Want a Clean Energy Future? ‘The Nuclear Option’ Argues We Need Nuke Power

Watching an upcoming episode of the PBS science series Nova, it occurred to me that the main theme was something I had wanted to explore as an OC Weekly cover story six or seven years ago.

Before acquiring this infernal rag, our owners at the time had infamously run a two-part investigative story that detailed how the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups convinced the American public that a proposed salt plant in Baja California would harm birthing gray whales—without any evidence that this was so. It was a very un-alternative piece for an alternative newsweekly, so I figured my proposed cover story would be a natural. My planned topic: To arrive at the green-energy future this blue planet demands, we are going to have to rely on nuclear power.

Alas, like so many of my other cover story pitches back then, it was immediately shot down. “No one wants to embrace nukes”—or words to that effect—is what I was told, and you really can’t blame the then-editor. There were serious concerns back then about a powerful earthquake possibly leading to a meltdown at San Onofre.

Then, on March 11, 2011, or eight months before my former fearless leader left the Weekly, came the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan. The following year, potentially disastrous cracks at San Onofre were revealed, eventually forcing Southern California Edison to announce the retirement of its last two working nuclear reactors there on June 7, 2013.

All that left me wary of re-pitching my story to our current Mexican-in-Chief, despite my holding onto the personal belief that nukes were still going to have to be part of our near-term energy strategy, given the dichotomous phenomena of climate change and the massive amount of electricity we use now and will need in the future. For all its faults (and spent rods), nuclear power is relatively clean energy.

Fortunately, Nova’s “The Nuclear Option,” which premieres locally Wednesday night, makes the argument far better than I could have. Credit the episode’s writer, director, producer, narrator and on-camera reporter, Miles O’Brien, who for years was CNN’s science, space, aviation technology and environment correspondent and is now an independent journalist who also serves as an aviation analyst for the network.

He begins by taking viewers to Fukushima and elsewhere in Japan, where the populace is justifiably spooked by the technology that used to be the source of 30 percent of the country’s energy. Since the disaster, Japan has suspended its civilian nuclear-power program and imported oil, coal and natural gas to fill the gap.

But with 18,000 people having died in the earthquake that caused the tsunami that took out the nuclear plant, and with the evacuated residential areas within a 12-mile radius of the facility still rendered ghost towns, O’Brien reveals something surprising: There has not been one death attributed to radiation exposure, and no one has reported getting sick. Not yet, anyway.

More to the point of the piece, despite Fukushima—and because of climate change—there is a renewed push for better, cleaner and safer nuclear power. Among those leading this charge is Bill Gates, who is shown announcing his own investment in the technology at a 2010 TED talk in Long Beach, as well as young entrepreneurs who have grown up without the stigma of the “No Nukes” rallies of the 1970s.

“The Nuclear Option” exposes the reason for their optimism: far better ways of keeping reactors cool and safe with sodium as opposed to water, something the engineering fathers of nuclear power in America knew and proved for decades—only to be stymied by the father of nuclear-powered naval submarines and Hillary Clinton’s husband. Those bully on new nukes concede that aging facilities are disasters waiting to happen, but they also argue that technological advances since the 1960s and ’70s still make the power source viable, critically so given climate change.

My only knock against the Nova episode is no direct counter-argument to the sunny view is presented from, say, one of my pals at the NRDC. Environmentalists mostly pop up in archival footage and not on-screen interviews, although O’Brien does include a segment with a Columbia University medical expert who expects an eventual rise in cancer cases among those who used to live near Fukushima.

A bit more balance would not have changed my own view about the need for a brave new nuclear future, however. One young nuclearpreneur puts it best when she says into the camera, “If you are concerned about climate change, you need to be open to nuclear power.”

Stymied so far by U.S. regulators, she is currently getting her technology off the ground in China.

Nova‘s “The Nuclear Option” airs on PBS SoCal KOCE. Wed., 9 p.m.

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