by Helen Caldicott
(The New Press, $23.95; 2006)

About a year ago, I was on an energy workshop panel when one of the audience members raised his hand and asked the simple question, “What about nuclear?”

Afterwards I realized that many of my comments in response were not based on the latest information on nuclear power.  So I set to work educating myself on the current state of the art.  One of many books I chose for in this quest was Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, written the well-known anti-nuclear activist, Helen Caldicott.

Caldicott has written a brief but broad guide to the many reasons that the so-called renaissance in nuclear power is a bad idea.  It is a fast-paced compendium of information on the nuclear issues of net energy, global warming emissions, radiation and disease, accident and terrorist-based risks, Yucca Mountain and waste disposal, Generation IV plants, weapon proliferation and “rogue nations.”  The final sections touch on renewable energy alternatives and on what individuals can do in supporting energy conservation and efficiency.

One of the more interesting, and controversial, parts of the book is her reference to the work of nuclear researchers van Leeuwen and Smith.  These fellows attempted to total the numbers on how much energy was used and greenhouse gas emitted from ALL parts of extracting, processing and disposal of nuclear fuel as well as the construction, operation and decommissioning of a nuclear plant.

While the operation of the nuclear plant was fairly greenhouse gas emission-free, as eco-nuke advocates like James Lovelock note, when they added the impact of the rest of the fuel cycle and other plant life-cycle activities, these plants were estimated to emit about one-third the carbon dioxide of a natural gas powered plant.  

They also noted that this would get much worse in the future as the high-grade uranium ore was depleted and lower grade ores had to be ground up and processed.  A type of “peak uranium” crisis if you will.

I did have a few problems with some obvious errors.  A value of 509 replaced the original 5.9 value, Oak Ridge gets moved to Idaho from Tennessee, a volume of granite is given only two dimensions and co-generation is noted as a “renewable.”

Also there was also too much duplication of material.  This makes me think that perhaps it was a bit of a “fix up” of other texts to form a book rather having the book be inspired as an integrated work from scratch.

The good news is that there are many end notes for details and you can find many of them on the Internet.  The bad news is there are a lot of repeated references without an associated page number in order to find quickly the information cited.

In conclusion, I’d recommend this book to readers who’d like to get up to speed with the anti-nuclear talking points of the day and aren’t bothered by the activist language and tone.  I certainly learned a lot.

— Dennis Keim