'Cheap' Energy Carries Many Hidden Costs

Guests

James Fallows, national correspondent, The Atlantic
Ellen Vancko, nuclear energy and climate change project manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

For most Americans, relatively inexpensive energy comes with the flip of a switch. And while the U.S economy demands ready access to cheap energy, many consumers give little thought to how they get it. But coal, nuclear and oil, the three major sources of energy, carry risks and costs.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Almost everybody depends, one way or another, on the energy from coal, oil and nuclear power. Everybody assumes when they flick that switch, the power goes on. Turn the key, the car starts up.

We also know there are costs, and when average gas prices approach $4 a gallon, we start to pay more attention. We also take notice when there's an accident at a nuclear power plant or an explosion on a deepwater oil rig, or when we lose more than two dozen men in a coal mine explosion. And there are other prices: pollution, destruction of the land and all the problems associated with global warming.

We know there are other sources of power, but for today, let's limit the conversation to coal, oil and nuclear. How do you weight the costs and the benefits? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the hour, we'll talk about gay rights and civil rights. But first, James Fallows joins us from his home in Washington, D.C. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic and appears regularly on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on the weekends.

Jim, always nice to have you on the program. Jim Fallows, are you there?

And we're having some trouble finding Jim Fallows on the line. We should have him there momentarily. We're talking about coal, oil and nuclear power today, and how do you balance the - oh, Jim, are you there? Jim Fallows?

It's live radio, ladies and gentlemen. We'll have him in just a moment, Jim Fallows, the national correspondent for The Atlantic and regular contributor to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Correct. I have heard nothing. And I hear you, but that's all I hear, not that I'm complaining. I'm only hearing you.

CONAN: Jim? Now he can't...

Mr. FALLOWS: Now I hear Neal.

CONAN: Now you hear Neal because you're on the radio, Jim.

Mr. FALLOWS: Oh, great. Neal, hello.

CONAN: Hi, Jim. How are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sorry for the mix-up. Anyway, nice to have you with us. And a little - a couple or three months ago, you wrote an article for The Atlantic that startled some readers, where you wrote that there is no plausible way to meet the world's unavoidable energy demands without dirty, sooty, toxic coal.

Mr. FALLOWS: I did. And it was something - it was a conclusion I didn't naturally come to, but it came out of traveling around China during the three years I was living there and just trying to hear from people there about the math of how to set aside the world's energy demands and the rapid growth in places like China without making better use of coal. And there seems to be no way to resolve that equation without it.

CONAN: And that despite the fact that you acknowledge coal is, well, dangerous to produce, produces all kinds of horrible side effects. We hear about mountains being detonated in this country, and I'm sure lots of things like that go on in other countries, as well - and, of course, just a little over a year ago, the explosion in West Virginia.

Mr. FALLOWS: Oh, sure. And I think it may seem somehow sacrilegious to convert Winston Churchill's famous line about democracy - which is the worst form of government, except for all the rest - to coal, which is the - it's the worst form of energy except that there, at the short term, does not seem to be an obvious alternative to it.

The human toll, the environmental toll in China - which is like the U.S., a huge producer of coal - is at least as devastating as it is here, because the regulations are so much weaker and so much less well-enforced.

And the human toll is much greater, on average, something like - something between five and eight people per day die in coalmining incidents in China. So it is a very, very destructive form of energy, and therefore, if it has to be used, there's all the more reason to make it less damaging to mine and less polluting to burn.

CONAN: And what we're talking about, though, let's not - you're not, you know, coloring the rose here. You're acknowledging there are also - coal is the single biggest contributor to global warming.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. Yes, indeed. And just to go back a step or two, my instinct, like many Americans, is - my instinct, like many Americans, is to be concerned about environmental and climate issues.

And probably more than most Americans, from having lived in China for a while, I am very, very acutely aware of the environmental penalty imposed on China and the world by its very rapid industrialization.

But then there is the reality that right now, about 70 percent of all the power that China produces is from coal. And even if there are very, very rapid increases in wind power and in nuclear power and in hydropower and in geothermal power, all of which have their drawbacks, there still is so large a fraction created now by coal that you can't move away from it very quickly.

So the challenge then is how to use this unavoidable source in less destructive ways from climate terms and human terms and all the rest.

CONAN: One of the conclusions you come to is if you go to the countryside in China - or you assume India or lots of other places, too - people aren't that concerned about the environmental effects of coal or energy production of any sort. They're concerned about getting electricity to their houses, getting pumps that work. They're concerned about air conditioning and cars.

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure. And one way to envision this: If you took the average global output of CO2 per year, it comes to something like - there's something like 36 or 37 billion tons of CO2 produced by all the world's activities every year, which would average out to about six tons per person around the globe.

But, of course, the way it actually works is Americans account for about four times that much through all the sort of level of our living, and people in China account for only about one-third as much per capita as we do.

And for several hundred million people in China, still, they have very limited electricity. Their houses aren't very well-heated in the summer or - in the winter or cooled at all in the summer, and there is no plausible way to tell them: Well, we're going to keep having all of our new data-server farms in the U.S., but you can't have heat in the winter. And so they are going to demand more electric power, and so that is the challenge: finding ways to create it.

CONAN: And I have to say that your article does approach the question of when we are going to hit the tipping point and go past the point at which, well, really unpredictable results happen as the result of global warming. When the Albedo Effect is gone, the ice sheets retreat, and all kinds of things can happen.

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed. And while I don't present myself as being, by background, a climate scientist, I spent a lot of time interviewing them, you know, in Europe and in China and the U.S. for this article and trying to lay out, in basic terms, how this debate is posed.

And the main point is of that 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide that, per year, the world is putting out, expected to rise to about 50 billion tons within 20 years or so, the effect is to raise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about two parts per million each year.

And before the Industrial Age, it was probably thought to be around 280 parts per million. Now it's almost 400 parts per million. And the question is: If it gets a lot higher than this - in the, say, 450 realm - what then happens to ice sheets and the tundra and all the rest? Does a self-accelerating process begin?

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Yes, we know there are other sources, but today, we're focusing on oil, coal and nuclear power. How do we weigh the costs and the benefits? Give us a call. Let's start with Al, and Al's with us from White County in Arkansas.

AL (Caller): Well, I am - I called, actually, about the natural gas drilling boom and the costs of natural gas...

CONAN: Again, we're going to talk about that another day, Al. We're just talking about these other three sources.

AL: Because that is extremely damaging to the environment. You know that there's a new study about the climate effects of natural gas and methane, unintended releases of methane from natural gas.

But I want to put this in context of our children and our great-grandchildren and investing in technologies that will benefit not us, but our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.

You know, I recently saw a documentary about John Muir and how he fought to preserve - save Yellowstone from - or, excuse me, Yosemite from development. He wasn't doing it for himself. He was doing it for his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren.

Teddy Roosevelt fought to save the Grand Canyon from development. It wasn't about him, he said. It was about his grandchildren. If we put off our luxuries, we can invest in technologies that will reduce our carbon footprint. We just have to make it a priority.

CONAN: And James Fallows, is that likely to be - by the way, Al, we urge you listen June 2nd. We're going to be focusing on natural gas and fracking and the promises and the benefits...

AL: Thank you so much, because this - natural gas has been a nightmare.

CONAN: I understand, Al. But stay with us. But James Fallows...

Mr. FALLOWS: What's very interesting about Al's question, I think, is two political ramifications. One is, as he points out: Historically in the United States, environmental conservation has been a conservative cause.

You know, Teddy Roosevelt, of course, you know, a prominent Republican, was one of the great advocates of that. And when Central Park was built in New York City, there were a lot of Republican sponsors of that. That's some - the great national park movement under Teddy Roosevelt was Republican.

And so you would think there will come a time when we can have some kind of -not - we can move past the really polarized Republican-Democratic split on this. The other is that interestingly, one of the hard-boiled people I interviewed in this article, people who run power companies and build coal plants and all the rest, they say that the only way, really, to encourage industries and everybody else to conserve coal more, to clean it up further and all the rest is to have some kind of price on carbon.

Unless there is some sort of tax or market signal that encourages people around the world to use things more sparingly, it just can't be done by edict.

And interestingly, that should be as much as a conservative, libertarian, even Republican cause as a Democratic environmentalist one, because it's the most efficient way to make the change. And so I think that is, internationally and domestically, something that would be worth trying to revive the push for.

CONAN: Coal, for example, you write, is about two cents per kilowatt hour, far and away the cheapest source - unless you factor in all of the costs that are not calculated into that.

Mr. FALLOWS: Exactly. And so not simply the environmental ones, environmental ones of cleaning up mountaintop removal of having safety for the miners or all the rest, but the burden being placed on people right now from extreme climate conditions and all the more so on children and grandchildren if they have to cope with all these consequences.

So that externality - which we were familiar with 30 or 40 years ago in having plants clean up their obvious air and water pollution - if that is not factored into the full price of the coal, then it will be just be by far the cheapest alternative, especially to wind and solar.

CONAN: But not part of the political debate.

Mr. FALLOWS: At the moment, it's a difficult case. The time will come, and I think it's worth trying to speed the time when it comes.

CONAN: We're talking about the costs and benefits of coal, oil and nuclear power. Pretty much all of us use it. We have to weigh the costs of it, too.

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Jim Fallows of The Atlantic is with us, and when we come back, we're going to be talking with Ellen Vancko, a nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists about nuclear power, as well.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

Most people tend to agree that, in the long run, renewable energy will play a larger and larger part in how we power our homes, our offices and cars. Solar, wind, other options are growing but are still nowhere near what we need to keep the lights on.

In the meantime, much of that relatively cheap, reliable energy comes from three sources: coal, oil and nuclear power. There are others. We're going to focus on those today. Each has its benefits and its drawbacks. How do you weigh the costs and benefits? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic and wrote their December cover story, "Dirty Coal, Clean Future." There's a link to that piece on our site. Go to npr.org. Again, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's bring another voice into the conversation now, Ellen Vancko, who is a nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., and she been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. ELLEN VANCKO (Nuclear Energy and Climate Change Project Manager, Union of Concerned Scientists): Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And as we have this sort of embarrassment of anniversaries of energy disasters this month, the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, today we just passed the one year anniversaries of both the oil spill in the Gulf and the Upper Big Branch mining explosion, not to mention the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan. What does this say about the state of energy in the world today?

Ms. VANCKO: Oh, that's a tough question. Interestingly, I had made the same list you just recited before I came here. But what it tells us is there is no easy solution to producing and meeting our energy needs.

And all of those events show that the conventional resources we rely on as a nation and as a world are particularly risky in some way or another, whether it's to the environment, whether it's to the people who produce it or both.

Climate change is only going to exacerbate the risks of coal and oil, natural gas as the first caller had brought up, as well. But you asked me here to talk about nuclear power. So that's what I've prepared to discuss.

We realize that the risks of climate change are so grave that we can't afford to rule out any non-carbon or low-carbon energy source at this point. However, prudence dictates that we develop as many options as we can, whether that's solar, renewables, efficiency, nuclear. We need to make sure that we have - we do everything we can to reduce our emissions as quickly and as economically as possible.

CONAN: Yeah, and nuclear power emits no carbon. It has a number of other drawbacks, though, including the fact that there's no place right now to put the spent fuel.

Ms. VANCKO: Well, that's absolutely correct. And let's be clear: Getting a nuclear plant built actually does generate a lot of carbon in the production of the concrete, the steel, the transportation of the components. So it's not a completely carbon-free energy source. However, that can be said for building windmills or solar panels.

Everything has an externality. Everything has a cost. Everything has an environmental impact. But nuclear power is unique in that it poses significant risk from a security standpoint, a safety standpoint, a waste-disposal standpoint that no other low-carbon resource actually poses.

CONAN: And perfectly safe except when it isn't.

Ms. VANCKO: Exactly.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. We'll go to Norman(ph), Norman with us from Marin County in California.

NORMAN: Yeah, I think we should note, too, that uranium enrichment has a carbon footprint, as well, which is inevitable for nuclear power. You know, I've been on this issue for about 35 years and spoke twice here in Marin County in the last week on nuclear dangers.

I think, you know, as we experienced a few minutes ago, you know, even telephone technology, simple as it is, is not failsafe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORMAN: And, you know, a plane, God forbid, can malfunction, and it's a horrible tragedy. But when a nuclear power plant malfunctions, you know, the consequences are horrific, as we're seeing in Japan.

I think in terms of public investment, we need to get beyond choosing our poisons and really invest massively in renewable and solar and wind and so forth.

And let me say, Neal, that I'm actually running for Congress here, partly to shut down the two nuclear power plants in California. And I have a article called "Nuclear Power Madness" that people can read on the Web at SolomonforCongress.com.

CONAN: And Norman, that's all the campaigning we're going to let you do.

NORMAN: OK.

CONAN: All right. Thank you very much. But he raises some questions, and Ellen Vancko?

Ms. VANCKO: Well, one of the things, the primary thing that the events in Fukushima show us is that we need to quickly and thoroughly assess the safety of the existing nuclear fleet in the United States today.

And two of the plants located in California are located on fault lines. So the safety and security of those plants, in the wake of what we have seen in Fukushima, as well as following what we learn.

You have to realize that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates the safety and security of power plants in the United States, nuclear plants, has initiated a 90-day review period, where it's going to evaluate lessons learned from Fukushima in the short run and then review their own regulations to make sure that the nuclear power plants are operated safety and securely and that existing regulations are actually followed and enforced.

That will be very critical in those plants that have been identified as being located on major fault lines in this country.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is George(ph), George with us from San Francisco.

GEORGE (Caller): Thanks. If we're going to rely on coal over the next period, maybe 100 years, whatever it is, the time that your guest is projecting, then we also have to rely on water.

So when you did your projections, where did you reckon the water would continue to come from reliably if, as you appear to already have conceded, the climate is in dynamic changes, which might mean that supplies of water are in doubt?

CONAN: Jim Fallows?

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure, and the supplies of water are in differing situations in different parts of the world. And so there are parts of the world where it is a serious constraint and parts where it is not.

And I guess the point I would make, too, to be in congruence with what we're hearing about the nuclear industry, is that the challenge - and the most difficult part to grasp for this entire challenge, from my point of view, from sort of a public-policy point of view, is it requires moving ahead on every front as fast as we can, that renewables need to be developed as quickly as we can.

But even so, it's striking that, say, between the mid-'80s and the late '90s, when we were having so many - sorry, the mid-2000s, we were having so many new, renewable sources, even so, the absolute increase in the amount of power generated by coal was greater than that, but for the increase in solar or wind.

And so the water challenge is one of many challenges with coal. And I describe in my article the ways in China in particular, where so many of these new coal plants are being built, they're trying to work on all these challenges at once.

CONAN: Go ahead, Ellen.

Ms. VANCKO: I was just going to say that not only is water a challenge for coal plants, but nuclear, thermonuclear plants, the most water-intensive power plants in the world. Dry-cooling is possible. That doesn't require as much water, but it's expensive, and the majority of the plants in existence today do use a very water-intensive process.

CONAN: Thanks, George.

This is a follow-up from Jeff(ph) by email: Is there a way economically to provide clean coal? By clean, I mean non-polluting coal.

And some of the technologies you were talking about that are being worked on, well, one plant in the United States using in-ground gasification.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes, and the arena where most of this is going on, again, is in China. And I saw just a month ago, outside Beijing, a place where they're doing some of this underground gasification, as well.

And the idea is, though a combination of doing more of the underground work, which avoids the miner danger - the danger to miners and the environmental landscape danger, you can leave many of the pollutants down there.

So there are experiments underway on projects from sequestering the CO2 from the - aboveground, after combustion. There was much more efficient do it pre-combustion, too. So on all fronts, there are these efforts.

CONAN: This is an email question from Suzanne(ph) in Sedona, Arizona: I have never understood why I should have an electric car when the electricity to charge it comes from non-renewable sources. Am I missing something?

And Ellen Vancko, yeah, you can charge up your car overnight and drive 40, 80 miles, depending on the model you've got, but yeah, that comes from - half of it, a national average, from a coal-fired plant.

Ms. VANCKO: Well, the caller is exactly right. That just points to the fact that our current electricity system is not sustainable. Burning coal, which does account for nearly half of our electricity, poses serious risks to the public health, to the environment, to the economy. It's the largest source of air pollution that causes lung and heart disease, kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, sends thousands to emergency rooms. We need to get beyond that. Energy efficiency...

CONAN: That's not to say that tailpipe emissions on their own aren't a problem, too.

Ms. VANCKO: No, no, absolutely not. And we do need to move to a clean vehicle fleet, whether it's hybrids or all-electric cars. But there are technological hurdles. There are going to be barriers to powering those cars. And we need to get beyond that.

But we do that by increasing the efficiency of our existing fleet, both automobile and power plant, by improving the efficiency of the entire economy and by embracing renewables: solar, wind. The costs of those technologies are coming down. They can be widely deployed, and battery storage, smart grid, there's a whole host of technologies that need to be developed, invested in and integrated so that we can have a clean energy economy in the future that will power those electric vehicles.

Mr. FALLOWS: Neal, can I say a word more about the electric vehicles, too? Obviously, I agree with that on the big picture. I think there is probably -there is sort of one and a half arguments you can make for the environmental...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALLOWS: ...superiority of electric cars. One of them is that that much more of the petroleum, the oil that we use to power cars now is imported and from difficult parts of the world than is the coal-generated electric power, you know, which is much more domestically supplied. So there is that sort of international geostrategy argument.

The half argument would be that what drives the construction of electric plants is peak demand, and so if you are recharging these batteries at night when demand is low, it is some - it's less taxing on the whole electric system than, say, is a summer afternoon air-conditioning demand.

CONAN: I have to say, though, I've - we just past another anniversary, and that was Earth Day last week. And I'm old enough to remember the first Earth Day and hearing about all these technologies ever since 1970. And the fact is, as you mentioned, Jim, coal is now a bigger part of our power-generation system than it was 25 years ago.

Mr. FALLOWS: This is - I try to be an optimist, in general, in my journalistic work over the years. The - a sobering conclusion that I came from, from this study of Chinese and U.S. efforts on coal is that technically, and even economically, most of the solutions to this problem are much more closely in reach than they seemed to be politically or intellectually.

I also remember the first Earth Day. I also remember working for Jimmy Carter as a speech writer 30-plus years ago when he was having, you know, the first big energy crisis in U.S. politics. And for 10 years after that, cars became much more efficient, buildings became more efficient, and then, a lot of that went away. And so the stop-start nature of dealing with what is, in reality, a very, very long-term challenge is a real problem we have in the U.S., in particular.

CONAN: Ellen Vancko, short of a crisis atmosphere, do you see real change happening any time before a real crisis hits?

Ms. VANCKO: Well, we're in the midst of a real crisis.

CONAN: But people don't feel it.

Ms. VANCKO: That's the point that most people miss. Yes. I understand that, but we are seeing sea level rise on a gradual basis. We are seeing increasingly severe storms. We need to set the proper investment structures and incentives in place. We need to put a price on carbon.

If we put a price on carbon, that will direct investment, that will direct capital to where it needs to go to help us produce cleaner and less environmentally harmful technologies.

CONAN: We're talking about the future and oil, coal and nuclear power. Our guests are Ellen Vancko, nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists here in Washington D.C.; James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a regular contributor to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on the weekends. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Dan. Dan with us from Tampa.

DAN (Caller): Yes. Am I on the air?

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

DAN: Yes, sir. I just wanted to say that regardless of the difference in cost between nuclear and carbon base, politically, I believe the carbon base will always win out. People are very afraid of nuclear. People react on emotion, and they're going to favor carbon because of that whole unknown and fear factor regarding nuclear.

So I think that we need to keep our eyes or ears listening to the experts and really evaluate the dangers of nuclear. I mean, true, this last problem happened in a seismic area, but there's a lot of other areas that are non-seismic. So, I really feel that, politically, nuclear is not going to favor very well in discussions, 'cause it's very emotional.

CONAN: Ellen Vancko, we seemed to be on the cusp of a new generation of nuclear plants, and now, everyone is holding their breath. I think that's fair to say.

Ms. VANCKO: Well, we've been hearing a lot about a nuclear renaissance over the past decade. A nuclear's been posited is the answer to climate change, the only viable base level alternative to coal, but there's been an entire storyline drawn around this by the nuclear power industry that spent almost a billion dollars over the past decade lobbying - making campaign contributions and spending untold amounts of dollars positioning that energy source as a fuel.

So the story was out there, and the story was going very well since we hadn't had an accident since Chernobyl, and people said, well, since it hasn't happened in 30 years, it's not going to.

Well, we're now watching a disaster unfold in Japan, and it is making starkly clear again, that nuclear power poses a serious risk that are unique among all of our energy options.

Again, the risks posed by climate change are very grave. We can't afford to rule out low-carbon options, even nuclear power, but until we get the economics fixed, the safety fixed, the security fixed, the caller is correct in saying that that technology is going to very - face a very high hurdle going forward.

CONAN: This from David. It bothers me that not enough is being done to highlight alternative design to nuclear power plants. The pebble bed reactors use passive cooling, and fast breeder reactors could deal with waste. These are engineering problems, not impossible problems. China is already working on pebble bed reactors. Why are not we?

Ms. VANCKO: The United States has investigated various reactor designs, and it continues too through research programs at the Department of Energy, but the reality is the economics for these technologies have not been proven. They've not been forward. The technologies we're using are so expensive that they can't move forward without large government subsidies, and that was before Fukushima.

The price of natural gas is down. Electricity demand is down, and we don't have a price on carbon. Again, all of those things make nuclear more uneconomic than it is based on conventional designs, never mind cutting-edge ones.

CONAN: And, Jim Fallows, one of the interesting parts about your article in The Atlantic in December was the fact that you were talking about coal, but I think this covers another - other technologies as well. The experimentation is in China, where they are building so many plants. They can afford to experiment. It takes 10 years to get a design approve here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed. And I think that that as individuals and as a political system, we all have a hard time dealing, sanely, with risk. For example, the whole airport security system of the last 10 years is very, very hard to justify in any kind of cost benefit basis et cetera, but the idea of, you know, the disaster of 10 years ago makes it hard to ever dismantle it.

So too, when it comes to nuclear power and other kinds of power, a - the purely rational response to Fukushima, in my view, would be to move ahead as quickly as we could with new kinds of designs to replace some of these more dangerous older plants, and that is much easier for China to do both because of their political system which can just ramrod things through, but also because of the huge just construction worksite of everything that's going on there.

So if you want to see new plants for coal or for nuclear or for anything, that's where you see how they're done. You see what works and what doesn't.

CONAN: James Fallows, thanks very much for your time today, and we apologize -we - the radio sometimes doesn't work. I think you're perfectly safe, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALLOWS: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Jim Fallows joined us from his home in - here in Washington D.C. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic.

Ellen Vancko, at no risk whatsoever, here in Studio 3-A. She is nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Thanks very much for your time.

Ms. VANCKO: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Up next is, gay marriage a civil rights issue? We'll talk with a filmmaker behind a new documentary called "Marriage Equality." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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