The only way to rescue our plug-hungry planet from catastrophic global warming is to embrace nuclear power, and fast.
That’s the argument of Gwyneth Cravens, a novelist, journalist and former nuke protester. Her new book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, is a passionate plea to understand, instead of fear, atomic power. In her book, Cravens is guided Dante-like through the entire life cycle of nuclear power — from mining to production to waste disposal — by one of the world’s foremost experts on risk assessment and nuclear waste.
Her conclusion? Every day spent burning coal for power translates into damaged lungs and ecosystem destruction. If the world wants to keep plugging in big-screen TVs and iPods, it needs a steady source of power. Wind and solar can’t produce the “base-load” (or everyday) steady supply needed, and the only realistic — and safe — alternative is nuclear.
Wired News talked with Cravens on the phone from her home in New York.
Wired News: You don’t argue that nuclear power is entirely safe, but that it’s vastly better than coal and fossil fuels. Do we have to choose between them?
Gwyneth Cravens: I used to think we surely could do better. We could have more wind farms and solar. But I then learned about base-load energy, and that there are three forms of it: fossil fuels, hydro and nuclear. In the United States, we’re maxed out on hydro. That leaves fossil fuels and nuclear power, and most of the fossil fuel burned is coal.
In the U.S., 24,000 people a year die from coal pollution. Hundreds of thousands more people suffer from lung and heart disease directly attributable to coal pollution.
WN: That’s opposed to a minuscule number of people who have been didirectly harmed by nuclear power?
Cravens: It’s zero in the United States. Of course there is the occasional industrial accident amongst the workers. But over the lifetime cycle of nuclear power, if you go cradle-to-grave with uranium, the total carbon emissions are about those of wind power.
WN: You have an interesting statistic comparing the waste levels produced by individuals over a lifetime.
Cravens: A family in four in France, where they reprocess nuclear fuel, would produce only enough waste to fit in a coffee cup over a whole lifetime. A lifetime of getting all your electricity from coal-fired plants would make a single person’s share of solid waste (in the United States) 68 tons, which would require six 12-ton railroad cars to haul away. Your share of CO2 would be 77 tons.
WN: What about clean coal plants, and carbon-sequestration technologies? Aren’t they a practical alternative?
Cravens: At this point, no. There’s one prototype in Colorado that the government is trying to sponsor. From a practical point of view, I think nuclear plants could be up and running and replacing fossil-fuel plants sooner than we get clean coal.
WN: People still fear Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. You say neither of these catastrophic events was as harmful as widely believed.
Cravens: Chernobyl’s reactor had no containment building. If they had had that reactor in a containment dome, we wouldn’t be talking about it the way we are. But there was a radioactive release, and people were affected. So far about 60 people have died, most of them — almost all of them — from immediate exposure when they were fighting the fire in the reactor, and the emergency workers. Nine children, unfortunately, developed thyroid cancer that was not treated.
We had a Chernobyl in the United States, it was called Three Mile Island. But you have to look at risk and benefit, and you have to do comparisons. Three Mile Island really scared people, partly because it was so badly bungled by nuclear industry and regulatory commissions. The psychological effects were real, but in a dozen independent studies, no health effects have been found as a result of the Three Mile Island event.
Radiation was never a risk at Three Mile Island. People in New Mexico, every day of their lives, get from nature maybe 100 or 300 times more exposure than citizens around Three Mile Island got during that event.
Remember all the anti-nuke wack jobs parading in the streets during the 80s’ ? The protests, which targeted only U.S. use of nuclear technology, both weapon and energy-based, were some of the most vitrol-laden propaganda since Vietnam.
One point she neglected was that Chernobyl was a bad experiment gone tragically awry. The Russians deliberately shut down all safety measures to push the reactor to its limits. They pushed it too far and people died.
She’s not the only one to have a change of heart. A former Greenpeace founder, Patrick Moore, has also done a U turn:
February 23, 2007 — AS co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace, I once opposed nuclear energy. But times have changed, and new facts of compelling importance have emerged – and so my views have changed as well, as have those of a growing number of respected, independent environmentalists around the world.
There are few places where nuclear power makes as much sense or is as important as in New York. Indeed, the state is a microcosm of the challenges America and the world face to have ample, clean and reasonably priced electricity. As such, I strongly support renewal of the license for the Indian Point nuclear plants in Westchester, which provides 30 percent or so of the electricity used in the New York metro area.
……Worldwide, nuclear energy is one of the safest industrial sectors. Here in North America, no one has been harmed in the entire history of civilian nuclear-power generation. Indeed, it’s proven safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the finance or real-estate sectors.
Nuclear energy is already the No. 2 source of electricity in the United States; it accounts for nearly 30 percent of New York state’s electricity.
Another environmental benefit: Nuclear power plants improve air quality by reducing smog.
Too bad they didn’t have their epiphanies decades ago. Better late than never.