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Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energyby Gwyneth Cravens
Synopses & Reviews
In this timely book, Gwyneth Cravens takes an informed and clarifying look at the myths, the fears, and the truth about nuclear energy.
With concerns about catastrophic global warming mounting, it is vital that we examine all our energy options. Power to Save the World describes the efforts of one determined woman, Gwyneth Cravens, initially a skeptic about nuclear power, as she spends nearly a decade immersing herself in the subject. She teams up with a leading expert in risk assessment and nuclear safety who is also a committed environmentalist to trace the path of uranium (the source of nuclear fuel) from start to finish. As we accompany them on visits to mines as well as to experimental reactor laboratories, fortress-like power plants, and remote waste sites normally off-limits to the public, we come to see that we already have a feasible way to address the causes of global warming on a large scale.
On the nuclear tour, Cravens converses with scientists from many disciplines, public health and counterterrorism experts, engineers, and researchers who study both the harmful and benign effects of radiation; she watches remote-controlled robotic manipulators unbolt a canister of spent uranium fuel inside a hot cell bathed in eerie orange light; observes the dark haze from fossil-fuel combustion obscuring once-pristine New Mexico skies and the leaky, rusted pipes and sooty puddles in a coal-fired plant; glimpses rainbows made by salt dust in the deep subterranean corridors of a working nuclear waste repository.
She refutes the major arguments against nuclear power one by one, making clear, for example, that a stroll through Grand Central Terminal exposes a person to more radiation than a walk of equal length through a uranium mine; that average background radiation around Chernobyl and in Hiroshima is lower than in Denver; that there are no cancer clusters near nuclear facilities; that terrorists could neither penetrate the security at an American nuclear plant nor make an atomic bomb from its fuel; that nuclear waste can be, and already is, safely stored; that wind and solar power, while important, can meet only a fraction of the demand for electricity; that a coal-fired plant releases more radiation than a nuclear plant and also emits deadly toxic waste that kills thousands of Americans a month; that in its fifty-year history American nuclear power has not caused a single death. And she demonstrates how, time and again, political fearmongering and misperceptions about risk have trumped science in the dialogue about the feasibility of nuclear energy.
In the end, we see how nuclear power has been successfully and economically harnessed here and around the globe to become the single largest displacer of greenhouse gases, and how its overall risks and benefits compare with those of other energy sources.
Power to Save the World is an eloquent, convincing argument for nuclear power as a safe energy source and an essential deterrent to global warming.
"Novelist and science reporter Cravens (The Black Death) begins this journey of discovery 'through the Nuclear world' dubious of nuclear power's safety and utility: 'I'd participated in ban-the-bomb rallies' but 'never considered the fate of a retired weapon.' Her trip begins with a casual conversation with nuclear physicist Dr. Richard 'Rip' Anderson on the hidden warheads being dismantled outside Albuquerque, N.M.; as it turns out, the nuclear 'pits' were to be used for fuel in nuclear reactors. Curiosity, and Rip's conviction that no other large-scale energy source is as 'safe, reliable, and clean,' drives Craven to spend 10 years with the scientist traveling to national laboratories, uranium mines and nuclear waste sites; reviewing accounts of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island; and examining modern reactor designs, the life cycle of uranium and studies on radiation's effects since 1945. Gradually convinced that 'uranium is cleaner and safer throughout its shielded journey from cradle to grave than our other big baseload electricity resource, fossil fuel,' Craven has submitted a thorough, persuasive report from the front lines of the world's energy and climate crises, illuminating for general readers the pros and cons of a highly misunderstood resource." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A generation after Three Mile Island's near-disaster in 1979, nuclear power remains politically radioactive. Though energy consumption has increased dramatically — Americans upped their per capita household electrical use by a third between 1980 and 2001 — no new nuclear plants have been built since 1996. We've let the Mighty Atom sit in the penalty box rather than settle whether we're Pro-Nuke... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) or No-Nuke once and for all. In her provocative yet flawed and often frustrating book, 'Power to Save the World,' Gwyneth Cravens does us all the service of taking a fresh look at nuclear power and asking whether the threat of global warming has changed the calculus of nuclear risk. Is it worth risking a rare reactor meltdown to keep the glaciers from melting? Are we ready to commit to more nuclear power? Cravens, a novelist and former New Yorker fiction editor, concludes that the survival of the human race depends on it. What makes this thesis noteworthy is that Cravens was once so anti-nuke that she joined the opposition to the opening of New York's Shoreham nuclear plant. Now she has written a chronicle of her conversion, told as a tour of American nuclear facilities guided by a family friend named D. Richard 'Rip' Anderson. A chemist and oceanographer who modeled the risks of nuclear waste storage for Sandia Labs, Anderson is so confident in the safety of nuclear power that he once held an egg-size lump of plutonium in his hand and swam wearing scuba gear in the coolant tank of a nuclear reactor. Craven's best argument for nuclear energy is that coal is much worse. Nukes in the United States haven't killed anyone outright, Cravens says, while air pollution from coal is known to cause 24,000 deaths a year. Nuclear power produces about two pounds of radioactive waste to generate all the electricity that the average American will use in a lifetime. That may sound like a lot, but coal-fired power generation produces nearly 69 tons of solid waste while providing the same amount of power, not to mention untold tons of greenhouse gases. And radiation? Coal loses again: A coal plant emits between 100 and 400 times more radiation than a nuclear plant. (Coal itself is radioactive, as are — mildly — bananas, lima beans, cigarettes and the granite walls of Grand Central Station. Furthermore, it's safer to work in a nuclear power plant than in a bank. Who knew?) But when it comes to making a nuanced, balanced case for nuclear power, this book fails, in part because Cravens seems overly eager to refute her earlier opposition. With the zeal of a novice, she underplays the historic effects of uranium mining, fails to ask questions about the security of supplies of nuclear materials, glosses over the costs of building more plants, denigrates alternative energy and efficiency, and quotes a non-expert saying that negative predictions come from 'troublemakers or con men.' These undisciplined arguments have a giddy granularity that fails to acknowledge big issues and credible nuclear naysayers. Analyzing the risks of terrorism to power plants, Cravens discovers that in mock attacks, commandos managed to reach their targets in nuclear plants 15 percent of the time. She accepts without question the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's assurance that this is no cause for concern. Most plants use 'palm geometry' to admit their employees, she explains, and a terrorist who tried to cut off a worker's hand to gain admission would be detected immediately because the scanner 'can tell the difference between a severed hand, whose measurements have necessarily changed owing to blood loss, and one still attached.' The book is full of such odd nuggets, but they don't add up to a thorough argument. The strongest parts of the book — and the real reason to read it — are Cravens' descriptions of the off-limits sanctums of nuclear power. A half mile below the surface of the earth near Carlsbad, N.M., at the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), she explores a salt deposit used to store waste from nuclear weapons. WIPP sounds like a hallucination. Airborne salt dust makes halos around the light fixtures, while the salt floors muffle all sound. 'Vanishing perspectives and the large scale of the chambers toyed with the senses. Here there were no straight lines: the plasticity of the salt caused walls to bulge, floors to hump, ceilings to bow.' Patterns on the walls and ceilings 'fooled the eye into seeing sculpted columns, vaults, niches, bas-reliefs — as in an ancient temple.' Running through the book is a meditation on just how nukes became so vilified. Cravens characterizes this as illogical, unscientific and driven by environmentalists with 'agendas,' yet offers scattered evidence for why public opinion shifted. But the reason is pretty clear: incompetence, as egregious as anything Homer Simpson could come up with. In 1975, workers used a candle to test for gas leaks at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama, started a fire that burned the whole electrical system and raised temperatures in the reactor core. The plant stayed closed for 22 years thereafter. In 1979, a few beads of resin blocked a valve in the reactor at Three Mile Island, leading to a chain of equipment malfunctions, bad human decisions and finally a meltdown of the reactor core. As recently as 2006, utilities in New York and Illinois tried to hide tritium leaks. And last year, video footage of guards sleeping at Pennsylvania's Peach Bottom Power Plant caused yet another scandal. Public mistrust of the nuclear industry may be at odds with the national labs' risk assessments, but it reflects a certain wisdom about the weaknesses of humans and equipment. The appearance of this book — and Cravens' ability to get into these facilities — may be the beginning of the industry's attempt to regain that trust through argument, transparency and evidence of contrition, but I suspect it will be a long process." Reviewed by Lisa Margonelli, an Irvine fellow at the New American Foundation and author of 'Oil on the Brain.', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this eye-opening work that is certain to spark debate and influence policy decisions that will affect generations to come, Cravens examines both sides of the controversial debate over nuclear energy, and seeks answers from a host of experts in radiation effects, nuclear medicine, reactor accidents, and risk analysis.
About the Author
Gwyneth Cravens has published five novels. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, where she also worked as a fiction editor, and in Harpers Magazine, where she was an associate editor. She has contributed articles and op-eds on science and other topics to Harpers Magazine, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She grew up in New Mexico and now lives on eastern Long Island.
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