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Pandora’s Promise: a film that destroys “nuclear” stereotypes (By Princy Mthombeni)

By APO Group
07 September 2022   |   6:00 pm
Download logoBy Princy Mthombeni, Founder of Africa4Nuclear YouTube channel (https://bit.ly/3qfLQxt) The reality has shown how much the world depends on natural sources: gas, coal, wood, wind and etc. Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity remains a vital ingredient for economic and social development, and a necessity for human well-being. Added to that is the…

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By Princy Mthombeni, Founder of Africa4Nuclear YouTube channel (https://bit.ly/3qfLQxt)

The reality has shown how much the world depends on natural sources: gas, coal, wood, wind and etc. Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity remains a vital ingredient for economic and social development, and a necessity for human well-being. Added to that is the need to generate electricity from sources that emit no or negligible carbon emissions. Nowadays, to meet these and other objectives, several African countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, are considering nuclear power as part of their electricity generation mix, and are at different stages of establishing their respective policy and regulatory frameworks for the development of new nuclear power plants (NPPs).

Energy is the basis of South Africa's economy, generating about 15% of GDP. The volume of electricity production in South Africa reaches 20240 GWh (for March 2022). Being the center of the unified energy system of southern Africa, this country produces 2/3 of the continent's total electricity and ranks 20th in the world in terms of its consumption. The main component of South Africa's energy sector is coal. 90% of South Africa's electricity supply is produced from coal. South Africa is one of the countries that are highly dependent on coal, with other energy sources such as nuclear and renewables contributing a small amount. 

According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) [1], about 600 million people in Africa lack access to electricity. Estimations show that around 530 million people will remain without electricity in 2030. This means that annual gains in access to electricity would need to triple in order to reach the universal access by 2030.

Experts define nuclear energy as the best solution to African problems so far, taking into account that its important advantage is to produce clean electricity continuously. Most nuclear power plants are generating electricity for 90% of time in a given year, working 24 hours a day. This makes nuclear power a very reliable, consistent source of energy.

Pandora's Promise is a 2013 documentary about the nuclear power debate, directed by Robert Stone whom I am privileged to have virtually met in 2016 while attending the World Nuclear University Summer Institute in Canada. In today's world, this film could not be more relevant as it clearly answers the questions that concern modern Africans. The documentary is geared for a public audience unfamiliar with nuclear technology. The documentary sets out to think the unthinkable and ask the unaskable: should we learn to stop worrying and love nuclear energy?

The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pandora, who released numerous evils into the world, yet as the movie's tagline recalls: “At the bottom of the box, she found hope”.

The documentary begins with bright scenes from protests of nuclear plants. The environmentalist members cast in the documentary individually take us through their journeys of how and why they changed their minds on nuclear energy, along with denying some all-too-common misconceptions. The documentary also put great emphasis on the potential of fast reactors and the recycling of used fuel. Dynamic visual representations are used in the documentary to help explain complex technologies.

The film throws light on nuclear power, its history and potential as the technology develops. It sheds light on the big fossil fuel business bias against nuclear energy and the fact that, despite entry into the market by renewables, global use of coal continues to rise. Hopes for a global agreement on timely reduction of carbon emissions to reduce the risk of a global environmental catastrophe seems to be  a delusion and this is demonstrated more vividly by what is happening globally where some countries in Europe are re-opening their coal fired power plants while others are ramping up their use of coal.

Stone tells the personal stories of environmentalists and energy experts who have undergone a change from  fierce opponents of nuclear power to being its strong supporters, risking their careers and reputations in the process. Pandora's Promise illustrates the journey of several prominent environmentalists who have changed their views on nuclear energy. These environmentalists protested nuclear plants in the 1970s and '80s, but now speak in favor of nuclear energy as a “green” source of electricity that has a role to play in decarbonizing economies while providing energy security.

The movie features several notable individuals, including Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas, Richard Rhodes and Michael Shellenberger. They and other respected environmental activists, authors and experts appear throughout the film, explaining why they have recently started to reconsider their previous rejection of nuclear power.

The director, Robert Stone hopes that the documentary can change the way that people think about nuclear energy and even have them question why they were against it in the first place.

“The film should mirror my own journey,” said Mr. Stone. So “Pandora's Promise” traces the emerging faith of several environmentalists in nuclear energy’s promise.

Mr. Stone said he is getting his “head around the issue of nuclear energy”. Convinced that global warming is an imminent danger and that wind and solar power could never supply enough energy to power the planet, he researched nuclear energy’s negatives and concluded that concerns about waste and meltdowns were overblown.

In Pandora's Promise Stone draws on archives of old  interviews,  materials and computer animations.

The film’s central argument is that nuclear power, which still faces historical opposition from environmentalists, is a relatively safe and clean energy source which can help mitigate the serious problem of anthropogenic global warming. Other arguments are reminders of the great threat of climate change and the toxic effects of coal. In Pandora's Promise, supporters of green energy argue that nuclear power might actually be safer, cleaner and greener than many other energy sources.

The director argues that nuclear power is a hugely efficient and relatively clean energy source that is now vitally needed as billions of people in emerging economies such as India, China and Brazil battle energy poverty. He further indicates that wind turbines and solar panels are failing to meet even a fraction of urgent needs. Solar power cannot work at night; wind power is often ineffective at certain times of the year when winds are low; hydropower produces limited electricity during dry seasons. This makes nuclear power unique in that it is clean and always available without depending on weather patterns, according to Stone.

Robert Stone makes one more assertion: that nuclear power is second only to wind turbines in terms of safety. Many more people are killed, for example, by air pollution from burning coal, according to the film. Even the manufacturing of solar panels, which are apparently quite toxic to make, is more lethal.

The research conducted by “Our World in Data” referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report shows that coal, oil and natural gas are the most unsafe and environmentally unclean sources of electricity.

Modern renewables and nuclear energy are not only safer but also cleaner than fossil fuels. It is necessary to take into account the long-term impact of these energy sources on climate change. The safest sources for us today are the same sources that have the smallest impact on the environment.

The death rates per unit energy (measured as deaths per terawatt- hour of energy production) for coal reach 24.6 deaths, while for gas – 2.8 deaths. There is another indicator – greenhouse gas emissions per energy unit, which is measured in emissions of CO2 equivalents per gigawatt-hour  of electricity over the lifecycle of the power plant. Natural gas reaches the indicator of 490 tons, and coal – 820 tons.

At the same time, nuclear energy surpasses these two types of energy sources, coal and gas, in both indicators: 0.07 deaths from accidents and air pollution and 3 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy

According to Dominique Gilbert, a founding member of the Coalition Against Nuclear Energy South Africa, the country has done little to study the effects of nuclear energy on surrounding communities, or to educate the public. Gilbert further raises the concerns around the issue of radiation which cannot be seen nor can be touched or smelled. 

While such concerns about radiation exposure have been around for decades globally, some experts, for example Aishwarya Saxena or Abigail Sah, believe that nuclear fuel actually poses fewer health risks than a coal. So, another argument the film makes is that radiation itself, while admittedly dangerous, it is not the demon it has been painted to be.

Robert Stone’s film is an effort to demonstrate nuclear power’s tested potential to deliver clean, relatively safe base-load power, in order to complement unreliable renewables such as wind and solar.

Many experts agree. “Of all the energy sources that there are, nuclear has shown itself to be the safest, and it’s quite amazing how much of a public misconception there's been about this. That there's been absolute scare tactics developed”,  said Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Nuclear Africa.

Pandora's Promise asks whether the one technology some people fear most could save our planet from a climate catastrophe while providing the energy needed to lift billions of people in the developing nations out of poverty. This is an excellent film to help re-ignite the dialogue around nuclear energy and watching it might gets you to re-examine your position hopefully with objectivity if you are anti-nuclear

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Africa4Nuclear.