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Pandora’s Promises – kept and unkept

On Saturday, I saw Pandora’s Promise – the new film promoting nuclear power largely through interviews with environmentalists who have embraced it — and I participated in a post-screening discussion with Michael Shellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute.  Michael is one of the five converts featured in the movie.  First, let me say that I’m no movie critic, but this is a very polished and professional film.  Though I didn’t agree with all of it, I was engaged throughout the movie.

On the subject matter, I was surprised at the very narrow bite of the nuclear power issue that the movie takes.  It is basically a movie about nuclear power’s past safety record and waste management.

On that score it is fairly convincing.  Nuclear power actually has an impressive safety history, particularly compared to fossil fuel extraction, processing and combustion.  The movie revisits Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima in detail….maybe a bit too much detail.  The point that there was far less harm to humans than most people think is well worth making, as is the fact that the number of deaths from even Chernobyl is almost certainly smaller than the number of deaths caused by coal mining and burning every year.

But I couldn’t help thinking that the focus on these three events misses the real issues. These were all about 40 year old reactors, built to a standard that no one would consider using today.  Chernobyl didn’t even have a containment vessel.  New nuclear plants are being built with much greater attention to prevention and containment.  Looking at those accidents in a discussion of building new reactors is like looking at 1960s cars with no seatbelts (let alone airbags) to figure out the safety of driving today.

That said, the movie can’t seem to stop itself from finding the most straw of straw men to attack on past accidents.  In this case, it’s anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, who is shown claiming that Chernobyl caused a million deaths, despite the fact that no serious research is above the low thousands.  The film succeeds in making clear that there is a group of people who are anti-nuclear for reasons, and in ways, that are every bit as insular and anti-science as climate change deniers.

What left me less than completely persuaded on safety is the fact that there are far more thoughtful critics and reasoned concerns about nuclear power safety, including access of terrorists to plants and to fuels.  This is particularly true if we are talking about building plants in countries with less stable governments, as the movie suggests we should.  The movie says only a bit about nuclear proliferation among national governments and essentially nothing about terrorism.  Those concerns also may not pass a close analysis either, but focusing on the most outlandish characters and extreme statements undermines the film’s seriousness (though it probably makes it more engaging than a movie that reviews the academic research on nuclear safety. But if you are interested in that sort of thing, there are recent Energy Institute paper’s on efficiency improvements, safety, and the prognosis for nuclear power post-Fukushima).

My disappointment with the film is that beyond safety, it has little to say.  There are two fleeting references to cost that suggest vaguely that it is cost competitive.  It isn’t.  In the discussion after the movie, Michael Shellenberger agreed with me that nuclear power can’t beat coal or natural gas today.  The movie briefly beats up solar and wind for being intermittent, but that’s probably less than a minute and there is no reference to storage possibilities or demand adjustment to address intermittency.

In the end, I came away realizing that I wasn’t the movie’s target audience.  It is aimed at people who still want to oppose nuclear power based on the risk of a technical failure and massive meltdown.  I’m not sure how many of those people there are, but like the converts in the movie, it would be useful for them to revisit the research on past events.

As for policy going forward, I think the post-screening discussion made clear that Michael and I are pretty much on the same page.  I believe he (as well, I hope, as Stewart Brand, the most famous of the movie’s five converts) would agree that:

• Nuclear power should not be eliminated as an option due its past safety record.

• Nuclear power is currently still much more expensive than coal or gas.

• Nuclear power should be one of the many technologies we need to keep researching to find some alternative that is low-carbon and can be cheap enough to be attractive to the developing world.

• That list should also include solar, wind, geothermal, carbon sequestration and storage.

For a far more entertaining non-review of the movie (he hasn’t seen it) and thoughtful discussion of nuclear power issues, I recommend David Roberts’ column on Grist.



Severin Borenstein View All

Severin Borenstein is Professor of the Graduate School in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group at the Haas School of Business and Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. He received his A.B. from U.C. Berkeley and Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. His research focuses on the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. Borenstein is also a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA. He served on the Board of Governors of the California Power Exchange from 1997 to 2003. During 1999-2000, he was a member of the California Attorney General's Gasoline Price Task Force. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee, which advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. In 2014, he was appointed to the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, which he chaired from 2015 until the Committee was dissolved in 2017. From 2015-2020, he served on the Advisory Council of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Since 2019, he has been a member of the Governing Board of the California Independent System Operator.

10 thoughts on “Pandora’s Promises – kept and unkept Leave a comment

  1. You make a very apt analogy with regard to using 1960’s cars to assess the safety of driving today! I think that is key piece that so many people miss when they’re challenging these new reactors being built. I agree with your comments and assessment 100%.

  2. I am always intrigued by concerns about terrorism. Terrorism is a totally inconsequential risk in the Americas, Europe and East Asia. An American is more likely to be killed by a cop than a terrorist, an order of magnitude more likely. What is a terrorist going to do with a nuclear plant anyway?

    • Especially since making people scared about the perspective of more nuclear plant forgets there’s already a nuclear plant in Iran, of all place. And I don’t want to sound like giving ideas to terrorists, but they don’t need me to realize there’s one in Armenia which probably doesn’t have that strong protection measures.

      In any case, would be nuclear terrorists are always confronted to the same basic problem, they would be committing suicide trying to steal heavily radioactive spent fuel. The sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway demonstrates chemical based terror attacks are much easier to put in place, and require much less hard to find material that a nuclear one.
      Finally if they really insist on a radiological attack, our supposed terrorists won’t be far in their research about it before they discover it’s much easier to get inside an hospital than a nuclear plant, and they find out something about the Goiânia accident.

      • Both of these “discussions” regarding terrorism miss the point and are largely red herrings. The question is NOT whether ‘terrorists’ would try to obtain nuclear materials – either as unused fuel or spent fuel from a reactor – but whether some governments in the developing world are enduringly stable enough to assure that nuclear material doesn’t fall into the wrong hands with, say, a change in government. Its been well documented (as I noted in my earlier post) that the US (and others) put considerable effort into securing nuclear materials left in the various independent states formed after the fall of the former Soviet Union. Control of ‘loose nukes’ (which doesn’t necessarily imply an already assembled nuclear weapon) in states where governmental stability (or the possibility of corruption) is questionable is a legitimate concern on which the US has acted. Promoting the use of nuclear power in the developing world is inconsistent with those concerns – especially when there are no guarantees regarding governmental stability or motiviation.
        Two examples that immediately come to mind are Pakistan and Iran, both of whom are listed as state sponsors of terrorism.

      • @Rich : I feel the red herrings are on your side. Whereas nuclear weapons are surrounded with secrecy, and all matters of national pride that make it very unlikely their possession will be transferred when the government become unstable, we talk here about civilian nuclear power where the situation is completely different.
        The location of every kg of fissile material use in civilian power must be made public, tracked and recorded in IAEA databases that other countries can check, and is also regularly submitted to inspections that would allow for action if it were no more properly secured.
        Also you claim to be worried about the possibility of situation that already are there, both Iran and Pakistan already have civilian reactors. But it’s not actually really a problem, since a terrorist or rogue state taking hold of some “loose used fuel” could not use it to be make a real bomb, it is poisoned with inadequate 240Pu. You would have had from start the intent of generating 239Pu without letting 240Pu accumulate to succeed in extracting usable bomb material from used fuel. And modern boiling or pressure water reactor design are inadequate enough for this task that it’s likely no country has ever done that successfully.

    • @Rich Sextro: no matter that Iran and Pakistan are ‘listed’ as state sponsors of terrorism, other countries ARE actually states that DO terror, not bothering to hide behind a veil of being a ‘sponsor’.

  3. Severin — I have a number of comments on your ‘Pandora’ piece, but I’ll try to limit them to your bulleted assertions at the end. I do want to agree with you that David Robert’s column is both highly entertaining and, from my point of view, dead-on. As a scientist who, at one point was extensively involved in the anti-nuclear power movement in California, I – and a number of my colleagues – based our opposition to the expansion of nuclear power mainly on the issue of not having confidence in the various proposes schemes to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. Some would argue that its not (at least now) an engineering problem but a political one, especially with the closure of Yucca Mountain. I don’t agree that its only a political problem (the original choice of Nevada as a disposal site was political), but the fact remains that there is not now a disposal site – and it seems likely there will not be one in the near future. For California, this means no new nuclear plant can be built until such a site is available (and “certified”) – economics notwithstanding. That law passed in 1976 (in the ‘afterglow’ of Proposition 15).

    Your comment about the past safety record of nuclear plants (by which I assume you mean BWRs and PWRs) is not entirely consistent with the events at Fukushima. Maybe it depends on what one means by ‘safety’ – perhaps its a different definition than the folks in Japan living/farming downwind of Fukushima would use. There is a larger question here, which is that one of the problems that has beset the nuclear industry almost from the get-go is one of technological hubris. There are many examples of this, but in my mind they are bookended by the assertions of the (then) AEC that all of the nuclear waste could safely be stored in salt deposits in Kansas (early 1970’s) – shortly followed by the Kansas Geological Survey completely dismantling that concept – and the (apparent) assumptions made by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) regarding the design basis for earthquake/tsunami protection.

    Nuclear power economics have always been marginal (despite Westinghouse’s famous claim about generating electricity too cheap to meter…), and were it not for extensive government subsidies, it would not be even close – and that doesn’t include the ‘subsidy’ provided by the Price-Anderson act that essentially removes all nuclear accident liability from the utility. My admittedly vague recollection of a study of these subsidies in the 1970’s claimed that these amounted to reducing prices at the bus-bar by several fold. It is still the case that the utilities need – in addition to the benefit of subsidies – loan guarantees (recent Obama administration guarantee for the Vogtle plant expansion).

    The problem with asserting that nuclear power should be one of the options “on the table” in terms of moving toward a less carbon-intensive energy future is how one ‘weights’ the funding for research and development among the various options – especially since the playing field is not level regarding nuclear power. The latter is already embedded and we still have the problem of not having an approved waste disposal technology. The events at Fukushima are surely going to stimulate more spending on nuclear reactor design, safety, etc. But, I would argue, the R&D (and commercialization spending) budget is a zero-sum game – at least at the federal government level. Can we really continue to pretend that we can/should spend on everything when not everything is going to make a real difference within the next 20 to 30 years (anyone that thinks nuclear is going to make a difference in that time frame hasn’t been paying attention)? Alternatively, there are other options – on both the supply and demand side – that are much more capable/likely to make that difference.

    Do we really want the developing world to become reliant on nuclear power when, at least in some cases, we would run the risk of possible nuclear proliferation (we’ve spend a considerable amount of money and diplomatic effort trying to round up the fissile material in the states of the former Soviet Union)? Aren’t there technologies that don’t invoke those risks, that require less infrastructure and for which governmental ‘stability’ isn’t a factor (I think there are)?

    Finally, I think the recent events regarding nuclear power in the US are instructive. SoCal Edison has pulled the plug on the two remaining San Onofre units (I think based on uncertainty over the steam generator tube erosion that they thought had been fixed). The plant at Crystal River (FL) won’t reopen either – apparently because it was going to cost ~$2B to fix a problem with the containment vessel created by opening up that vessel to do other repairs. Nuclear power is a brittle technology – of which these are two examples (I assert). In addition, we are now beginning to recognize that not all utilities are capable of actually operating a nuclear power plant (or plants). Some prior examples that come to mind are Rancho Seco (SMUD as proxy for PG&E) and Trojan (Portland GE), not to mention the massive screw ups at WWPPS. One of my colleagues and an expert on nuclear power (whose views are different than mine) told me that TEPCO would appear to be in this same league! Remarkable observation about the world’s second largest nuclear power plant owner/operator (second to EDF).

    I don’t plan to go see the movie – while I’m not a fan of Helen Caldicott, neither am I a fan of the Breakthrough folks — I think Robert’s dissection was spot-on.

    – Rich Sextro

  4. Dr. Borenstein, you’ve also been a clear thinker who speaks truth to all parties. Thanks for taking on this topic and for the missive. I always appreciate your material.

  5. Your four bullet points make sense. I think we’re going to find that renewables by themselves cannot provide a reliable, on-demand supply of electricity, and that the amount of storage that would be required in an all-renewable electric system isn’t viable from economic, technical and environmental perspectives. We should be pursuing nuclear technologies that cannot be proliferated (Thorium?)

    I doubt CCS will be economically viable, because like some forms of storage and hydrogen produced from renewable electricity, it is a very energy-intensive process.

  6. No one denies that coal kills, arguably at about the same level as nuclear/GWh. So away with them both! No one suggests that solar and wind would kill anywhere near as many/GWh

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