"Pandora's Promise" asks us to rethink nuclear energy

Steam rises from the cooling towers of nuclear reactors at Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga., April 28, 2010. AP Photo

"The nuclear industry is death," a protester at demonstration says in the opening of the documentary feature "Pandora's Promise." But filmmaker Robert Stone, with the backing of Impact Partners and CNN Films, is hoping to turn that idea on its head.

Opening in select cities Wednesday, the film aims to show that nuclear power can effectively close the gap on coal in a way that renewable energy cannot.

Stone recruits prominent figures like Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand, author Richard Rhodes and environmentalist Michael Shellenberger, among others, to weave a narrative on how they are rethinking nuclear energy as a way to tackle climate change.

Nuclear energy is appealing because is does not produce greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, and is currently the fourth largest source of energy in the United States -- after coal, natural gas and crude oil. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), approximately 19 percent of the country's electricity in 2011 was generated by 104 operating commercial reactors.

Advocates argue that nuclear energy has the most potential to close the gap on coal and oil as a source of energy. According to the EIA, coal provides 42 percent of America's energy -- that's more than all non-fossil fuels combined.

However, the primary concerns about nuclear energy are not easy to dismiss. They include potential for a meltdown, nuclear waste and nuclear proliferation.

The filmmakers say there's a renaissance of reactor designs and that fourth generation reactors can use nuclear waste and convert it into energy. Bill Gates has invested in a company called TerraPower that has plans for a traveling wave reactor (TWR) that offers a new way to use depleted uranium as its main fuel -- an appealing idea for disposing of existing nuclear waste. But the costs of new reactors are tremendous -- even Gates, in a 2010 TED talk, admits that bringing the first TWR to market could cost billions of dollars.

"It's economics," Ralph Cavanagh, senior attorney and co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's energy program, told CBSNews.com.

"What [the filmmakers] say is that, while the plants are very expensive, they last a long time. What the film utterly fails to capture is that nuclear has got to pass a market test."

Utility companies play a large part in determining what source of energy gets used, based on its competitive market prices. Investing in nuclear power plants is risky for private companies. The EIA's 2013 Annual Energy Outlook report says that building a new nuclear power plant can take over a decade to complete, require specialized high-wage workers, expensive materials and components and engineering construction expertise.

"In the current economic environment of low natural gas prices and flat demand for electricity, the overall market conditions for new nuclear plants are challenging," the report says.

Cavanagh points out that France's nuclear energy model, which is touted in the film, is subsidized by the French government. In order for the United States to follow that model, it would require a socialized program that is funded by taxpayers.

Greenpeace nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio points out that Warren Buffet and Duke Energy recently cancelled plans to build new nuclear reactors in the United States.

"There's a reason no new nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S.," Riccio told CBSNews.com. "The economics are just so vast."

The filmmakers say that while attention to energy efficiency is important, it cannot play a big enough role in solving the world's energy problems. Riccio, meanwhile, says that a wider discussion on nuclear energy has not been had is because it is mostly a pipe dream.


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