Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Day 151: Gwyneth Cravens: Power to Save The World

Gwyneth's sweep of earth, courtesy Department of Energy

"If you asked me whether I'd rather live in the nation's fastest-growing metropolis or ninety miles away, at the graveyard of quite possibly more atomic explosions than anywhere else in the solar systems, I'd pick the clean air, sweep of earth and sky, and stark contrasts of light and shadow offered by the Nevada Test Site, which covers a thousand unpopulated square miles enclosed by mountain ranges. Counter terrorism units and environmental remediation teams now train here. There's so much land that they can easily avoid forbidden areas- "sacrifice zones" - that may have some residual contamination from weapons tests of long ago"

Power to Save the World, Gwyneth Cravens, p. 301-2

This might be the most absurd statement that I have ever read, but Gwyneth actually writes these exact words in her book. You can't write something like this and not be inviting controversy. The paragraph has been haunting and irritating me for days, so it has become the subject of today's post (rant?) in order allow me to move on in life.

This paragraph offers a accurate portrait how desperately and extremely this book attempts to make its point, and how Gwyneth deals with her topic in provocatively absolutist terms. I first encountered Power to Save the World in the shop at the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque. After reading the back cover it seemed like something I should read for no other reason than it runs completely counter intuitively to my sensibilities. Ms. Cravens lives in New York and has written for both the New Yorker and Harper's, and in this book she has declared nuclear power -the power to "save the world".

The book was one of the most challenging reading experiences I have endured. It has not opened my mind to the sparkling promises of nuclear energy- it was simply a deeply frustrating experience. I won't go into several examples since the rhetoric and style of writing throughout is quite similar to the sample above. This paragraph in particular captured my attention because it literally transported me back to the bus tour I took of the Nevada Test Site this past October. Our guide on the tour addressed us in similar language. It was maddening to say the least. He would make statements that pointed to hidden truths about the dangers and problems associated with the nuclear world (power and weapons alike), volumes of facts and realities lying right under the surface of that he was saying, but he would then divert the message to something unrelated- and distracting- and repeatedly juxtaposed upon the natural world. This happened over and over on the tour and over and over in this book. I am coming to realize what a powerful, and dangerous rhetorical device it is.

So yes, the use of language and selected content throughout Power to Save the World is appalling in many many ways. I could probably write a lengthy counter argument to nearly every page, but instead I will just address this paragraph since it serves as a sufficient example:

1) Since when do we have to choose only between living in (my bold) Las Vegas or the Nevada Test Site? What kind of (insane) options are these for all Americans seriously trying to understand the topic of nuclear power? What is gained by using this extreme example, other than to make a non-point and to subversively try, and incorrectly suggest, that the Nevada Test Site is safe, clean, habitable and actually welcomes civilians? She takes up the tactic of binary opposition throughout her book, repeatedly pairing the stunning "green" energy of nuclear power against coal in her book. We have other options and don't have to settle for either "solution". She fails to address these options in any real way and their absence is deafening. Coal and living in Las Vegas aren't our only two choices.

2) She suggests that the NTS somehow resembles a natural undisturbed environment, "a thousand unpopulated square miles enclosed by mountain ranges". It would be hard to forget, as she oddly acknowledges, that this site has been bombed over 1000 times -with our own nuclear weapons. It is the most heavily bombed location on earth. I am thoroughly confused by this claim of natural beauty when surely shew knows that the "clean air" that she mentions has carried fallout across our country for decades, and the "sweep of the earth" that she refers to is covered with giant subsistence craters - disrupting any possibility of a "clean sweep". The reason that the NTS is a thousand square miles of "unpopulated" (in terms of humans) landscape enclosed by mountains is that it is a highly restricted, regulated, toxic, militarized zone- due both to the reality that it is the most highly bombed place on earth, is a current site for storing low-level nuclear waste, and continues to be the military's proving ground. No-one could live there if they wanted to.

4) "There's so much land that they can easily avoid forbidden areas-"sacrifice zones".
The use of the word "sacrifice zones" indirectly, and powerfully, implies that the contamination that exists at the NTS was a price we (as Americans), and the earth, had to pay for our our freedom and peace (or dominance, consumption and military might?). I think it is important to remember this was the US military setting off the bombs at the NTS, not God. I'm not sure what positive and peaceful outcomes Americans, or the earth, have gotten in return for the 'sacrifice', but it somehow feels as though not enough people were consulted about the long-term consequences and lack of possibility for life in any form to exist there. Humans and other life on the planet are going to have to continue to make "sacrifices" in response to this act, by staying as far away as possible, from these zones for millions of years.

5) The statement, "that may [my bold] have some [my bold] residual [my bold] contamination from weapons tests of long ago[my bold] " might be the most misleading of all statements. If Gwyneth has taken the time to write an "informed" book on nuclear energy, surely she knows that the "may" is actually "most certainly", the "some" is "quite a a lot", "residual" is "highly contaminated" and "long ago", dates back only to 1992. The contamination will last millions of years, so "long ago" is actually more like "right now".

I'm actually glad I read the book. I learned much from it, not directly from Gwyneth or her voice, but did learn that although Yucca Mountain hasn't been opened WIPP has. I had no idea high-level nuclear waste is already being put into the earth for deep time. This is BIG news to me.

Reading the book also inspired me look up many answer to meet the glaring absences of Gwyneth's research: Here are some links to meet her claims about the true cost, economics, safety, history and "clean" energy of nuclear power. I agree with House Leader, Senator Harry Reid from Nevada on this topic- the waste should be stored right where it is created. Perhaps it is time to start coming up with some other long-term "green" solutions that are not based not based on unrenewable resources (like uranium), especially those that demand constant, militant regulation in order to avoid extreme hazard. I somehow sense that Nevadans, who have lived most closely with the United States nuclear complex the longest, probably know best.

Also, if you live in New York, after reading the book I have officially turned over 100% of our apartment's energy cost to wind power. At this point, I'm happy to pay more- anything to distance myself from our own local Indian Point.

No comments: