Robert Stone: no other choice than nuclear

This statement looks like it comes from the speech of a nuclear leader or at least someone who bet on this industry. The reality is quite different. Robert Stone is a film director. He makes documentaries. His latest one, “Pandora’s Promise” tells the story of environmentalists who changed their mind about nuclear energy.

Mr. Stone, tell us about yourself. How do you choose the topics of your films?

I’ve been making documentary films for 30 years. The topics of my films vary a great deal but a recurrent theme in many of them is humanity’s complex and evolving relationship with technology. I tend to choose to make films about issues and characters that are provocative and interesting to me personally, but each film came about for its own reason. I’ve certainly spent much of my career examining the impact of the Cold War on our culture and society, so that too has been a recurring theme.

Let’s talk about Pandora’s Promise. The movie deals with nuclear energy. How did you choose the name?

The title for a film is always a complex thing. You want the title to capture people’s imagination in some way and hopefully to be a bit poetic. Given the subject matter, I wanted the title to acknowledge the fact that the splitting of the atom has had negative effects, specifically in the development of nuclear weapons. That aspect has been widely associated with the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box. Since my film was both acknowledging the evil that sprang from the discovery of this technology, as well as its promise, Pandora’s Promise seemed like an apt and somewhat poetic title. It also didn’t telegraph the meaning of the film too directly, as would have happened if I had used the word “nuclear” in the title. So I’m happy with it.

Why did you make a film about this controversial issue?

I made the film because I felt very strongly that the entire debate over what to do about climate change had grown stale, boring and somewhat hopeless. The traditional narrative around this problem put forth by the mainstream environmental movement was almost entirely negative, and more importantly it was also completely ineffective at solving the problem.6

The issue of nuclear energy, which was such a taboo within environmentalist circles, seemed to me to usher in a much needed breath of fresh air into the debate about what we should do while also offering a very realistic reason to be hopeful. As a filmmaker, I also saw a delicious irony here in that the most promising solution to the world’s greatest environmental problem was the one thing that the environmental movement was almost universally united against. That seemed to me to be a good basis for a documentary film.

How would you describe nuclear energy in a few simple words?

Nuclear energy is the most incredible source of energy ever discovered. In almost every science-fiction vision of the future it’s a world powered by nuclear energy, which gives one a sense that most forward-thinking people realize that eventually this is how we’ll power human civilization. It’s just a matter of sorting out the political problems associated with it that are almost entirely a hangover from the absolutely insane nuclear arms race of the Cold War. We have tapped into the power that drives the universe and have the proven ability to harness it to create abundant, clean, and affordable energy for all the world. We still have some work to do to realize the full potential of this dream, but this is a mature technology that would have been far more fully developed, had the anti-nuclear movement not worked so diligently to kill it off. Compared to the alternatives, which today is fossil fuels plus some hydro and a tiny contribution from renewables, nuclear has a proven record as being the safest and most scalable source of clean energy we have.

What is your opinion about nuclear energy?

I’m in favor of it. More to the point, I’m in favor of commercializing next generation nuclear technology as rapidly as possible. It’s astonishing how few people are aware that we actually know very well how to make revolutionary new reactors who’s very physics prevent the kind of loss-of-coolant accidents we’ve seen at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima; reactors that are fueled by today’s existing supply of nuclear “waste”; that are simple and modular in design and are capable of being mass produced on assembly lines the way we do with commercial jet aircraft; and reactors that are highly resistant to diversion for use in creating material for nuclear weapons. Once people are informed of this, they get very excited, particularly young people who have a generally favorable attitude towards high technology (unlike their parents or grand-parents who came of age in the 60’s). So I’m very enthusiastic about the future of nuclear energy. I have to be because there’s really no other choice if we’re to leave a habitable planet for future generations. It’s either that or burn ever increasing amounts of fossil fuels. That’s the choice. That’s the real ‘inconvenient truth’ of our time.
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Can environmentalism and nuclear energy go well together?

I’ve been making the environmental case for nuclear all over the world for the past two years since my film came out and I’ve received overwhelming support from self-described environmentalists, once they come to understand the reality of our climate and energy dilemma, as well as the misconceptions so many of us (myself included) once held about this technology. So to me, environmentalism (as I define it) goes absolutely hand in hand with nuclear energy. If environmentalism is caring about preserving the natural beauty of the environment, caring about clean air, caring about climate change, caring about lifting people out of poverty and deprivation, then yes, being pro-nuclear and pro-environment goes hand in hand.

If the problem is so simple, why is it so difficult to make people change their minds?

Well the problem isn’t simple. Nuclear energy is a very complex technology with a whole lot of negative associations for many people. The people who are unwilling to change their mind about it, in my experience, have been those who are professionally beholden to holding an anti-nuclear position. They’ve staked their careers on it. These are the leaders of the big environmental groups, certain academics, certain journalists who’ve taken a strong stand on this for decades and cannot reverse course, etc. But most people, when presented with the film, have been favorably impressed to at least consider the argument I’m making. The reason for that is that the argument is made almost entirely by people, like myself, who once opposed this technology and have ourselves changed our mind about it. That’s a very compelling and persuasive narrative that is very different from the line that might come from a nuclear scientist or someone from the nuclear industry, who until now have been the only people anyone’s ever heard speaking positively about nuclear energy.

Do you think people are ready to “wake up”?

I do. I don’t think we’re there yet but I do think that we’re fast approaching a tipping point on this issue. The rapidity with which positions have changed on this topic among senior influential journalists who cover this topic in places like the New York Times or the Guardian has been astonishing. Since the film came out it’s become an open secret that there’s a deep split among environmentalists on this issue. That’s only going to increase as the failure of traditional Green solutions to our biggest environmental problems become more apparent. One can only blame the dwindling number of climate skeptics and big oil corporations for all our environmental problems for so long. At a certain point the environmental movement needs to be held to account as well. When I ask environmental audiences if they actually believe that we can power a world of going-on 10 billion people on wind and solar alone, almost nobody raises their hand. It’s such a ludicrous proposition that when it’s phrased that way, as it should be, it becomes preposterous. Which is why the argument is always made that we’re somehow going to rapidly start using dramatically less energy using advances in energy efficiency. But given that billions of people lack enough electricity to get by, plus the billions more not yet born, that’s simply not going to happen anytime soon, if ever. The world needs more energy, not less. And more energy means less environmental destruction, not more, so long as that energy is clean. More energy means more wealth. and more wealth leads to lower birth rates. Wealth also leads to greater concern about environmental damage, as we’re now seeing among the Chinese middle class.
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In your opinion how did public opinion change after Fukushima?

It’s easy to forget that before Fukushima the issue of nuclear safety had largely faded away. The argument against nuclear was almost entirely on economic grounds and there was much talk of a coming nuclear renaissance. Fukushima stopped that in its tracks, at least in the West, and rekindled memories of Chernobyl and the fear that even if nuclear power accidents are rare, when they happen they are unacceptably catastrophic. So that has had a huge impact on public opinion all over the world, particularly in Germany and Japan. That said, in my talks, I rarely get questions about Fukushima. People understand that all of the dire, world-ending, predictions of the anti-nuclear movement simply haven’t come to pass. Fukushima is a colossally expensive industrial accident but it’s not apocalyptic. Indeed, if this is the worst that can happen after 3 simultaneous meltdowns occurring as a result of the worst seismic event to hit Japan in 1,000 years, it actually proves how resilient this technology is.

What actions do you plan to take to defend nuclear energy in the future?

I plan to be outspoken about this topic probably for as long as I live, or until my public position on the matter is no longer needed to advance the cause. I may tackle it again in some other film but it would need to have a good story angle. I have a lot of other interests besides nuclear energy.

Concerning the global climate conference COP21 in Paris, do you plan to participate in any way?

Well, nuclear energy is not part of the discussion at COP21. It’s already been taken off the table. Also, I’m neither an activist nor a campaigner. So I’d like to go if I can be of help in raising the issue of nuclear energy among the media, delegates, and hangers-on who will be there. So in that way I’d like to participate. But there are other people with better credentials than me to speak to this. I’m just a guy who made a film about it.
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An interview performed by Nayiri Khatcheressian, Thomas Luciana and Juan Gonzalez-Garrido

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