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GOING NUCLEAR

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Such crossover thinking is valuable, because unfortunately in America today, alternative fuels carry political baggage. Biodiesel is embraced by liberals, ethanol by conservatives. Wind farms are sometimes perceived as a Democratic folly, and the nuclear revival a Republican scheme. While this bickering continues, everyone keeps using coal - and so our planet burns while we fiddle.

In this context, some would say Cravens is performing a public service by informing fellow environmentalists about the 50-year record of safety of U.S. civilian nuclear power. But her decision to adopt the tone of an advocate instead of a disinterested fact-finder makes the reader question her reliability as a narrator.

Many of the facts Cravens offers can be independently confirmed. But sometimes it seems she has become too enamored of Rip, her Stetson-wearing Virgil, and has become a virtual publicist for the nuclear industry.

For example, the first time the reader hears about the cancer deaths of Native American uranium miners is in a backhanded reference in which the author tries to whitewash the problem. Instead of just talking to nuclear scientists, she should have told the stories of a few of these dead miners.

Cravens seems to have fallen into the trap of thinking that she needs to debunk every suggestion that uranium can be dangerous to make the broader - and factually valid - point that civilian nuclear power in America is relatively safe.

Some of her conclusions are backed up by experts outside of the nuclear industry. For example, during an interview with The Sun earlier this year, Jonathan Links, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, also made the point that coal-fired plants emit more radiation than nuclear plants.

Links, like Cravens, said that studies have found no increased cancer rates around nuclear power plants. And like Cravens, Links said that nuclear power in the U.S. carries a low risk of harm to the public.

Cravens asserts that most of the damage from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 was caused by panic and anxiety, not radiation. Both she and Links say a similar release of radiation would be impossible from American reactors, which are sealed in containment buildings the Soviet reactor lacked.

Despite projections of hundreds of thousands of deaths, only about 50 people were directly killed by Chernobyl's explosion, with another 4,000 cancer deaths projected, Cravens writes.

Cravens' overall portrayal of Chernobyl is supported by a 2005 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which called the claims of cancer from the disaster "highly exaggerated."

Then there is the issue of waste from nuclear reactors.

Cravens argues that disposing of spent fuel rods is more of a political problem than an environmental one. She writes that the waste can be safely sealed in double-shelled, impact-resistant steel casks from which "nothing can escape." The best solution, she suggests, might be to bury them under the floor of the sea. Nevada politicians continue to fight the opening of the $8 billion Yucca Mountain underground waste repository, which was supposed to have opened nine years ago. She says that even if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his allies win their battle to kill the federal project (which was promised to the nuclear industry), the casks could be safely stored for as long as a century in temporary locations. Some advocates worry that such long-term storage remains a significant problem.

Cravens is unconvincing when she expands from the safety of civilian nuclear plants to the wider risks posed by nuclear technology in general.

A recent report by the Oxford Research Group, a British think tank, concluded that advocating nuclear power as a global solution for climate change would create "massive security risks such as nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism."

Nuclear fuel rods cannot explode like bombs. And they cannot be converted into bomb-grade material without reprocessing in specially designed reactors.

But India used a reprocessing reactor to make an atomic bomb in 1974, and it was followed in the nuclear race by neighboring Pakistan. More recently, North Korea built a reprocessing plant that it said was for civilian nuclear power, then created what it claims are nuclear weapons. Similar technologies might be sought by Iran and other countries.

Cravens dismisses the risks posed by the spread of nuclear technology to every corner of the globe. She argues that we shouldn't worry about nuclear weapons because cancer rates among survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are surprisingly low, 6 percent higher than normal. The danger posed by global warming is much greater, she says. Not everyone will buy her spin that nuclear bombs aren't that big a threat.

Of course, the U.S. might expand its own use of nuclear power to fight global warming - while simultaneously arguing that Iran and other countries don't have the right to follow suit.

But Dr. Cindy Parker, co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, is among those who say this high-handed approach won't work. "The ethics of us saying it's OK for us to have nuclear power because we're trustworthy, but it's not OK for others - who are we to make that decision?" Dr. Parker asks.

She has other problems with nuclear fuel as "The Power to Save the World." She thinks it's reasonable to keep America's 104 existing reactors running, but she warns that building more wouldn't make sense because high-grade uranium is expected to run out in about 70 years. After that, mining and processing fuel would become more labor-intensive - churning out more carbon dioxide, and thus nullifying any advantage of nuclear power.

A better long-term solution? "We need to vastly decentralize, with solar panels on every roof and windmills in every yard," Parker says. "We need to work closer to where we live, and transform our whole society to require less use of energy in the first place."

This is an important point. While Cravens advances public understanding by challenging widespread fear of nuclear energy and makes a persuasive argument in support of expanded use of nuclear power, her book appears unfairly dismissive of conservation and complementary clean energy alternatives.

Moreover, in clearing up misinformation about nuclear energy, the author shouldn't err in the opposite direction and gloss over its shortcomings. The real answer to our energy dilemma, some experts say, may be to change our lifestyles and encourage several of the most reliable alternatives to coal. Nuclear power may play an important role in that mix.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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