17 Nov 2013

Pandora's Promise

On Friday evening, I went to see what I believe is the first screening of Pandora's Promise in the UK. It's a movie concerned with nuclear power and the only other movie I can think of that touched on this subject was the China Syndrome which, perhaps not surprisingly, featured a little bit in the commentary. The two films take diametrically opposed standpoints.

The China Syndrome was a big Hollywood production starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon and Michael Douglas and its central premise was that the nuclear power industry is very bad news. It introduced the world to the idea of a meltdown and the very name, China Syndrome, referred to the depth of the hole which would result — i.e. one so deep it would go right through the Earth and emerge on the other side. The film premiered on March 16 1979, just 12 days before the Three Mile Island reactor accident. What timing! Even more coincidentally, one of the actors actually suggests during the film that a China Syndrome-style meltdown would render "an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable." Three Mile Island is in Pennsylvania. You couldn't make this up.

The fact is that the Three Mile Island accident didn't burn a hole deep into the ground and that Pennsylvania is still inhabited. Life around the stricken plant carries on pretty much as normal. Since then there have been two more iconic nuclear accidents, Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), and just the mention of these names is usually enough elicit a shimmer of trepidation from most educated people.

Pandora's Promise takes this particular bull by the horns and starts out in Japan following Mark Lynas on a journey to the stricken Fukushima plant. What's it like? How frightening is it? How much radiation is there? Is it dangerous? I'm just watching and I feel nervous. He dons a protective overall, though it looks about as much use as a chocolate teaspoon to me. And we follow Lynas and director Robert Stone as they get closer and closer to the plant, armed only with a neat little geiger counter which gives them a reading of the background radiation. In fact, if there is a star in this film it is this device which demonstrates simply that there is background radiation everywhere in the world and that it varies significantly from place to place. The radiation levels do increase gradually as they approach the Fukushima plant, but nowhere do they go off the scale and by the end they are standing happily on the beach next to the reactor, apparently in no peril at all.

They take the geiger counter around the world and most tellingly onto Guarapari Beach in Brazil which is known for its radioactive sand in which people immerse themselves as a health cure. They may be nuts, but they are not falling down dead three days later. The natural radioactivity on Guarapari Beach appears to be an order of magnitude larger than that found in the exclusion zones around Fukushima and Chernobyl. Something funny is going on here: it's not what the makers of the China Syndrome wanted us to believe.

We follow the nuclear power story around the world. Much of it is shot in the USA, the cradle of the industry, and we get a potted history of the technology and the people who worked it out. There is footage from Chernobyl and there is lots of footage of various anti-nuclear protests around the world, including the veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott strutting her stuff. In many ways, the film works a similar pathway to Gwyneth Cravens's book Power To Save The World. Cravens features in the film too. It is good to see women involved in this almost entirely male-dominated debate.

I found the film totally absorbing but then I'm a self-confessed energy wonk. It could have dug deeper. France was touched on but only to say how successful their nuclear programme has been. In the discussion which took place afterwards featuring Lynas, Stone and Brian Eno, it was pointed out that the French are under pressure to close down their fleet of 40 nukes to be more like Germany, which has turned its back on nuclear power altogether. The fact that the anti-nuclear meme is still so strong is therefore bound to make Pandora's Promise controversial. It's not light entertainment, for sure, but it's a very easy watch and whatever your views on nuclear power, you are bound to learn something new.

Go see.

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