An interview with Robert Stone, the director of the controversial documentary Pandora's Promise, which asks us to revisit nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel addiction.
Being opposed to nuclear power was almost a founding principle for card-carrying liberals of the baby boom generation. The movement’s politics were rooted in the post-Hiroshima Cold War alarm over the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, which carried the spectre of potential catastrophe over to their cousin, nuclear power. The credibility of anti-nuclear-power activism was enhanced by the fears emanating from the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. And it found its way into 1970s and ’80s popular culture through hit movies like The China Syndrome and the anti-atoms rock revue, which hit a high-water mark with the 1979 No Nukes concerts featuring Bruce Springsteen.
Robert Stone shared those anti–nuclear leanings. His documentary Radio Bikini, about the nuclear tests conducted in the 1940s and ’50s on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, was nominated for an Academy Award. But more than 20 years on, Stone has also become deeply concerned about the dangers of carbon-driven climate change. His search for alternatives to our fossil fuel economy — and especially his despair at the poor prospects for renewable sources to replace fossil fuels anytime soon — led him to reexamine his opposition to nuclear power.
The result is Pandora’s Promise, a 90-minute documentary that urges us to take another look at nuclear power’s potential to meet the demands of an energy-thirsty world in a sustainable way. The film’s value lies not just in its dry, evidence-based challenge to many of the anti-nuclear movement’s central tenets, but in the willingness of its main characters — all deeply committed environmentalists — to question their previous anti-nuclear-power stance in the search for alternatives to fossil fuels. It asks us to let go of unquestioned political faith, and to have the courage to break from our tribes and open our minds to consider new evidence.
Stone discussed his film with Policy Options editor Bruce Wallace after a screening of Pandora’s Promise in Toronto in July. He describes how it was nearly derailed by the 2011 accident at the Fukushima reactor in Japan, and how today’s youth have a greater faith in technology, including nuclear technology, to solve our toughest problems.
Policy Options: The driver behind the revival of the nuclear power option is the scare over climate change. But the current political environment also includes alarm over nuclear weapons proliferation and the possibility of Iran and North Korea acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Your film is partly an effort to break the old association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, but do North Korea and Iran sustain that association, with its imagery of potential catastrophe?
Robert Stone: Those countries are doing that only for domestic politics. Nuclear weapons have since 1945 proven themselves as being useless for military purposes. Can you imagine Iran actually launching a nuclear weapon at anybody? The rest of the world would crush them. It’s purely domestic politics. They want to prove they are so strong that they can’t be messed around with like Iraq.
PO: But it is still part of the political context that defines the debate.
Stone: I understand that. It’s a serious concern until you start to look at how people go about making nuclear weapons. In their history, no country in the world has ever made a nuclear weapon from a commercial nuclear reactor. Iran is a perfect example. Iran has the Bushehr nuclear power plant, yet how are they refining uranium for their nuclear weapons? They are spinning raw uranium in centrifuges, because it’s a very different sort of fuel. The only exception is India, which got a Canadian research reactor and used that research reactor to make fuel for their bomb. It’s a very poor and very complicated way of making nuclear weapons.
So for a lot of us who — myself included — have an abhorrence of nuclear weapons and carried it over to nuclear power, the connection was always a one-to-one thing: we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons but if we could get rid of nuclear power, we could put the genie back in the bottle. But we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle. We’re always going to have this problem of nuclear weapons. And one of the things that is going to reduce the threat of a nuclear war is to provide energy to countries so there is less to fight over.
PO: One of the fascinating things about your film is the evolution of the characters involved and their personal journeys on the question of nuclear power. Wicked problems like climate change are difficult to resolve because they become a clash of values, with each side mustering its argument using its own data or experts. And at the end of the day, many of us are kind of lost. What did you learn about how people choose to open their minds, at a time when everyone seems so resistant to anything that clashes with their values?
Stone: A criticism levelled against the film is that I didn’t include rational voices of opposition. What I take that to mean is that I didn’t produce a documentary that is like what you see on the news or what most journalists do: you call up one side and you call up the other side, and the drama is created with these opposing views, and somehow the truth emerges from A versus B in a debate between these two opposing forces.
What I chose to do is to take people who were incredibly well versed in what the opposing view was and, when looking at climate change and the failure of our traditional environmental approaches to tackle this problem, took a second look at nuclear. They had the intellectual honesty to look at this. And once they did, they started to realize, as I started to realize, that so much of what they had taken to be gospel truth turned out to be completely false and misinformation. And sometimes the absolute opposite was true, like with Chernobyl. That’s the heart and soul of the film.
You can’t say the people in the film are not aware. You can’t say, “Oh, don’t you know about the waste?” I know about all of this. I’ve looked at all of this. I believed all of this. But I’ve learned a whole new set of facts. This film has been pored over by my opponents in microscopic detail. Nobody has come up with a single factual error in this film.
PO: But can you win on facts?
Stone: No, you can’t win on facts. I could have made a film that just laid out the facts. But I’ve made a film that’s a human story that I want the audience to see as well, which is: I’m anti-nuclear. And I’m anti-nuclear for a whole bunch of good reasons. The first 20 minutes of the film lays out all those reasons: the horror of nuclear weapons. The absurd way nuclear power was rushed to development using a technology that has a lot of problems. We’re very critical of that, at the issue of waste, at the issue of proliferation, of safety.
And then the film looks at the alternatives to dealing with climate change. You see the impossibility of reducing energy demand in a growing world. When I was a kid, the developing world was the Third World that we read about in the pages of National Geographic. Now that’s where the growth is. And they are developing and they are using fossil fuels to do it.
When people see the film, they get it. I’ve taken this film all over the United States and, for young people in particular, the existential crisis they face is climate change, not nuclear war. That’s a very remote thing. Chernobyl is ancient history. And when you pose the question “Do you really think the world is going to be powered by wind and solar in 2050?” they know that that’s not going to happen. They say no. When you show them the developing world, they get it.
They also grew up in a world of incredibly rapid technological innovation. Their heroes are people like Steve Jobs — the technological innovators. So they’re very open to technological solutions to big problems. To the older generation, technology was the problem. Human development was the problem.
So we have a very different set of values. I find the anti-nuclear position is a default position for most liberals without giving it any thought. I was brought up that way. It’s a legacy of a whole host of environmental problems that are from another era. And not a single thing has changed in terms of the central proposal of the environmental movement — the leadership, not the grassroots — since 1975. It’s wind. It’s solar. A little geothermal, tidal, whatever we can develop. Rapid ramp-down of the overall use of energy through energy efficiency. And shut down all nuclear plants, and we’ll phase out fossil fuels, and everybody will live happily ever after.
PO: Or there are those like [the anti-Keystone-pipeline activist] Bill McKibben who argue that the only hope for the planet is to turn away from economic growth. That’s an alternative vision.
Stone: Sure. The competing vision is that humanity is a cancer on the planet. And one can argue that. I understand that. And that the goal should be to inhibit growth. And wind and solar will force us into greater harmony with the cycles of the sun and the cycles of the wind, which will inhibit our use of energy and our growth. There is a fallacy to that. It didn’t factor in the fact that we are not going to run out of fossil fuels [very quickly]. All of that was based on the assumption that fossil fuels were going to be more scarce and therefore more expensive.
There are studies that show that as people get more energy, they actually have fewer children. There is an incredible map of India that shows where you don’t have television, population goes up; where you do have television, population is stabilizing. Maybe people are watching television and not having sex. I don’t know. But the highest population growth in the world is in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the least amount of energy.
So if you want to inhibit the imposition of humanity on the natural world, providing that portion of humanity that is here with energy and a good life means they move into the middle class, women get education, they have fewer children and they can even live more in harmony with nature. It’s the opposite of what we believe.
PO: But your point about the apparently inexhaustible supply of fossil fuels in our lifespan is an obstacle to revival of the nuclear option.
Stone: It’s an obstacle to wind and solar as well. Look, it’s a huge problem, and I think President Obama was right to start to address putting some sort of price on carbon. And I wish there was more political support from the right on this.
PO: But didn’t the sense of “We’re about to be energy self-sufficient through fracking” come through as the main theme of Obama’s speech [in June on America’s energy future]?
Stone: It did, and I was very disappointed with it. But he’s facing a political reality that says gas is better than coal. The US is reducing CO2 emissions faster than any industrialized country in the world by our transition from coal to gas. Would I have liked to have seen him go whole hog for nuclear? Absolutely. He tried in 2010 before Fukushima. If Fukushima had not happened, we would have done that.
PO: Did Fukushima mess up your film?
Stone: Yes. It was right in the middle of making the film. When I was starting to make the movie, President Obama stood up in a State of the Union address and said he wanted to develop advanced nuclear power plants to address climate change, and he got a standing ovation from both Democrats and Republicans. Fukushima changed the whole dynamic.
Anti-nuclear activists celebrate the demise of nuclear power in Japan and Germany, but what’s it being replaced with? It’s being replaced with fossil fuels, not renewables. There’s nothing to celebrate here.
PO: [Prime Minister] Shinzo Abe is going to bring it back in Japan.
Stone: Of course they are. They have to, or their whole economy is going to move to China.
PO: What Fukushima raises, though, for those who are afraid, is that the problem is not with the technology of the reactor. You can build me a great next-generation reactor. The problem is with the fact that we put the emergency pumps below the waterline, or we don’t build walls high enough to hold back a tsunami.
Stone: Human error. Sure. I was told, chapter and verse, that this could not happen to a Western-style reactor.
PO: So when Fukushima happened in the middle of making this film, what did you think?
Stone: I think there was an “Oh shit” moment, which we capture in the film. We have really stuck our neck out here. How bad is this going to get? I had a bunch of calls, a little schadenfreude, people saying, “I assume you’re giving your project up, Robert?”
PO: Angela Merkel is giving up her nukes. Why aren’t you giving up your nuclear movie?
Stone: Yeah. Because people thought I was kind of crazy doing this, saying, “It’s all over for you.” And I was watching the news and I thought, you know what? You’re completely wrong. The entire world is talking about nuclear power, about energy, about what the hell do we do.
So the basic thrust of the film was not changed: it is about an energy source that has a lot of energy with no CO2. But the baggage that the audience was going to come in with was all about Fukushima. Safety was suddenly back on. It’s hard to remember now, but back in 2011, safety was seen to be solved. The debate [over nuclear] was all about economics. Can we make it affordable? Suddenly, safety and all the old goblins that had flown around this technology came back.
I think it was a good thing for the film in that it raised a sense of urgency. It made the film more outrageous. It made it more topical. And it provided an emotional hook for the film. Terrible for the people of Fukushima. But that’s the old joke about documentaries: the worse things get for your character, the better things get for your movie.
PO: It still comes back to the question of how you get people to step outside their tribe on a mass scale to say, “I’ll take another look.”
Stone: There is absolutely a sense of tribalism. People take positions that are not based on facts but on social interactions. I see it, because I live in the Catskills, on hydro-fracking. It becomes a whole social networking thing. We’re not purely rational beings. We are emotional beings, we’re social beings, and we organize ourselves around tribal things. Energy can become one of them.
If your question is how do we start a pro-nuclear, rational environmentalist movement, I actually think it’s starting to happen. It’s young people. Young people just have a different set of priorities. People really want to solve the climate crisis. And I think they are starting to realize that just saying no to everything is not a solution.
So I’m optimistic. We face political obstacles. But there are two flukes of history that are on our side. One is that the biggest CO2 emitters in the world happen to be the countries that have nuclear weapons. Even if you say, “I’m afraid of nuclear proliferation,” they’ve already got them. China. The United States. India. Western Europe.
The other thing is that conservatives like nuclear power. Regardless of climate change, they have a favourable attitude towards it, because it’s sort of male and muscular and has a relationship to national security and — who the hell knows why. What I’ve been trying to urge Democrat politicians to do is not to blame everything on the climate deniers. If they want to be climate deniers, let them be climate deniers. Fine. Just appeal to their pro-nuclear thing.
And that gets back to that Obama speech in 2010 before Fukushima. It’s like he was talking about motherhood or apple pie, or he saluted the military. They all stood up and said, “Yeah, advanced nuclear power!” [claps] They’re all into that. People who disagree on absolutely everything else. Maybe I’m naive, but this is something that both sides can agree on without agreeing on why they’re doing it.
If you want to solve a problem like climate change, do you think a few committed greens are going to solve climate change on their own? Of course not. It’s going to be people forming coalitions and compromises. So partly what I’m doing here is encouraging — and let’s apply this to almost anything, not just nuclear — anyone who is willing to open their minds to another way of thinking and explore things from a nonideological point of view. That’s why the film has been effective with audiences. It disarms them. It’s not what they accuse the film of being when they haven’t seen it. It’s not a piece of nuclear industry propaganda.
PO: But the conventional media approach to a debate like this is to sit you in a chair next to an opponent like [the environmental and anti-nuclear activist] Bobby Kennedy Jr. and let the two of you have at it. That confrontational approach doesn’t get us anywhere.
Stone: It doesn’t go anywhere. Of course not. He totally surprised me and he disappointed me. He knows that I’m not the person he painted me as. He just wanted to win a debate. There was no compromise. [He said:] “It’s a hoax. Everybody in your film is a liar. I will not even discuss this. You’re just wrong, wrong, wrong.”
But he’s a small minority. And he represents an aging, old school environmental leadership. The leadership is so out of touch. Completely. They have accomplished nothing.
PO: But it is emotionally hard to make a break from your political tribe, to make enemies out of allies. It’s one thing to argue with those across the aisle. But it can be toxic to break with comrades. Some see no greater betrayal.
Stone: I haven’t had that experience. I cannot tell you how many times the people who are picketing come and see the movie and we have a great conversation and it’s cool. I’m not Darth Vader.
There are these small minorities of people who are extremely vocal, extremely politically engaged, who have an incredible influence on government that’s outsized compared with their actual numbers. Like the gun lobby in the United States, who are 2 percent of gun owners.
PO: Like McKibben?
Stone: Yeah. McKibben is, I think, out of touch with the vast majority of environmentalists. But who is their donor base? The donor base for all these groups is over 60, over 65, and they can write big cheques. [Environmental groups] are not going to diss those people. Ever. Until they die.
McKibben is right on the Keystone pipeline. But [the former chief scientist at NASA] Jim Hansen, who is his right-hand buddy, is furious at McKibben for not coming around on nuclear.
PO: But do we risk ascribing too much power to technological solutions? Palo Alto has produced a social media revolution that helps us talk to our friends better. But so far they haven’t come up with solutions to our big problems.
Stone: But that’s where they’re going. We have no choice. The developing world wants to live like us. And I have yet to meet a single person who will come up to me and give me their iPhone to save the planet. Or give up their hair dryer, or their dishwasher. Nobody’s going to give up anything. Nothing.
(Some questions have been paraphrased. Stone’s answers are verbatim.)