Oliver Stone’s new movie makes the case nuclear power is the obvious solution to climate change

Director Oliver Stone attends the “Nuclear” red carpet at the 79th Venice International Film Festival on September 09, 2022 in Venice, Italy.
Andreas Rentz | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Oliver Stone’s new movie, “Nuclear Now,” makes an impassioned case that nuclear energy is a necessary and obvious solution to climate change.

Generating electricity with nuclear reactors does not produce any greenhouse gas emissions, and is therefore worth a serious look, Stone’s movie says, because anthropogenic climate change, caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions largely emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, is getting worse.

People ought to be more afraid of climate change than nuclear energy, the movie argues. The movie had a special screening at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier in January, opened in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, and is opening in theaters nationally starting Monday.

Stone’s interest in climate change began when he saw Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and was disturbed. He started reading about climate change, including a review of the book “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow” by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist. He was struck by both the review and the book.

“This is a simple, practical, understandable argument for how to solve climate change from nuclear energy,” Stone told CNBC on Friday.

“I didn’t realize it was going to be so tough to pull something like this off,” Stone said, because there is no single main character for the documentary. “The story is the logic of it. Follow the history into the present: What went wrong? What could go right?”

In the movie, Stone presents a case that the beneficial potential of nuclear energy has not been reached because society conflated its collective fear of nuclear bombs with nuclear energy. In the film, which Stone narrates, he says he was anti-nuclear because he generally absorbed the environmentalist anti-nuclear agenda that has been spread for generations.

Changing public perception when fear is involved is a slow process, Stone told CNBC.

“State the facts. You have to give the information that you have,” Stone told CNBC. Not everyone is going to believe what you say, “but some people will believe it. You have to trust in the truth ultimately will obliterate the lie. You have to believe that,” Stone said.

Goldstein, who worked with Stone to write the film, says the feeling of being in a movie theater can have a more powerful effect on people’s perceptions than leaving them alone to parse facts that may feel overwhelming or out of context.

“A film is more than information. It’s an experience, and it’s a collective experience. That’s why I’m really happy we’re getting some release in theaters, because you sit in the theater with everybody else, you have this collective experience,” Goldstein told CNBC on Friday.

Oliver Stone (L) is speaking at a question and answer session after the screening of his new documentary, “Nuclear Now,” in New York City on April 29.
Photo courtesy Cat Clifford, CNBC.com

“Everybody thinks everybody else thinks it’s bad,” Goldstein says of people’s perception of nuclear energy. But watching a movie in a collective situation gives people an opportunity to talk to other people about nuclear energy and conversation is critical, Goldstein said.

“The majority of people actually support nuclear energy, but the people who don’t support it are very loud and very scared and it draws a lot of attention,” Goldstein told CNBC.

Americans’ perspective of nuclear energy fluctuates and has been generally increasing in the last decade, according to a recent poll from Gallup showing 55% percent of Americans either strongly or somewhat favor using nuclear energy as a way to provide electricity. That’s the highest percentage since 2012, according to Gallup.

Stone says a goal of his documentary is communicating the scale of energy demand now and how much more electricity will be demanded in the future as climate change mitigation strategies electrify many processes, and as energy demand grows from countries like India and China.

“One of the things this film I hope achieves is to give you a sense of scale. We have to go wide — you have to go to big mass crowd shots — China, India — to give you a sense of what’s coming,” Stone told CNBC. “You can’t just stay in the green backyard in the United States, and do green things, like ovens and cars.”

Stone was working on “Nuclear Now” for about three years, though he was not working exclusively on the movie in that time. Stone’s memoir, “Chasing the Light,” and his controversial second look at the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass,” also came out in the meantime.

Critics cite cost and time as drawbacks

Stone knew the film will be criticized because he’s making a bold statement, and indeed it has been.

“Oliver Stone’s ‘Nuclear Now’ was another disappointing myth creation falsely casting blame for nuclear power’s impotence on radiophobia and baselessly ignoring truths about climate saving alternatives,” Gregory Jaczko, former chair of the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and author of Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator, told CNBC.

Jaczko says fear of accidents is not the primary reason nuclear energy is not more widespread today. Instead, nuclear energy is expensive and has been managed poorly.

“As with most nuclear fables these days, the film establishes the strawman argument that nuclear is an underutilized technology because people are afraid of nuclear power and confuse it with nuclear bombs: ‘Once we get over our radiation fear, nuclear will thrive and solve climate change.’ This isn’t the main or even a significant problem with nuclear power,” Jaczko told CNBC.

“The primary problems are cost competitiveness, operational ineffectiveness, engineering weakness, managerial incompetence, and design mistakes. These are well documented deficiencies. For example, after the Fukushima accident, as NRC Chairman I was under no pressure to shut down nuclear reactors due to radiophobia,” Jaczko told CNBC.

Another problem is the length of time it takes to build nuclear reactors.

Stone “cites in several places IPCC’s reference of a 2050 goal for decarbonization, which implies there is time for nuclear to contribute, notably sidestepping the inability of nuclear to deploy quickly,” Jaczko told CNBC. “But this ignores that most experts believes these IPCC estimates require decarbonization in the electricity sector, the easiest area to decarbonize, to happen by 2035, an unrealistic timeline for significant nuclear power contribution. The remaining 15 years would be for decarbonizing other sectors, which nuclear may or may not contribute to,” Jaczko told CNBC.

Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, echoed similar concerns. Renewable energy, like wind and solar, are cheaper and faster to build than nuclear, Edwards told CNBC. (Edwards has not seen the full documentary yet, but is responding based on what he has seen and heard about the documentary.)

“If you believe the climate crisis is a real emergency demanding immediate action to reduce carbon emissions quickly, then the fastest, cheapest, and most proven technologies should be employed first,” Edwards told CNBC. That means that energy efficiency measures and renewable energy should be the top priorities, Edwards says.

But Stone also felt compelled to make the documentary because he sees nuclear energy as an underappreciated and misunderstood climate solution.

“The film is a warning, a dramatic warning, of a major distortion in history, and a need to return to the using nuclear in any possible way,” Stone said.

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