Movie Review: Put “Pandora’s Promise” Back in the Box via Union of Concerned Scientists

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good documentary: one that makes its case in a compelling way without resorting to crude propaganda techniques or insulting the intelligence of its audience. A good documentary treats opposing views with respect but then demolishes them with iron-clad arguments and well-supported evidence. And in addition, it should be a piece of engaging filmmaking.

A documentary of such caliber on the issue of nuclear energy would be very useful.  Nuclear energy is such a polarizing issue that the films it inspires tend to play to the extremes. Yet it is a complex subject that does not lend itself to a simple black or white treatment. A film that gives the question of the merits of nuclear energy the respect that it is due would not shy away from the messy middle.  It should instead provide a sound framework for how viewers should think about the debate and assess the available facts in order to come to their own decisions.

Unfortunately, “Pandora’s Promise” is not such a movie. By oversimplifying the issues, trivializing opposing viewpoints and mocking those who express them, and selectively presenting information in a misleading way, it serves more to obfuscate than to illuminate. As such, it adds little of value to the substantive debate about the merits of various energy sources in a carbon-constrained world.


A more egregious example of dishonesty is in the discussion of the health effects of Chernobyl. One after another, the film’s interviewees talk about how shocked they were to read the 2005 report of the Chernobyl Forum—a group under of U.N. agencies under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine—and discover that “the health effects of Chernobyl were nothing like what was expected.”  The film shows pages from that report with certain reassuring sentences underlined.  But there is no mention of the fact that the Chernobyl Forum only estimated the number of cancer deaths expected among the most highly exposed populations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and not the many thousands more predicted by published studies to occur in other parts of Europe that received high levels of fallout. Nor is there mention of the actual health consequences from Chernobyl, including the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers that had occurred by 2005 in individuals who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. And the film is silent on the results of more recent published studies that report evidence of excesses in other cancers, as well as cardiovascular diseases, are beginning to emerge.

Insult is then added to injury when Lynas then accuses the anti-nuclear movement of “cherry-picking of scientific data” to support their claims. Yet the film had just engaged in some pretty deceptive cherry-picking of its own. Lynas then goes on to assert that the Fukushima accident will probably never kill anyone from radiation, also ignoring studies estimating cancer death tolls ranging from several hundred to several thousand.  The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which obtained a copy of a draft report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), revealed that the report estimated a collective whole-body dose of 3.2 million person-rem to the population of Japan as a result of the accident: a dose that would cause in the range of 1,000-3,000 cancer deaths.

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