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.
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.
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.
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.