The latest documentary from the provocative Oscar-nominee embraces a controversial stance on nuclear energy.
8 Oct 2013 - 5:07 PM  UPDATED 8 Oct 2013 - 5:07 PM

Pandora's Promise is a riposte to a generation of anti-nukes activists. This intriguing feature documentary from director Robert Stone sets out to convince that nuclear power is not only clean and safe but the only viable energy source in a world faced by the twin terrors of an increasing environmental crisis and dwindling natural resources.

Everyone wants that perfect source of energy that is completely benign

Heading the film's cast of environmentalists and activists are: Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog; historian Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986); The Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy (2007) author Gwyneth Cravens, who argues that atomic power is essential in preventing global warming; environmental activist Mark Lynas, who wrote 2011's The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans; and Michael Shellenberger, the president and co-founder of clean energy advocacy group The Breakthrough Institute.

All of these individuals have one thing in common: they were once avowedly anti-nuclear. Bred to believe that nuclear power was evil, the product of militarists, they grew up convinced that atomic energy led straight to Armageddon.

Stone's film, made over three years and shot in the US, the Ukraine, the UK and Japan, deals with their conversion to a position that seems anathema to environmentalists. They explain how nuclear power has, in fact, been demonised through hysterical rhetoric and selective science in precisely the same way that climate change sceptics attack environmentalists.

Stone's movie is lively. He augments the standard interview techniques with lucid animated graphics and newly minted on-site visits to Fukushima and Chernobyl, in addition to some irony-enriched archival material.

Still, Stone is a filmmaker with a fiery flair; his rhetoric can be tough and harsh. The film opens with a rant by anti-nukes activists at public rallies. He then cuts to introduce his main cast, who gaze thoughtfully into the eye of the camera and intone, with great solemnity, the need for a calm reassessment of the basic facts.

Stone arrives in Australia this week to present the film in a national Q&A tour. Last week, he spoke with SBS about how he made the film and the controversy it's stirred.

Some reviews have complained its one-sided. Is it?

The majority of the criticism of the film comes from professional anti-nuclear activists who haven't seen the film. What surprises me, when I started showing the film to audiences – beginning with Sundance – is that the film isn't that contentious. With the US screenings, I would say that 90 percent of the audience favours my position.

Nuclear as an alternative to coal burning isn't exactly a new idea is it?

Well, it's not one embraced by any environmental group. But it's an idea that goes back to the 1950s. We felt that was important to go through the history of nuclear power. I mean, no one will ever build plant like Fukushima… I mean, that was [in nuclear terms] ancient technology.

The film suggests that there is a risk in nuclear power and that the risk is worth it – that is the risk of accident.

Everyone wants that perfect source of energy that is completely benign, that thing that has no environmental consequences, and that's why futuristic technologies are always embraced because they are something we don't have to take responsibility for making a decision about. Everybody loves fusion – but it's 30 years down the road.

Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear is the only alternative. If you look at the graphic we use in the film, 3 million people a year are estimated to die of fossil fuel-related pollution. In the 50 years of the nuclear industry, there have only been 4 major accidents resulting in only 56 deaths. A nuclear power plant cannot detonate like the weapons used at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The uranium in a power plant is only 3 percent pure; you need 90 percent to create a bomb.

One of the things that's interesting about the film is the way it scrapes away the sensational news coverage of, say, a Chernobyl to reveal the subtle complexities around the event.

Yeah, well, Chernobyl was just insane. It was the most insanely irresponsible thing anyone has ever done I think.

Your Oscar-nominated documentary Bikini Atoll (1988) dealt with post-WWII nuclear testing in the Pacific. Your recent film Earth Days (2009) was about the origins of the environmental movement in the US. The activist filmmaker has a long tradition. Would you count yourself amongst their number?

I've never been an activist. I've always been wary of activists who get into filmmaking. I have certain political beliefs and they do come across in my films… but I am a filmmaker first and foremost. Documentary filmmakers at our best are like men from Mars: the idea is to put humanity under a microscope.

Your films often provoke by virtue of their unique take on the subject; obviously Pandora's Promise is a case in point, but I'm also thinking of things like Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004) that addressed trial-by-media. There was too, Oswald's Ghost (2008), which extended that same theme while it explored the myths surrounding the JFK assassination. Do you deliberately, consciously set out to run a counter-argument to pop culture conventional wisdom?

I don't consciously set out to be contrary. As a bit of a leftie myself, I get a bit irritated when my team is doing things that I think are stupid and counter-productive. I know that kind of pisses people off. But I've also got a lot of support. Often I'm saying things in my films that people are thinking and have in their hearts… but won't say publicly.

Was it hard then, to get people to participate in Pandora's Promise? A number of journalists have complained that the film has a 'lack of balance'?

Yeah, that's hilarious! Was Al Gore accused of a lack of balance? [Editorial note: Yes, he was frequently] All those journalists are saying is, 'My point of view wasn't expressed in your movie', so they take the high road and that it lacks 'balance'.

There have been hundreds of films made – documentaries – where anti-nuclear activists parade their views and all I've ever known about this topic is watching anti-nuclear documentaries. So that's the side everyone knows and everyone is coming to my film Pandora's Promise with that baggage. The first third of the film addresses that and makes the case as to why the scientist/activist was anti-nuclear in the first place.

In a way, this is a very personal film for you. We hear your voice. You operated the camera (for the observational scenes). On screen, subjects address you directly and we hear your answers.

Well, in the beginning, I had no intention of being in the film at all. It was very purest. But as it evolved I found that the interactions I was having [with the subjects] was really very interesting. And in retrospect, I wish I had put myself in a lot more.

There's a particularly robust encounter between you and famed no-nukes advocate and author Dr. Helen Caldicott. She is very hostile. It made me think you had had some sort of off-screen conflict and this was round two?

Until then we'd never met. I think her [volatility] came out of the fact that she was not used to getting those kinds of questions.

The argument you have on camera with her is about how the UN disputes her claims of nuclear-related deaths [she claims millions]. She says they are part of a pro-nuclear conspiracy.

She sees herself as an arbiter of scientific truth and anyone who disagrees with her is an idiot.

What's your ultimate position on the arguments made in the film?

I don't agree with everything that the subjects say on all aspects of life… but on the basic topic, yeah, I'm in agreement. The film took three years to make and I introduced these characters to each other and we're all quite close now and we all took this journey together and we're all lonely voices in the wilderness on this one. Because we're not paid shills of the nuclear industry; we say these things because we believe in them.

In terms of form, the film is a hybrid that does not rely on any one style; there's animation, graphics, archive, talking heads, mixed with titles, and observational material.

The style evolved. Pretty early on I ended up shooting the observational stuff myself and that made it more personal. We had researchers; I was the primary researcher. We were pulling stuff out of the national archives that had never been seen. I don't script my films. My editor Don Kleszy calls our method 'improvisational jazz'; we have no idea where we're going or how it's going to turn out, and after a while the film starts telling you where it wants to go.

Robert Stone begins his screening/Q&A tour of Pandora's Promise in Melbourne tonight, 8 October, before travelling over the next week to Adelaide, Perth, Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane. Visit the film's official website for more information.