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Filmmaker Urges Nuclear Power Opponents To Reconsider Stance

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.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

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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