Is nuclear power the answer to the wicked problem of climate change? Many people believe we can’t hope to have a viable future for human civilization without it. Nuclear technology, they argue, is the only currently available option that can replace the world’s ubiquitous coal-fired power plants, which are the leading source of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Robert Stone and Mark Lynas in a scene from Pandora's Promise
Robert Stone agrees, and he’s made a documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, that aims to convert viewers on the issue. Stone is no nuclear-industry hack: he came to this subject after a long career making documentaries on a wide range of subjects, including environmentalism and the horrors of nuclear weapons. (His first film, 1987’s Radio Bikini, was a critical look at the history of atomic bomb-making and testing.) To help press his case, Stone has selected five similarly converted people—iconoclast and futurist Stewart Brand, author Gwyneth Cravens, British environmentalist Mark Lynas, nuclear-weapons expert Richard Rhodes, and environmental gadfly Michael Shellenberger—to tell the story of this potentially last best hope for restraining CO2’s relentless buildup.
As Stone admits, existing nuclear technology—the kind that could be deployed in a hurry—has shown a worrying susceptibility to failure, whether at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima Daiichi. Then there’s the issue of waste. The more advanced reactor technologies discussed in the film—breeder reactors that in theory would be able to use waste as fuel—exist primarily on paper, and the National Academy of Sciences has deemed such waste-recycling efforts impractical in the past. But there is no question that harnessing atomic fission in a reactor to boil water, spin a turbine, and generate electricity emits far fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal for the same purpose. Of course, there are other options, too, such as capturing the CO2 from fossil fuels or tapping the Earth’s heat to generate clean electricity.
Pandora’s Promise has angered antinuclear activists and is likely to provoke intense discussion as it opens in select theaters this week, and Stone has already had heated exchanges with environmentalists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. DAVID BIELLO spoke with Stone on the day when news broke that California officials would permanently shut down the two nuclear reactors at San Onofre, suggesting that, in the United States at least, nuclear power might not be headed in the direction Stone would prefer.
OUTSIDE: Why did you make this film?
STONE: I felt a growing concern and alarm that the proposals advocated by the environmental movement to deal with climate change over the past 25 years—the idea that we’re going to replace fossil fuels entirely with renewable energy, that we’ll have an international agreement on carbon, and that we’ll reduce energy use worldwide with radical energy efficiency—are all failing to address the crisis. CO2 concentration in the atmosphere just passed 400 parts per million. That’s higher than it’s ever been in human history, and it’s accelerating. That should be a wake-up call to environmentalists that we need to stop doing the same things over and over again while expecting a different result.
In 2009, I made a film about the environmental movement called Earth Days, and I got to know a bunch of heavy-hitting environmentalists. All of them would tell me privately, over a drink or lunch, that they think we’re doomed. All of them, despite what they might say in public. I found that rather appalling.
Meanwhile, Stewart Brand, who I knew quite well, had written a book in which he started to reconsider some of the core principles of environmentalism—including opposition to nuclear power—in the face of climate change. As I got into it, I found out that there were a number of other people like him, including James Hansen and James Lovelock and Mark Lynas, who had a very different take on this. They were looking at climate change as a problem that we need to solve with the tools we have available, in the time frame we have left.
Why do you think all those doom-saying environmentalists don’t embrace nuclear power?
I think most people who are liberals, Democrats—their default position is to be antinuclear, as part of the program. This is all part of the political polarization that has gone on in this country around everything from climate change to gun control. But, as I found out, this broadly shared antinuclear view is very thin. The overwhelming majority of people who come to see this film feel very positive and enthusiastic about its message.
What do you find attractive about nuclear power as a solution?
I don’t care about nuclear power specifically. If we could power the world on algae, that would be cool, too. I’m also in favor of wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal. But if you do the math, you see that you can’t start shutting down one of the most extraordinarily productive, non-CO2-producing sources of energy at the very moment when you need to reduce CO2 emissions. Nuclear energy can produce incredible amounts of clean electricity without emitting CO2, and it can be scaled up far more rapidly than any other non-CO2-emitting energy source that we know of. If you factor in the new technologies—third- and fourth-generation reactor designs that could come online in the years ahead—you realize that nuclear power is going to be a very big part of the solution. You cannot solve the climate crisis without it.
What do you make of the news that San Onofre will be shut down?
It’s a 40-year-old reactor. The problem they had there was with the steam turbine, not with the reactor itself. But, OK, it’s going to be taken offline and replaced with a power plant that burns natural gas instead. Is that a victory for the environmental movement? No. That’s the equivalent of putting two million cars on the road, and if your primary goal is to save the planet from extinction, it’s not such a good thing. Right now, all the action in nuclear energy and CO2 emissions is happening in Asia. In the U.S., we’re probably going to burn gas for about 20 more years and then buy all our nuclear reactors from the Chinese.
That’s sounds very pessimistic.
Well, I’d be happy if we didn’t go down that road, but I think the only way not to is if people who are up in arms about hydrofracking and the Keystone XL pipeline get behind a viable alternative. If they got their head behind advanced nuclear energy, and we brought this stuff online and made it economical by mass-producing it, you might have one.
Let’s go through some of the challenges with nuclear power. The first that springs to mind, given your film-making background, is the production and proliferation of plutonium. Do you worry about the stockpiles of plutonium we might amass if we build, say, a thousand reactors?
Yes. And there are only two ways to get rid of plutonium: you either bury it for 100,000 years, or you put it into an advanced fast reactor—a novel nuclear design that can use plutonium as fuel—and turn it into another element, which happens as part of the transmutation process that goes on inside these reactors. There’s a lot of excitement in Great Britain about building one of these. They’ve got the backing of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and all that.
You’re talking about the PRISM reactor, which would transmute plutonium into other radioactive elements. But with the PRISM design, you’d still be increasing the overall amount of waste that has to be dealt with in one form or another, whether through geologic burial or—
All that stuff can be recycled, and what you end up with is waste that’s far smaller in volume and is only radioactive for a few hundred years.
I think you might want to check your physics.
The physics has been checked left, right, and center. That’s what these reactors do. You end up with a very small amount of waste, and within a few hundred years, not thousands of years, the material’s radioactivity is down to the same level as natural background radiation.
You might want to change “hundreds of years” to “thousands of years,” but let’s focus on the bogeyman you just mentioned: radiation. Why does it scare people so much?
You can’t see it, hear it, or smell it, and it causes cancer. That’s as scary as it possibly gets. What could be scarier than that?
But it’s not really so scary if managed properly?
Not at the levels you’re ever likely to be exposed to. There’s this perception out there that any amount of radiation will give you cancer, and therefore radiation is to be avoided at all costs. What I demonstrate in the film is that there are wildly different levels of background radiation occurring naturally throughout the world at all times, some of them far stronger than what you would encounter standing next to a nuclear power plant.
One of the better touches in the film is when you’re carrying around your dosimeter—a device for measuring radiation levels—and taking readings at various cities and places, including a beach in Brazil that has a high level of natural radiation. How did you come up with that?
After the Fukushima disaster, I saw lots of news reporters in full radiation gear using the same dosimeter I have. It would start beeping, and they’d say, “We’ve reached our limit, we have to get out of here!” But they would never tell you what the numbers were or put those numbers in context. After reading more about radiation and talking to experts, I thought the best way to demonstrate the different variations was to travel around with a dosimeter. You get more radiation in the air, traveling from New York to Tokyo, than you do near Fukushima.
You and Mark Lynas went to Fukushima after the accident. When you were standing on the seashore, not far from where a couple of reactors were melting down, what were your thoughts?
We were there a year later, and it was a deeply emotional experience for both of us. We’re both steeped in this subject; we’re both publicly pro-nuclear at this point. And yet here we were at this area that’s been evacuated, and there were levels of radiation far and above what there had been prior to this event.
It’s one thing to sit at a remove, thousands of miles away, and say that the levels of radiation aren’t so bad. It’s quite another to be there and see what happens. And it’s inexcusable. Fukushima should never have happened. It should never happen again. I think it made me understand something better: the need to connect with the audience at an emotional level and understand that emotional fear of radiation. That had to be dealt with in making the movie.
Another big challenge for nuclear advocates is that the technologies you’re talking about—the PRISM reactor and the rest—are not available yet and won’t be anytime soon. With nuclear, we have troubled, existing technology that we could deploy quickly, or we need more R&D, which takes time.
The reason newer technologies are not available today is that the antinuclear movement halted their development 25 years ago, so let’s get that straight. The newer technologies will probably be available in around 2030 to 2040. Between now and then, we would need to deploy light water reactors or small modular reactors, which are almost ready for commercialization. Probably not here, but in China and other places that have different regulatory environments.
You also have to back up and look at how “troubled” the current technology really is. We’ve got 440 reactors operating around the world. That’s 440 nuclear plants and 50 years of nuclear power with three accidents, only one of which caused a loss of human life. In terms of scalability, the French went nuclear and virtually decarbonized their entire electric grid in 20 years. So it’s already scalable to a degree that no one’s been able to do with renewable energy.
The French did it because, essentially, their government said, “We’ve got to get off oil.” The Chinese are building a lot of nuclear power plants and a lot of wind operations and anything else they can build. But it’s not really having a huge impact on their coal emissions, and in both cases these moves required massive government support.
The most promising nuclear technology in a free-market society like the U.S. is the small modular reactors, which are smaller than conventional nuclear power plants and can be assembled in a factory. They can be built at lower costs. They cost a billion dollars, not six billion, so you can scale up.
But then you don’t get the big climate benefits you’re looking for. The reason we went for the big technology in the first place was economies of scale. If we’re going to spend all this money on nuclear, we better get at least a gigawatt of electricity out of it.
That’s true, but if you can manufacture these things like you manufacture a commercial aircraft and churn them out in a factory, you can put one next to another, next to another… You would have a safer, more stable grid by distributing the energy, which environmentalists have always been for. And different countries have always done different things. There may be large areas where solar is great. Offshore, wind looks very promising in certain place, like the North Sea. You’re going to need to do everything.
So you’re an all-of-the-above guy, like Obama.
Yeah, I think you have to be if your goal is to solve the climate crisis.
Given nuclear’s track record, its complexity, its unforgiving nature, what convinces you that this can be done more safely going forward?
Every day, millions and millions of people whiz around in aluminum tubes at hundreds of miles per hour, crisscrossing the globe. Air travel is safer than it’s ever been in all of aviation history. These are extremely complicated pieces of technology and an extremely complicated and potentially dangerous system.
That’s how it should be with nuclear reactors. We should not make these one-off, gargantuan things that we’ve made in the past, where every design is different. The French mass-produced them, and they’ve got a remarkable safety record. If one little gauge goes wrong, a valve, they take it apart, find out what went wrong and why, and then replace that valve in every one of their reactors. That’s how you engineer safety.
My film is quite critical of how we developed nuclear power in the U.S. It was dumb. But even though it was dumb, nuclear power has never killed anybody here. Hand over fist, it’s the cheapest form of energy we produce. It’s amazing.
DAVID BIELLO writes on energy and the environment for Scientific American.