“Power to Save the World: the truth about nuclear energy” by Gwyneth Cravens

As you are probably well aware, climate change is an existential threat to the future of human civilization. Yet, we shoot ourselves in the foot every day that we try and ignore the importance of nuclear energy to curb this disaster. The science and technology of nuclear fission has developed significantly since the days of the cold war, but misinformation and bad PR continues to hold back the full utilization of nuclear power in our clean energy portfolios.

Meanwhile, environmentalist like you and me have often found ourselves on the wrong side of this nuclear debate.

Maybe this is all news to you, or maybe you watched the Bill Gates documentary and have a positive but surface-level understanding of the technology. Either way, Gwyneth Cravens’s book Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy should launch right to the top of your environmentally conscious reading list.

The book was written in 2007. So, there are times when characters talk about technologies that have seen noteworthy development since the original publication (particularly renewables, hydrogen fuel cells, and electric batteries to an extent). BUT, Power to Save the World is definitely still 99% relevant and 100% worth your time.

A Breakdown of the Book

Power to Save the World is split up into 6 parts with 21 chapters spread between each section. I’ll spend the rest of this blog post briefly exploring the individual focus of each part, but it’s just as important to understand how they work together – and nothing sums up the overall approach of this book like the very very small Marcus Aurelius quote included underneath the title of Part 1.

Look always at the whole.

Marcus Aurelius

Cravens set out to write a comprehensive book on nuclear energy, and she did not disappoint. Living up to the aforementioned quote, Cravens approaches “the whole” of nuclear energy in 2 important ways:

  1. The practical context in which we are talking about nuclear energy (think: climate change, technological advancement, politics, the economy, etc.).
  2. The ENTIRE life cycle of nuclear energy and the uranium we use to power it.

Every single thing that remotely has to do with nuclear power gets dedicated focus in this book. The book starts with Uranium mines, and it ends with nuclear waste recycling and disposal.


Introduction: “Gwyneth’s Pilgrimage” by Richard Rhodes

It can be easy to ignore introductions like this and jump straight into “the actual book”, but Rhodes makes an interesting point that should frame your expectations if you’re considering buying this book.

Gwyneth Cravens Evokes an old tradition in this very modern book: seeking understanding by going on a journey…

She accumulates knowledge as she goes on, guided by her own Virgil, a steadfast scientist named Dr. Rip Anderson.

She achieves greater understanding of the deep things of the world, as her predecessors did, and as they also did, she shares it generously.

Richard Rhodes

Before you get scared off by the idea of a book on nuclear energy, Power to Save the World is not some ridiculously dense collection of scientific essays for 1% of readers to enjoy. Instead, think of this as a modern environmentalist’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress or Dante’s Inferno (only this one is based on the real factual world of American energy).

Every time the book runs into dense scientific information, it gets presented in an easy to read dialogue mixed in between sections of Cravens’s own journalistic research and commentary.


Part 1: Origins

Survival/ Always Look at the Whole/ Ambrosia Lake

Like any good “Part 1”, this is where Cravens sets the stage for the rest of the book. Here, we are introduced to Rip (Cravens’s nuclear “Virgil”) and begin their journey touring around the country in a quest to understand nuclear energy (starting with step 1, mining uranium). However, Cravens makes sure to remind us of the big “Why?” behind nuclear energy. In the case of this book, it almost always comes back to climate change.

My Favorite Quote From This Section:

(Citing a quote from the American physicist, Alvin Weinberg)

‘Carbon dioxide poses a dilemma for the radical environmentalists. Since nuclear reactors emit almost no carbon dioxide, how can one be against nuclear energy if one is concerned about carbon dioxide?

To my utter dismay, indeed disgust, this is exactly the position of some of the environmentalists. Their argument is that extreme conservation, and a shift to renewables – that is, solar energy – is the only environmentally correct approach to reducing carbon dioxide.

When I point out to them that conservation might be feasible in industrialized countries, but that it is hardly a choice for India and China, they seem to ignore the point.

Or when I argue that solar energy is hardly a choice at this time (2007), or even for the next century, my environmental critics simply disagree:

spend on solar energy what has been spent on nuclear energy, and solar energy will be cheap. But we have yet to discover a technical breakthrough – the solar equivalent of fission – and unless we do, rejection of fission energy condemns the world to a future of very expensive energy.

… And when I point out that France has reduced its carbon dioxide emission by a good 20% in the past decade by aggressive deployment of fission reactors, I am greeted by silence.’

Chapter Title: Survival

Part 2: The Invisible Storm

Mother Nature and Fencepost Man/ Undark/ Into the Strange City

If the earlier chapters set the stage and kick off Gwyneth and Rip’s nuclear tour, Part 2 takes a step back and focuses on the basics. Primarily, “What, specifically, is radiation?”.

It starts with a detailed look at the phenomenons we call radiation (as well as their variable types), but this section also takes a dive into our historical relationship with radioactive elements and our constant natural exposure to them. Of all the lessons in this book, I actually found the conversations around radiation to be the most interesting.

My Favorite Quotes From This Chapter:

‘People make extrapolations about risk,’ Key said, ‘and if the risk had been as high as those extrapolations had it, all of those exposed would have died.’ …

‘I would treat radiation with a great deal of respect, but I think you need to be realistic. Compared to tobacco, gasoline, drunk drivers, or being a couch potato, radiation is of very little risk to most to the public.’

Chapter Title: Undark

Threshold proponents (those who believe radiation is only dangerous about a certain threshold) say that applying LNT (The idea that ALL radiation is dangerous on a linear scale) is analogous to saying that if you put your hand in water heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit you’ll get a very bad burn and that if you put your hand in water 36 degrees Fahrenheit you’ll also get “burned”, but less so.

‘Worse yet’, said one health physicist I met, ‘LNT is used to ‘prove’ that if a million people put their hands in 36-degree-Fahrenheit water, at least five hundred will get third-degree burns’

Chapter Title: Into the Strange City

Radiation protection standards based on hard data rather than on the present pessimistic – and inconsistent – estimates regarding low-dose radiation could potentially save billions of dollars now being spent for cleanup and shielding that may turn out to be unnecessary…

‘Even though there are tons of data suggesting that there is a practical ‘threshold’ dose, below which radiation damage is either zero, or is repaired, or is handled in some other way, old perspectives die hard’

Chapter Title: Into the Strange City

Part 3: The Hidden World

Risk and Consequence/ Going to Extremes/ Tiny Beads

Part 3 covers a wide range of topics (think: Chernobyl, international politics, and terrorism), but it’s all connected by an exploration of risk. Specifically, this section is focused on parsing out the difference between perceived risk, real risk, and the models scientists use to more accurately predict the probability of dangerous situations.

My Favorite Quote From This Section:

(Speaking about the messaging after 3-Mile Island)

… misinformation and ongoing communications problems continued to feed a growing crisis. Assumptions flew around like fast neutrons.

Reticent plant engineers addressed the public in jargon, and their rather wooden affect made for poor interactions with the press…

Plant representatives made assumptions, and local officials made assumptions, and state and federal agencies made assumptions, and the media made assumptions, and some of those assumptions were heated up by the irresistible hook of, The China Syndrome, which had come out two weeks earlier:

‘Would a meltdown to bedrock cause deadly radioactive gases to come pouring out of cracks in the Pennsylvania earth?’ …

… evacuation was completely unnecessary. But by some estimates, two hundred thousand scared people hurried to escape. A Roman Catholic priest offered them the sacrament given to those about to die.

After a few days, news anchors began to announce that the accident was under control. Still, assumptions that were wrong and dire predictions of devastation that did not occur have lodged in the public mind.

Chapter Title: Tiny Beads

Part 4: The Kingdom of Electricity

Man’s SmudgeFrom Arrowheads to AtomsBarriersUnobtanium

Part 4 starts off with a trip to a “clean” coal plant that really wasn’t all that clean, and an in-person look at just how abundantly secure nuclear power plants are from any kind of attack or sabotage. However, my favorite point here comes in the section’s last chapter “Unobtanium”:

Unobtanium, magic dust, handwavium – these are the terms used by scientists, engineers, and science fiction fans to describe that mysterious energy source or substance that’s supposed to drive a space ship faster than the speed of light,

or bridge a gap in an invention in progress, or fill in the blanks of a scheme that looks great on paper or sounds good when touted by an alternative-energy oracle.

Chapter Title: Unobtanium

One of the biggest arguments for the utilization of nuclear power is simple; We already have the technology to get clean baseload energy with nuclear fission, why wait for “Unobtanium” to give us some kind of magically perfect alternative?

My Favorite Quotes From This Section:

‘Fatal steam explosions happen in coal-fired plants,’ he said. ‘If that sucker blew, we could have been killed, scalded to death.

People pay no attention if someone dies in a coal-plant explosion. But if you have a steam accident at a nuclear plant – man! Big headlines.’

Chapter Title: Barriers

‘The saying is, Fusion (meaning nuclear fusion) is fifty years out no matter what date you make this statement’…

…we’ve come to imagine we have choices that really we do not.

‘It’s good to have renewables and we need to grow them… I completely support them. But to make clean baseload energy, to make hydrogen efficiently, to stop the carbon cycle, we have no choice but to rely on the nuclear fuel cycle.

Chapter Title: Unobtanium

Part 5: Closing the Circle

Ten Thousand Years/ The Huge Factory/ 32N164W/ Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done/ The Gigantic Crystal

As the name suggests, part 5 is focused on finally “closing” the nuclear life cycle (waste recycling and disposal), but as with any potentially dangerous waste, it’s also time to revisit the risk assessment techniques first introduced in Part 3.

The big stories here are mostly how political dynamics far too often veto the science supporting projects like yucca mountain, WIPP, and the Sub-Seabed geological repository (32N164W).

However, one of the most important points here may be the advancement of nuclear waste recycling technology. Because of Uranium’s density, nuclear energy already produces very little waste per kilowatt-hour, but most of that high-grade nuclear plant waste isn’t really “waste” in the traditional sense. The same goes for highly enriched nuclear warheads. It’s just more fuel for another advanced reactor.

My Favorite Quotes From This Section:

… I can’t imagine why anyone would be opposed to using up the plutonium (military) stockpile to make electricity.

It only takes about eighteen pounds of plutonium to make an atomic bomb. If you put that plutonium instead into low-enriched nuclear fuel, then it becomes useless for making weapons.

Chapter Title: Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done

When we decide that (climate change) is important enough, we’ll do what’s necessary – at an acceptable cost and at an acceptable risk.

Chapter Title: Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done

Protestors said that leaving the waste where it was in Los Alamos threatened the population and they said that transporting waste to WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) threatened the population.

And these people said that once the waste was stored at WIPP, radioactive material would contaminate the water table. It can’t.

And they said that the government should spend its money inventing some other way to get rid of the problem. As if we had not looked into hundreds of different ways already.

Chapter Title: The Gigantic Crystal.

Part 6: Borrowing From Our Children

The Iron Chamber/ “Water Them Anyway”/ The Power Within

Just like your standard persuasive essay, this conclusion section ends with the same ideas from Cravens’s introduction – the imminent dangers of climate change. However, in a hero’s-journey narrative fashion, Cravens takes this time to reflect on how she’s learned and grown throughout her nuclear “pilgrimage”.

My Favorite Quotes From This Section:

Over 80 percent of scientists polled think that below an exposure of 100 millirem per year, radiation is unlikely to cause negative health effects.

Should we spend a projected $60 billion to fortify Yucca Mountain with many redundant barriers on the assumption that they’ll protect a hypothetical human in the very remote future from less radiation than Mother Nature showers upon people living today in northeastern Washington State?

Chapter Title: The Iron Chamber

Rip shrugged. “One day God could say to us: I gave you the brainiest men and women in human history to come up with an understanding of the atom and its nucleus. I gave you enough uranium and thorium to last for thousands of years…

You didn’t need to invent anything else. You had everything you needed to provide energy for yourselves and your descendants without harming the environment. What else did you want?

Chapter Title: “Water Them Anyway”

Wrapping It Up

This blog’s sudden burst of nuclear energy facts might be a bit much for you (I apologize), but If you’re interested in this content, I can’t recommend this book enough.

I learned A LOT reading this book, and I stand by its quality. But… I also have enough self-awareness to realize my taste in reading material isn’t for everyone. So, if you’re interested in nuclear energy, but looking for something with a smaller time commitment, I’ve decided to include a couple of educational youtube videos below.

Enjoy!

This post was originally published on my personal website – cameroncatanzano.com – and can also be found on medium or the outbound.

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