Everything you thought you knew about the risks of nuclear energy is wrong

May 30, 2013
May 30, 2013

Kamakura, Japan—Chances are pretty high, based on prevailing public opinion, that you will think my wife and I are a tad crazy, maybe even guilty of child abuse. During the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which is a couple hundred miles from where we live, we stayed put while thousands of others fled the Tokyo area and many foreigners left Japan for good. Not only that, we buy as much of our fruits and vegetables as possible from Fukushima Prefecture, the Connecticut-size jurisdiction where the plant is located (we even specially order boxes of Fukushima produce) while millions of others in Japan take extreme care to consume only food from the far west and south of the country. And yes, our whole family, including our 12- and 10-year-old sons, eats Fukushima food. We’re convinced it’s perfectly safe, and we like helping people whose products suffer from an unjust taint.

Are you recoiling in horror, perhaps even wishing the Japanese child welfare authorities would seize custody of our kids? If so, you are the ideal audience member for a provocative new film, titled Pandora’s Promise. This documentary focuses on five thoughtful environmentalists who were once terrified of radiation, and thought nuclear power was imperiling the planet’s future, but after educating themselves, they gradually realized that their assumptions were wrong. For people who are instinctively opposed to nuclear power but open-minded enough to consider evidence that goes against their predilections, this film will, and should, force them to question their certitude.

The five people whose intellectual journeys are chronicled admit the superficial incongruity between their environmentalism and their enthusiasm for nuclear power.

Thus, in some of the early scenes the five establish their Green bona fides. “The slogan was ‘No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.’ That was the original Earth First slogan. And it’s one that I still subscribe to at a very deep level,” says Mark Lynas, a British author and journalist, recalling his “hardcore activist” days. “Well, I [thought] nuclear power was evil. No doubt about it.”

Likewise, Gwyneth Cravens, a writer who participated in protests against the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, recounts the fear she felt when news broke in 1979 of the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania: “Are those rays coming out of Three Mile Island going to come to New York and harm my daughter?” And Richard Rhodes, whose 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, tells how he wrote a number of articles about the dangers of nuclear power for national magazines some years ago, but changed his mind by talking to physicists and other experts in the field “until it finally got through my head” that his basic premise was mistaken.

Making slick use of a pulsing sound track and camera shots of scenes from bustling metropolises in Asia and Latin America, the film engagingly explains why nuclear power, which is greenhouse-gas free, is so essential to the prevention of climate change. Michael Shellenberger, a consultant to major environmental groups who co-founded a center-left think tank based in Oakland, California recalls having “gotten the religion” as a student that energy efficiency and renewable sources could save the planet.

After scrutinizing the numbers, “I ended up feeling like a sucker. The idea that we’re going to replace oil and natural gas with solar and wind, and nothing else, is a hallucinatory delusion,” Shellenberger says, citing projections that global energy demand will likely double by 2050, and triple or even quadruple by the end of the century, as countries such as China, India and Brazil grow richer. “Most people kind of think that somehow we’re going to be reducing our energy consumption. Actually, we just find more and more uses for it. If you look at all the energy that is used by an iPhone, not just to make it and to power it, but also to power all the servers, all of the stuff that you don’t see that the iPhone is connected to, it uses as much energy as a refrigerator.”

The film doesn’t shrink from acknowledging the factors that arouse visceral fears about nuclear energy. It harks back to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and includes footage from The China Syndrome, the 1979 movie (released, coincidentally, 12 days before Three Mile Island) in which Jane Fonda plays a TV reporter who investigates safety cover-ups at a nuclear plant that comes dangerously close to melting down.

Noting that one of the beneficiaries of radiation hysteria is the fossil fuel industry, the film shows a newspaper ad, paid for by an organization called the Oil Heat Institute, criticizing the construction of the Shoreham nuclear facility as a menace to human health. For the most part, though, the anti-nuclear movement is depicted as motivated by genuine angst rather than venality. As Lynas puts it, nuclear power “is this strange, invisible presence, which you know is potentially deadly.”

As someone who had to learn about radiation in a hurry after Fukushima, I was gratified to see how the educational process worked with these five environmentalists. Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, recalls being bewildered at first by the plethora of radiation exposure measurements (in millirems, microrems, millisieverts, microsieverts etc.). “You’re looking and squinting. ‘Okay, that looks like a large number. Is that a number I should worry about?’ Compared to what? What’s the background radiation level relative to all this?”

Like me, the enviros in the film were astonished to come across extensive evidence about the minimal physiological impact of contamination from major nuclear accidents. The best example is Chernobyl, where the radiation emissions in 1986 were by far the largest in history; nearly three decades later, studies show that the main effects on the general population in the area have overwhelmingly been on the mental and emotional health of people who thought they were doomed to cancer and succumbed as a result to maladies such as depression and substance abuse. (The chief documented exception is the 6,000-odd cases of thyroid cancer contracted by children after drinking milk from cows fed on grass contaminated with radioactive iodine. Soviet authorities failed to warn people of this danger, though only a handful of the victims have reportedly died of the ailment, which is one of the least lethal forms of cancer.)

“It was a complete shock to me,” Shellenberger says in the film. “There was a period where I’m reading all the Chernobyl stuff and I kind of am not believing it, because it was so out of sync with what I had come to believe.” As for Fukushima, Lynas sums up the most authoritative studies as predicting that the risks of increased cancer among the Japanese public are “somewhere between infinitesimal and completely nonexistent.”

Such claims are subject to furious controversy, of course, which raises the question of how laypeople are supposed to decide which experts to trust. In my case, I came across example after example of anti-nuclear advocates making assertions that were manifestly exaggerated, or based on such junk-science statistics as to preclude my attaching any credibility to their findings.

That point comes across brilliantly in the film when Robert Stone, the writer, director, and producer, confronts Helen Caldicott, a leading anti-nuclear activist, at one of her rallies, to question why she and others claim that Chernobyl-caused cancer is killing or has killed one million people, a figure exponentially greater than other estimates. “This is the biggest cover-up in the history of medicine!” Caldicott bellows, but she throws up her hands when asked for the reason. That’s because there isn’t one, as Shellenberger observes: “In order to believe that more than 56 people were killed at Chernobyl, or more than the maybe 4,000 who could eventually die of cancer—in order to believe that a million people will be killed by Chernobyl…you have to believe that there was a cover-up of just massive proportions by the World Health Organization, by the United Nations, by literally hundreds of the world’s top public health experts. It’s so absurd.”

The camera travels around the globe to show how dramatically radiation can vary from place to place. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as natural background radiation, actually,” confesses Lynas, who goes on to cite the example of Guarapari Beach in Brazil, where background radiation “is way above permitted levels in terms of what the public can be exposed to. And that’s what’s coming out of the soil. It’s on the beach….What’s really striking is that there’s no correlation between levels of background radioactivity, which vary by such enormous amounts, and high levels of cancer.”

As he speaks, the camera zooms in on a Brazilian lying on that beach, covering himself in radioactive sand. The man says this helps cure his body pains.

My kind of guy! That Brazilian would presumably eat Fukushima produce without the slightest hesitation. So perhaps he doesn’t need the enlightenment that comes from watching this film. But a lot of other people do.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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