Over Time, Nuclear Power Skeptic Becomes Advocate

Published March 1, 2008

Power to Save the World
By Gwyneth Cravens
Knopf, 2007
464 pages, $27.95, ISBN 978-0307266569

Initially a skeptic about radiation and nuclear power, Gwyneth Cravens spent nearly a decade immersing herself in these subjects for her new book, Power to Save the World. After visiting mines, experimental reactor laboratories, power plants, and remote waste sites, she changed her views about nuclear energy.

You name it, she investigated it. She has thoroughly researched Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, the Nevada test site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), and Yucca Mountain. After all this effort she refutes the claims against nuclear power with more facts than we have seen in any other book on this subject. Some useful examples follow.

Radiation Exposure

The annual public radiation exposure permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for nuclear facilities is 15 millirem. The average person in the United States is exposed to 200 millirem of radiation per year. If you spent all your time in Grand Central Station, you would get an annual radiation dose of nearly 600 millirem.

At Three Mile Island, the total calculated dose Pennsylvanians received after the accident was far less than the measured dose New Mexicans receive from nature every day. Interestingly, in New Mexico the cancer rate is much lower than the national average although natural background radiation is much higher than the national average. The same is true for Denver.

Residents of Finland receive an annual dose of radiation three times higher than a person would receive living in the zone surrounding Chernobyl now excluded from habitation.

As of 2006, nuclear-powered submarines and ships had safely traveled a total of 134 million miles and registered 5,700 naval reactor years of safe operation with a total of 254 reactors.


What may explain these facts is the biological theory of hormesis: Organisms are made more resilient by low-level exposure to a substance that is toxic in larger doses. Cravens covers this topic, but in attempting to present both sides of the issue she does not cover the wide literature base of studies on animals and humans that confirm the beneficial effects of low-level radiation.

Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has published extensively in this field and is a good source for additional information.

In spite of this science, governments continue to use the linear no-threshold model, which says any radiation dose, no matter how small, is harmful. Misuse of this model has produced spending in excess of $1 trillion in the United States alone for negligible health benefits just for government environmental cleanup programs, while truly significant measures that would protect the public health remain unfunded.

Bombs, Accidents

The idea that radiation from atomic bombs has caused a substantial increase of genetic mutation has no scientific support. There is no evidence of increased mutation, genetic diseases, or cancer in animals or humans following exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation. This is true even around Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic bombs ended the war with Japan.

Likewise, there is no scientific evidence the population near Chernobyl experienced an increase in overall cancer incidence, mortality, or nonmalignant disorders related to radiation exposure following the Chernobyl nuclear power plant failure.

The worst large-scale consequence from Chernobyl has been thyroid cancer in Ukrainian and Belarusian children. Readily available potassium iodide tablets would have protected the children by preventing the uptake of radioactive iodine 131, but Moscow unnecessarily delayed allowing distribution of the tablets. Even so, 95 percent of the affected children recovered completely.

Chernobyl was a failure not of nuclear power but of the Soviet political system. The predicted increase in cancer from Chernobyl would probably be too small to notice but for the extra scrutiny the Chernobyl area receives.

Cleaner than Coal

The annual solid residues of coal combustion come to 890 pounds per American. Cravens calculates that if an American got all his or her electricity from coal over a lifespan of 77 years, that person’s mountain of solid waste would weigh 68.5 tons. A coal-fired plant releases more radiation than a nuclear plant.

The corresponding amount of waste from a lifetime of nuclear power, by contrast, would weigh two pounds and fit into a soda can. And of that amount, only a trace is long-lived.

The many experts Cravens consulted were adamant in pointing out terrorists could neither penetrate the security at an American nuclear plant nor make an atomic bomb from its fuel.

Regarding future nuclear power plants, some estimates indicate a plant of standardized, streamlined design, with many more built-in, passive safety features, and therefore fewer pumps, valves, and other components, could be built in five years, as is already being accomplished in France. The price per plant comes to about $3 billion, which makes nuclear power much less expensive than solar or wind power.

Spent Fuel Storage

Storing spent nuclear fuel poses no problem. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was supposed to open in 1998, but delays have continued to plague the project. And Cravens mentions an alternative we had not heard: the Sub-Seabed Operation.

Cravens points out that in the ocean there is a vast red-clay formation that has maintained great stability and uniformity over millions of years–far longer than the half-lives of almost all the radionuclides in nuclear waste. The clay has low permeability and the consistency of peanut butter.

A pointed steel canister containing high-level nuclear waste dropped to the ocean floor would sink through this muck to a depth of 30 meters. The continuous rain of sediments from above would bury it deeper. Many thousands of square miles of seabed like this exist under many miles of water hundreds of miles from shore.

Such sites, though costing several orders of magnitude less than Yucca Mountain, have long been overlooked as potential storage sites for spent nuclear fuel.

Wind, Solar Alternatives

Although Cravens believes alternate energy sources such as wind and solar are important, she offers an honest assessment of their huge limitations.

For example, a 2006 National Academy of Sciences study found the Indian Point Nuclear Plant near New York City produces about 10 percent of the electricity for New York State. To replace that power with a wind farm would require 300,000 acres–nearly 500 square miles–of windmills operating under the most favorable conditions.

At the McGuire Nuclear Station in North Carolina, where strong winds are rare, 50 square miles of photovoltaic cells would be required to replace the nuclear facility with solar power.

Newly Discovered Reality

Cravens’ book demonstrates how, time and again, political fear-mongering and misperceptions about risk have trumped science in the dialogue about the feasibility of nuclear energy.

Among the closing words from this onetime skeptic are these: “How amazing it was to find that something so completely familiar turned out in reality to be so very different from what I had assumed all my life.”

Our only complaint with the book is that many of these facts are embedded in a long, long narrative story. Cravens is primarily a novelist, and the book reads like it, but her precision in detailing all the science is nothing short of amazing.

This book will give you all you need for comprehensive future references regarding radiation and nuclear power.

Jack Dini ([email protected]) is an environmental columnist and author of Challenging Environmental Mythology. Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.