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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: NOVA on Nukes Stirs Some Critics

Here's a catch-up on mail, all of it critical, that arrived last month after the April 20 broadcast on NOVA, PBS' long-running and highly-regarded science series. That hour-long program, called "Power Surge," dealt with this question, posed by NOVA: "Can emerging technology defeat global warming?" It surveys several technologies — from solar panels to wind farms and new carbon capture-and-storage facilities — to explore the question: "Can our technology, which helped create this problem, now solve it?"

Among the technologies explored is nuclear power, and that is the focus of most of the critical comments that landed in my inbox. Timing is everything, and the NOVA program aired soon after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The NOVA producers took that into account but the program still stirred up some viewers.

A sampling of the letters is posted below, followed by a response from Paula Apsell, executive producer of NOVA.

A couple of the letters also raise, again, the issue of support for the NOVA series by one of its longtime sponsors, billionaire businessman David H. Koch and his foundation. I wrote about Koch and his funding involvement with NOVA last year. At that time, the focus was on the first of a three-part NOVA series called "Becoming Human" that critics claimed had an oddly upbeat assessment of the role of climate change in human history and fit with the philosophy of the Koch brothers' (David and Charles) fossil-fuel industry interests and their role, as depicted by a critic in a widely quoted New Yorker article at the time, as "big-time polluters, who are underground funders of action to stop efforts to deal with this threat to humanity," meaning climate change and global warning.

The current NOVA program, however, is all about combatting the clearly described "pressing threat" of climate change. NOVA officials have always stressed, and PBS guidelines require, that funders have no editorial influence over programs. Apsell states this again in her response below. I mention the contrast and difference in thrust between a portion of the program last year and the "Power Surge" broadcast last month simply as a way to highlight the complexity of trying to judge if there is, indeed, any funder influence or grounds for suspecting it.

Here Are the Letters

I'm writing about the program Power Surge by Nova. That was nothing but an advertisement for nuclear power and Westinghouse. It did not deal with any of the issues that will soon bring the nuclear renaissance to a screeching halt. I can see that you get enough money from the Koch brothers so you don't need any more of mine.

Steve Leeper, Atlanta, GA

~ ~ ~

Re "Power Surge"/NOVA: So nuclear power is clean energy? I doubt that the people of Japan would agree with that. The second half of this edition of NOVA was strangely like a paid infomercial for the nuclear power industry. Not only was Westinghouse mentioned by name, but the model number of their newest reactor design, in case we wanted to order one. Where was the dissenting view on nuclear? There is plenty of disagreement out there, within the scientific community as well, but it was completely absent from the program. I suspect, however, that a large portion of the audience who are not ready to blithely dismiss the evidently inconvenient truth about the nuke disaster that we have on our (the whole world's) hands right now had a different opinion.

Jim Lund, Reno, NV

~ ~ ~

The program Power Surge on April 20 was horrible. The oversimplification of the issues involved in nuclear power strains the imagination. Fiction it was and blatant promotion of the most frightening and dangerous new energy proposal, the Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear power plant, defined as safe, necessary and ready for mass production while minimizing and ignoring the dangers of both generation and waste issues involved in nuclear power. Shame on PBS. Have you people not been following the disaster in Japan?

Nancy Allen, Brooksville, ME

~ ~ ~

Usually, NOVA leaves me feeling either inspired or uplifted. But tonight's episode "Power Surge" distressed me greatly. The theme was essentially that a way must, and will, be found to slash carbon emissions and still satiate (as well as make a profit from) vapid demands for luxurious living. Saint Augustine taught that "A man becomes rich only by making his wants few." However, affluent Americans adamantly refuse to embrace that timeless truth.

The nuclear power plant segment was deceptive. The glaring Achilles heel of nuclear energy was quickly glossed over: the million-year danger posed by spent nuclear fuel. To paraphrase Power Surge freely, "Just build the standardized nuclear plants now, and trust us to find some way to get rid of all the radioactive waste." I still remember when nuclear power was promoted in the 1960s as so miraculous that it would make electricity "too cheap to meter." Having been fooled once, I do NOT now trust that a way will be found to dispose of the ever-increasing stockpiles of spent fuel rods, which still remain on-site at the 100+ reactors around the USA. The subterranean CO2 injection segment gave false hope. The biofuels segment failed to examine the risk of genetically-engineered yeast getting loose and producing diesel fuel in beer and bread. NOVA should do a much better job of telling the whole truth than "Power Surge." It should have been titled "A Corporate Power Manifesto'" and subtitled "More Pie-in-the-Sky."

Bryan Green, Johnson City, TN

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Each time DAVID KOCH is mentioned as a major contributor it makes me wonder why he is not the subject of the piece. Of course it is nice to see him doing something good with his money, but are you doing good by taking it? I do not wish to imply that he is dictating your content. The problem is that when I see his name on PBS he then sits in my brain for the entire program. I can't learn anything that way.

David Rose, San Diego, CA

NOVA Responds

The aim of NOVA's "Power Surge" was to report on a broad range of promising new technological solutions to the growing threat of climate change, covering fields as diverse as solar and wind power, carbon sequestration, biofuels, efficiency savings, and nuclear power. Our approach was influenced by a broadly held view, expressed in our show mainly by the Princeton economist Stephen Pacala, that a wide mix of solutions will be essential if efforts to counter global warming are to prove successful. Although experts disagree about the viability of particular approaches such as nuclear power, there is wide agreement that nuclear power has a place in the post-carbon energy world.

NOVA's program was finished before the tsunami and Fukushima disasters in Japan, which have dramatically changed public perceptions of nuclear power. In the wake of the disaster, we revised this section of the program to reflect renewed concerns about the technology's safety, its waste problem, and cost considerations. We re-interviewed Stewart Brand to make sure he hadn't changed his views about the necessity of nuclear power as part of a mix of energy solutions. We emphasized that the Fukushima plants represent a first-generation design that is now more than three decades old. The purpose of showing the new Westinghouse design was to emphasize that a new generation offers improvements in safety factors, including passive cooling systems that might have helped minimize the disaster at Fukushima had they been implemented there. Like every other sequence in the film, we were focusing on a new idea that seems to offer improvements on existing technologies.

We appreciate the need for a full-length, in-depth investigation of the potential and drawbacks of nuclear power in the aftermath of Fukushima. We are actively considering the possibility of such a program in NOVA's Fall lineup.

Please note that NOVA's funding from the David H. Koch Foundation involves no consultation whatsoever between officers of the Foundation and NOVA's producers about either the choice of shows that we decide to commission or the content of individual programs.

Paula S. Apsell, Executive Producer, NOVA WGBH

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