The Changing Opinions on Nuclear: Q&A with Robert Stone, ‘Pandora’s Promise’

A year ago documentary filmmaker Robert Stone released his latest opus, “Pandora’s Promise,” a documentary on the evolution of the environment movement from anti-nuclear to one that sees nuclear energy as a key component of the fight to slow climate change. The documentary, which was three years in the making, parallels his own intellectual journey that began with his Oscar-nominated anti-nuclear film, “Radioactive Bikini.”

The Forum on Energy spoke with Stone about his reasons for making “Pandora’s Promise.”

6v2Forum on Energy: Why did you choose to focus on a documentary on nuclear power?

Robert Stone: It occurred to me after finishing my previous film about the rise of the environmental movement that the entire approach that the movement had been counting on to combat climate change had been a failure of epic proportions. In contrast to the stunning successes of the 1970s, for the past 25 years the global environmental situation has been growing worse by almost every metric.

In the face of this, the stubborn refusal of the environmental movement to even discuss nuclear energy seemed preposterous. Nuclear energy seemed to me to be the proverbial “elephant in the room” when it comes to the crisis we face over our dependence on fossil fuels. As someone steeped in the history of environmentalism and who began my career with a celebrated and Oscar-nominated anti-nuclear documentary (“Radio Bikini”) I felt I might have something special to say in terms of changing the nature of the debate. I felt that telling the story of people who, like me, had changed their minds about nuclear energy would be an extraordinarily powerful way to bring some rationality and fresh thinking to what had become a highly polarized, political and ideologically charged subject.

Forum on Energy: Within the topic of nuclear energy, how did you decide on what topics to cover?

Stone: In addressing the issue of nuclear energy I knew that I would need to challenge the core features of opposition to this technology and to expose the foundations and the flaws that lie at the root of each of them: Safety, waste, proliferation and cost. One of the ways to do this, of course, is to illuminate the little-known fact that nuclear technology has advanced a great deal from the 1960′- and ’70s-era reactors that make up most of today’s global reactor fleet. The story of the IFR seemed to be the best way to show how radically new designs have actually been developed and tested, but were scuttled due to political opposition, the consequences of which we now face today in lacking a mass-produceable and economically viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Forum on Energy: As a result of this journey, what is your overall impression of nuclear power and its future? Does your personal opinion differ from the movie’s?

Stone: My personal opinion is the movie’s in that I chose who to interview, edited the interviews and devised how to tell the story. I believe that nuclear energy is inevitable. The only question is how much environmental damage will be done before we begin to utilize this technology at a scale that can really start to ratchet back our use of coal, oil and gas — particularly coal.

Forum on Energy: Is there anything you wished you could have included, but it remained on the cutting room floor?

Stone: Yes and no. There’s lots more I would have liked to say about the cost issue and about the exciting new reactor technologies that are being developed around the world. On the other hand, I needed to tell this story in 90 minutes. People simply would not tolerate any more than that. And, frankly, discussions about cost and cool reactor designs that mostly exist as computer models would not be all that interesting. My aim was not to answer every question. My aim was to start a conversation that simply had not been taking place, at least among those who claim to care the most about the climate and industrial pollution. In that I think I’ve succeeded beyond all expectations.

Forum on Energy: “Pandora’s Promise” has wrapped and been shown to audiences around the world. Now what?

Stone: I’m developing a new film that sort of comes out of Pandora’s Promise that aims to inspire us to think big again — to conjure up a grand aspirational goal within which we might begin to find a common purpose in tackling global problems. The film is about the history and future of human space travel, and what place human civilization might have in the larger scheme of things given our new understanding of the workings of the universe and our ability to leave the planet. It’s a look at how modern technology and science has caused us to rethink what it is to be human. 

I’m also establishing an NGO to carry on the work of “Pandora’s Promise” in communicating a better understanding of nuclear energy from an environmental perspective.

Forum on Energy: The movie has not seen a lot of press in Japan. Do you have plans to show it there?

Stone: Actually, the film has had a limited theatrical release in Japan and is now out on DVD, and I believe iTunes and Netflix too.