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Nuclear Recovery

Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

(This review appears in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of The American Spectator.)

Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey
By William Tucker
(Bartleby Press, 420 pages, $27.50)

ONE CLEAR MEASURE OF of nuclear power’s rising fortunes is that both presidential candidates this year came out in favor of harnessing the power of the atom to address our nation’s energy and environmental challenges. It wasn’t too long ago that politicians avoided talking about nuclear energy, or if they did, it was to call for shutting down the nation’s fleet of reactors. Times are certainly changing. John McCain called for building 45 new reactors. Barack Obama claimed to be for nuclear power as well, though he did say he doesn’t “think it’s our optimal energy source.” Still, that’s a big concession from the nominee of a party that largely takes its cues from decidedly anti-nuke environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace.

Someone who does think nuclear power is our optimal energy source, and the answer to all our energy and environmental problems, is veteran journalist (and American Spectator contributor) William Tucker. Tucker has emerged as a true evangelist with his book Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey. The book’s premise is simple: “The only way we are ever going to supply ourselves with enough energy while reducing our carbon emission is through a revival of nuclear power.” Addressing longtime fears about this strange technology, he notes, “Nuclear power is a perfectly natural phenomenon, as natural as the warmth in the ground beneath our feet.”

Powerfully written, Terrestrial Energy is a remarkably accessible book that should convert any number of skeptics with its pro-nuclear sermon. However, its strength lies not in the zeal this preacher brings, but in the dispassionate way he makes the case for nuclear in the context of all our energy options. More than just filing a brief for nuclear power, Terrestrial Energy really offers a first-rate primer on energy.

Almost all the conventional energy sources we employ are forms of solar power, Tucker notes, including fossil fuels. When we burn coal and oil, we unlock stored solar energy that originally rained down from the sun. Or we can “turn to a variety of technologies that tap the sun’s rays directly or draw on physical processes driven by the sun’s heat,” like solar panels and windmills.

Nuclear power is different. The energy source comes not from the sun, but from deep within the earth (hence the title). “There is one great difference between terrestrial energy and solar energy,” writes Tucker, “and that is the energy density. Terrestrial energy is far more concentrated--by a factor of about two million.”

This can have dangerous possibilities--just one gram of matter was turned into the energy that annihilated Hiroshima. But it also offers an almost boundless opportunity to provide the energy humanity needs at a time when we are accustomed to think of our resources as limited. Tiny amounts of material and land can generate enormous volumes of power, without pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.

Compare that to the environmental footprint of other “clean” technologies. Tucker describes one cutting-edge thermal solar project in Spain as “a remarkably futuristic 30-story structure that looks like a giant carpenter’s level stuck the ground after arriving from outer space. The facility uses 136 acres to generate 11 MW.” That's not much power for a lot of land. Extrapolate from that, and “to get 1,000 MW--an average commercial plant--it would have to cover twenty square miles.” Photovoltaic solar panels are worse; they would need 50 square miles. For all those Greens who talk of the virtually limitless resources of the sun, Tucker points out that “land, after all, is also a limited resource.”

Wind is hardly better, similarly requiring large tracts of land. Plus, it doesn’t always blow, meaning that windmills generate electricity no more than 30 percent of the time. You couldn’t power the grid solely on wind, writes Tucker. Wind may be able to play a marginal role in our energy economy--energy expert and Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens says that, in a perfect world, wind might supply as much as 20 percent of our electricity. But that’s an optimistic assessment, and no one thinks wind is anything more than a partial contributor to our energy solutions. At bottom, writes Tucker, wind “remains a medieval technology.”

Tucker ably dispatches the fuzzy thinking that has muddied our energy and environmental debates for decades. A particular target is environmental guru Amory Lovins, father of the “soft energy” movement, who thinks we can jettison fossil fuels and nukes and instead power the economy on efficiency and windmills and solar panels. Lovins’s influence is outsized; he is almost singularly responsible for California’s refusal to build any new power plants during the 1990s, even though demand kept rising. Result? The rolling blackouts in 2000 and 2001 that made California a laughingstock and helped bounce governor Gray Davis. Tucker eviscerates Lovins for peddling a doctrine that conveniently ignores elemental facts about where we get our energy from and what we use it for.

A THOROUGH JOURNALIST, Tucker travels the globe to get to the bottom of the 21st-century energy story. He visits coal plants in Ohio as well as nuclear reactors in France (a country that produces 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power). His journalistic sense of fairness leads him to seek an interview with Lovins. This is where Terrestrial Energy takes on a “Roger and Me” quality, as Lovins won’t talk to him and is conveniently absent when Tucker treks all the way to his Snowmass, Colorado home. The account is hilarious, as is Tucker’s chance meeting with celebrity New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The author of several bestselling books on global economic trends, Friedman holds considerable sway on energy and environmental topics. Yet Tucker exposes Friedman as fundamentally unserious for his abrupt dismissal of nuclear power.

Despite the evident benefits of nuclear power, it’s the downside that has made Americans hesitant since Three Mile Island (TMI) and Chernobyl. Tucker addresses those worries, noting the heroic reforms undertaken by the nuclear industry to instill a culture of safety after TMI (a not-very-serious accident that served as a dramatic wake-up call). He also calls out extremist environmentalist claims that any amount of radiation is dangerous. “If swallowing 100 aspirins will kill 100 out of 100 people,” Tucker notes, “that does not mean taking 2 aspirin will kill 2 people. Clearly there are thresholds below which the body’s defenses can deal with an environmental insult.”

The public (and our politicians) is slowly coming to the conclusion that we should build new nuclear power plants to address our energy and climate change challenges. Kudos to Tucker for showing why we can, and why we should.

(This review appears in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of The American Spectator.)

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About the Author

Max Schulz is a writer in Texas.