The State of Nuclear Power, Climate Refugees, and Bad News for Bananas

12:03 minutes

Freelance journalist and author Maggie Koerth-Baker returns to Science Friday to discuss the state of nuclear power around the world—a topic she tackles at length in a recent New York Times article. Countries like Japan and Germany are looking to phase out nuclear energy, and even the United States, which largely embraces it, hasn’t opened a nuclear reactor since 1996. Koerth-Baker also shares other short subjects in science this week, including a story about how the first climate refugees in the continental United States may hail from an island in the Chesapeake Bay.

Plus, one of the most popular fruits in the world—the banana—may eventually be wiped out by Tropical Race 4, a mutation of Panama disease. The type of banana at risk is the Cavendish, which replaced the Gros Michel banana in the mid-1900s when it was devastated by the Panama disease fungus. The Washington Post’s Roberto Ferdman talks about what bad news might be in store for this widely grown banana, and how scientists and companies might be able to rethink banana production.

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Roberto Ferdman

Roberto Ferdman writes about food policy and economics for The Washington Post and is based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. If you want to cut down on carbon, nuclear power plants offer you zero emissions. Nuclear power advocates have been saying this for years. But the fear of radioactive leaks and the explosions from the past have meant that the pursuit of nuclear power in the US and countries like Japan and Germany lags behind other countries like China and France. Could new ideas about nuclear power plants change that equation? Joining me now to discuss how startups could reinvigorate the pursuit of nuclear energy in the US, along with other selected short subjects in science, is a Maggie Koerth-Baker. She’s a science journalist and author. She joins us today from Minnesota Public Radio. Welcome to Science Friday, good to see you again.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Nice to see you too, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So from what I understand is that we’re talking about startups redesigning from scratch nuclear power plants?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So this is a story I’m working on for Popular Mechanics. And you know it’s no secret that the American nuclear industry is in the doldrums. The next new reactor to come online should be next year, but it began construction in 1973. And last month the Obama administration announced a series of new proposals that are aimed at increasing energy development by helping out these startups that are really interested in building reactors that could be smaller, and cheaper, and safer than what we use today. So for instance, small business vouchers that help these startups get access to research and testing facilities at national labs.

IRA FLATOW: So what makes them different? Why would they be any safer?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, partly because they’re using different types of coolant. So what we use right now is water. And water can boil away if you don’t have the electricity to keep pumping new water through. And that can lead to meltdowns like it did at Fukushima. So some of these have different types of coolant that can’t boil away and different types of cooling systems that don’t require electricity to be pumping. And they’re based on– in a lot of cases– designs that were first tested back in the 1950s and 1960s but abandoned for different reasons. So for instance, one of the designs didn’t end up getting used back then because it couldn’t be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. So back then, that was a bug. Today it’s a feature.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to your next story. Last week the International Summit on Human Gene Editing was held in Washington. And it turns out that tweaking the human genome is not off the table. But there are restrictions, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right. So this brought together the US, the UK, and China to talk about what research was being enabled by CRISPR and hash out some of these big ethics questions that are surrounding it. And CRISP– as you know– is a tool that makes it relatively easy to target a specific snippet of DNA, cut it out, add new DNA in, shuffle things around. And a lot of what they were talking about was editing genes in humans, in our eggs, sperm, even embryos. And one of the hopes is that CRISPR could be used to eliminate genetic diseases. But we don’t know much, if anything, about the long-term side effects of editing DNA that becomes a person and then passes those edits on to children. So the ultimate decision that came down is that it’s OK to edit human DNA for now, but not if it’s going to result in a pregnancy. This isn’t legally binding, but it is a peer pressure binding agreement that all three of these countries have decided to go along with.

IRA FLATOW: This comes up every once in a while, whenever some sort of new genetic engineering technology comes out. Well, it’s not legally binding, won’t people– is there some mad person out there going to make a real human out of this?




Yeah. I actually saw– I can’t remember where I saw it, but there’s actually someone developing a home CRISPR kit that you’ll be able to send for. And not to make people, but to work on yeast and other things like that. So.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Oh, wow, that’s interesting.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s talk about the first climate change refugees. I found this to be a fascinating story. We’re going to have climate change refugees in the United States from the States themselves?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So you could argue that the people who were forced to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina could be counted as our first climate change refugees. But there’s some debate over how much climate change effects hurricanes. And it’s a lot of how much you can say that that was caused by climate change, versus how much was that just a hurricane.

Rising sea water, on the other hand, is a lot more unambiguously linked to climate change. And there is an island off the coast of DC in the Chesapeake Bay called Tangier Island. There’s about 700 people who live there. And the Army Corps of Engineers just put out a study estimating that it’s going to be underwater in 50 years. So those people are going to have to move. And most of them are the descendents of European settlers who came to that island in the 1600s. Back in 1850 the island was about 875 hectares. Today it’s down to 320 hectares. And most of that even isn’t what you’d want to build houses on. If you look at it from above, it’s a lot of estuaries, and marshland, and just these little strips of ridges that everybody has their homes and businesses of the town built on.

IRA FLATOW: It’s officially three feet above sea level.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. It’s really, really close to being swamped already. There’s actually another island nearby that has gone underwater. And during big storms skeletons from the cemetery on that other island will wash up on Tangier Island.

IRA FLATOW: Oh my goodness.


IRA FLATOW: That will drive the point home, I think.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It kind of does.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And last, you bring us a tale of shipwreck and the tricky laws surrounding posthumous plundering. Ooh, this sounds interesting. What’s lurking?


IRA FLATOW: What’s lurking under water?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So what’s lurking under water is possibly more than $1 billion in gold, silver, gems, and other valuables that was on a Spanish galleon called the San Jose, which sunk off the coast of Colombia back in 1708. And we know all of that was on board because the ship’s manifest that was filed in Spain still exists. And we can see what was supposed to be being shipped back to Spain from its colonies back then.

Now Colombia says that anything found in its territorial waters belongs to Colombia. There’s also an American salvage company though that says the treasure is theirs based on them finding the wreck back in 1981 and having some kind of agreement with the Colombian government back then. And then of course you have Spain that’s still coming around saying, hey, guys, we’re Spain, we still exist, that’s still our stuff.

And it’s up in the air about who would have the better claim here. In a lot of cases with archaeology it comes down to whose cultural heritage the find represents. But whose cultural heritage would this represent? Is it Colombia’s because it’s in their water? Is it Spain’s because it was their boat? Is it Peru, where all of the silver that was on that ship came from to begin with? Who does this actually belong to is a big open question.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Well, we’ll have you back when they settle that. Is it a deal?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, sounds great.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for joining us today talking about all these selected short subjects in science. Maggie Koerth-Baker, she’s a science journalist and author. And she joined us today from Minnesota Public Radio.

Now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.


Because every story has a flip side.


Ah, maybe you remember that popular song from the roaring ’20s. That was Sam Lanin in Irving Kaufman. It was inspired by the faith of the Gros Michel banana that met a massive death at the hands of a fungus, Panama disease. And now it seems that bananas are in the midst of a second fungal comeuppance. But it might not be all that bad news. Here with the story, and the good and bad thing about it, is Roberto Ferdman. He’s a Washington Post reporter who covers food, culture, and economics. Welcome back.

ROBERTO FERDMAN: Thanks for having me, I’m happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about the bananas. What’s going on? What’s the bad thing, first?

ROBERTO FERDMAN: So the bad thing is that the extinction– or the near extinction– that you pointed to of the Gros Michel, which was also known as the Big Mike back then, is likely to repeat itself, or at least is understood by scientists as likely to repeat itself, agricultural scientists. The reason why the Gros Michel went nearly extinct and why we stopped exporting them to, essentially, the entire world is that this fungus called Panama disease that first appeared in Panama when it started ravaging Latin America– where most banana exports are grown– spread very quickly and made quick work of the entirety of the banana plants that were grown in Latin America and exported around the world. The Cavendish, which is the banana that–

IRA FLATOW: Everybody buys them in the store, right?

ROBERTO FERDMAN: Everybody eats the Cavendish in the United States.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a monoculture, basically.

ROBERTO FERDMAN: When you say banana, you say Cavendish in the United States. Just that’s not very becoming.


But it represents 99% of the export market. And the reason why it was used in the aftermath of the near extinction of the Gros Michel is because it was resistant to the Panama disease. However, a new strain of the Panama disease appeared about 50 years ago in Southeast Asia. And recently, over the past few years, it has begun to spread to East Asia, to Australia, to Africa, to the Middle East. And agricultural scientists are now essentially sure that it is going to eventually make its way to Latin America where the Cavendish is grown. And the Cavendish is not resistant to the new strain.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So how could there be any good news about this?

ROBERTO FERDMAN: So the good news is that it took about 70 years or so for the Gros Michel to go nearly extinct, for us to stop being able to export the Gros Michel and for commercial banana producers to produce it. So you don’t have to start hoarding your Cavendish bananas right this minute. Because when it makes its way to Latin America, It will be a matter of decades before we’ll have to switch bananas or we’ll have to eat fewer bananas– or almost no bananas here in the United States. So the good news is that it’s not going to happen very quickly. And that gives us a window, that gives scientists certainly a window, to either try to find another banana that is resistant to this strain and fit for commercial production or to engineer a banana that fulfills both of those qualities which are necessary of a commercial banana.

IRA FLATOW: That sounds like the more– I’m not going to say reasonable, but the more expected in the age of genetic engineering, is that they might try to engineer a banana that’s resistant or find some way to fight it through some sort of a biological means.

ROBERTO FERDMAN: I mean that would certainly be the upside to this, which we’ve pointed to. Because when the Gros Michel was at risk, we had this banana, the Cavendish, that we knew of that was resistant to the strain. Right now we don’t. So it’s possible that genetic engineering, which people are pretty averse to, certainly here in the United States in certain parts, could be what allows us to continue eating bananas.

IRA FLATOW: Would they eat a GMO banana? That’s what you’re asking.

ROBERTO FERDMAN: Well it’s GMO banana or no banana. So if you like bananas, you might have no choice.

IRA FLATOW: And there you have it. Yes, we have some bananas, but not for so long. Thank you, Roberto.

ROBERTO FERDMAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Roberto Ferdman, a reporter covering food culture and economics for the Washington Post in New York.

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About Becky Fogel

Becky Fogel is a newscast host and producer at Texas Standard, a daily news show broadcast by KUT in Austin, Texas. She was formerly Science Friday’s production assistant.