Reviewed 3/10/2010

Power To Save the World, by Gwyneth Cravens

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
The Truth About Nuclear Energy
Gwyneth Cravens
Richard Rhodes (Intro.)
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007




ISBN-13 978-0-307-26656-9
ISBN-10 0-307-26656-7 439p. HC/BWI $27.95

In the beginning, Gwyneth Cravens felt the power of the atom, with its invisible radiation and its deadly waste products, was too perilous to be used for generating electrical power. She considered hydroelectric, wind and solar to be what would save us from fossil fuels. But, with the help of a chemist she calls "Dr. Rip", she embarked on a quest to learn the truth about nuclear power.

Dr. Rip, or just Rip, is D. Richard Anderson, Ph.D., formerly in charge of radioactive waste remediation programs at Sandia National Laboratory. He was her Virgil on this quest. Like the Virgil who escorted Dante in The Inferno, he guided her through what she had thought of as the Circles of Hell — the vast infrastructure built during World War II and the Cold War to harness the awesome new power of the atom. (At the end of that quest, she had revised her outlook. Now it was coal-fired power plants that in her imagination stood in for Hell.)

Ms. Cravens's journey of discovery leads her far from her home on Long Island1 to a number of out-of-the-way places: the Idaho National Laboratory, Oconee Nuclear Plant, Yucca Mountain, and finally the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. Along the way she discourses with Rip and sometimes with his wife Marcia, who shares some of their journeys. The narrative also contains a number of interviews with other experts, and a good deal of supporting material. Charts and photographs are used to good effect. At the back of the book are notes on 372 sources, an extensive glossary, acknowledgements, and of course an index.

The author has no technical training, and makes some elementary mistakes in a few places. There are also explanatory passages that would benefit greatly from being tightened up. Despite all this, she has produced an engrossing and informative book that anyone struggling with the question of whether to support nuclear power as an option in this age of global warming will find eye-opening and valuable. It was an eye-opening book for me, and I was fairly well-versed on matters nuclear. None of those mistakes diminishes the essential message of the book, which is that nuclear power can, if competently managed, be an important part of a new energy strategy for America — along with renewables like wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean power of course.

"Rip and the scientists we met who were thinking about future energy resources didn't oppose the renewable ones—I never met anyone in the nuclear world who did, and in fact encountered some enthusiastic fans. But those experts considered expectations about wind and solar power as unrealistic as some of the early claims made on behalf of nuclear energy. The scientists who were accustomed to looking at the entire life cycle of energy resources debunked the assumption that renewables were environmentally immaculate."

– Page 248

This book and its message have my highest recommendation. And the most valuable part of that message may be that Yucca Mountain will not be needed if we get the IFR or AFR off the drawing boards and start reprocessing our nuclear waste. Those advanced reactor designs promise to reduce the volume of reactor waste by a factor of 100, and remove its longest-lived components into the bargain.

1 She grew up in Albuquerque, but now lives on New York State's Long Island with her husband.
2 The Sierra Club did too at one time; its reversal owes more to politics than science. The Sierra Club is not the only environmental group that behaves badly on nukes. The author tells on pages 59-60 how Hugh Montefiore, an important member of Friends of the Earth, was cast out in 2004 after he concluded that the solution to global warming was to make more use of nuclear energy. FOE then issued a position paper based on previously debunked information.
3 Megawatts and Megatons says the worldwide natural exposure averages 240 mREM per year. Gwyneth Craven's book puts the annual U.S. average at 360 mREM. Natural hot zones also occur in southwest France and parts of China. Regions of India and Brazil are naturally 400 times hotter than the average U.S. level. The Finns get three times what residents of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl would receive. But Ramsar in Iran outshines all other locations. It's possible to get 26,000 mREM in a year of living there.
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