Rep. Byron Donalds

Representative for Florida's 19th Congressional District

US House of Representatives

August 4, 2022

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Ep 364: Congressman Byron Donalds - Representative for Florida's 19th Congressional District, House of Representatives
00:00 / 01:04
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Bret Kugelmass
So we're here today in the Titans of Nuclear podcast with Congressman Byron Donalds, thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. Donalds
Absolutely. Good to be here.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, you are an up and coming champion of nuclear. I mean, just the time that I've gotten to spend with you over the last few months, seeing you come up to speed on the topic, and just become an expert so quickly is quite frankly, amazing. So thank you again, for this opportunity.

Rep. Donalds
Well, look, first and foremost, I have to give credit to my staff. I mean, Chris has been fantastic. Really, as a policy idea I've always been supportive of nuclear in general. But I didn't really think it was something I would dive into in Congress. I mean, it's really happened because of economic policy, and economic policy, the impacts, obviously, of energy on the current inflationary spikes that we have. Now we're in a recession, and you start looking at financial policy, ESG stuff and all that stuff. And what you start to realize is that we have real dislocations in the energy matrix of the United States. So you know, like, if you want to acknowledge the goals of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, who say they want to have a carbon free America, they want to, you know, they want to save the planet, etc, etc. You still need cheap, affordable, readily available power. Because if you don't have that, you don't have an economy. You don't have an economy, you have chaos.

Bret Kugelmass
So you see this very clearly this connection between energy and the economy, a lot of other people don't make that connection. Do you know when this came together for you, how you figured this out?

Rep. Donalds
My career is in finance. So I'm a finance guy by trade. Yeah, you can't build an economy without energy.

Bret Kugelmass
Start from the beginning. You grew up in Brooklyn, right. How did you get into finance from there?

Rep. Donalds
Oh, man, I was in high school, there was an investment class when I was a junior, and everybody got a chance to pick a stock in the class. I picked Nike stock. This is like the height of you know, Michael Jordan says '95. Okay, so you know, he just came back, he just won a title, I picked Nike, everybody picked something else. I won, because Nike stock had popped up. And so I just really, it spoke to me, I kind of fell in love with finance. And so from there in college, I majored in finance, and marketing. By the way, those are my two degrees. In my career, I started in commercial banking. So I was a commercial bank underwriter for a community bank. I ended up managing a loan portfolio, I was writing loan loss reports to bank regularly.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, now, this is making sense because I've known you as a champion for small businesses, you got it firsthand at this at the bank.

Rep. Donalds
I would deal with SBA as a loan underwriter as a credit officer. And so I've always known that they've been inept, at best and bureaucratic and just incredibly slow. So coming to Congress my being able to serve on small business, the interplay was easy for me, because I had worked with SBA in my career.

Bret Kugelmass
This is unique, probably amongst congressmen that have such real life tangible knowledge of the topics that they're governing over. Yeah. I mean, do you find that like, when you sit in on committees that you're bringing to bear your experiences from the real world, and people look at you and like, Oh, my God, this guy knows what he's talking about.

Rep. Donalds
You actually it happens a lot. And then the funny thing is, is that sometimes the witnesses for the majority party, they end up starting, they start agreeing with me. That's true. They're like, Yeah, that's right. But like, I think at the end of the day, what Congress needs from a broad perspective is you need people who have actual, tangible experience, who've done things in the real world, they've worked in firms, they ran firms, they built companies, and then they bring that in to help make sure that the regulatory process makes sense for the country to continue to thrive. So you know, after banking, I went into insurance. And after insurance, I went into financial services. So I'm securities licensed. So I remember when the Obama administration was trying to do Department of Labor rules about fiduciary responsibilities that made no sense. But here, they were all like, Oh, this is the best thing since sliced bread. And I'm like, Yeah, spoken like people who don't have a book of business and don't know what they're talking about. But my understanding of our economic structure, and really a historical understanding of all types of economic structures, the one thing is consistent whether you want to talk about free market capitalism, you want to talk about fascism, you want to talk about large, heavy handed socialism, you wanna talk about communism, no matter what your economic structure is, you need energy. If it's a totalitarian state, you need energy. If it's a monarchy, you need energy. If it's a parliamentary system, you need energy, if you don't have consistently cheap and readily available energy, and just like, basically your base power load, and if that doesn't exist, you can't grow an economy. You can't even build an economy for getting rolling.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. How'd you get into politics? I mean, you could be making millions dollars a year with your financial background.

Rep. Donalds
I mean, I got the bug, it was actually the financial collapse of 2008. So I actually just left a hearing and they were talking about the financial collapse. And our recovery now is quicker than then and I'm going through all the things that Washington did wrong during that time period. But, my insurance, our clients were international. They didn't know what was happening in our economy. I was the one with the economics background in the firm. So I got tasked with doing a report for our clients to calm them down. I started turning on committees in Congress, something I never did before, I was apolitical. Didn't care. I was like most Americans, didn't care about politics. I was living my life doing my thing. I turned on C span I was just like, all right, let's see this committee I heard it starting. I was actually reading it in the Wall Street Journal. Okay. This committee starting, let me turn it on. And watching the members of Congress do what members of Congress do. And I was like, they're wrong. Like, that's not what's happening. And it really upset me. And caused me to start thinking about politics, really learning about politics.

Bret Kugelmass
So where did you go to learn about it?

Rep. Donalds
I started reading, I started watching cable news cable.

Bret Kugelmass
This seems to be a recurring theme for you. When you get curious about something, when you see a problem to solve, you just dive right in. You don't have to wait for something to come to you. You figure it out.

Rep. Donalds
Yeah. Especially to me if I think that the answers are transparently right there and I'm trying to figure it out, why isn't anybody else? Well, if nobody's gonna really lead on it, then let me just dig in and see what's happening. And I think it's not a thing of like trying to say, Oh, I'm now the House leader on nuclear, it's not really about that. It's more about what's really the issue that we need to solve. And I'm quite sure there's other people in the Congress who want to do the same thing. And so I think it's just us collectively working together, adding whatever I bring to the table, then it might provide the necessary inertia to actually get something accomplished.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. So we've drawn your connection now from growing up your interest in finance you building experiencing small businesses firsthand wanting to, you know, actually make a difference and now entering Congress understanding energy's role, how did you come across nuclear?

Rep. Donalds
It was simple man. We were in a hearing and it was about the oil and gas companies. Carolyn Maloney had the hearing, and she's going on and on and on about the, you know, fossil fuels and the oil guys are not following the science, or they're putting money against the science or whatever the case might be. And I was just like, why are we berating companies like we need those guys to drill. Like, if they decide we don't want to do this anymore, we'll go somewhere else, like we're done. Like this whole thing called economy depends on this whole thing is kind of over. I mean, the members, I don't think most of members even know that right down the street there's a coal power plant, that powers this thing, that powers the capital. So the capital is powered by coal. Most members don't know this. Anyway, so it was really that's kind of what started it. And then when we were looking at ESG policy that added to it even more, and then it was just a simple question. Well, if you want fossil free, or carbon free energy creation, well, what about nuclear? Yeah, because solar and wind don't have the output capability, right? And battery technology is just not where it needs to be for you to harness that. And then from a national security perspective, we don't mine the minerals for solar panels. We just don't, the Chinese dominate that market. And it's not a thing. I understand you want to be the number one economic power in the world? Why would I give you my economic power for solar panels? Like, why would I do that? What are some of the other options that are out there? Last part is one of the guys that I first really get engaged with on politics back home, he was a commander on a nuclear sub. And so he would talk to me every now and again. He's like, well you know, Byron, if we actually took the little micro reactors and modular reactors we have in our subs, we could deploy those. I was like, what? Yeah, because I said, well, what about all the radiation because I'm thinking all Chernobyl Oh, Three Mile Island. What about all the radiation? He was like are you kidding me? We slept 100 feet from nuclear, we sleep 100 feet from the thing and it just powers, it just keeps on going. So it's, it's kind of been in the ether coming here, looking at all the different other policy issues we have from a finance perspective, from a broad energy perspective, that's what actually brought me into into focus on nuclear policy.

Bret Kugelmass
It's amazing that you see that you're able to draw that connection, you know, the clean energy, the baseload, you know, the the value to the economy, energy security, being able to have, you know, the production of the your energy system here. Okay, so what's going wrong? I mean, you know, we've been relatively stagnant, stagnant and building nuclear in this country. Have you figured out why that is, what the problems are?

Rep. Donalds
Actually, what's going wrong is a similar symptom of everything that seems to go wrong in the United States. We have a bureaucratic malaise that nobody in this town I feel really wants to deal with. But we have to, why don't they want to deal with this bureaucratic malaise because it's easy for members of Congress to just pass a bill, pat themselves on the back, get, you know, get an interview, or two have your name on the chiron on Fox, or CNN or MSNBC, and move on to the next issue. The hard work is rebuilding the federal bureaucracy. It's not sexy, you can't run on it. Very few people will be like, oh, this is a great thing for the country, not saying people don't care but people are looking at what are you doing about gas? What are you doing about immigration? What are you doing about poverty? You know, what are you doing about outcomes? It's kind of like the core four things that people kind of care about. I just love to hearing talking about economic and income disparities. And one of the key things that came out of it very, very quickly, well, there's so many different programs, people just don't know how to access them. So it's like, well, we have a bureaucratic failure, if people don't know how to access, how do you rebuild it? So that's the thing, I think, and I'm just, I'm a straight shooter. I'm very concerned that the NRC doesn't have the capabilities to do what needs to be done to be innovative going forward.

Bret Kugelmass
The NRC is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Rep. Donalds
Yes, I'm the one that's always asking the acronym explanation.

Bret Kugelmass
It is interesting, you know, I personally tracked their work over, you know, since they were created 47 years ago, it turns out that they haven't given an operating license for a single new, new, single new reactor of any sort, not a medical reactor, not a research reactor, not a power plant. So how do you take an institution and so ossified and reform it?

Rep. Donalds
Well, I think, in some respects, and this one is the tough one, you may just have to stand it down, and be like, you know what, thanks, we're going to stand this thing down, we're going to build something new. You can take a lot of some of the, you can take some of the staff and roll it over to the new agency, but it needs a completely new mandate. It needs new leadership. And this is a whole of government situation. This is not just members of Congress, or members of the House saying is what needs to be done. You need senators on board, you need the White House on board. So that the branches of government, the two branches of government actually work together to solve something that is not only in the energy interests of the United States, but the national security interest of the United States.

Bret Kugelmass
I don't think we put enough emphasis on that. I mean, especially as you've articulated how energy is so fundamental to the economy, like, yeah, how can we not see energy as intrinsically a national security issue? What new mandate would you give the NRC? How would you I mean, one thing that I've often struggled with is that right now, it's a single mandate organization.

Rep. Donalds
It's mandated on safety. Right.

Bret Kugelmass
But there's like, you know, the FAA, which, obviously, you know, there's important safety component or, you know, not just the FAA, but the FDA, also, all these other organizations that have serious, you know, significant safety components or dual mandate organizations, they have to enable commerce, yes. Whereas the NRC is a single mandate, organization. Safety, which means, yeah, okay, the safest thing is to just do nothing ever, which for the last 47 years has been the case. So what, is that just it? Is it just you add that mandate in there too? So they know, because some of the staff are amazing, right. I've gotten to meet some of them, you know, intelligent, they know their work, they mean well, they want to help, it seems to be just more of an institutional challenge. Right. So is that it? You tear down, you rebuild the institution with a mandate that incorporates, you know, the, what will enable the staff to actually license new reactors?

Rep. Donalds
I think that's the path forward. I really do. I've seen in the last 10 years I've been in politics, I've seen the attempts to refocus an agency, that typically does not happen. There has to be some unwinding of it to a degree. Obviously, you need key personnel and whatever that new agency is going to look like. But there has to be a new mandate. There has to be because not only is the technology readily available for us, it would address so many of our needs. For my colleagues on the other side of the isle number one thing I tell them is I'm like you guys love electric cars. They're like yes. You want to double the electric car market United States. They're like yes. I said, you know what happens when you double the electric car market United States? They're like, it'll be great for our environment. I said, No, you will have blackouts. And they're like, No, that's not true. We don't have enough baseload power on the grid. And it's just, it does not exist.

Bret Kugelmass
Can you give me a little bit inside baseball here? When you have these conversations with your colleagues what's the setting? How do you really get through to them? Because I can imagine, you know, there's a lot of like, grandstanding, you know, when it's actually in the halls of, or the in the big rooms that bills are passed? How does it work behind the scenes?

Rep. Donalds
Actually, behind the scenes members have pretty candid conversations. When I was in the state legislature, members filed bills all over the place. You were given a, we call it referencing, you were given an opportunity to find out where your bill, what's your the pathway for your bill to get to the floor for a vote. So you would work your bill in the House with the chairman. And then you have a Senate companion. And sometimes I did it. You went over to the Senate, and you looked at the Senate's reference tree, and and you're working the chairman of the Senate committees with your Senator, hopefully, your senator is not lazy. And then you're working it that way. And so once you actually create, number one is a is a collaborative environment, where members are actually doing the job people sent them here to do which is legislate on behalf of the American...

Bret Kugelmass
You are creating a collaborative environment. I mean, you got to, can we talk about this, this new nuclear bill that you're going to be pushing forward with bipartisan support?

Rep. Donalds
Well, I mean, it's a couple of things. The first is it acknowledges the need for innovation. That's number one, it acknowledges the need for fuel, and actually being able to attain and find fuel. That's number two. And some of the stuff that I may not particularly like is, you know, you have the the conferences for collaboration, it brings in aspects of fostering international relationships, which I think does have an important national security aspect, because if we can become a global leader on not only just nuclear innovation, but then also sourcing for nuclear fuel. Yeah, that's it sets up some real binding relationships, I think are crucial for the United States.

Bret Kugelmass
Absolutely. And that's the risk right now, the risk is that we're losing our leadership position, because we're not able to take any of these like incredible, you know, innovators and entrepreneurs that are trying to bring forth something like 50 Different reactor designs right now. But none of them have been able to do it, because of the bureaucratic malaise that you identified. We're about to lose our position of global nuclear innovation leadership. And that would be a disaster, given how important this technology is.

Rep. Donalds
Look, I think innovation regardless of the industry, but specifically here, innovation is what breeds economies. So sometimes with my colleagues, I'm like, Guys, if we have an innovative process, and innovative system, and economies grow, you guys are gonna have far more money to spend, and you're able to do it. So we can't look at innovation in terms of a static, a static model, it has to believe to look at it from a dynamic approach. Because when you expand economies or expand energy possibilities, that not only breeds more innovation, like everybody thinks of like the best way to do nuclear as nuclear fusion that's sat on the back of the DeLorean in Back to the Future. Well, you can't get there. If you don't have a commercial, innovative environment.

Bret Kugelmass
Everything just becomes a research project. You know how those goes. I mean, we've seen like, you know, fusion research in France, they've spent $20 billion haven't even turned on the thing yet, right? We don't want a bunch of science projects.

Rep. Donalds
I'm gonna tell you what I don't want. I don't want a bunch of papers sitting on my desk saying, Well, here's the study that came back from the bill from the study bill past four years ago. Here's a new study bill on this. And nobody, nobody, here's the truth, nobody's reading those reports. Maybe the staff is reading them. That's about it. Yeah. So we just get bogged down in talking points as opposed to real action.

Bret Kugelmass
So tell me about the world that you envision if you're able to carry forth your agenda here. I mean, I know that, you know, yeah, you're a freshman, but man, I see you already making big moves. So if you're able to, you know, take your agenda, you know, get it through the machine of Congress. What kind of world do we create?

Rep. Donalds
The truth is, I don't really know but it's gonna be super exciting. Yeah. I find that a lot of times, you know, the members try to create, they try to say this is what the world's going to be. The truth is, none of us know. I think the one thing is, and if you we go down this road, it's going to be an exciting new world. People talk about poverty all the time, the number one driver of poverty is energy costs. And food costs, if you can actually solve the energy equation, the most efficient way possible, you're not just addressing the needs for industrial plants. You're addressing the needs for farmers, you're addressing those needs. For schools, you're addressing those needs for hospitals, if you can, if you can crack that nut, if you will, which I think is the goal of innovation, cracking that nut and seeing what the future really holds. There's so many things that we can do. It's it's limitless potential. So I don't even want to try to quantify it in in the terms of how I would see it. I mean, I think I'm pretty smart. But the truth is, as intelligent as I may be, I'm nowhere near as intelligent as the trillions of ideas and trillions of decisions that will be made because we unleashed innovation in the United States.

Bret Kugelmass
Limitless potential. We couldn't end on a better note than that. Congressman, thank you so much for taking the time. Really appreciate it.

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