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Pandora’s Promise (The movie)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to watch a screening of the movie Pandora’s Promise at Uppsala University. After the movie there was a panel debate including the director of the film, Robert Stone. Since there was a lot of noise around the movie on the internet I was looking forward to see the film for myself and build my own opinion.

Some general words about myself in advance: Yes, I have been in the field of solar cells now for more than 10 years. But apart from that I have never been anti-nuclear. Very often people associate people working with renewable energies with opponents to nuclear power, but being realistic we can currently only choose the lesser evil – and here I am convinced that the German government very hastily took the wrong route after the nuclear accident of Fukushima.

What is the movie about? The aim of the movie is to tell a story: mankind will not be able to maintain its current standard of living without an increasing utilization of nuclear power worldwide. In order to convey his message, Robert Stone follows the traces of the environmentalists’ movement from the 1960’s to today. Especially he focuses on some converted environmentalists, which now support nuclear energy.

  • He visits the sites of the two major nuclear catastrophies: Chernobyl and Fukushima. At both places the current radiation levels are shown to be low with a handheld digital Geiger counter, held up in the air and then compared to major cities in the world.

    What do you expect to see here? In this configuration you could only detect large amounts of airborne radioactive particles or radioactive gases. But there are no larger amounts of these to expected in the first place. The danger is in the contamination of the soil, the water and the food, especially with highly active alpha-emitters. Apart from the fact that the used Geiger counter is not sensitive to alpha particles, you would not detect any some 1.50 meters (5 feet for the non-metric world) above the ground anyway.

    Perhaps more indicative to the setting of the movie was the repeated quote that radiation units (Sievert, Rem and Becquerel) are confusing, and that interviewed people did not had any knowledge about natural sources and levels of radioactivity. At least in the 1980’s and even before the Chernobyl-accident this was general topic in German schools!

  • When it comes to experts, the movie is certainly undercritical. There are few facts presented and for me – who in the 1990’s took several courses on nuclear physics and nuclear energy at Kiel University – nothing new was presented.

    The expert of the movie was a former US nuclear scientists who briefly presented his work on the next generation of nuclear reactor, the Integral Fast Reactor, IFR. This project was aiming to construct an intrinsically safe breeder reactor, able to use not only 238-U but almost all possible heavy isotopes contained e.g. in the waste of today’s nuclear reactors.

    While the fuel cycle by physical principles cannot be a completely closed cycle as pictured in the movie, the utilization of the fuel would be orders of magnitude higher than in current technologies while both reducing the amount of nuclear waste and the risk of major catastrophic failures. Unlike transmutation reactors the core will still need to be critical and maintain a chain reaction. However, the project was cancelled by the US congress in 1994.

  • The movie legitimately shows the damage coal mining does to the landscape, by showing an open pit coal mine. Quite recently a documentary on the German tv channel ZDF dealt with the same issue, showing that Germany now imports coal from mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians.

    Where and how today’s uranium is mined on the other hand is not shown. In the following panel discussion Robert Stone also stated that solar cells would rely on rare earth metals – a point where I had to intervene.

  • The movie cycles back and forth between scenes of militant and almost religious nuclear opponents and the salvaged witnesses of the good of our friend the atom, mostly showing historical scenes from the enthusiastic times of the 1960’s on both sides. It also emphasizes the quite quick conversion of the French electricity supply from fossil fuels to nuclear during the 1980’s. It does not mention the recent safety issues particularly in the French reactors as discovered following the increased inspection after Fukushima.

    Robert Stone claims that France has the lowest electricity price in Europe and Germany the highest (because of large investments in renewables), however, France is only on place 7 in the European Union while Denmark traditionally has the highest price and this is not because of the quite recent investment in wind and solar.

  • Totally out of scope was the emphasis of the film that nuclear power is the only way to meet the increasing power need in the developing countries. Nuclear power by definition is based on centralized, large scale power plants which require an established infrastructure to distribute the electricity to the consumers.

    On the other hand renewable power generation by photovoltaics is completely scalable. A solar cell installation has the same efficiency, the same cost per power and the same cost per kWh, independent of size. And compared to running small generators on diesel or gasoline the electricity from solar cells is today actually the cheaper alternative – however, like hydropower and like nuclear power it needs a comparatively large investment at the beginning, but has little or no running costs.

  • Also doubtful is the message that saving energy and reducing the personal electricity consumption will not contribute to managing our energy future.

    While it is definitely true that mankind has always found and probably always find new ways to spend more and more energy, there has to be a wide impact on energy savings. I myself have since a long time replaced almost all light bulbs first with compact fluorescents and now with LEDs – there are only 2 incandescent bulbs left in my apartment, one is the light bulb inside my oven. Last year I also threw out my old fridge and freezer – and this action alone reduced my electricity bill by 1000 kWh a year, sorry Vattenfall, hello Samsung.

The dramatic composition of the movie reminded me strongly of another US documentary, filmed during the oil crisis. And while we have to wait for the official release of Pandora’s Promise through iTunes, you can already enjoy these time pieces for free:

Sadly enough the meaning of the panel debate was completely destroyed by focusing on uncontroversial and irrelevant topics and elaborate answers avoiding to answer the question, but rather re-citing a pre-formulated script. To bad, since the audience of enthusiastic and curious engineering and science students would have deserved better. After less than an hour of this staged display the time was up – but discussions continued outside of the lecture hall.

The two biggest problems which I see with the peaceful use of nuclear power are

  1. The long-term commitment which nuclear power requires is not suited for the hands of companies oriented on short-term profit. And we are talking different orders of long term here: from the decades it takes to amortize the down payment of a new reactor or the research into new reactor technologies to the millennia we need to store the radioactive waste of today’s nuclear reactors.

    Look at the development in Germany and you will notice that politics is not either capable of providing this long-term perspective. Political decisions are in most countries today based on 4-year election cycles – this is 16-times better than the quarterly cycles currently modern in the economical world, but still 2500-times to short.

  2. The discussion has to be demilitarized and be conducted on realistic and scientifically sound grounds. It also has to be globalized – and here I am not (only) referring to non-proliferation agreements, like currently with Iran.

We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science technology.

And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces.

Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?

Carl Sagan

2 comments to Pandora’s Promise (The movie)

  • uwezi

    Hi Mattias,

    thanks for this great comment – actually for some reason traffic on my blog suddenly skyrocketed…

    You might have got me wrong in some points and perhaps we should try to make some open seminar about this topic?

    *1* Depending on the time perspective I fully agree with you in your interpretation while I have to disagree on the long-term perspective here… Currently we have the equivalent of about 10 nuclear reactors (in annual electricity production) in solar cell installations worldwide, most of which have been installed just during the last 3 years.

    *2* I actually learned about this Brazilian beach just a few days before I saw the movie. It is the world’s largest open deposit of monazite. Looking for something similar in Sweden visit the old Ytterby mine near Waxholm (much smaller scale, some hot spots on the wall).

    *3* Well, school education in Germany is probably not so good after all. I bet that the average person on the street will not now what any of these units mean, nor what $\pi$ is or Ohm’s law. Germany is low on Pisa studies – probably for a reason. However, I found it hilarious how the movie made a point about these units while obviously not being able to deliver the answer or any meaning.

    *4* nothing to add

    *5* Since I have only seen the movie once, I may have missed the ton coming out of the closed cycle… I would have liked some more detailed description of the process, perhaps with a slightly more scientific animation.

    *6* let’s agree to disagree or at least call it difficult. But providing the necessary amount of new nuclear has also to be rated at least as difficult…

    *7* Yes, why so small. What about efficiency? Photovoltaics has the same conversion efficiency independent on plant scale – I assume that this is not true for nuclear? And do we really want to spread thousands of small nuclear power plants all over the planet? Who is supposed to keep track of all installations, all fuel, all waste? Again I plead for an international agency, but unlike the current IAEA but with real regulatory power.

    *8* Sorry, but I did not get this impression – neither from the movie nor from the panel discussion…

    *9* I really would have wanted (a) a longer discussion, which is not ended after 45 min, (b) scientific facts and (c) perhaps mostly no over-long and evading essay on the history of science education.

    *10* Exactly, an open discussion with people who listen to and acknowledge other peoples’ scientific arguments. And yes, I do not think everyone in the audience would qualify for such a discussion 😕

    *11* I like this citation from Carl Sagan and also have it on my office door. I think it applies to everything from smartphones to nuclear power plants. If not even our students of engineering physics today have an idea what’s going on inside their computers and not feel the urge to open and tweak anything technical, then I do not know where we are heading. We need to get science and curiosity back into the public.

  • Mattias Lantz

    Hi Uwe,

    The whole point of us arranging the screening of the movie was to open up for a wider debate, great to see that you are willing to share your opinion on it!
    It is not my job to defend the movie itself, but being one of the organizers I can defend the decision to show it and to have a panel discussion afterwards. I will comment on things from my point of view, or where I think you might have misinterpreted what is shown. I hope that other people will join the discussion as well.
    Sorry for being somewhat lengthy. 🙂

    *1* You wrote: The aim of the movie is to tell a story: mankind will not be able to maintain its current standard of living without an increasing utilization of nuclear power worldwide.

    I would rather say that the story is: billions of people strive to improve their standard of living, maybe even to our current level. If the climate issue is important, renewables will not do the job alone, nuclear power is also needed.

    *2* The Geiger counter scenes:
    The point is not to detect ionizing radiation in air per se (well partly, and on the mountaintop and on the airplane it is obvious from the increase of cosmic radiation) but to show that there is no such thing as zero radioactivity and that the natural levels can vary more than what most people encounter even from a major nuclear accident. What you see in the scenes is mainly gammas from the ground (natural or man-made), not from the air.

    Contaminated soil, water and food is of course relevant and need to be monitored after an accident. But then you mention alpha emitters, which are not spread that much from a damaged nuclear core (not even in Chernobyl). The gammas detected on Guarapari beach in Brazil, however, are accompanied by several alpha decays from radon and its daughters further up in the thorium decay chain. They are not detected by the Geiger counter, but they are there, in the air to breath in.

    *3* Regarding confusing units and general knowledge:
    The units are confusing to most people, and to relate them to the current understanding about health effects is almost impossible. As researchers and teachers we fail miserably with explaining the units and the related risks to the general public. If the level of understanding was half as good as you imply it would be from the education in German schools, do you really think that the general opinion about nuclear power in Germany would be what it is?
    Immediately after the Fukushima accident many pharmacies all over Europe and North America sold out on their stocks of Iodine tablets. People understanding the units do not act that way. The movie is trying to do what we have failed with for a long time.

    *4* You wrote: There are few facts presented and for me – who in the 1990′s took several courses on nuclear physics and nuclear energy at Kiel University – nothing new was presented.

    I agree fully with you, but most people have not taken courses in nuclear physics or nuclear energy. For them, the few facts presented seem to be news (once again we have failed miserably with trying to explain the basics, nuclear power and ionizing radiation is still seen as something supernatural, or at least evil). And some people seem to prefer the “comfort” of messages from groups like Friends of the Earth or Beyond Nuclear, who claim that the movie is a pack of lies sponsored by the nuclear industry.

    *5* You wrote: While the fuel cycle by physical principles cannot be a completely closed cycle as pictured in the movie…

    With the risk of nitpicking here, there is actually a barrel of waste coming out in the animation for the “closed cycle”. Also the scene with the football field shows that there will always be some waste left.

    *6* You wrote: Totally out of scope was the emphasis of the film that nuclear power is the only way to meet the increasing power need in the developing countries.

    And your comment is totally out of scope, because that is not what it says, it says that on a global scale it will be difficult (or impossible) to do it with renewables alone. If we are serious about phasing out coal and gas, that is.

    *7* You wrote: Nuclear power by definition is based on centralized, large scale power plants which require an established infrastructure to distribute the electricity to the consumers.

    Not necessarily, there are many concepts of small scale reactors. We yet have to see if they materialize, and what their costs will be, but a nuclear power plant does not need to be on a GW scale. Indonesia decided the other day to build a 30 MW plant. The spontaneous question there could be: why so small?

    Another perspective on your comment. More than 1 billion people today live in urban areas with at least 1 million people. Centralized, large scale power plants do have a place there, and they are being built already today. Regrettably the vast majority of them are coal plants instead of renewables or nuclear.

    *8* You wrote: Also doubtful is the message that saving energy and reducing the personal electricity consumption will not contribute to managing our energy future.

    Once again, that is not what is being said, and I think at least that point would be clear from the panel discussion. Reduce, reuse, recycle is all good and essential, not the least for us who already use so much. But a large fraction of the world does not have any energy consumption to reduce, they need to increase it in order to obtain a decent standard of living. And as was pointed out, there are about 2 billion more people coming that cannot save energy they never had.

    *9* Regarding the panel discussion
    Some things did not turn out the way we had expected, but we are quite happy with it considering the short time we had for preparations. An important (and interesting) lesson for us who arranged it is that what we had in mind and what was perceived by the audience are probably two very different things.

    Turning the question back to you: Which questions do you think should have been discussed?

    *10* You wrote: The discussion has to be demilitarized…

    A question, what do you mean by this? A more open debate without entrenched opinions, or?

    *11* Regarding the Carl Sagan quote:
    I take it the only way it can be taken: We need more education and more knowledgeable people. The alternative is to forbid certain knowledge, i.e. try to squeeze it back into Pandora’s box. I do not want to live in a society where this option is actively pursued.

    A knowledgeable population can willingly choose to not use nuclear power, after properly weighting the pros and cons of the consequences. Until now, such decisions have been based either on fear or on unrealistic expectations.

    Best wishes,
    Mattias

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