Do you like nuclear weapons?
If you respond yes to that, I think you have lost your mind. While I understand the value of an overwhelming force to end a bloody world war, it's also something that can't be unmade. We had opened "Pandora's Box", the belief went.
If you are not familiar with Greek mythology, Pandora was the daughter of Zeus, created solely to torment the brother of Prometheus, who gave mankind fire without permission from the gods. He sent Pandora to Earth to marry Epimetheus and bestowed on them a beautiful box with a heavy lock and a key - and the proviso it never be opened. Why give someone a box they can't open? Well, for being associated with Greek justice, Zeus was kind of a jerk. He had serious issues but that will happen when your father eats all your siblings and tries to eat you and then you kill him and marry your sister.
As most of you know, Pandora did open the box and set free Hate, Disease, Envy and Crime upon the world. But she also released Hope. Yes, we had a bomb, but President Eisenhower also developed the Atoms For Peace program.
The problem with the anti-nuclear movement is that they can only see the bad things in the world. Science is a scary, evil thing, there is no hope, and they want to retreat into the Good Old Days. Anything nuclear means meltdowns and nuclear bombs. It isn't true but good luck convincing advocates of that. Two generations of Americans have been steeped in that modern mythology and the former optimism regarding technology and science held by progressives has been replaced with public relations campaigns started by Rachel Carson and Greenpeace and, more recently, Andrew Wakefield. Scientists are out to run us off a cliff and we should not trust them.
It's hard to blame them, really. An entire generation was brought up in a panic about nuclear anything - and some of it is understandable. With 2,000 nuclear weapons tests and fallout shelters and a Cold War, scared kids were going to grow up to be scared adults. Matt Groening, born in the 1950s and so a child of the '60s, gave us "The Simpsons", where the bad guy runs a nuclear power plant and the biggest idiot works there - and he knew that in America of the 1980s absolutely no one was going to object to that stereotype.
But the tide may be changing. At the Sundance Film Festival, known for its advocacy of liberal ideas in a movie industry known for its liberal slant, a documentary by an anti-nuclear advocate was a big hit. No surprise there, the big surprise is instead that the documentary was an endorsement of nuclear power. It is called "Pandora's Promise" and it goes into national release this week.
An anti-nuclear advocate doing a film that endorses nuclear power that is a hit at Sundance? This ain't your daddy's anti-science hippie movement.
Yet isn't nuclear power dead, given decades of efforts by Democrats to kill it and an administration so against nuclear power they don't even want to approve a place to store waste? Perhaps not.
A theme we have started to see on a recurring basis is former anti-science activists who change their minds - once they learn how science is actually done. It is easy to demonize scientists; they are people, they have flaws, some are incompetent, they need money to eat, and all of those things can lead to bad results. But, like Pandora, we don't have to lose Hope.
Oscar-nominated Director Robert Stone is a not a right-wing guy. He came to fame in 1988 for making "Radio Bikini", a documentary about nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll and its results.(1) It was the kind of thing the Sundance Film Festival lived for then and still does, if reputation matters. But the crowd there loved Stone's work. That he is an environmentalist who has hope about science, and was motivated to correct the thinking among the anti-science left regarding nuclear power, is a story in itself.
So I got on the phone with him to discuss what motivated him to defy stereotypes and be an environmentalist who embraces nuclear power. And we got an exclusive clip for Science 2.0 readers, which you can see here:
From Pandora's Promise
Science 2.0: You're defying the stereotype of the anti-nuclear liberal by embracing the promise of nuclear power. Has that stereotype gone away or is it no longer as cut and dried as it used to be?
Robert Stone: I think that like so many other things in American political life, things have just gotten completely polarized and the default positions for most Democrats, and most liberals, is that they are anti-nuclear because Republicans are for it. It's just part of the program and that's the position we take - and I include myself in that.
But I found that while that view is very broadly based among Democrats, it's very thin. It's not based on a lot of passion, it's just sort of 'sure, of course I am anti-nuclear'. The hard core activists, who see nuclear power as an absolute evil and won't listen to any other perspective, are a minority - but a very vocal and very organized one and politically very powerful.
You're anti-nuclear weapons and it's obviously hard to disagree with that but to a lot of people that means being anti-nuclear power too, because of the belief that anything can be weaponized.
Well, that's factually not true. The connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power is not as direct as most people think. No country has ever used a commercial nuclear reactor to make a nuclear weapon.
Did you believe in the past that nuclear weapons and nuclear power were synonymous? Interchangeable may be a better word.
Robert Stone: Yes, sure I did, absolutely. I think my whole generation did. I have had my whole life, and still have, an abhorrence of nuclear weapons. I think they truly are an absolute evil and should be rid from the world. Like a lot of people I conflated nuclear weapons with nuclear power but I was never so passionate - I was never an activist in that sense. It was just a default position: Nuclear was bad and why do we need it anyway?
Science 2.0: Was it painful to call out a segment that you had so strongly identified with? Or was it a relief? An intellectual mandate?
I felt a moral responsibility to speak out, because I was in a position to do so, having began my career with an anti-nuclear film and having done a number of environmental films and coming to the realization that we absolutely need nuclear power if we are going to solve the climate crisis. This is just arithmetic. You cannot de-carbonize rapidly enough with the other alternatives we have, in the time frame climate scientists give us, without nuclear power. So my unique position, and my moral responsibility, having recently come around to nuclear power, forced me to put my reputation on the line and make this. But it wasn't painful, it is the opposite. It is extremely hopeful.
Unless you get your head around this and realize what it can do and how far the technology has advanced from the kind of reactors people are familiar with, you don't realize we have a solution to the climate crisis. If you take most environmentalists out for a drink, no matter what they say about wind and solar and efficiency, most of them are quite pessimistic, almost to the point of being apocalyptic. But in modern nuclear power we have a solution to the problem, it is really just politics and ideology and dogma that's standing in our way.
He wasn't kidding about risking his reputation. No one who had backed his earlier films wanted to be involved with this. He found that not being critical of nuclear power was taboo. However, having both Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson say they liked the film and were convinced by it means future fundraising may get a bit easier.
It really guides you gently into acceptance of the technology, even if you may have been entrenched against it because of being fed scary stories about reactors that are 50 or 60 years old. Rather than being a preachy advocacy piece, a nuclear power version of "An Inconvenient Truth", it highlights people who used to be anti-nuclear activists and also mixes in some history and some recent technology and as a narrative it flies by. I basically can't stand watching video on a computer but the screener I got was online and I barely fidgeted. That's compelling.
It's heavy on activists because they get the most attention. The biggest opponents of science are laypeople who are casual readers and know just enough to be scared or wrong. There are nuclear physicists against nuclear power just like there are climate scientists who don't buy into global warming, but it's rare. The bulk of anti-science groups are instead made up of people who gravitate toward talking points that resonate with their cultural beliefs.
More recently, it has happened that activists who wanted to learn enough science to really debunk scientists rather than write fundraising brochures actually learned science - and found they were wrong. Energy companies are not the caricatures Jane Fonda made them out to be after she appeared in a movie about a nuclear disaster any more than seed companies are the 'GMO farmers are rapists' caricature that Vandana Shiva makes them out to be today - the things that Shiva and Fonda share in common is a lack of science and a loud voice and that 47% of people are going to accept what they say. All science has on its side is science so it can be a tough road for reason and data.
Stewart Brand, the fellow behind the Whole Earth Catalog, says in the film that it puzzles fellow environmentalists that a Liberal Democrat could not be against nuclear power. Michael Shellenberger, environmental policy expert and one of the Time magazine "Heroes of the Environment" in 2008, says in the film, "Liberals don't believe in nuclear power, anyone who does is considered to be a dupe. Stooges for industry" and that is standard thinking.
It takes a special sort of conviction to make enemies of your allies in the environmental movement.
Stone knows his audience so he makes it subtle. When he takes us to Fukushima and we see the destruction in that prefecture, I remember getting annoyed at the sight of environmentalist Mark Lynas getting into a Haz-Mat suit; Where did this come from? I remember thinking, it looks like an atomic bomb went off but I know nothing happened. Well, the destruction did happen, but I was also right in that it never happened in the context of nuclear power - the nuclear issue was so exaggerated by ridiculous claims and hysteria that even I had forgotten about the tsunami itself when I watched the footage. I bet a lot of people are in that same boat. The mythology has superseded reality.
And we get to go to a beach in Brazil with background radiation orders of magnitude beyond safe levels - yet no one is dying from the "cancer epidemic" Jane Fonda claimed was caused by nuclear power in 1979.(2) In "Science Left Behind" I tackled this "natural is good, unnatural is bad" fallacy. Background radiation in New York parks is higher than in Tokyo, which is higher than in Fukushima, but if you ask people if Japan or a beach in Brazil is safer, they will choose the beach, even though it has 300X the 'acceptable' levels of radiation.
People who understand science and technology know that the Integral Fast Reactor would have prevented Fukushima. In testing, they duplicated the accident at Three Mile Island and it could not fail. Yet when President Bill Clinton and Senator John Kerry succeed in getting the nuclear future of America shut down, they bragged about it. They were representing their constituents and killing nuclear science was a big win (they killed physics too, by pulling the plug on the Superconducting Supercollider, and even biology - while the 2000s were the decade of anti-science Republicans, the 1990s were anti-science Democrats all the way).
The current generation of young people has not been indoctrinated by anti-science groups yet. They like their iPhones and have a keen grasp of how much energy those take to run and they do not want to retreat into an idealized version of the past, and they are more open to science and new ideas than people weaned on "The China Syndrome". That openness to new information may be why "Pandora's Promise" was a hit at Sundance and why it will likely be a hit on college campuses all over the country.
The people in power now are still trapped in the 1960s, where the big threat was nuclear bombs and the claim was nuclear power was a bomb waiting to happen. Young people today grew up with climate change - and they know coal is far worse for us than nuclear power and fantasy spreadsheets about how great solar and wind will be are just that; fantasy. Fourth generation technology can't melt down and it can even use nuclear waste as fuel. Anyone not embracing nuclear power truly has their heads in the sand.
Basically, young people recognize what many of us knew (3) - that nuclear power is not an environmentalism issue - and that is great news for the future.
"Pandora's Promise" is in nationwide limited release right now. See theaters and schedule here.
(1) Though I thought it was the best choice, the Academy Award went to "The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table", about the NYC writers who got together for lunch at New York City's Algonquin Hotel through the 1920s. Really, you can't go wrong with either one of those.
(2) Among activists, there is always a cancer epidemic. Despite the fact that cancer levels have gone down since Jane Fonda and Ralph Nader claimed at their anti-nuclear rally that energy caused it, the same demographic today insists that fracking and GMOS are causing a new, non-existent cancer epidemic.
(3) Working at PIRG in the 1980s it was hilarious trying to raise money for environmental issues in neighborhoods where Westinghouse - nuclear - employees lived. They would see the anti-nuclear crackpottery in the brochure and ask me about it and I would tell them, "They are goofy on nuclear power but this bottle bill thing is the way to go. The last thing we want is government recycling" and they would appreciate my blunt honesty and kick over money.
I think government recycling has been almost as much of an environmental disaster as the spike in dirty emissions due to anti-science hippies getting nuclear power driven out of this country.
France is overrun by anti-science types now but they weren't always - there is a reason the average person in France has half of the greenhouse gas emissions of a person in Germany and that reason is nuclear power.
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