Date: 3/10/09

This program focuses on things nuclear. Our guest is Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma, Maryland. We talk with him about the potential and peril for nuclear electricity in coming years as well as the continuing threat to the world because of nuclear weapons.

Listen to Ecotopia #23 Online Now!
To download the show, right-click (Mach users control-click) and select “Save Target”.

Background for Our Interview with Arjun Makhijani.

We begin with an eyewitness description from July 16, 1945. The scene is the Manhattan project command bunker near Alamogordo, New Mexico, during the testing of the first atomic bomb: General Thomas Farrell observes:

In [a] brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarce breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast.

The tension in the room let up and all started congratulating each other. Everyone sensed ‘This is it!’ No matter what might happen now all knew that the impossible scientific job had been done. Atomic fission would no longer be hidden in the cloisters of the theoretical physicists’ dreams. It was almost full grown at birth. It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil. There was a feeling in that shelter that those concerned with its nativity should dedicate their lives to the mission that it would always be used for good and never for evil.

[A Harvard professor], threw his arms around Dr. Oppenheimer and embraced him with shouts of glee. Others were equally enthusiastic. All the pent-up emotions were released in those few minutes and all seemed to sense immediately that the explosion had far exceeded the most optimistic expectations and wildest hopes of the scientists. All seemed to feel that they had been present at the birth of a new age – The Age of Atomic Energy – and felt their profound responsibility to help in guiding into right channels the tremendous forces which had been unleashed for the first time in history.

General Farrell’s account appears in – Department of State, Foreign Relations for the United States Conference of Berlin (Potsdam) (1945); Lansing, Lamont, Day of Trinity (1965).

Would the power of the atom be “always used for good and never for evil”? In the sixty plus years since the testing of the A-bomb, General Farrell’s optimism seems naïve at best. The following is from an interview conducted just last Friday, March 6, by the National Journal Online. The interview was titled, “Entering A Nuclear Energy Crossroads” and the interview was with with Dale Klein, Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, appointed by President Bush in July 2006 after serving as assistant to the secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

NJ: A recent International Atomic Energy Agency report said that Iran has enough nuclear fuel to build a bomb. The report explicitly connects having nuclear fuel with the ability to build a bomb, even though Iran hasn’t signaled that’s what it’s going to do with the fuel. How do you react to reports like this?

Dale Klein’s reply suggests the complexity of nuclear issues today including the fact that the science has become inextricably bound up with politics. Klein said:

In terms of the uranium program, that is one that is a very difficult situation. If you look at a country’s nuclear ambitions, very few countries would start off with needing the fuel enrichment capabilities that Iran is doing. They don’t have operating commercial reactors now and there is a surplus availability of fuel on the world market. So, from a technical standpoint, it doesn’t make sense that Iran is going so robustly with an enrichment program based on their current demand for fuel. Russia has indicated it would sell it. France has indicated it would sell them fuel. That has been a difficult position technically. Iran has also not been forthcoming with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] with their inspections. All of those raise questions as to what is really the Iranian intent. That makes it a very difficult problem, not only for the United States but for our allies and what should we do and what can we do. I think that story is yet to be told.

And from Maneater, the newspaper of the University of Missouri, comes this report, also dated last Friday, March 6. Recent legislation in Missouri has opened up the possibility that a new nuclear energy reactor might be built near an existing reactor in Callaway County: Greg Young writes:

With the passage of the Missouri Clean and Renewable Energy Construction Act passing in a House committee on Tuesday, an old debate in Missouri between the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear energy has resurfaced. The bill, which would repeal 1976 legislation prohibiting utility companies from raising rates on consumers while [nuclear plants are under] construction, has not only drawn ire […] about whether it has sufficient consumer protections, but also whether investment in nuclear energy is beneficial to the state of Missouri.

Opponents of the bill, and of nuclear energy, point out notable problems with nuclear energy in terms of storage of the radioactive nuclear material. Missouri Votes Conservation believes nuclear energy is dirty and will distract utilities companies from pursuing efficiency. […]. “Nuclear is not clean nor is it renewable, given that uranium is not an infinite resource,” [Missouri Coalition for the Environment] spokeswoman Erin Noble said [. . .]

[However] Warren Wood, a spokesman for the Missouri Energy Development Association, said public support for building of more nuclear [energy capability] has increased: “If you look back 20 to 30 years ago, if you polled the population you would find that it was very much a divided issue,” Warren said. “But now with the polling, you can get up there close of 80 percent of people are in favor of building a […] nuclear power plant.”

Another issue related to the controversy has been the transportation of nuclear waste across the state of Missouri. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has sponsored a bill to add fees to trucks that drive nuclear waste through Columbia, which passed the Senate unanimously two weeks ago. Despite these concerns, Schaefer said further investment in nuclear energy should be considered. “It is certainly a clean emission, and I think we do need to look at nuclear, and we do need to incorporate it,” Schaefer said. Recent ballot initiatives in Missouri have avoided concerns about nuclear energy. Proposition C, which passed last November by a considerable margin, does not include nuclear power in the language, which states that by 2021, investor-owned utilities in Missouri must have 15 percent of energy generated from renewable resources.

Our Questions for Arjun Makhijani

Our guest tonight is Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. He has a wide range of interests including both nuclear weapons and the nuclear energy and waste disposal. Please tell us about the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and your work there.

The first part of our interview focuses on nuclear energy:

  • Both presidential candidates talked of nuclear power as part of a sustainable energy mix for the US, along with “clean coal” solar, wind, geothermal. What do you see as the emerging reality here? What’s likely to happen?
  • Just how dangerous are nuclear power plants anyway? After all, we know that France and much of Europe are generating a lot of nuclear energy, so far, without incident. Were the American people overly frightened by Chernobyl and Three Mile Island?
  • Is nuclear energy “clean”?
  • We’ve lived in Nevada and are thus part of the not-in-my-backyard resistance to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. There is also a good deal of evidence, including position papers from your institute, that says that Yucca Mountain is not a solution to nuclear waste disposal. Please discuss both that specific site and alternative to the disposal “problem”.
  • President Carter put an end to the “breeder reactor” programs that reprocess nuclear fuel into something fissionable plus byproducts with a very short half life (compared to 10,000 years for the wastes to be sent to Yucca Mountain). What do you think of breeder reactors as a source of “free” fissionable materials and a solution to waste disposal?
  • The 1950s saw “Project Ploughshare,” with ideas about using atomic energy for peaceful purposes, e.g. controlled bomb explosions to dig a new canal across the Isthmus of Panama. In our time, are there any hopes for the peaceful applications of nuclear energy?

In the next part of the interview, we focus on the bomb. The other night we watched the Stanley Kubrik film “Dr Strangelove,” with Peter Sellers and were reminded, once again, that sixty-plus years into the nuclear age, the threat of mutual destruction is still high. Also, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist is set at 5 minutes to midnight (not at close as it once was), but still frighteningly close at hand.

  • How close are we to a nuclear World War III? Where are the threats from? Hoe might it break out?
  • Do terrorists have or will they have a bomb? Are “rogue” nuclear weapons a threat to the US? the world?
  • What are the odds in favor of a genuine reduction of nuclear arms world wide? Can we hope for nuclear nonproliferation and a nuclear-free world? What is likely to come of President Obama’s initiative with Russia to reduce nuclear arms?
  • Activists in Chico are part of a national movement, “Beyond War: A New Economy is Possible.” We suspect you support demilitarization of the budget. What kinds of savings could be made through cutting back on nukes, e.g., not putting an offensive/defensive nuclear missile system in the Czech Republic or Poland?
  • More broadly, your institute publishes a newsletter called Science for Democratic Action. (We’ve been part of a teaching movement called “Science, Technology, and Society” that wants young people to think about the consequences of science, not just the magic and mystery.) Can Americans be “technologically literate”? Are we smart enough or can we know enough to make intelligent decisions about science?
  • What should our listeners do to keep themselves educated on science issues and to make their voices heard in places that matter?

Do-It-Yourself: Resources for the Nuclear Activist or Interested Citizen

We want to thank Halimah Collingwood of the Mainstream Media Project for putting us in touch with Arjun Makhijani. Mainstream Media has also prepared some excellent materials for people who would like to learn more about nuclear issues.

  • Project for Nuclear Awareness: PNA seeks to end the global threat of nuclear weapons by educating the public and lawmakers about the real danger of nuclear weapons, the need for nuclear disarmament, and the urgent necessity of nuclear non-proliferation.
  • Ploughshares Fund: A public grantmaking foundation, Ploughshares Fund pools contributions from individuals, families and foundations and directs those funds to initiatives aimed at preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons and promoting regional stability, in the pursuit of a safe, secure and nuclear weapon-free world.
  • Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation is a Washington, D.C.-based 501(c)3 non-profit, non-partisan research organization dedicated to enhancing international peace and security in the 21st century.
  • New America Foundation: Has a Geopolitics of Energy project that focuses on structural shifts in global energy markets have important political and economic implications that are not adequately understood or discussed in the ongoing debate over American foreign policy.
  • Council for a Livable World: a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to reducing the danger of nuclear weapons and increasing national security. Their mission is to advocate for sensible national security policies and to help elect congressional candidates who support them.
  • Center for Defense Information: Provides analysis on various components of U.S. national security, international security and defense policy and promotes wide-ranging discussion and debate on security issues such as nuclear weapons, space security, missile defense, small arms and military transformation.
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Focuses on nonproliferation and disarmament, including anti-missle systems, biological weapons, chemical weapons, and nuclear testing.

Playlist for Ecotopia #23

  1. Nuclear Infected (Album Version) 2:16 Alice Cooper Flush The Fashion
  2. The Invention of Nuclear Power 2:46 Peter Adams The Spiral Eyes
  3. New Frontier (Album Version) 6:23 Donald Fagen The Nightfly
  4. Mutually Assured Destruction (Bonus track)) 3:13 Gillan Futureshock
  5. Masters Of War 4:36 Bob Dylan The Freewheellin’ Bob Dylan
  6. Weave Me the Sunshine 4:28 Peter, Paul And Mary The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary
  7. Long Ago and Far Away 2:21 James Taylor Mud Slide Slim & The Blue Horizon