Pandora’s Promise: Questions and Answers

November 6, 2013

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Here are some questions raised by critics of Pandora’s Promise, and some opinions from the Canadian Nuclear Association.

Q.         Why doesn’t Pandora’s Promise present a more fair and balanced discussion about nuclear energy’s benefits and risks?

A.         Feature-length documentary films generally take a point of view.  No apologies for that.  The point of view of Pandora’s Promise is that there has been a strong, long-standing imbalance in attitudes toward nuclear energy. 

Q.         Why are the cited sources far from neutral? Is this film meant to be a one-sided sales job?

A.         “Sales job” implies that the persons behind the film are selling the product, but they’re not.  The film shows leading, long-active environmentalists explaining in their own words how they came around to new opinions about nuclear power.  Notice that the filmmaker barely appears, and there is little to no narrative overlay.  Pandora’s Promise is about these individuals’ journey from anti- to pro-nuclear, and it is part of their own struggle, in their own words, to redress what they see as misunderstanding and misinformation.

Q.         Why choose to rely on testimonials from environmentalists and exclude the anti-nuclear movement when everyone knows the real problem is the nature of nuclear energy?

A.         If nuclear’s advocates talk about economics, they’re accused of sidestepping environmental issues.  Now it’s the other way around.  In fact the two can’t be separated.  The “nature of nuclear energy,” in the eyes of both advocates and critics, is in large part about its environmental impacts (whether one believes they are large or small).  Yes, it’s possible to have a purely commercial conversation about the cost and reliability of electricity – but ultimately that conversation is incomplete if environmental impacts aren’t factored in.

Q.         According to the facts, how many deaths will the Chernobyl plant have caused?

A.         We’re glad you’ve equated our view with the facts, because we rely on the multi-agency Chernobyl Forum, which was put together by the United Nations.  In 2005 the Forum found that fewer than 50 deaths were directly attributed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident up to that time, and that up to 4000 people could eventually die from that cause.  To put this into context, 47 people were directly killed by the crude oil explosion in Quebec in 2013, and some 4000 people a year die each year – each year – in coal mining in just one country, China.  

Q.         Why does The Chernobyl Forum, which estimated cancer deaths only among the most highly exposed population in Ukraine, leave out other parts of Europe which also suffered exposure?

A.         The Forum also looks at affected areas of other countries, such as Belarus and Russia.  But “exposed” is not the same as “harmed.”  The Forum recommends focusing on the most highly affected areas.  Even in those irradiated areas, the Forum finds that poverty, “lifestyle” diseases and mental health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than does radiation exposure.

Q.         Are there, or are there not, at least 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer caused by Chernobyl?

A.         Well, no.  The Forum said that number (coincidentally) is about 4,000, nine of which were deaths as of 2005.

Q.         Why use the 2005 UN report on Chernobyl, from the IAEA and WHO, which has been widely discredited for suppressing key data?

A.         “Widely discredited” by whom and on what actual evidence?  The IAEA has several other responsibilities like security, safety and safeguards.  And it was one of eight UN agencies involved in the Forum.  You are asking us to believe not only that the IAEA pursued one specific goal to the detriment of the others, but that seven other UN agencies, including the World Health Organization, were involved, and that all their professional staffs went along with this.  Perhaps the accusers can tell us how and why such an alleged cover-up occurred and what possible motive all those organizations and professionals would have had for assisting it.

Q.         Is nuclear energy the best option?   Or just the least worst option?

A.         We will always need a mix of energy sources.  So it is not necessarily about being the best option, or the least worst option.  It is about evaluating our options fairly based on actual facts and evidence.  The environmentalists in the movie have merely come to the conclusion that nuclear deserves to be an option.

Q.         Could filmmaker Robert Stone have made more of an effort to look at other forms of energy, particularly renewables?

A.         That would be relevant if the film director had set out to create a policy paper or an engineering report, and if the point were to select one option as being superior to another.  As we’ve said, we will always need a mix of energy sources.  Pandora’s Promise is about certain individuals telling a story in their own words.

Q.         Why does your industry keep saying nuclear is key to base load generation when wind combined with solar match up very well with patterns of peak demand?

A.         Two reasons.  First, already the great majority of all electricity generation is for base load, so you can’t solve the emissions problem without addressing it.  Second, a number of trends in the energy market – things like time-of-use pricing, smart meters, and recharging of batteries at night — are tending to blunt the peaks and fill the valleys of the demand cycle.  Electric vehicles will accelerate that trend, because they too will be recharged at non-peak periods.  That’s good, because it uses generation capacity more fully.  And that further increases the role of base load in the system.  

Q.         How do we know that their changed view has made Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger somehow more competent, or more credible?

A.         We all start out with limited information.  But as humans we are not always great at seeking more of it, or of integrating new knowledge into our views.  The fact that Lynas and Shellenberger and other environmentalists have adapted their opinions, and even been willing to turn them around completely, in the face of resistance from friends and colleagues, as they acquired more information,  says something important about their characters and thinking.

Q.         Instead of just acknowledging the environmentalists who have been converted to nuclear, shouldn’t you also acknowledge that there are former nuclear supporters who now oppose the technology?

A.         Actually, that’s erroneous.  Opinion research shows a strong correlation between knowing more about nuclear technology and being more comfortable with it.  In Canada, support for nuclear technology is highest in populations that live close to nuclear facilities, where knowledge of the impacts is also the highest.

Q.         Why is it that the more people in Ontario learn about your plans for a deep-earth storage chamber for low-level waste, the more they oppose it?

A.         There are complications in measuring this kind of opinion.  It’s important to separate people’s factual information about a project from their mere awareness that a project exists.  Having heard of a project and having it at the front of your mind is not the same thing as having information about it.  So “learning more” about something has to be carefully distinguished from being made suspicious and afraid of it.  The one promotes support – as we see in the communities around a nuclear power plant – and the other promotes opposition.  The complication is measuring opposition.  You need to survey the whole community, not just measure the loudness of the opposition.  Loud opposition must not be mistaken for public opinion across the community.  Okay, maybe people in a certain area are against a deep geological repository, but let’s see a statistically valid poll before we accept that they are.

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