept in operation by the NRC over the objections of my state’s elected officials. And worst of all, this is the same G.E. light-water reactor design used in Fukushima. It is incredible to me how much of a “pass” critics like Tom Roston are giving this film. The stakes are much too high in the nuclear power debate for journalists to be giving up the critical ghost. And I would expect to see a little more animated and directed outrage from people like Hertsgaard, who know how bad all this is. This film is already having a huge impact on public opinion.

    • Jeff Schmidt

      John Sanbonmatsu: And how many people have been hurt by Pilgrim? How many people, for that matter, were hurt by Fukushima?

      ” NRC officials lying to the public, and shutting down debate;”

      When have NRC officials lied to the public? Can you please provide me specific examples that I can research? As for shutting down debate – there’s a time for public meetings. But, at the end of the day, it is the job of the NRC to make rulings, based upon the law and based upon known scientific and engineering expertise that the NRC *does* have and the public does *not* have.

      Quite frankly, while the public should be free to express concerns, and the NRC should be responsible to make sure that those concerns are adequately addressed to protect public safety, it is the NRC itself which is equipped to determine that it HAS sufficiently addressed those concerns, not the ignorant public. (And I consider myself part of that ‘ignorant public” – I’m not a nuclear engineer – what do I or anyone else in the public who aren’t nuclear engineers, know about whether a design is safe or not? If the construction and practices at the plant put the public at risk? I and the public are absolutely not equipped to make that technical evaluation, but many in the public are deluded into thinking they somehow do know what is and isn’t safe).

      If nuclear is so dangerous, where is the “parade of horrors” that surely should have materialized after 60 years and become self-evident?

      • WP

        There was a little place called Chernobyl. Another place in Russia call Kyshtym? Reactor meltdown with 1,000 victtim acknowledged by Russian (Soviet!) authorities, global fallout, and 800 sq. km of land uninhabitable for over 40 years, and some still closed. Three Mile Island and other smaller leaks have also produced radiation levels up to 100s of times above background levels (or the oft-mentioned chest x-ray). Show me another power generation technology that produces this? A better question is, why is anybody so anxious to prop up this expensive dinosaur technology when we have better alternatives available? To me, a failure of imagination combined with the financial and lobbying power of the nuclear industry.

        • Jeff Schmidt

          WP: Chernobyl was really the only epically bad accident of the ones you listed. Even that is expected to kill fewer than 10,000 people. It’s not absolutely known how many it will affect, but that is the upper bound. But, more importantly, Chernobyl was an old, dangerous design. In the US, there was NEVER a reactor design in use as bad as the Chernobyl design. The USSR’s epic fuckup isn’t a universal damnation of the entire technology.

          As for Three Mile Island, you need to check your sources, because almost no radiation was released at TMI, and no detectable increase in radiation in the surrounding area was ever found, so I call BS on your claim that “have also produced radiation levels up to 100s of times above background levels”.

          This is the whole problem with the nuclear/anti-nuclear debate. The anti-nukes don’t seem to do a very good job of fact-checking their claims.

          They claim, repeatedly, that we are just one accident away from massive killoffs of human and other life forms, but the science just does NOT support that. If that were likely, it would have already happened.

    • # FRE0

      Mr. Sanbonmatsu, your post doesn’t seem to consider that the problems associated with our pressurized water reactors could be greatly reduced by using a better nuclear technology.

      At one time, many people broke their arms by crank-starting their cars. The dangers of crank-starting were completely eliminated by the electric starter. Surely it would have been unreasonable to label cars as too dangerous because of the broken arms resulting from crank-starting. Similarly it is unreasonable to label nuclear power as too dangerous when better nuclear technologies may be able to make nuclear power much safer.

      • PW

        Nuclear technology was originally designed as a weapon of mass destruction. It was only belatedly adapted to power generation. The problems with nuclear power to the core of the technology and the demonstrated inability of its handlers to control it. This has nothing to do with cars and handcranks.

  • Jeff Schmidt

    What is “balance”. Why must an opposing view always be presented? Now, if you have real scientific or engineering information which contradicts a claim made by the movie, that seems relevant. But, in the world of “journalism”, the word “balance” often means that one side presents known scientific facts, while someone else gets to come on and contradict those facts with unsubstantiated wildly false claims. Shouldn’t journalistic “balance” allow for filtering out the BS, and NOT presenting it as if it were equally valid with known scientific truths?

    I respect Mr. Hertsgaard’s point that not everyone who is anti-nuclear is some crazy. That’s certainly true. BUT, people like Helen Caldicott get away with making a LOT of crazy, unscientific assertions, and those people are often the sources being used by a lot of people who are against nuclear power. It’s time people started calling BS on people like Caldicott who poison the well of public discourse with what must be called outright lies because they aren’t backed by the consensus of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.

    • # FRE0

      That is a very excellent point. The movie is being criticized for not being balanced and it’s true that it is not completely balanced. But not long ago, PBS aired a program about nuclear waste; t was not balanced. It presented no information about nuclear technologies which would produce only a tiny fraction of the waste produced by our current reactors and, in fact, could use our current waste as fuel.

      When I contacted PBS about its unbalanced presentation of the problems of nuclear waste, I got no response. Considering that, it certainly seems unreasonable for PBS to criticize “Pandora’s Promise” for being unbalanced.