Former Foe Embraces Nuclear Energy

Cal Plant Standard

hide captionThe San Onofre atomic power plant, in northern San Diego, as seen in 2004.

David McNew/Getty Images

Writer Gwyneth Cravens, an environmentalist and opponent of nuclear energy, spent the better part of the last decade researching the issues — and did an about-face. Her new book, entitled Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, comes out Tuesday.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

In the next two years, government agencies will review some 30 applications to build nuclear reactors around the country. And as we wrap up the BPP's four-part series on nuclear energy, our next guest is someone who has fought the building of these plants in the past.

She's a self-described environmentalist and organic gardener. During her career, she's marched against nukes, signed petitions condemning nuclear energy. You think you know where this is going? Think again.

Gwyneth Cravens is an author and a journalist who spent the better of part of the last decade researching nuclear energy, and her research has led her to do an about-face on the issue. Her new book is titled "Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy." It's due out on Tuesday. And Gwyneth joins us now.

Hi, Gwyneth.

Ms. GWYNETH CRAVENS (Author, "Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy): Hi.

STEWART: When someone said to you 15, 20 years ago nuclear power, that's not so bad. What list of arguments did you counter with?

Ms. CRAVENS: The standard ones. We don't know anything about nuclear reactions, we don't know - we don't understand about radiations, we - this is unnatural. It's dangerous; a nuclear plant could blow up like an atomic bomb. That we - there's - nobody knows what to do about the waste. There is no safe place to put it, and there's a staggering amount of it. And a nuclear plant gives off - the stuff coming out of the towers of a nuclear plant that is radioactive and it's, you know, could damage my organic garden.

STEWART: So those were all the arguments that you were armed with. But in your book you write about meeting a well-regarded scientist named Rip, who really was the catalyst for your journey and your change in opinion. What was that turnkey moment, that one conversation, or that one visit to a power plant, or that one statistic that made it click for you to think nuclear energy might be an okay answer?

Ms. CRAVENS: Well, on the same day, we visited a coal-fired plant and a nuclear plant, and the difference is so dramatic. The coal plant was well regulated according to the rather lax standards required. It was filthy. The - there was nothing coming - you could see coming out of stacks but Rip Anderson, who's name is Dr. Richard Anderson but everyone calls him Rip, said, no, there is gas coming out of the stacks. There's carbon dioxide, mercury vapor, various other gases. And the waste, we saw the big slurry pond in the back, which was online and was likely to be leeching toxic heavy metals on - things like arsenic and lead - into the river nearby.

STEWART: So was your observation about this coal plant was that the idea that, okay, if this is the alternative, I need to look at nuclear energy…

Ms. CRAVENS: Right.

STEWART: …as something that could be better. So in terms of your association with nuclear energy, your associations with it, is that it's the lesser of other evils?

Ms. CRAVENS: It definitely is. And the more I learned about coal, the more shocked I was and I kept saying why hasn't anybody told me this? And now, when I talk to people about this, they say the same thing. We don't think about where our electricity comes from; we just turn on the light and that's great. But 51 percent of it comes from burning coal, 71 percent total comes from fossil fuels, and there's a hundred million tons of solid waste a year from coal.

STEWART: Well, let's talk about the nuclear waste because that was one of the arguments you said you used to make to people. It's this huge issue, its radioactivity. It's - you know, if it's all to be deposited in one place, let's say Yucca Mountain, which I know you visited - you detailed it in your book - it has to get there. Aren't those rational fears for people to have spent nuclear fuel mobile and on the roads?

Ms. CRAVENS: Well, in fact, nuclear material has moved around the country all the time in very thick casks, in reinforced trucks that are tracked by satellite and - that automatically lock if anyone tries to get into them.

STEWART: So you're saying that's already happening?

Ms. CRAVENS: Yeah. There's - nuclear waste is being brought to the Geologic Waste Repository in southeastern New Mexico and has been since 1999.

STEWART: Another big argument a lot of people say is, hey, what about wind power or solar power? You point out they're expensive and they really can't create the amount of energy we want.

Ms. CRAVENS: Exactly.

STEWART: So - but here is a question, if you're going to spend all these money on nuclear reactors, should that money maybe be spent on trying to figure out how to make solar and wind power less expensive and more feasible?

Ms. CRAVENS: Money is being spent on that and has been for sometime. And compared to the amount of energy they supply - and by the way I'm for them, I think we…

STEWART: Okay.

Ms. CRAVENS: We need everything to combat catastrophic global warming. It's such a serious problem. And so any carbon-dioxide-free energy supply I am definitely for it. I can't wait to get solar roof tiles when they have them, you know, when they are affordable and really available. But at this point and for the next several decades even the real optimist in the renewable energy field only expect us to get 20 percent of our energy.

Right now, we get less than 1 percent from wind and solar in the States. So, okay, that leaves 80 percent that has to come from somewhere else. Right now, nuclear power provides about 20 percent and then you have hydroelectric, 5 percent and that can't be increased, and the rest is fossil fuels. So we're burning - we have to do something in the next decade or so according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

STEWART: Something I'm curious about, when you were researching this book because it's really, really well-detailed and well-research, you write about a little bit - a kind of prejudice you call it about nuclear power that maybe you had. Is that the right kind of word?

Ms. CRAVENS: That is the right kind of word. And I think of it this way. I'm also a feminist and was in the generation that clearly woke up and said, wait a minute, I should be getting just as much pay as the guy next to me. And I began to read about women around the world and in many countries women are - don't work at all. And so that country is not using half of its brain power. You know, they're not fully using what resource they have because of prejudice.

STEWART: And you liken that to not using nuclear power because…

Ms. CRAVENS: I began to see that this was a book about prejudice, and that I had assumptions that were not based in science. We do know a great deal about radiation. I'd spent - studied since, you know, the 1890s. We know more about it in many ways than we do about biological and chemical agents. We know quite exactly about radiation doses, a large-scale radiation doses and when radiation begins to be dangerous, but in fact we live in an ocean of radiation naturally. So - and I thought any radiation was bad for you, I didn't realize I myself am radioactive and so are you, Alison.

STEWART: Yeah. We get so much just through the days.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

Now, even if we accept for a moment that nuclear power has gotten its bad rep on safety and you can assure us that nuclear waste is a manageable problem, it still seems politically unthinkable. I mean, which community is going to allow a nuclear plant to be built these days.

Ms. CRAVENS: Well, according to one survey, anyway - and I can't remember, I think it was about 10,000 people living around nuclear plants were asked, were they okay with an additional plant being added in their neighborhood or an additional reactor to the existing plant, and over 80 percent said yes, they were okay with it.

STEWART: Gwyneth, we have just a short time left but I have to ask this for the record, you don't have any affiliations, personal profession with anyone who's promoting nuclear energy in the private sector or lobbying the government in any way?

Ms. CRAVENS: Absolutely not. I am a novelist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CRAVENS: And I don't have any affiliations and I actually have - I can't be - I'm quite critical of the nuclear industry for things they've failed to do well.

STEWART: Yes, it's a well-detailed, well-written book. Gwyneth Cravens…

Ms. CRAVENS: Thank you.

STEWART: …author of the new book, "Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy." It comes out Tuesday.

Thanks for joining us.

Ms. CRAVENS: Thank you very much.

STEWART: If you missed any part of our Nuclear Energy series and want to catch up, check out our blog at npr.org/bryantpark.

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