An Energy Scientist, His Vision, His Plan, and His Book: Sustainable Business Sans Carbon and Sans Radiation


Almost by convention, an independent engineer is a maverick. A footloose nuclear engineer, even more so, is inevitably revolutionary. Thus, Dr. Arjun Makhijani cannot escape being both interesting and controversial This profile examines the man, his ideas, his organizational mission, and, in a preliminary way, his recent monograph, a publication that not only flies in the face of established U.S. energy policy. but also casts down such a gauntlet with both a richly detailed empiricism and a highly honed conceptual framework.

Dr. Makhijani is a rarity among the nuclear priesthood. He has dared to suggest that the denizens of his vocation are other than iconic masters without facing the wrath of excommunication by everyone else in the field. Perhaps his Ph.d in nuclear engineering, with a specialization in understanding fusion, makes him difficult to assail, at least with the impunity that nuclear proponents normally expect when heaping vitriol on their opposites. In any event, when one googles "arjun makhijani" + energy + critics OR criticism OR controversy, one does not encounter the slander and calumny that a Dr. Helen Caldicott confronts as a daily cost of going about her business. I'm sure that plenty of criticism is present, but he does not invite attack, despite the strength of his position against nuclear weapons and energy.

Moreover, his bona fides in regard to energy matters go back a long way. As his official bio states,

"He was the principal author of the first study of the energy efficiency potential of the US economy, published in 1971."

He co-authored the Ford Foundation's energy report during the oil crisis of the mid '70's, A Time to Choose: America's Energy Future. His face page at the National Journal on Energy and Environment, where he is an 'expert blogger,' notes that he is a fellow of the American Physical Society, an honor only available to about one out of every two hundred APS members.

Furthermore, he has won awards for his science and prizes for his reporting and kudos for his opposition to nuclear weaponry. And until relatively recently, he believed that the U.S. might need to permit nukes to continue operating to the end of their licenses, a step necessary for us to find a path away from carbon spewing coal-fired electricity, which he believes might possibly doom our place on the planet as a result of climate change, and toward a more sustainable future. Such a position--accepting a likely Faustian bargain with fission--characterized his official pronouncements, according to prominent anti-nuclear activists, until 2005 or so, when a coterie of those who believed in both his intellectual honesty and his brilliant acuity, asked him simply to investigate, as fully as he could without significant funding---DOE, after all, already 'knew' the answer to the question posed by the activists--what the possibilities were for a fifty year transition to a sustainable business model, in the form of a practically complete reliance on renewable energy sources.

Readers should not misread this point and think Dr. M. any sort of nuclear advocate: Arjun Makhijani long ago left behind any willingness to countenance nuclear energy as a positive good. He helped to give birth to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in 1987 and has led the organization since then. He and the group pointedly evidenced the multiple intersections of weapons and reactors, as well as the multiple drawbacks of these mutually interdependent technologies.

But as his understanding of global warming grew, so did his willingness to admit that, for a time and to a limited extent, rational humans might have no choice but to keep present nukes operational. Instead of new nukes, he advocated natural gas combined cycle power plants as a bridge. This tolerance for today's atomic energy generation was at best grudging, however. In 1999, he published both The Nuclear Power Deception - U.S. Nuclear Mythology from Electricity "Too Cheap to Meter" to "Inherently Safe" Reactors, with Scott Saleska and "Stepping Back from the Nuclear Cliff,"in The Progressive.

Nevertheless, until five years ago or so, neither Dr. Makhijani's frequent government testimony nor his general punditry totally rejected atomic power.

"Never before have I said that a renewable and storage option would be adequate without nuclear."

Still, roughly two years after he accepted the challenge from friends and collaborators in the anti-nuclear movement, he published perhaps the definitive opus for those who tout solar sources of one sort or another, Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. While the voluble and affable and cogent Dr. M. has managed to appear on just about every major media stage, his book received relatively little major media coverage. How many readers have heard of the book, I wonder? Even fewer have noted the publication in 2006, marking his shift to an all-renewable option, of "Nuclear is Not the Way," which the Wilson Quarterly published in its Autumn issue that year. It laid the groundwork for his monograph, a blueprint for a sustainable future that is little known at the level of CNN or MSNBC, and certainly not proffered a favorable spot on Energy Secretary Chu's reading list.

Unexpectedly given this lack of major promotion, the volume, which he preceded with an entire issue of IEER's Science for Democratic Action devoted to the topic, has steadily gained readership. A search of the title, "Carbon Free and Nuclear Free," produces 262,000 hits on Google. And Dr. Makhijani can ply the numbers that he presents; he has gone toe to toe in debates with all manner of personnel for the far-flung pro-nuclear colossus. Some of that fervent cranial battling has made cogent and easily accessible fodder for citizens who recognize that the time is long past when we can simply 'let the experts decide' on matters of policy and technology. Readers might examine the following links as exemplary of this available orientation to what our future options are:

These excerpts concern relative costs of power, advantages of renewable sources such as wind power, and his 'first affirmative' presentation about taking an all renewable route into the future. Readers can segue from these POV's to perspectives more favorable to nuclear options at their leisure

In particular, Dr. M. has had several skirmishes with the former head of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, who underwent a rebirth as radioactive proponent and has been promulgating a "nukes are 'clean energy'" line that is one of the major propaganda coups of the new century. After all, here is a genuine 'greenie,' a died-in-the-wool tree hugger and bird lover and proponent of environmentalism, Gaia, and ecology, who now says that the techniques of atomic legerdemain represent the best option for humanity, that our past rejection of using fission to boil water was "a big mistake."

Dr. Makhijani's answers are solidly empirical and represent his own "surprise, actually," that he was able to "f(ind)that we could do (a transition to renewables), rather rapidly actually." "Wind energy is cheaper today than nuclear," and the costs are dropping for this proto-solar option. If nukes are better than renewables, then why do we need loan guarantees. To "put sunshine in your tank," he says, "the foundation is efficiency," including the 'smart grid' that almost all parties to these debates agree is a sound goal. Though decidedly critical of corporate power--an earlier book, From Global Capitalism to Economic Justice: An Inquiry into the Elimination of Systemic Poverty, Violence, and Environmental Destruction in the World Economy, severely criticizes big money and big business--he labels the highly cited French example, which pro-nukers simply adore, as "nuclear socialism," where the government robs the rate-payers to give to the reactor manufacturers and others attached to the fission feed bag. Basically, Dr. M. says that while markets will continue to bring about thriving growth in wind and solar sources, without massive government support, nuclear electricity will fizzle out and die. As Amory Lovins, green guru extraordinaire has put it, "The nuclear industry is dead from an overdose of market forces."

What does all of this mean to a JustMeans reader? For one thing, it gives an impetus to skill-up about the myriad matters of technology and policy that are present here. Most importantly, it provides a powerful voice in favor of a responsible, efficient, sustainable, and sunny energy future, whatever the cloud cover ahead. Up next? A report on biofuels in the Appalachians; and a more extensive review of Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy is on the horizon for next week.

Photo Credits:

twicepix (wind), afloresm (solar), benuski (nuclear), Rennett Stowe (coal), IEER (Carbon Free Nuclear Free), pbs.org (Dr Makhijani)