That, to bend a phrase of Bill Clinton’s, depends on what the nature of nature is. If nature means continuing to melt the globe by wantonly burning fossil fuels; or encouraging the increased consumption of beef (which requires land, water, and space we long ago used up); or assuming that our planet will be capable of sustaining ten billion people in just a few decades; or even attempting to cool the earth by altering the fundamental character of its climate, then it might be time to reassess.
Still, I had not altered my position on nuclear power until last week, when I watched Robert Stone’s new documentary, “Pandora’s Promise.” The film follows several former dedicated opponents as they come to realize, based on their examination of the evidence, that nuclear reactors may provide the best—and perhaps even the safest—option that we have to power our planet. The liberal (and environmental) credentials of the protagonists are beyond dispute: among them are Richard Rhodes, whose book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is by far the best history of the impact of nuclear weapons on society, and Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog helped define environmentalism and redefine the goals of a generation.
“Pandora’s Promise” makes the point that the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and, two years ago, Fukushima, horrifying as each was, were all caused by the same flaw: an inadequate cooling system. The film walks us through the way that reactors can now be engineered to shut themselves down before the cooling system becomes unable to do its job. Moreover, the newest reactors are capable of recycling their own waste. Most documentaries that are made to promote a particular position are strident and dismissive of any other approach. Stone and the people he focusses on are not afraid to display their ambivalence. That makes their decisions even more powerful. The film starts in Fukushima, a year after the disaster there. We watch as the environmental activist Mark Lynas struggles with his choices, finally conceding that nuclear safety has improved dramatically in the past three decades. (I have written about Lynas before. He was one of the earliest and most violent protesters against genetically modified products, ripping up British test fields with abandon, until he came, little by little, to understand that in a war against climate change, not to mention poverty, biotechnology isn’t the enemy.)
More: Time to Go Nuclear