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Filmmaker Urges Nuclear Power Opponents To Reconsider Stance

Aired 6/14/13 on KPBS News.

Anti-nuclear activists celebrated when Southern California Edison announced the permanent closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station last week. But a new documentary opening in San Diego this weekend aims to crash that party. Is nuclear power humanity's best bet for getting a handle on climate change?

Sighs of relief swept through San Diego last week when Southern California Edison decided to permanently shut down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Within hours of the announcement, anti-nuclear activists were celebrating outside the plant.

But a new documentary opening in San Diego this weekend aims to crash the party. Pandora's Promise puts forth the argument that nuclear power is humanity's best bet for getting a handle on climate change. The film profiles many leading environmentalists — people like Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger and Mark Lynas — who changed their minds on the value of nuclear energy.

"The more they looked into it — and I would include myself in this as well — the more we all realized that much of what we despised about nuclear energy, much of what we feared about it, turned out to be wrong," said Robert Stone, the director behind Pandora's Promise.

Stone describes himself as a life-long environmentalist. The first time he picked up a camera was in middle school. He put together a short expose on pollution problems in his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. His breakthrough film Radio Bikini was all about the terrible effects of nuclear weapons testing. Stone says he understands people who oppose nuclear power. He used to be on their side.

But now, Stone has come to believe that nuclear energy is the most viable way to dodge the oncoming climate crisis. He's been watching the San Onofre saga closely. He admits there were obvious problems in the plant's design, as with most aging American nuclear power plants.

"The way that nuclear power was developed in the United States was ridiculous," he said, citing lack of standardization. Still, he thinks San Onofre's busted steam pipes could've been fixed, enabling the plant to keep providing carbon neutral energy to approximately 1.4 million Southern California homes. He's upset to see his fellow environmentalists cheering San Onofre's demise.

Special Feature What do you think about the decision to close San Onofre?

The troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California is closing, after an epic 16-month battle over whether the twin reactors could be safely returned to service, officials announced Friday. What do you think about San Onofre's shutdown?

"Shutting down a nuclear plant that's providing gargantuan amounts of non-CO2 emitting energy and replacing that with gas should not be something that anybody should be celebrating," Stone said. "And that's unfortunately what's happening at San Onofre."

Even with California's growing emphasis on renewable energy, Stone argues that wind and solar can't yet replace the power lost by a plant like San Onofre. The tradeoff, as he sees it, is, "We either have a lot of renewables plus a lot of gas and a lot of coal, or you deploy nuclear power and renewables, which is actually a viable solution if you want to go completely carbon free within the timeframe that climate scientists say we have left."

Stone isn't alone in going nuclear on the climate crisis. James Hansen, one of the first scientists to sound the alarm on global warming, favors nuclear power. So does British environmentalist James Lovelock, formulator of the Gaia hypothesis. Though Democrats tend to antagonize nuclear power, President Barack Obama is for it.

Naoto Kan is the former prime minister of Japan.

But high-profile disasters have cast a radioactive political cloud over nuclear energy. Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan recently expressed regret over his promotion of nuclear power. Reflecting on the 2011 Fukushima disaster during a visit to San Diego, Kan said "we have to make the rules such that there will never be another evacuation from a nuclear accident."

Stone counters by noting that many other nuclear plants in Japan — some closer to the earthquake's epicenter — survived the tsunami unscathed. And although thousands of people were displaced from their homes, United Nations scientists predict that no increase in cancer rates will come from the disaster.

Stone says he's not wedded to nuclear technology; it's just the most feasible option at the moment.

"Fifty years from now, who knows? Maybe we could power the whole world with wind and solar or algae. I don't really care about nuclear power, I just care about any technology that can reduce CO2 emissions."

Pandora's Promise opens Friday at the Landmark Ken Cinema in Kensington.

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Avatar for user 'joemamma42'

joemamma42 | June 15, 2013 at 10:39 a.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

I really go back and forth on nuclear energy. I do agree with the neutral CO2 emissions, and can see the benefits of nuclear energy. On the other hand, when things go wrong (Fukushima, Chernobyl ) they go horribly wrong. What is the environmental cost in the event of a similar disaster? Does it out weigh the benefits of reduced CO2 emissions?

That said, if I was to build a nuclear power plant I think I would choose a more stable non populated environment, like the desert. Anyone who has lived near the coast knows the extra maintenance required to keep a home in good shape. Wouldn't be that much harder to maintain a power plant? And why build in an area known to be prone to earthquakes? Ultimately that's what got Fukushima.

I also don't trust that the private companies that are in charge of these nuclear power plants won't cut corners in order to save money. I understand that there is supposedly federal oversight, but with the amount of money involved I can't help but think that there is some serious lobbying going on in Washington.

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Avatar for user 'DonWood'

DonWood | June 15, 2013 at 8:58 p.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

If Pandora's Box includes an ironclad recipe for dealing with highly radioactive plutonium fuel rods that will stay highly radioactive for hundreds of years, I'd go to see it. Until the issue of disposal or recycling of fuel rods is solved Mr. Stone and the nuclear industry lobbyists are just whistling past the graveyard. I'd be interested to see if any nuclear industry companies contributed to the making of Mr. Stone's film.

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Avatar for user 'GRLCowan'

GRLCowan | June 16, 2013 at 4:52 a.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

DonWood, when fuel rods are highly radioactive, it isn't because of plutonium in them. Recall the young Queen Elizabeth 2 being allowed to touch a piece of the stuff through gloves (although that was probably weapon plutonium, purer and less radioactive than the power-only stuff that power plants produce).

Plutonium's hazard is entirely due to its radioactivity, and in the time when nuclear waste is really dangerous, it is so because of other, much hotter materials than plutonium. The arithmetic for making these comparisons is quite difficult, so much so that even when computer programs such as ORIGEN2 make it easy, it's still difficult.

However, "Spent Fuel Explorer", a front end for presenting some ORIGEN2 results, is free on the web, and is another step up in accessibility for those results.

With its "decay heat" setting we can learn that 1.1 days after shutdown, nuclear fuel that has been working at 39 thermal megawatts per tonne is still producing 0.1925 megawatts per tonne.

There is a timeline with a slider you can drag with your mouse, and a pie chart showing how the heat production is divided between isotopes. Slide it far enough to the right and the red pie slices that represent plutonium grow to half of the total. This happens at 1220 years, and the heat due to plutonium is 0.00002676 megawatts per tonne.

Because its half-lives are so long, this is pretty much the same heat it was producing at 1.1 days. So at 1.1 days, the fraction of the rays that are due to it is rather small: 0.00002676/0.1925.

If there were genuine, informed concern over plutonium, the Greenpeace associate photographed with a nuclear icebreaker at might be expected to be about 1925/0.2676 times more concerned, 7200 times more concerned, about the other radioactivity in that boat's two reactor cores.

(Actually more than 7200, because that fuel is either working at the very moment the photo was taken, or switched off just minutes before, not 1.1 days before. I asked the author of SFE why it doesn't go to zero days, but apparently it just doesn't.)

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I haven't seen Pandora's Promise but I understand it does advocate recycling plutonium. This makes it into fission products, the things that make spent fuel rods dangerous in the short term, but -- as above said -- they don't last as long. They naturally can't, since they have less energy, having given up so much.

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