The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year! With a quarter century of work under its belt, this organization has made tremendous contributions of scientific analysis and technical expertise in nuclear energy, weapons, health, and the environment. They have published work in multiple languages, and have trained countless concerned citizens, volunteers and organizations to be knowledgeable advocates for health and safety of their communities and their land.
While choosing which organizations to fund, we are often drawn to those that might not get financial support as easily as others. They are often small organizations, occasionally newly-founded ones, and often doing precedent-setting work in their fields. In the case of IEER, who we’ve been funding since our inception in 2008, our commitment to them is rooted in their expertise with innovation: they are trailblazing educators who make technical knowledge not only accessible, but useable, and our steadfast support of their work and its significance is something I had the chance to explore when speaking with IEER’s President, Dr. Arjun Makhijani this July.
The video below gives you a glimpse into his expertise via his debate with Dr. Patrick Moore on the future of nuclear energy. When reading through our conversation below, we’re certain you’ll find his work with IEER as compelling as we do.
To watch the full debate please click here.
Many thanks to Dr. Makhijani for taking the time to speak with us and Happy Anniversary to IEER!
Kindle Project Interviews Arjun Makhijani
Kindle Project: Hello Arjun! Tell me, what would you like to talk about? IEER works in so many different fields, and I’m wondering, what is the most exciting thing you’d like to share now, in your 25th year of operation?
Arjun Makhijani: Let’s talk about our workshop and what happens.
KP: I would love that! Especially since I was able to attend part of one of them last year and I was intrigued…
AM: There’s actually a bit of a good funding story associated with that: every summer we have a technical training workshop for activists and community leaders, and sometimes there are high school and college students that attend.
It started about 20 years ago when I raised the whole budget for our program… those were the days! I only needed about $9000 of the $20,000 our funder had sent, and the ED called and asked us to do something good with it. How could I give back to the community with great confidence? I need to do something extra. So I decided that we should do a technical training workshop. That’s how it started and it was such a success.
You know, the environmental and security business is quite technical. Environmental regulations, radiation doses — a lot of people who are activists and non-activists are kind of weary of numbers, but to really to be able to read the environmental reports and to make sense of them…you need to be able to read the numbers. That’s how we started.
We had people at all levels of training: people who had finished their PhD’s and some who hadn’t even finished high school were all in the same room together, and this system has been working for 20 years now. People leave our workshops with both knowledge, and a sense of empowerment.
KP: And all of these people came to your workshops out of a concern for what was happening in their community and needed a better understanding of the technical elements of their community challenges. Is that right?
AM: Yes. We were set up to make a contribution to people’s understanding of environmental pollution and security matters, what plutonium is, and things like that. It’s been very amazing. In one case I think they stopped a uranium processing proposal. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
KP: And are the workshops focused on a different theme each summer?
AM: Yes. This year we think that with the trends in Fukushima, people are finally beginning to see that nuclear energy is a thing of the past; that it’s not a sensible way to boil water and make electricity. We are focusing on what the future of nuclear energy may be after Fukushima.
KP: From my experience at the workshop it seems that you’re not only providing technical information in a way that people can understand it in order to relate to issues happening in their community, but also you’re training them in multiple aspects of critical thought.
AM: Yes. Every workshop is five days long so it’s like a small university summer course, and the last two days of the workshops are full of presentations by the participants [outlining the challenges in their communities]. What happens then is that everybody, including us, learns a lot about what is happening across the country and it gives all participants a sense of respect. Everybody is working on some aspect of the issue, depending on what the theme is that year. Then, participants, get an automatic perspective of their work and where it fits in. It’s a great time for networking! And this pleases me a great deal!
KP: I know that IEER, like so many other organizations, is having financial troubles, which must be frustrating and confusing. I was thinking about the fact that you’ve been around for 25 years…
AM: It’s ironic that it should be this year. These are tough times.
KP: They are tough times. I’m wondering, as you reflect upon the past 25 years, are there magical moments for you with your work with IEER, aside from this program?
AM: You know, very early on we had a lawyer walk in the door and she said, “Will you do estimates of radioactivity releases and radiation doses from this nuclear weapons plant because there’s been a class action law suit that has been filed.” This is a plant near Cincinnati called the Fernald Plant and they process half a million tons of uranium, mainly for reactors in Washington State and Carolina. It turned out that some wells had been contaminated and they hadn’t told the people who had been using the water. Those affected filed a class action suit when they found out, and we did the first-ever independent estimate of radiation releases from a nuclear weapons plant.
This was in 1988-89, and in the middle of that year the government settled the case for $78 million and 14,000 people were awarded 20 years of medical monitoring. We found out there was fabricated data as well as bad calculations, and we also found that the releases were much bigger than what the government had claimed. The Center for Disease Control then commissioned an independent study from a third party to estimate releases… I went to Cincinnati to sit in the audience of the press conference to see what would happen. Their numbers were very close to ours and I was very, very pleased; not just that people who were neighbors of a nuclear weapons plant received medical monitoring, but that they got it on the basis of work that was technically sound.
KP: And this was all just a couple years after IEER began?
AM: Well, the first lawsuit was a couple years after we began…We did the first Renewable Energy Feasibility Study for the US that was ever done, and created a Handbook for activists who wanted to protect the ozone layer. That was really, really successful—we played a really big role in helping activists get rid of CFC’s.
KP: You’ve done such a wide variety of things! It’s baffling to think that it would be a challenge to get funding for the work you do, considering how important and effective it is. Is it the economy?
AM: I think it’s the economy and the changed times. In the 90’s it was very easy [to get funding]. It was after the fall of the Soviet Union, and people were worried about the nuclear weapons pollution created in their neighborhoods. Now, people’s worries are more immediate in terms of the economy and their jobs, so attention has started to wane. We’ve also won a lot of victories and things are starting to become regulated.
KP: Do you think there’s any kind of complacently happening in terms of nuclear issues even though Fukushima happened?
AM: That’s been a kind of a surprise. Last year we got $40,000 from a donor who had not funded us before, and apparently it was a direct result of my having been on TV all the time, talking about Fukushima and putting out press releases, and we had obviously done a lot of work on these various subjects. This [my experience] allowed me to react quickly and give the public an idea of exactly what was going on.
KP: I remember. We were watching carefully what you were putting out. We’re big fans.
AM: What a consultant told me last year is that I’m an endangered species. That I’m doing science for democratic action, helping grassroots with science, and there aren’t a lot of people doing that anymore. Some of our most profound successes come from doing this type of work….You can’t do it with technical skills alone.
KP: The summer workshops seem to do just that—building technical skills and community at the same time.
AM: That’s right. They also give the technical skills to the people who are doing the organizing, who go and testify at their state legislatures, who pressure the EPA, who talk to their senators and their congressmen. That’s who we work with. Our technical work is for the folks who are immediately able to make use of it.
KP: What is your hope for IEER in the next 25 years?
AM: Well, I’m 67 and part of my project is to pass on the ethos of our work; how we work. We stick to issues. We don’t attack individuals just because they are working on nuclear power—we don’t do that. We work on issues and we try to do a technically thorough job. We learn to talk to people we don’t necessarily agree with, and to have an objective third party be happy with our science. To pass this way of working onto a younger generation of strong young scientists who’ll carry on our work—I would be so happy with that.
We have not worked a lot on the jobs questions, and we haven’t done a lot of work on water and I think it’s important that we focus on that as well. We need to better be able to address job-related issues, not just through modeling. It’s not enough. It doesn’t affect the real hurt that a lot of communities have, like the water problems that we’re facing, and the amount of water that energy consumes. I hope we will start [some projects] with new directions.
KP: Last call to action? Is there anything you’d want our readers to know about or take action on?
AM: I’m actually very hopeful that we can get a renewal energy economy. I think that if all the University Presidents who made renewable energy commitments actually fulfilled them with some urgency then I think it would do a great deal to stimulate the markets for the renewable energy sector.
Also, if the students could push the universities to not only clean up their stock portfolios for their endowments, but to also give micro-grants on their campuses and install renewable energy grids on their campuses then I think we’d start to see a shift.
I think with a sufficient push we could make oil obsolete. Someone said that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. I think we should think the same way about oil. The age of petroleum won’t end because we run out of it.
Arjun Makhijani is President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley in 1972, specializing in nuclear fusion.
For full bio please click here.