Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Arjun Makhijani and Nuclear Absolutism

Arjun_Makhijani The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog has an interesting post of a debate between two environmentalists with, shall we say, divergent views of nuclear energy. As it happens, we attended the same debate and Nuclear Energy Overview, the weekly newsletter for Nuclear Energy Institute members, covered it. Here's some excerpts from that story, focused on Arjun Makhijani's comments:

A debate last week at The National Press Club in Washington, DC, between two environmentalists – and newsmakers – laid out radically opposing views on commercial nuclear energy. One called it “inherently proliferation prone” and the other labeled it “one of the safest technologies ever invented.” The debaters were Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and Patrick Moore, Co-Chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy) and Co-Founder of Greenpeace.

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The cost of building nuclear energy plants proved a potent sparring point, with Makhijani saying that Wall Street “would be lining up” to build nuclear power plants if the costs made sense. While Moore acknowledged the large cost of constructing a nuclear power plant, he said that the rising price of commodities have now reversed course and begun to decrease.

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Both environmentalists referenced current and nascent technologies to bolster their preferences for future generation sources. Moore said “nuclear waste” is 95 percent reusable, though he acknowledged Makhijani’s point that the fast reactors required to make this true are not yet in common usage.

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Similarly, Makhijani acknowledged that removing fossil fuels and nuclear energy from the mix of energy generators would introduce baseload generation issues, but touted the human imagination as a source for solutions. For example, he noted an air-conditioning method that uses wind energy to create ice at night so that the ice can cool a building in the daytime when wind energy is not readily available.

The point we'd like to make - and the WSJ's first-rate discussion does not make - is that environmentalists of Makhijani's stripe sort of shoot themselves in their collective feet by being so absolutist about nuclear energy. Without nuclear energy, and without fossil fuels, they leave themselves only with natural gas as a back stop for intermittent renewable energy sources - and natural gas would likely be equally unacceptable to them if they didn't need something.

The arguments about how the human imagination can fill in for lost energy capacity - and Overview didn't report Makhijani's comments about using a giant magnifying glass to generate heat for experiments requiring it - risks edging into a late-70s Whole Earth Catalog-style of energy options that leaves the practical far behind.

If Makhijani allowed nuclear energy into his equation instead of natural gas, he'd close the carbon free energy cycle and his arguments against a heavier investment into nuclear energy - which Patrick Moore advocates - would at least make for potent debate points and keep the arguments from drifting away into the (admittedly idealistic) ether. This is the calculation Moore has made - from the point of view of Makhijani, perhaps too much so - but that calculation does point a path forward.

Arjun Makhijani. If you're a smart guy, which Makhijani clearly is, this is how you want to be photographed - engaged, leaning in to your interlocutor, clearly thoughtful. You don't have to agree with a single thing he says, but you have to listen and give him his due. If you'd like to see and hear what he has to say, here's a YouTube video from his Nuclear Nonsense series.

9 comments:

djysrv said...

Makhijani showed up in Idaho not too long ago to testify against the GNEP PEIS. Regardless of what you think of GNEP, I was started to see him in Idaho Falls rather than in Washington, DC. When I asked him why he chose to submit his comments in Idaho, he said he was way out West promoting his book. To read what he had to say about GNEP and nuclear matters generally check it out here.

http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2008/11/idaho-still-likes-gnep.html

Anonymous said...

"Overview didn't report Makhijani's comments about using a giant magnifying glass to generate heat for experiments requiring it"

Play fair. You're taking this comment out of context in an attempt to make Makhijani look foolish. He was alluding to a story from Greek mythology to make a point about concentrated solar and process heat, not proposing that everyone build giant magnifying glasses for power generation.

GRLCowan said...

I think it is foolish to sell out.

Many interesting nuclear engineering trivia can be picked up -- metallic fuel can't release iodine! -- in this long discussion by Jerry D. Christian of a 1959 sodium reactor overheating accident. Makhijani's style of argument is pleasantly exposed.



--- G.R.L. Cowan (How fire can be domesticated)

Rod Adams said...

One more time - I would bet that at least some of Makhijani's contributors know full well that supporting natural gas is not intellectually defensible.

However, it is economically advantageous if you happen to sell natural gas.

Not everyone is a straightforward, reality based engineering type. Some actually work hard to hide their true motivations.

Disclosure - I promote nuclear fission power and I hope to sometime make some money from that advocacy.

perdajz said...

Makhijani cites Wall Street to argue that nuclear power is not economic. You would think that with the events of the past year, noone would ever again reference Wall Street as the basis for any reasoned assessment of risk vs. reward, especially with regard to nuclear power. Can we all agree not to regard Wall Street as any citadel of wisdom and rationality?

Tom Blees said...

OT, but could anybody point me to a critique or two of Steve Wing's rehash of the Columbia U. TMI study back in 2003? I could have sworn I saw some comment on it on this site in the past, but nothing shows up when I search. I'm sure this must have been discussed here before. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"Can we all agree not to regard Wall Street as any citadel of wisdom and rationality?"

1. logical fallacy: Wall Street was wrong about mortage-backed securities, thus they're wrong about everything.

2. moot point. Wall Street, ignorant or brilliant, will make the investment decisions. So their degree of confidence in new nuclear power for the US is extremely important.

Another Comment said...

U.S. utilities have already submitted applications for federal loan guarantees for 21 new reactors, totaling $112 billion. The demand is there, if the financing is available.

perdazj said...

To anonymous:

It was Makhijani who made the logical fallacy of assuming that something must be true because Wall Street says so. Wall Street, or what is left of it, may be efficient, but it is not all-knowing, or sage, or prescient.

I have worked in both industries. I have worked on probalistic risk assessments for the nuclear power industry, and value-at-risk calculations nearly every major bank in the U.S. Let me assure you that hedging mortgage backed securities, or any financial derivative for that matter, amounts to child's play compared to understanding how a nuclear power plant works.

At this point, after the MBS collapse and the historic bailout, who cares what Wall Street thinks? Wall Street, in the sense that you are talking about, barely exists.