Film screening, panel at Middlebury reconsider nuclear power

MIDDLEBURY — “Pandora’s Promise,” a documentary film that debates the merits of nuclear power, drew hundreds of students, faculty, and community members to Dana Auditorium at Middlebury College on Jan. 15 for a screening.
Afterwards, a group of scholars and the film’s director hosted a panel on the subject.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, illustrates the divide between environmentalists on nuclear power. It features several environmentalists who used to be staunchly opposed to nuclear power, but after re-examining the benefits, now support it as an alternative to fossil fuels. Nuclear power represents the majority of “clean” (non-carbon dioxide emitting) energy in the United States, with wind and solar lagging far behind.
These environmentalists — including Steward Brand, Richard Rhodes, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger — urged their colleagues and the public to reconsider nuclear. The film also argued that some environmentalists have purposefully exaggerated the damage caused by nuclear plant accidents like at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Furthermore, the film stated that while hundreds of thousands of Americans die from air pollution caused by the extraction and refinement of fossil fuels, nuclear power has not claimed a single life in the United States.
“Pandora’s Promise” portrayed the anti-nuclear movement from Ralph Nader and Jane Fonda in the 1970s to protestors at the Vermont Yankee in Vernon in 2012.
The subjects in the film encouraged Americans to put a larger focus on nuclear power, like many European countries have. The film extolled France, which generates 75 percent of its electricity through nuclear power, and exports energy to neighboring nations.
The panel included Evelyn Bromet, Professor of Psychiatry and Preventative Medicine at Stony Brook University; Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists; Peter Bradford, former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Middlebury professors Jonathan Isham and Bill McKibben, who is also a leading environmentalist and best-selling author.
Bradford said he had two concerns about the film — it exaggerated, he believed, the influence that environmentalists had in preventing more nuclear plants from being built in the United States. Rather, the prohibitive cost of building a nuclear power plant is the main cause, and Bradford criticized the film for omitting any discussion of the topic of cost.
“It’s the equivalent of fighting world hunger with caviar, of solving a transportation shortage with Lamborghinis,” Bradford said of the cost of building new plants.
Bradford said his second concern was that the “fast reactors” described in the film as the future of nuclear power, had been implemented in France, Germany and England with little success.
“We shouldn’t throw out nuclear,” Bradford cautioned, noting the 100 reactors currently in use in the United States. “But we shouldn’t push it to the front of the line.”
Ferguson argued that the film should have paid more attention to nuclear proliferation, and how countries with nuclear power plants could use that technology to build nuclear weapons. Currently, 31 nations have nuclear power plants, while 9, it is believed, have constructed nuclear weapons.
“I’m in favor of nuclear power; it does a lot of good,” Ferguson said. He added that the United States still heavily relies on coal, which, when burned, emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
McKibben, who said he considered many of the subjects in the film to be colleagues, urged those in attendance to avoid nit-picking each individual claim in the film and look at the big picture. He, like Bradford, noted the expensive cost of nuclear energy.
“Nuclear is getting more expensive the more we go — it should be the opposite,” McKibben said, noting that the price per kilowatt of renewable energy sources is dropping.
He also took issue with the film’s focus on France — noting that the French have moved to close their nuclear plants and move towards renewables, and was critical of the film for not featuring any subjects from the developing world. McKibben said this was an opportunity, since developing countries in the Global South will become large emitters of greenhouse gases in coming decades, and the best place to build energy infrastructure is when you don’t have any to begin with.
Speaking last, director Robert Stone said he made the film because humans have been trying to tackle climate change for 25 years. He noted how carbon dioxide emissions are going up at an accelerated rate, and that coal remains the dominant global fuel source.
“We’re adding the equivalent of a new Brazil every year, in terms of emissions,” Stone said. “We put so much energy into developing new ways to extract fossil fuels — the percentage of non-fossil fuels we’ve used since 1988 has not changed.”
Stone said that he didn’t believe in a single energy source above all others.
“I don’t care about nuclear any more than wind or solar,” Stone said. “We need to protect our planet. We have to stop burning fossil fuels.”
Stone said that in the public eye, nuclear power is unfairly conflated with nuclear weapons, leading many to oppose an otherwise safe energy source.
“Public opposition has cut off a lot of funding and R&D in the U.S., preventing us from developing new technologies,” Stone said.
Presently, there are 100 nuclear reactors at 65 power plants in the United States, though no new plants have been built since 1974. Nuclear power produces about 13 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Nuclear power has long been a divisive issue in Vermont. For years, Vermont legislators and the state’s attorney general attempted to shut down the state’s lone nuclear reactor, at the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon. The state Senate in 2010 voted against allowing the Public Service Board to re-certify the plant.
After the Nuclear Regulatory Commission re-certified the plant in 2011, Vermont’s Congressional delegation — Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Peter Welch, issued a statement that criticized the NRC for ignoring the will of the state legislature. Attorney General Bill Sorrell fought unsuccessfully in federal court to assert the state’s authority to regulate the plant.
In 2013, Entergy Louisiana, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, announced it would close the plant in 2014, stating it was no longer profitable due to cheaper energy sources such as natural gas. Gov. Shumlin called the closure “the right decision for Vermont.”

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