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Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0307266569
ISBN-10: 0307266567
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 electricity—the 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 they’re 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

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307266567
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307266569
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #485,095 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Juliet on November 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Until I read Gwyneth Cravens' "Power to Save the World", I would have
described myself as an anti-nuke, pro-solar-and-windmills mom and
responsible inhabitant of this planet.
Now I, and all readers of her timely book, can benefit from Cravens'
friendship with Rip Anderson, of Sandia National Laboratories.
Ms. Cravens' writing style is as much a pleasure as it is
informative. In a personal tone, she invites the reader on her
journey and we can't help but recognize our own misconceptions and
outdated information about nuclear energy.
Cravens tracks the life cycle of uranium, tours nuclear facilities,
and asks important questions and presents them in what becomes a page
She explains in detail how efficient nuclear power is while she
dispels myths and clarifies science. While no industrial power source
is trouble-free, it's clear that carbon-free nuclear power is vastly
preferable to burning coal. I highly recommend this book to each
resident of planet earth.
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I am quite sure that Gwyneth Cravens's highly readable book will be controversial. I can only hope that it will get the reading it deserves.

Before I read it, I was certain that I knew that nuclear energy was highly risky and a threat to all. I now understand that I actually knew very little. Despite every good intention, I had been pulled into a mindless groupthink about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and by the very green movement I love. What I learned by reading Cravens, for example, is that as a species we evolved at a time of far greater radiation than now occurs and that one gets more radiation from eating a single banana, or crossing Grand Central Station once, than one gets living next door to a nuclear plant for a year. We are swimming in a sea of radiation, and always have been, but effectively none of it comes from the use of nuclear power plants constructed in the West. And interestingly, radiation turns out to be one of those things for which dosage is crucial. Radiation at certain low doses appears even to produce positive effects.

This book is a pleasure to read because it brims not with opinions, hyperbole or hysteria, but refreshingly, with scientific facts. There are no conspiracy theories and no bad guys (except maybe for coal producers). New, fresh, interesting information appears on every page. As Cravens points out, at one time not that long ago, people feared the dangers of bringing electricity into their homes. And they weren't completely wrong. Dangers accompany electricity, fire and other powerful yet beneficial forms of energy. The key to benefitting from them lies in overcoming fear and learning how to use the proper precautions with each.
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You'll be surprised what you can learn from this wonderful book. The fact that prize-winning nuclear chronicler Richard Rhodes, well-known as a stickler for historical accuracy, has endorsed it and written the Introduction, tells us we're on solid ground here. Although he is an authority on the nuclear enterprise, Rhodes says he leaned "something new on every page." The environmentalist, Stewart Brand, calls it simply, "The best introduction to the current realities and benefits of nuclear power." And popular story teller Tony Hillerman says, "I'd like to see this on every bookshelf in America and on student reading lists."

So, what makes it so special? First of all, the author herself. Her background makes clear that she is no shill for the nuclear industry. In fact, she was quite an aggressive anti-nuclear activist for many years. So she has a personal, battlefront familiarity with the questions and concerns that bother many people about the technology. Second, she is a highly skilled writer, author of five well-received novels, praised by her fellow writers, winner of many writing awards and fellowships, and Visiting Writer in the Graduate Program in Writing at UC Irvine. As a fiction editor at The New Yorker Magazine (1980-87) under the legendary William Shawn, she worked with such noted writers as Milan Kundera and Susan Sontag.

But, most important for this book, is that in addition to having a novelist's easy, graceful writing style, she brings many years' experience as a reporter for some of the world's top publications: The New Yorker, The New York Times (magazine, book review and Op-Ed page), The Washington Post, The Nation, Harpers, The Village Voice and others.

Power to Save the World is her first non-fiction book-length opus.
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There is no more urgent environmental or geopolitical issue in the world today than clean energy production. While energy sources like wind and solar are appealing, they generate only a small percentage of the power needed to replace CO2 emitting energy sources. Enter (or re-enter) nuclear. France, e.g., a country with few natural energy resources (a condition all countries will be in, sooner or later), adopted an energy policy based on nuclear power in the early seventies; today, nuclear power generates 75% of their electricity, and has turned them into a energy exporter. Many Americans, though, myself included, have had the same reservations about nuclear power as the author says she held before she started her book: skepticism of nuclear plant safety, worry about nuclear waste and about the possibility of terrorist attacks.

Cravens makes a very convincing case that these worries are not well founded. The many facts she presents are the result of her careful sifting - over a period of eight years - of the evidence on both sides, as she addresses her original doubts one by one. It is a bonus that the book is so well written, and has literary value in the way it shows a firmly-held opinion slowly changing to its opposite as the facts are confronted. But it is the urgency of the message that really matters, and that is what the book delivers: a passionate, extremely well-researched wakeup call. The more people on both sides of the nuclear debate read this book and assimilate its implications, the better.
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