The radiation emitted by a single banana is far greater than the annual yearly exposure generated by an operating nuclear power plant.

An interesting factoid gleaned from a Long Now lecture by summarizing the book Power to Save the World, in which the author, Gwyneth Cravens, a former anti-nuclear activist, makes the case for radical expansion of nuclear power as a necessary step in averting a global-warming induced climate crisis. I found Cravens’ lecture, co-presented with nuclear engineer Rip Anderson, listless, stilted, boring, and one-sided, but nonetheless worthy of attention for the comparative analysis of nuclear, fossil-fuel, and renewable energy sources in the light of the climate crisis.

As I have written before, I am not a big fan of nuclear power. I believe it has serious drawbacks as a source of energy, what with that toxic, long-lived radioactive waste, the requirement for elaborate safety mechanisms and stringent protocols to ensure containment of harmful radiation, the issues of uranium fuel enrichment and controlling nuclear weapons proliferation, etcetera ad nauseum. However, most of our current energy sources have serious drawbacks, chief among them for the majority being the amount of pollutants, in particular greenhouse gas pollutants, they produce. Nuclear power does have the singular advantage of an extremely low CO2 signature, and as such, in light of an impending global-warming induced climate crisis, might be the lesser of evils in our present options (chiefly coal, whose toxic pollutants from mining and combustion kill thousands yearly, constituting a public health threat, and are a leading source of greenhouse gases emissions), at least until we figure out how to overcome the technical limitations facing truly clean alternatives like solar, wind, and tidal energies, namely the lack of a viable energy storage mechanisms to allow constant energy output to meet demand from variable inputs (nighttime and cloudy or windless days).

As much as I applaud and wholeheartedly endorse Al Gore’s generational challenge to repower America with clean, renewable electricity, I recognize that nuclear power, as a proven, low-carbon source of base load electricity, will likely play a large role in the short term as we make the necessary transition away from fossil fuels. I would hope that it find its place as an energy alternative with its current stringent environmental and safety regulations intact and without government subsidization, gaining its competitive advantage on a playing field in which greenhouse gas emissions are taxed for their true environmental costs.