Going Nuclear

A controversial new book suggests that nuclear energy may be the safest answer to America's power dilemma. But there are dangers.

November 11, 2007|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

The coal-fired power plants that Americans rely on to turn on their lights emit 100 times more radiation than nuclear power plants.

As it turns out, coal, like uranium, is radioactive. And burning coal spews radionuclides into the atmosphere. But it's not a dangerous amount.

After all, the amount of radiation the average person receives from nuclear plants every year is about as much as he or she gets from eating a banana. Tap water is also slightly radioactive. So are our own bodies and the walls of our homes.

Magazine editor and writer Gwyneth Cravens, a former anti-nuclear protester, presents these facts in a fascinating but flawed new book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.

The message: The dangers of radiation have been vastly exaggerated by the news media and many environmental groups, while the serious damage caused by coal, oil and gas has been minimized.

The unfortunate result, she says, is that many Americans nurture an irrational fear of nuclear power at a time when they need it most to fight a real environmental threat: global warming.

Cravens' detailed examination of a politically incorrect but relatively clean source of power should be read by her fellow environmentalists and others who value practical solutions over dogma. But some will find the book disappointing, because she brushes off some serious drawbacks of the technology - notably, its connection to nuclear weapons proliferation in dangerous places like North Korea - instead of candidly admitting these problems.

Nevertheless, the issues raised by Cravens and other recent environmental converts to nuclear power are important for Marylanders to ponder.

Baltimore-based Constellation Energy is considering a proposal to build a new reactor in Calvert County that could be the first new nuclear project in the U.S. since Three Mile Island.

Nuclear power is a logical solution to the problem of climate change, Cravens writes, because it provides lots of electricity with almost none of the greenhouse gas pollution that causes global warming. Reactors generate about 20 percent of the power supply in Maryland and the rest of the U.S. There's no reason America couldn't become like Vermont or France, which get more than 70 percent of their power from nuclear generators.

By contrast, wind power is too feeble and fickle, producing only one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. electricity, and failing when the breeze falters during heat spells - just when it's needed most, Cravens says. Solar panels produce two-tenths of 1 percent of our power, and are too expensive and dependent on toxic chemicals for manufacturing, Cravens writes.

Looking back on the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, Cravens writes that the accident caused no deaths but intense media hype. "We often heard about `deadly radiation' or `lethal radioactivity' referring to a hazard that hadn't claimed a single victim for over a decade, and had caused less than five deaths in American history," Cravens writes, quoting Bernard Cohen, a University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus who studied media accounts of the accident.

"But we never heard about `lethal electricity,' although 1,200 Americans were dying each year from electrocution, or about `lethal natural gas' which was killing 500 annually with asphyxiation accidents."

If danger means documented risk of death over a half-century, nuclear power is the safest reliable energy source, Cravens writes. And by far the most dangerous is the burning of coal, which is a main cause of global warming and kills about 24,000 Americans every year from lung and heart disease.

The author is a literary novelist and former New Yorker magazine fiction editor from Long Island who once participated in ban-the-bomb rallies in Greenwich Village and protested against the proposed Shoreham nuclear plant in New York.

In the pursuit of more evidence against nukes, she toured several power plants and nuclear waste facilities across the country. But she ended up taking "an unexpected journey" that changed her mind. Her trip was like Dante's Inferno. And her guide - playing the role of Virgil in the epic poem - is a retired nuclear scientist named Rip.

"Rip" is D. Richard Anderson, a cowboy-hat-wearing chemist who until 2002 was director of nuclear waste management at the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, which is run by the Lockheed Martin defense contracting firm. So he's an insider in the nuclear club.

Despite this influence, it's still significant that Cravens is a figure from the left endorsing a form of power championed by President Bush. She joins Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, and James Lovelock, a noted environmental author, in breaking from green orthodoxy to proclaim what they regard as an honest reappraisal of risk.

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