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TOWNHALL Q&A: GWYNETH CRAVENS – NUCLEAR REVIVAL & BEST BUY

By William Tucker
Gwyneth Cravens is an established novelist with six books and a stint at The New Yorker under her belt.  Under any other circumstances, she might be attending book signings of her next novel.  But almost a decade ago, she attended a party in Albuquerque that changed her life.  Almost unwittingly, she became drawn into what may eventually become the most controversial political issue of the era – the Revival of Nuclear Power in the United States.
 
Three years after the publication of her groundbreaking book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy (Vintage), she spends a great deal of her time touring the country, trying to convince audiences that nuclear power is nowhere near as frightening as people imagine and that in fact it will play the crucial role in our energy future.  And her book is still selling.  We caught up with her for a brief update on how she believes public opinion is changing:
 
NTH: At the risk of boring you to death, could you just tell us once more briefly how you went from being a Long Island mother protesting the opening of the Shoreham Nuclear Reactor to one of the country’s leading voices in favor of nuclear energy?
 
CRAVENS:
Marcia Fernández, a friend of mine who’s a singer and an educator lives in Albuquerque, where I grew up.  On visits there I’d see her at parties along with her scientist husband, D. Richard (Rip) Anderson, who worked at Sandia National Laboratories.  You never ask Sandians what they do­it’s almost always classified. During a conversation at a flamenco party, however, he happened to tell me that the plutonium and uranium removed from warheads in the US arsenal would eventually be used to make electricity at nuclear plants and that 10 percent of our electricity today comes from former Russian weapons. Astonished, I began asking a lot of questions and sounding off about the risks of nuclear power and nuclear waste. I didn’t realize that he was one of the world’s foremost experts on probabilistic risk assessment, nuclear waste, and nuclear environmental health and safety!  He patiently spent a lot of time giving me clear and thorough answers. As the dialogue continued over the next few years, he finally said I ought to see some nuclear facilities for myself.  So he and Marcia and I eventually went on the “Nuclear America Tour” as their son dubbed it.  We went all over the country, following the path of uranium from cradle to working life to grave and met a lot of interesting people in the nuclear world.  I was so skeptical that I had to double-check everything with a number of helpful scientists and engineers and to study the literature.  Eventually I came to realize that wrong assumptions and distorted data had led to prejudice on my part.
 
NTH:
From the perspective of New York literary circles, embracing nuclear power does seem to entail certain social risks.  What has been the reaction of your friends and colleagues in the literary world to your newfound passion on nuclear?
 
CRAVENS: I thought I’d be shunned.  But all my literary friends who have read the book have changed their minds and they’ve even given copies to their friends.  There’s one exception­an environmental writer who I believe will come to his senses when he truly realizes what’s at stake.  A number of his fellow environmentalists as well as many climate scientists have become pro-nuclear.
 
NTH: As someone who has been fielding questions from audiences for the past three years, how has the public response changed ?  Is the public becoming more literate on energy matters?
 
CRAVENS: When I finished the book I was pessimistic.  I assumed that public sentiment would continue to be manipulated by the usual fear-mongering mythology.   To my surprise, I’ve found audiences quite receptive­ particularly after I recite the facts about the impact of fossil fuel combustion on public health and the environment.  People worry about a hypothetical nuclear catastrophe when not one member of the public has died as a result of the operation of commercial nuclear plants.  Meanwhile tens of thousands die annually in the US because of waste from burning coal, oil, and natural gas.
 
NTH: Where does the opposition still lie?  Is it the east and west coasts that are opposed to nuclear, with the South and Midwest more receptive?  Is it a class issue?  Are college-educated people generally more or less favorable?

CRAVENS: The Southeast is the most pro-nuclear – in part because the cost of electricity is cheaper thanks to the large number of nuclear plants there and the communities’ familiarity with them. New Yorkers and Californians seem more reflexively anti-nuclear.  I didn’t oppose “Our Friend the Atom” until I left New Mexico, went to grad school at NYU and got involved in ban-the-bomb protests.  People who have done surveys find that women tend to be more anti-nuclear, especially mothers.  I’ve noticed that the more science courses­and I don’t mean ecology courses here­that a person has taken, the likelier he or she is to approve of nuclear power. They understand the scientific method.
 
NTH: What are the objections you usually encounter when you’ve finished your presentation?  Do people still throw up visions of whole states laid waste by a nuclear holocaust?  Are they concentrating on the costs?  Or is it all “Wind and solar can do the job better?”
 
CRAVENS: Since I once raised just about every objection that can be made, I understand that the questioners are not necessarily hostile or foolish­they think that they know something because someone claiming to have credentials said it was so.   Unfortunately some “experts” who have degrees in political science–or perhaps no degrees at all–are good at spreading around misinformation that terrifies people.  People worry about a Chernobyl here in the US.  Can’t happen. Some bring up radiation, not realizing that they’re getting a relatively big dose from Mother Nature and from the medical profession.  Others will say that nuclear is too expensive and takes too long and that renewables can do the job cheaper and faster.  They can’t. The angriest response I’ve received so far was from an employee of the coal industry.  He shouted that coal was now clean and that a lot of people would lose their jobs if nuclear power ever expanded. 
 
NTH: What do people seem to find the most convincing argument in favor of nuclear power?  Is there any one fact or catch phrase that makes a big impression?
 
CRAVENS: Our choices for supplying reliable electricity on a large scale in the US are limited to fossil fuel and nuclear plants. Today we get over 70 percent of our electricity from fossil fuels. The 70,000 deaths a year that are caused by air pollution are chiefly due to fossil-fuel waste from tail pipes and smokestacks. If we care about our health and about the survival of our grandchildren and their children and about the environment, we urgently need to curb air pollution and greenhouse gases using every possible resource.  Nuclear power provides 73 percent of low-carbon electricity and has the best safety record of any large-scale energy generator.  The cost of uranium is so minuscule that it’s not an issue.  And a uranium fuel pellet weighing the same as a few pennies contains the energy equivalent of nearly a ton of coal.  One Best Buy could hold all our spent nuclear fuel with room to spare.  But we won’t put it there: it retains 98 percent of its energy, so one day we’ll imitate the French and recycle it over and over until the ultimate volume of waste is tiny. 
 
NTH: You’ve been traveling with Rip Anderson and sharing the podium with him now for almost a decade.  Does he feel optimistic that the Nuclear Renaissance is going to take place in this country?  Do you?
 
CRAVENS: Rip’s an optimist and these days I am too.  He’s always said, “When people’s beer gets warm I expect they’ll go to nuclear.”   He also once observed that if they don’t, “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.  I gave you an understanding of how when uranium decays it releases energy.  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?”
 
NTH: That “Best Buy” line has got to be your showstopper. Thanks very much for your time and best of luck in your work.

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