Power to Save the World

Nuclear power was never an emotional issue for me.  Personally, I know the general theory of nuclear reactions, and have friends in the Nuclear Navy, an institution I always respected and valued.  I grew up near Harrisburg, PA, where the Three Mile Island Reaction #2 melted down.  So, you could say I was aware of both nuclear power’s advantages and dangers.

Nuclear power is, as always, in the news.  Last year Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant in Vernon, VT, discovered an underground leak of tritium, a low-level byproduct of nuclear plants.  Tritium did not get into drinking water or the Connecticut River, but it was close.  I go to school near the plant, and when I heard about the tritium leaks, I did not understand what tritium was, but assumed that it was bad.  However, when I looked over some of the critical data being used by environmentalists to oppose the extension of the plant license beyond 2012, I could not make heads or tails of it.  It looked bad.  Entergy Corp., based in Louisiana, did not seem to be running the 38-year-old plant in a safe manner.

Recently I read environmentalist icon Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist’s Manifesto, and I was struck by his unflinching support of Nuclear power.  Brand is best known as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was designed to market goods and tools to counter-cultural, back-to-the land people in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Brand’s new book begins with an update: “We are gods and we HAVE to get used to it.”  Nuclear power is one of the tools that he prescribes to battle the big problem of our day, anthropogenic-induced global warming.  Brand says of nuclear power, like other technologies that environmentalists often fear, that “those who know the most fear the least.”

Well, despite my background, I felt that I had a lot to learn about nuclear power.  Brand recommended a book by journalist Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.  My trimester break, which ends Friday, seemed the perfect opportunity to take Brand’s challenge.   Cravens is a novelist and a journalist, and she tells the story of nuclear power in a very clear and persuasive manner.  She grew up in Albuquerque, near the home of the atomic bomb.  In the 1980s she was an anti-nuclear protestor, and helped prevent a Long Island nuclear plant from opening.  However, she met a man that helped change her mind about nuclear power.

Cravens follows Rip Anderson around the world of nuclear power.  Anderson is a scientist with Sandia National Laboratories, and an environmentalist.  He is a world-renowned nuclear safety expert, so impressive that the Soviet government selected him to head a team of scientists examining Chernobyl after the meltdown there.  The book follows the journey of nuclear power, from old uranium mines in New Mexico, to working plants in the Carolinas, to the Yucca Mountain National Repository and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).  I encourage everyone to read this book.

Like many environmentalists I am an advocate of alternative energy like wind, solar, and hydropower.  However, only nuclear power can replace coal, because only nuclear can provide reliable baseload.  In fact, compared to nuclear power, coal is much more dangerous.  You wouldn’t think it, but coal, which provides over half of our electricity in the United States, exposes people to more low-level radiation than a nuclear plant; a 1000-megawatt coal plant freely disperses 27 metric tons each year, in fact.  On top of that, coal plants are the leading polluter of mercury.  Coal plants are not regulated like nuclear plants are, and that is why I would much rather live near a nuclear plant than a coal plant.

Cravens debunks misconceptions about radiation, waste, terrorism and safety.  It was heartening to know that after living through the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the design of the plant made up for poorly trained operators and prevented any harm to Pennsylvanians.  Next generation nuclear plants also offer great technological advantages that will help to make nuclear power even more safe and efficient.

Much controversy in nuclear power revolves around a hypothesis known as Linear Non Threshold (LNT).  It is the assumption that the known health effects from high doses of radiation “may also be occurring at the same rate – or perhaps even a higher rate, in the low-dose realm.”  In other words, this hypothesis states that radiation affects humans in a linear fashion, to the lowest possible dose.  However, of a recent survey of 1,737 Department of Energy scientists, only 36% subscribe to this hypothesis.  The majority believes that below a certain threshold, radiation does not affect the body.  However, LNT underlies regulations about the management of nuclear plants and nuclear waste facilities.  Low-dose radiation studies, which Anderson and many others in the industry advocate, may occur soon.  Those studies will tell us a lot about the future of nuclear energy.

Just learning about all the naturally occurring background radiation gave me a lot of perspective.  Now, when I look over the information about the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee, it no longer gives me pause.  Sure, Vermont Yankee is an aging plant, and Entergy Corp. could have been more forthcoming with information about the plant, but that does not mean that a coal plant would be preferable to Vermont Yankee.  This book deserves your attention.