Nuclear Power Could Be Our Salvation

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Nuclear power could be our salvation
Gwyneth Cravens | Posted: Sunday, November 24, 2013 12:00 am

Like many Americans who grew up during the height of the Cold War, I was deeply skeptical about nuclear energy.
As a child, I was plagued by dreams of exploding nuclear bombs, and for years afterward I associated nuclear energy with the destructive force of nuclear weapons. Fictional movies like “The China Syndrome” and sensationalist news coverage convinced me that nuclear power plants released dangerous amounts of radiation that threatened millions of people with birth defects and cancer.
But, like many environmentalists who were growing increasingly concerned about the magnitude of climate change, in the 1990s I began to re-examine my assumptions about nuclear energy. Under the guidance of respected scientists, engineers, radiologists and radiation protection experts from across the country, I embarked on a decade-long journey to uncover the truth about nuclear energy.
To my astonishment, I realized that most of what I had believed was simply wrong and unsupported by hard science.
Decades of extensive studies by internationally recognized researchers, for instance, have shown that American nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities do not cause cancer clusters and do not release harmful amounts of radiation. People living next door to a nuclear plant receive less radiation in an entire year than they would from a single medical X-ray – or from eating a banana (the fruit contains a radioactive isotope of potassium).
Many people believe that radiation is man-made and therefore dangerous. During my nuclear journey, I learned that this is definitely not the case. Radiation is completely natural. It comes from the sun, the earth, the ocean, our homes, the food we eat, the water we drink, and from medical procedures that save thousands of lives every day. Less than 0.1 of 1 percent of our exposure comes from nuclear facilities.
I also found out that nuclear power is the best way to reduce carbon emissions. These heat-trapping gases are accelerating climate change, which threatens the future of our planet. Unlike fossil fuel plants, nuclear plants don’t release carbon into the atmosphere, nor do they release toxins like mercury, arsenic and lead that poison our water.
While commercial nuclear reactors have not caused a single death in the U.S. in their 60-year history, toxic pollution from coal and gas plants kills more than 13,000 Americans every year.
But what about the uranium mining required to produce fuel for nuclear power plants?
Like many people, my fears about uranium mining go back to its birth in the 1950s and ’60s in the Southwest. Like all forms of mining during that era, uranium mining was almost completely unregulated and took place without any of the modern environmental and safety controls that we take for granted today. But since the 1970s and the advent of the modern regulatory era, the uranium-mining industry has made tremendous advances that have dramatically improved its environmental and safety record.
All of the primitive, unsafe practices used in the 1950s and ’60s have been outlawed for decades, and the positive outcomes are well-established by researchers and government agencies around the world.
Two major advances have contributed to this remarkable transformation. The first is the introduction of ventilation into underground mines to eliminate the risk of harmful radon exposure to workers. Today, mines are so effectively ventilated that miners are exposed to the same amount of radon as farmers who till the soil.
The second advance has been in the storage of mine tailings, or waste rock. Five or six decades ago, they were stored in above-ground impoundments, often along the banks of major rivers, where the tailings were washed into drinking water supplies during heavy rains and floods.
But federal legislation passed in the late 1970s revolutionized the way tailings are stored today. Instead of using above-ground impoundments prone to failure, mining companies now safely contain tailings below ground, where they cannot be released by storms and floods.
In modern mining operations, multiple liners surround the tailings to prevent them from leaking into groundwater systems. Studies by government agencies in the U.S. and Canada have shown the safety and effectiveness of these liners.
Niels Bohr, the scientist who discovered the structure of the atom 75 years ago, spoke of science as “the gradual removal of prejudice.” By opening my eyes to science, I have become convinced that nuclear energy is the safest, cleanest and most viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Without it, we cannot rescue our planet from climate catastrophe. I only hope more of my environmentalist friends will open their minds and challenge their mistaken assumptions about nuclear energy. The future of our planet hangs in the balance.
Gwyneth Cravens is the author of “Power to Save the World: The Truth About
Nuclear Energy.” Contact her at

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