The first Earth Day was proclaimed in 1970, and where I was living, in New York City on the Upper West Side, it was the first warm, sunny day in weeks. My neighbors and I and our children rather spontaneously crept out of our brownstone apartments, actually exchanged pleasantries, and swept the sidewalks and picked up litter. We felt better about ourselves and our neighborhood—and about the earth. Something momentous was occurring that fit right in with the optimistic social revolution that was underway. I’d read in the Village Voice about ecologist Stewart Brand’s insistent question: “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole earth?” Thanks to his campaign and his inspirational writings, we now have that beautiful icon to remind us to think globally while acting locally.
I was thus motivated to adopt practices that benefitted the environment. For example, when I moved out of the city I started an organic garden and a compost heap. I recycled. I protested the opening of the Shoreham nuclear plant in Long Island. I sent donations to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
Fast forward to the late 1990s, and an encounter with a scientist, Dr. D. (Rip) Richard Anderson, who patiently led me to understand that it was only by looking at the whole picture regarding energy and the environment that we could begin to understand what’s at stake and what actions are needed to protect the only home in the universe that we have. Rip is an oceanographer, a chemist, and an expert in probabilistic risk assessment who has led several big projects for Sandia National Laboratories, and he’s also an organic gardener, a beekeeper, and an environmental activist alongside his wife, Marcia Fernández. They campaign on behalf of clean air, clean water, and open land in New Mexico, where they reside. Rip began to explain to me the alarming consequences of the human race’s transfer of vast quantities of carbon from underground into the atmosphere. Drawing on a paper napkin, he connected accelerated global warming and ocean acidification, which he considers the greater threat, to the choices we’ve made about the energy we use to run our world civilization.
“What should we do?” I asked. “Keep extracting oil and gas and coal and burning them until the planet becomes a living hell? Build a lot of wind turbines and solar arrays?”
“As soon as people’s beer gets warm,” he replied, “I expect they’ll choose nuclear power.”
I tried to mask my surprise and annoyance. No way could nuclear power be good for the environment. Having grown up during the cold war in New Mexico, where bomb scientists and engineers worked around the clock to win the arms race, I’d developed an aversion to anything nuclear and while in college there and in grad school in New York had participated in ban-the-bomb and Mothers for Peace events.
Here’s what my environmentally inclined, anti-nuclear, us-versus-them friends and I thought we knew about nuclear energy:
- Manmade radiation is far more dangerous than natural radiation—cosmic radiation, for instance.
- Even a tiny speck of manmade radioactive material can kill you.
- Radiation from a nuclear plant can travel hundreds of miles and kill you.
- Nuclear plants are just ticking atomic time bombs. Without warning they can explode and kill millions and cause cancer, and mutations. The Chernobyl accident killed tens of thousands of people.
- Nuclear plants could easily be taken over by a few gunmen and the fuel in the reactor stolen and turned into an atomic bomb.
- The people who work in the nuclear field are indifferent to humanity and to the environment.
- A coal-fired plant is safer than a nuclear plant any day.
- Nobody knows what to do with nuclear waste. Mountains of it are piling up everywhere. It lasts forever and will turn huge tracts into radioactive wastelands.
To be continued . . . .
Gwyneth Cravens is the author of “Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy” and has written articles on science and other topics for The New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications.
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