Gwyneth Cravens on Why Going Green Means Going Nuclear
"Most of us were taught that the goal of science is power over nature, as if science and power were one thing and nature quite another. Niels Bohr observed to the contrary that the more modest but relentless goal of science is, in his words, 'the gradual removal of prejudice.' By 'prejudice,' Bohr meant belief unsupported by evidence." --Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes, author of the introduction to
Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy by Gwyneth Cravens
"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." --Marie Curie
My book is fundamentally about prejudice based on wrong information.
I used to oppose nuclear power, even though the Sierra Club supported it. By the mid-1970s the Sierra Club turned against nuclear power too. However, as we witness the catastrophic consequences of accelerated global temperature increase, prominent environmentalists as well as skeptics like me have started taking a fresh look at nuclear energy. A large percentage of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, that thaw Arctic ice and glaciers comes from making electricity, and we rely upon it every second of our lives.
There are three ways to provide large-scale electricitythe kind that reliably meets the demands of our civilization around the clock. In the United States:
- 75% of that baseload electricity comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels, mainly coal, and emit carbon dioxide. Toxic waste from coal-fired plants kills 24,000 Americans annually.
- 5% comes from hydroelectric plants.
- Less than 1% comes from wind and solar power.
- 20% comes from nuclear plants that use low-enriched uranium as fuel, burn nothing, and emit virtually no CO2. In 50 years of operation, they have caused no deaths to the public.
When I began my research eight years ago, I'd assumed that we had many choices in the way we made electricity. But we don't. Nuclear power is the only large-scale, environmentally-benign, time-tested technology currently available to provide clean electricity. Wind and solar power have a role to play, but since theyre diffuse and intermittent, they can't provide baseload, and they always require some form of backup--usually from burning fossil fuels, which have a huge impact on public health.
My tour of the nuclear world began with a chance question I asked of Dr. D. Richard ("Rip") Anderson. He and his wife Marcia Fernández work tirelessly to preserve open land, clean air, and the aquifer in the Rio Grande Valley. Rip, a skeptically-minded chemist, oceanographer, and expert on nuclear environmental health and safety, told me that the historical record shows that nuclear power is cleaner, safer, and more environmentally friendly than any other form of large-scale electricity production. I was surprised to learn that:
- Nuclear power emits no gases because it does not burn anything; it provides 73% of America's clean-air electricity generation, using fuel that is tiny in volume but steadily provides an immense amount of energy.
- Uranium is more energy-dense than any other fuel. If you got all of your electricity for your lifetime solely from nuclear power, your share of the waste would fit in a single soda can. If you got all your electricity from coal, your share would come to 146 tons: 69 tons of solid waste that would fit into six rail cars and 77 tons of carbon dioxide that would contribute to accelerated global warming.
- A person living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant receives less radiation from it in a year than you get from eating one banana. Someone working in the U.S. Capitol Building is exposed to more radioactivity than a uranium miner.
- Spent nuclear fuel is always shielded and isolated from the public. Annual waste from one typical reactor could fit in the bed of a standard pickup. The retired fuel from 50 years of U.S. reactor operation could fit in a single football field; it amounts to 77,000 tons. A large coal-fired plant produces ten times as much solid waste in one day, much of it hazardous to health. We discard 179,000 tons of batteries annually--they contain toxic heavy metals.
- Nuclear power's carbon dioxide emissions throughout its life-cycle and while producing electricity are about the same as those of wind power.
- Nuclear plants offer a clean alternative to fossil-fuel plants. In the U.S. 104 nuclear reactors annually prevent emissions of 682 million tons of CO2. Worldwide, over 400 power reactors reduce CO2 emissions by 2 billion metric tons a year.
I wanted to know if what Rip was telling me was true. He took me on a tour of the nuclear world so that I could learn firsthand its risks and benefits. I visited many facilities, talked to many scientists in different disciplines, and researched the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences and various international scientific bodies. As I learned more, I became persuaded that the safety culture that prevails at U.S. nuclear plants and the laws of physics make them a safe and important tool for addressing global warming. Clearly many of my beliefs had originated in misinformation and fear-mongering.
I've now met many people dedicated to saving the environment while supporting nuclear power as well as other green resources. This path is only logical. Nuclear power is the only large-scale, non-greenhouse-gas emitting electricity source that can be considerably expanded while maintaining only a small environmental footprint. If as a society we're going to reduce those emissions, we'll need every resource to do so, and we'll have to set aside our ideological blinkers, look at the facts, and unite to meet the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.
The power to change our world does not lie in rocks, rivers, wind, or sunlight. It lies within each of us. --Gwyneth Cravens
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.
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