Nuclear Aftershocks is a new FRONTLINE documentary, airing tomorrow, January 17, at 10:00 pm Eastern. I watched an advance screener yesterday.

About halfway through Nuclear Aftershocks, a new FRONTLINE documentary about the physical and social fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it becomes clear that correspondent Miles O'Brien and his production team are really going to piss some people off. In the best possible way.

The first part of the program is a pretty straightforward timeline, walking you through the earthquake and tsunami that led to meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant. It's a gripping story, and includes some particularly heart-wrenching details—Fukushima plant workers scavenging car batteries in a last-ditch attempt to restore backup power, the Japanese paleontologist who spent 20 years trying to warn the government and industry that tsunamis of this magnitude had happened before and would happen again. At the same time, though, it's pretty straightforward stuff. You might have heard the information elsewhere, it's just better explained here.

What makes Nuclear Aftershocks different is the point when the documentary shifts gears, and begins to talk about what happens next. What does Fukushima mean for the future of nuclear energy? What happens if places like Germany and Japan shut down their nuclear power plants? How does the fear of nuclear meltdown stack up against the consequences of a world with no nuclear energy? This is where Nuclear Aftershocks really gets good, and it starts with one fact.

Japanese officials evacuated areas around the crippled nuclear plant where humans would receive a radiation dose of 20 millisieverts per year. With the exception of plant workers, there are very few Japanese who have received a dose greater than that. Twenty millisieverts per year is the equivalent of 2-3 abdominal cat scans in a year, Dr. Gen Suzuki, of Japan's International University of Health and Welfare, tells O'Brien. Then you get this exchange:

MILES O'BRIEN: At 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?

SUZUKI: It's 0.2% increase in lifetime.

The point, however, is not that the meltdown at Fukushima will have no impact on the people who lived nearby. Instead, what we need to be more concerned about is the social and cultural effects of Fukushima.

Those things are not trivial. In fact, they can have a big impact on public health, as people from the region are subjected to the stress of losing their homes, their livelihoods, and familial connections, while simultaneously fearing for their own lives and weathering hostile treatment from other Japanese people. Studies from the region around Chernobyl, for instance, have found significant psychological effects, far more widespread than strictly physical effects. This isn't the same thing as saying, "It's all in your head." Fear, stress, and depression can have real physical symptoms in adults, they can lead to suicide, and they can even have epigenetic effects on developing fetuses.

And fear can also lead people to make decisions that affect everyone on this planet.

In the wake of Fukushima, the German government made a commitment to phase out nuclear energy in that country. In Japan, the same thing may well happen because of new regulations that prevent nuclear power plants from restarting after scheduled maintenance shutdowns without broad local support. This is a dilemma that Nuclear Aftershocks explores in depth, because while measures like this mean less risk of nuclear accidents, they also mean an increase in other risks.

Make no mistake. As Germany and Japan phase out nuclear power, they will be phasing in more coal.

There's only so much space in a documentary (or in a review of a documentary) but I do wish that Nuclear Aftershocks had had a little more time to give a better explanation of why a shift to coal is inevitable*. The short version: Our electric grid is not as stable as it seems. At any given moment, we must be producing almost exactly as much electricity as we are using—and vice versa. For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as storage on the grid. Options exist, but they are all very expensive. Wether you deal with this problem with batteries, smarter transmission systems, or both, changing the grid is going to take a lot of money, and a lot more time than we currently give it credit for.

Wind and solar, unfortunately, do not work well with this fragile grid. We can add them in, to a point. In the United States, engineers estimate a maximum of between 20-30% of total generating capacity. To do more than that, we'll need a better grid that can store electricity for later or transport it far more efficiently than is currently possible. Until we get that, we'll need to rely on some source of power that is completely controllable, that can produce exactly as much electricity as we need. No more. No less. There are four options for that: Coal, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. Hydroelectric power can't operate everywhere. And the other three all come with serious risks, to local health and to the planet**.

Yet we will still need them for decades to come. So how do we decide which risks we're willing to live with? The only way to do that is to set aside reactionary fear and anger and start having conversations that account for all the risks in an honest way. We have to talk about mitigating risks as best we can—because, as Nuclear Aftershocks points out, we aren't currently doing that in relation to nuclear power, at least not consistently. We have to prioritize our fears. And we have to recognize that, for right now, there is no such thing as a right decision. No such thing as eliminating risk. No matter what we choose, someone will get hurt.

This is what Nuclear Aftershocks is really about. This is why you need to watch it.


*Like I say, this is the short version. If you want more detail on why we can't simply drop everything and switch to wind and solar now, I've written about this in depth in my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. It doesn't come out until April, but it will give you a much deeper understanding of why we cannot eliminate risk right now.

**This is another thing that Nuclear Aftershocks doesn't get into very deeply, but it is extremely important to remember that coal has immediate health consequences, not just long-term climate change consequences. For instance, a 2007 study found that, in the European Union, air pollution from coal power plants killed almost 25 people per terawatt-hour of electricity produced. Currently, the EU gets around 1000 terawatt-hours of electricity from coal every year. Let that sink in.

Image: kawamoto takuo, used via CC