Saturday, March 06, 2010

Power to Save the World- A Pro-Nuclear Perspective

There is an often-vicious debate occurring within the environmental community about nuclear energy. While there are those like Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, who are arguing in support of nuclear power, there are still many others against it.

Gwyneth Cravens is one environmentalist participating in this debate who supports nuclear energy and wrote Power to Save the World in favor of this energy source. Cravens wasn't always a nuclear energy supporter. In fact, she once helped support initiatives that prevented a nuclear power plant from being completed in Long Island, where she currently lives.

However, this book shows how she went from being firmly anti-nuclear to believing that nuclear energy is actually environmentally friendly while at the same time following the life cycle of nuclear fuel from extraction to use to storage.

Unlike other books about nuclear energy, this book is written in an easily understandable and readable narrative fashion. Using this format, Cravens weaves a story that doesn't sound like she is just spouting off fact about nuclear energy. Instead, Cravens teaches the reader about the nuclear process through interesting and witty anecdotes that she learns from the researchers, scientists, and technicians she interviews.

While written in narrative form, the little under 400-page book is jam-packed with facts about every aspect of nuclear energy. Two facts that are brought up multiple times in the book deal with the amount of energy a unit of nuclear material contains and the ambient levels of background radiation.

One point that Cravens tries to drive home with the reader is the amount of energy a unit of uranium contains. For example, a nuclear fuel pellet weighing just .0007 pounds produces roughly the same amount of electricity as 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil. This point is highlighted in the book by the fact that the annual waste for a 846-megawatt nuclear reactor can fit into the bed of a pickup truck while one 500-megawatt coal plant produces an annual waste volume equivalent to a six story building.

The other point that Cravens brings up multiple times in her book is that people receive much more radiation from natural and medical sources then they would ever receive from a nuclear power plant. For example, Americans receive on average 360 millirems of radiation year, with the majority of it coming from natural sources like radon.

According to EPA regulations, nuclear plants cannot expose someone to more than 15 millirems a year if that person lived, breathed, and ate everything right on the border fence of the nuclear plant. This hypothetical “fencepost man” does not exist and if he did this amount is extremely small when you consider that a single dentist x-ray can expose you to 39 millirems. In fact, if you live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor in the United States, you’d get an estimated trace exposure of 0.009 millirem a year, an amount smaller in size than eating one banana, which contains the radioactive isotope potassium-40.

In addition to those two points, Cravens does an excellent job outlining the various security and safety features that the nuclear plants incorporate to ensure that every single gram of nuclear material is accounted for and cannot escape into the environment.

However, for those that are still worried about the effects nuclear energy may have on the environment, Cravens points out that every source of energy is going to have environmental costs; we just need to find a source that helps mitigate those costs. She points out that even wind power has its downsides considering that it would take 94 to 200 square miles to produce 1,000 megawatts of power, an amount that a nuclear plant could produce on just 1/3 square mile of land.

Overall, Cravens does an excellent job in her book addressing many of the environmental concerns about nuclear power as well as highlighting the industry's environmental benefits. While some who read this article may dismiss these claims outright, I would challenge them to read her book for themselves. Energy issues are only going to increase in the future and nuclear power offers a solution that can minimize environmental impacts while maximizing economic benefits.


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