A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity

Scott W. Heaberlin adds to the message in the title with the subtitle “…or why I think nuclear power is cool and why it is important that you think so too.” The book works hard to overcome negative feelings about nuclear energy. I was convinced, but admit that I was convinced before I read the book. I doubt any avid nuclear energy foes will have their minds changed. The book takes on a complicated technical subject in a both educational and conversational manner. The author sometimes succeeds, and sometimes falls into the “curse of knowledge” trap that leads knowledgeable people to want to explain everything in details much beyond what is necessary, or at least what I thought was necessary.

The book does a fine job of explaining why nuclear energy is not just a good idea but is necessary if humans want to continue to live comfortably. The alternative sources being pushed simply cannot keep up energy demands of the future. Against that stand those who think they are saving the planet by opposing nuclear energy. The author writes “…nuclear energy makes a great bogeyman. It is new, powerful, invisible, and science fiction thrilling…” “The case against it is…spun to give the most sensational story.” And that was written before a tsunami in Japan gave nuclear energy foes more sensational ammunition.

People have been led to believe that humans must save Mother Nature and that technology is the enemy. One example the author gives is the belief that only “organic” foods should be eaten. People who buy foods with that label probably can afford the cost of foods that haven’t been grown with the use of fertilizers or any other man-made chemicals. However, the author estimates that the food supply for the world would be cut to twenty percent of current production if only “organic” foods could be grown. That would be really bad news for a very large number of people.

A very compelling argument for how technology makes life better is the information about historical China. The list of technology advances in that country before 1400 is impressive and China was a world power. Technology was discouraged after the Confucian party gained political power and China over the next many centuries became a country rich in history and culture but insignificant in just about every other measure. For example, it struggled and often failed to be able to feed its people. The book makes the very good point that “…if the ‘technology is bad’ message gets incorporated into too many of our daily decisions, we can turn our bright future into something else…If we in the developed nations make the wrong choices, we doom all of humanity…we miss the chance to avoid the combined human population growth and resources exhaustion disaster coming at us like a runaway train.”

I consider that chapter three is the best of the technical discussions in the book. The section titled “What is Electricity?’ is excellent. I feel strongly enough about it to recommend that our grandchildren read it. Perhaps they will be better able to understand electricity than I have after years of being confused about it. I think the opening sentences of the section will say much about the author’s intent to make his writing educational and fun. “Electricity, as we commonly use it is the flow of electrons. Well, great, Thanks a lot. You just defined one thing I don’t understand with another thing I don’t understand. Very helpful.” The book then launches into a detailed description of electricity, its history, how it is made, and why it is so important to us now and the future. Even if you don’t want to read a book that advocates increased use of nuclear power you will profit from reading this chapter.

The chapters to follow are more difficult to read because of the author’s “curse of knowledge.” Chapter 4, “A Little Basic Nuclear Science” is informative, but there is repetition. I interpret that the author thinks the chapter is so important that he gives more than “A Little…” It is good information, but I struggled (often unsuccessfully) with not skimming to get to new information or points.

You will want to the sections of Chapter 5 describing the Chornobyl(I thought it was “Chernobyl”) and Chapter 6 about Three Mile Island if you ever decide to engage an ardent foe of nuclear energy in a meaningful conversation. The Chornobyl (I’ll use the author’s spelling) disaster was caused by human error and design flaws that did not prevent the disaster. It was a terrible disaster, and anyone who wants nuclear energy to be in our future should look at it carefully and learn how to do much, much better. The Three Mile Island was also a disaster, but the design of the facility resulted in no measureable health effects for nearby residents.

All in all, the book is worthwhile regardless of whether you are for or against nuclear energy. If you are against it, you should look at the arguments presented to prepare for a reasoned explanation for the positives of that method of making needed energy. If you are for it, it will better prepare you for the ardent disagreements from those who have a nearly religious belief that they must stop even the slightest discussion of possible positive effects from development of more nuclear generators. You might mention in the discussions that burning coal produces more pollutants, including toxic and radioactive waste, than emissions from nuclear. We accept that because nuclear is more difficult to understand.

I will end this review by saying that we have a choice. We can accept and profit from technology or we can imitate the behavior of Luddites who burned looms because the looms were a technology advance that produced more cloth. We can be frightened and prevent advances in technology or we can accept that our grandchildren deserve a comfortable and prosperous life. Take a look at this book if you are interested in the subject.

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