pandora promise nuclear energyThe new documentary film Pandora's Promise landed in theaters last Friday and is already sparking debate and prompting a renewed look at the role of nuclear energy in confronting global climate change and the other energy challenges of the 21st century. (Click here to view a round-up of the film's reviews).

In a video #EnergyChat Wednedsay, I interviewed award-winning filmmaker Robert Stone as well as Michael Shellenberger, one of the films protagonists, and the president and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, an independent, progressive think tank known for its often unorthodox views on energy, climate change, and other issues. (Full disclosure: I worked at the Breakthrough Institute from 2008 to 2012). You can view our full interview below or on Youtube here.

At its heart, Pandora’s Promise poses a controversial questions: does nuclear power, the one energy technology we often fear most, have the potential to save our planet from a climate catastrophe, while providing the energy needed to lift billions of people in the developing world out of poverty?

To make its case, the film, which I viewed at a screening in Cambridge recently, focuses on the personal stories of five long-time environmentalists who each began their journeys as anti-nuclear or nuclear skeptics only to find themselves challenging their prior beliefs and reevaluating their positions on nuclear energy as they engaged more with the risks posed by various energy technologies and the global energy challenges faced this century.

It’s a conversion process Stone fervently hopes the film itself will spark in its audience, as Pandora's Promise attempts to confront several of the most common reasons nuclear power is so-often feared and viscerally opposed.

Stone, who was nominated for the Academy Award for his 1988 documentary Radio Bikini about the devastating impacts of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, took his own long road to making this pro-nuclear documentary.

"I am and always will be anti-nuclear weapons," Stone explains, "and my abhorence of nuclear weapons sort of got kind of carried over into abhorence of nuclear power. But I didn't really think much beyond that."

That all changed later in life as Stone confronted the new energy challenges of the 21st century.

"The inspiration to make the film ultimately came out of being a dad and becoming increasingly alarmed about climate change," Stone told me.

He became motivated to make a film challenging people to rethink their positions on nuclear power out of a sense that the conventional approaches to climate change championed by most environmental groups and climate campaigners were well intentioned but nevertheless falling far short.

"The three main pillars upon which the environmental movement had pinned any ability to combat [climate change] were failing," Stone told me. According to the filmmaker, those three pillars were "the idea that energy efficiency would somehow reduce overall demand; the idea that we were going to raise the price on energy through a carbon tax or some kind of global agreement on reducing CO2 emissions; and the idea that wind and solar power alone are going to somehow displace fossil fuels."

"All those things have failed over the last 25 years," Stone argues, "so I, like a lot of other environmentalists, am starting to think outside the box. That led us to re-evaluating nuclear power."

The film tries to confront head-on several of the key fears regarding nuclear energy, from the nearly-permanent nature of nuclear waste to the health impacts of radiation and risks of meltdowns.

One of the most striking parts of the film documents the trip Stone took to the site of the multiple reactor meltdowns experienced at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the tragic March 15, 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami.

Stone, along with Mark Lynas, a British environmental activist and author and one of the films other protagonists, entered the exclusion zone within which residents have still not been allowed to return. The duo tour a ghost land that still shows signs of the tsunami's devastation armed with geiger counters and clad in protective suits. It's gripping stuff, and it highlights how even those who support nuclear power's role in our energy future remain shaken by the events at Fukushima.

Stone and Lynas visit Fukushima
Robert Stone (left) and Mark Lynas with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the background.

"I think the movie did a good job of showing that anybody who doesn't rethink being pro-nuclear after Fukushima is either not thinking or not feeling, because it was a terrible experience and still is a huge problem," said Michael Shellenberger.

"For us [at the Breakthrough Institute]," Shellenberger explained, the Fukushima disaster "has been a motivation to think seriously about what innovation looks like for nuclear."

"If we're going to say that we need to make solar and wind cheap and scalable and we need cheap backup storage," Shellenberger said, "then we need to have innovation for nuclear as well. High on that list is safety--higher I think than the waste issue, which is largely overblown."

According to Shellenberger, the new generation of reactors being constructed now all have improved safety features designed to severely mitigate the risks of the kind of "loss of coolant" accident that doomed the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, which were all built in the 1960s and 70s.

For example, the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors under construction in Georgia and China and the Areva European Pressurized Water Reactor being built in Finland and France incorporate "passive safety" features, such as gravity-fed water reservoirs, that can cool the reactors for up to three days even in the event of a total loss of coolant system power. Those features would have almost certainly prevented the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima.

The EBR-II experimental integral fast reactor

The film also looks at more advanced nuclear reactor designs, including the integral fast reactor, a breeder reactor tested for years at Argonne National Laboratory-West, pictured at right.

We discussed much more in the interview, including what is the most challenging obstacle to convincing people to change their minds about nuclear; why pro-renewables and pro-nuclear advocates so often end up at loggerheads; which civil society organizations, new or old, are most likely to carry the pro-nuclear standard; and what the filmmaker and environmental advocate hope to achieve after the film's theatric run.

According to Stone, the film has so far been very persuasive with audiences, including environmentalists, who are "very concerned about climate change and realizing that things are really trending the wrong way."

"Coal remains the most widely used source of energy, the fastest growing source of energy, and CO2 emissions are higher than they have been in all of human history [ed. note: indeed quite a bit longer than that!] and they are accelerating," Stone says.

"We need some new thinking," he argues.

Indeed, challenging you to think anew is what the film is all about.

According to Stone, one of the films other protagonists, Whole Earth Catalog and Long Now Foundation founder Stewart Brand told him that "he wakes up every morning and asks, 'What am I wrong about?'"

"I think that's a great way to approach this issue" of nuclear energy and its role in confronting our 21st century energy challenges, says Stone.

So do you dare ask yourself: what are you wrong about?

If so, catch Pandora's Promise now in theaters in these select cities. The film will also air on CNN in November and appear in iTunes, Netflix, DVD and everywhere else in December.

And as always, continue the conversation in the comments below. Have you challenged your assumptions about the role of nuclear power in our energy future? Share your stories below or tweet @EnergyCollectiv on Twitter using the #EnergyChat tag.