Monday, January 07, 2008

Does The Power to Save the World Have What It Takes?

I received a copy of Gwyneth Cravens' new book, The Power to Save the World, as a Christmas gift and read it with considerable interest. I found the book interesting and informative overall, but I couldn't help but wonder if it is up to the task for which it was written- that is, to convince nuclear power skeptics to reconsider the issue. This is no small order, as I'm sure anyone who has followed the nuclear power issue with any interest is well aware.

As I was reading the book, I attempted to imagine what a hypothetical nuclear power opponent would make of Cravens' arguments. I realized, however, that I simply don't understand the thinking of your typical nuclear power skeptic. Having grown up in Oak Ridge, I have never conceived of nuclear technology as exotic, or particularly dangerous. Because of this, the stereotypical arguments against nuclear power that essentially prey on public anxieties stemming from its supposedly "unnatural" nature have always struck me as bewildering and laughable. Because of this, the mind of a nuclear power opponent is simply alien to me.

One of the heartening developments of the last few years is the fact that people of my generation seem far more open-minded about nuclear power than those of a few decades ago. Indeed, many self-identified environmentalists in the under-30 set now hold this position, much to the consternation of older anti-nuclear activists. (There was a fascinating article about this in the Earth Island Journal a few months ago, that admitted that large numbers of young environmentalists are basically pro-nuclear, to the great consternation of their elders who run the actual organizations.) I can imagine readers in this category finding Cravens' book cogent and reasonable. At the same time, The Power to Save the World has some weaknesses that provide openings for anti-nuclear activists to attack the book.

The most serious of these is probably Cravens' coverage of non-proliferation issues. While I wholly agree with her arguments on the issue- namely, that civilian nuclear power generally and reactor-grade plutonium don't really pose great proliferation risks- they aren't supported as well as they need to be to forestall dismissive criticism. Importantly, Cravens overextends the point that civilian reactors have been divorced from weapons production. While it is true that nuclear weapons states have acquired the bomb without possessing civilian nuclear power, there is one case in which "civilian" reactors were used to bolster the stockpile of a nuclear state- namely, the early MAGNOX reactors in the UK. I can easily imagine an anti-nuclear critic latching onto a quibble like this and using it to dismiss the book as a whole. Cravens may also be too glib regarding the possibility of building weapons with reactor-grade plutonium- although I agree that this is a relative non-issue, the book's failure to really grapple with this issue opens it up to attacks of the sort that the Nuclear Control Institute used to perpetrate.

I hate to sound so negative of the book. Although the overall argument was anything but shocking to me, I learned quite a bit. The sections on Subseabed and WIPP were particularly well-done, in my opinion. I had honestly always thought that Subseabed was simply crazy, and was surprised to learn that it was a far better-reasoned idea than I'd assumed. A particularly delightful part of the book is its introduction by Richard Rhodes. His own brief account of his own journey from being a nuclear power skeptic in the 1970s to being a proponent of the technology today is particularly powerful, especially since Rhodes became a reknowned authority on nuclear weapons issues in the intervening years. But does it have what it takes to change the minds of nuclear power skeptics? I'd love to hear any accounts you might have of how readers who weren't already in favor of nuclear power responded to The Power to Save the World.

[As an aside, I'd like to draw your attention to the section of the Amazon.com page for the book titled "Customers who searched for "The Power to Save the World" also expressed interest in:"- if this is any indication of the book's readership it may not be reaching nuclear power skeptics much. I really hate to see Cravens' book associated with dreck like The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism).]

1 comment:

Ashutosh said...

I am halfway through. It's a pretty informative and readable but not profoundly well-written book in my opinion. It's kind of strange how pro-nuclear stances are still associated by many environmentalists with right-wing dogma.