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Pandora's Propaganda

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Robert Stone's 'Pandora's Promise' film has generated a fresh round of publicity and commentary as it has been shown on CNN and released in more countries including the UK and Australia.

Physicist Ed Lyman trades blows with Stone in opinion pieces published by CNN. Lyman argues that the recounting of the US 'integral fast reactor' (IFR) R&D program in Pandora's Promise is "more myth than reality". He notes that fast reactors can be operated as breeders, producing more plutonium than they consume. He notes that claims about the proliferation-resistance of 'pyroprocessing' are overblown, pointing to a 2008 US Department of Energy review that concluded that pyroprocessing and similar technologies would "greatly reduce barriers to theft, misuse or further processing, even without separation of pure plutonium."

Lyman disputes claims that IFRs could not suffer meltdowns, noting that an IFR prototype, EBR-I in Idaho, had a partial fuel meltdown in 1955 while a similar reactor, Fermi 1 near Detroit, had a partial fuel meltdown in 1966.

Lyman challenges the claim that IFR R&D was shut down in the US in the 1990s: "In fact, the IFR program's demise was a shutdown in name only. The Department of Energy has continued to fund research and development on fast reactor technology to the tune of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars a year."

In response, Stone doesn't rebut any of Lyman's statements but indulges in a hissy fit, describing Lyman as one of the "many henchmen" of the anti-nuclear movement, saying Lyman's criticism "is driven mostly by his life-long aversion to nuclear technology in any form", and accusing Lyman of "deriving his information from the Internet, which is all he seems to have done."

Stone's response also uses a technique used ad nauseum in Pandora's Promise − presenting a false choice. He invites readers to judge for themselves which side of the debate they stand on − with anti-nuclear activists or with climate scientists, i.e. pro-nuclear climate scientists such as James Hansen.

A number of reviews of Pandora's Promise are quite dismissive of concerns about nuclear safety and proliferation (and quite dismissive of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements more generally), but are keenly aware of the economics of nuclear power.

For example Australian academic John Quiggin writes: "So, the fact that the world has not turned to nuclear power as a solution to climate change is a matter of economics. In the absence of a substantial carbon price, nuclear energy can't compete with coal and other fossil fuels. In the presence of a carbon price, it can't compete with wind and solar photovoltaics. The only real hope is that, if coal-fired generation is reduced drastically enough, always-on nuclear power will be a more attractive alternative than variable sources like solar and wind power. However, much of the current demand for "baseload" power is an artifact of pricing systems designed for coal, and may disappear as prices become more cost-reflective."

Victor Gilinsky (former US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner) and Henry Sokolski (Nonproliferation Policy Education Center) write: "The method the movie uses for this purpose is to interview five supposed environmentalists who changed sides on the nuclear issue. The result is something akin to a psywar broadcast to enemy troops by turncoats, urging their former comrades to surrender, too, and it is about as interesting and effective."

Gilinsky and Sokolski comment on economics: "The trouble with the movie's logic is that the "environmentalists" had little to do with the halt in nuclear construction, and have hardly any influence on its future. If your objective is to get nuclear power rolling, the people you need to convince are not environmentalists but rather the supposedly pro-nuclear corporate utility executives and their bankers, nearly all of whom have decided that they are not going to touch new nuclear construction unless the government assumes the commercial risk. The stubborn fact is that nuclear plants are hellishly expensive and US power companies won't buy them unless they get hefty subsidies. And they won't build them, either, unless the accident risks are in large part absorbed by the government."

Gilinsky and Sokolski conclude: "It is undeniable that in terms of carbon release nuclear energy has an inherent advantage, the promise of which we may in time find ways to exploit effectively. But in its current form, including what is on the drawing boards, this advantage is still more than offset by a series of problems − cost, proliferation and safety. The movie's promise is still nowhere near at hand."

References and more information on Pandora's Promise:
Beyond Nuclear:
Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski, 21 June 2013, 'Pandora's Promise − Is the Issue Really Environmental?', Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, Vol.VII No.25,
Linda Pentz Gunter and Kevin Kamps, 7 Nov 2013, 'Don't trade global warming for nuclear meltdowns',
Edwin Lyman, 7 Nov 2013, 'Scientist: Film hypes the promise of advanced nuclear technology',
Alex Macbeth, 24 Oct 2013, 'Pandora's Promise: Is nuclear an option?',
John Quiggin, 8 Nov 2013, 'Reviving nuclear power debates is a distraction. We need to use less energy',
Robert Stone, 8 Nov 2013, ''Pandora's Promise' director defends his controversial nuclear energy film',
'Pandora's Promise' Propaganda, Nuclear Monitor #764, 28 June 2013,

Information on integral fast reactors:
A debate on IFRs between David Lochbaum (Union of Concerned Scientists) and author-advocate Tom Blees:
Edwin Lyman, 7 Nov 2013, 'Scientist: Film hypes the promise of advanced nuclear technology', and see the links provided in Lyman's article
Beyond Nuclear, Jan 2013, 'Pandora's False Promises: The Integral Fast Reactor. Longer Fact Sheet', two-page fact-sheet:
US Office of Technology Assessment report:
FoE Australia, 'Integral Fast Reactors',
FoE Australia, 'Nuclear Weapons and 'Generation 4' Reactors',