Mark Nelson

Managing Director

Radiant Energy Fund

August 30, 2021

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Ep 330: Mark Nelson - Managing Director, Radiant Energy Fund
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Bret Kugelmass
We are here today on Titans of Nuclear with a very special guest, Mark Nelson. Welcome to Titans.

Mark Nelson
Thank you very much, Bret.

Bret Kugelmass
And I'm going to do a little intro first, because I have been supremely jealous of all of the episodes that you've done with Dr. Chris Keefer - my favorite podcaster - and listen, whenever I see you show up - and first of all, I think it's pretty cool that he has repeat guests, we have to figure out how to do that at some point too - but the fact that whenever you come on I'm like, Oh my god, this is gonna be a good episode.

Mark Nelson
This is intimidating. I- at some point this is gonna get out there, might as well break it on your podcast. I've never listened to a podcast, so I especially haven't listened to myself on a podcast.

Bret Kugelmass
You are-

Mark Nelson
You're braver than me.

Bret Kugelmass
You are something else. I will tell you that. Let's- I can't remember if you gave your history, I'm sure you did on his, but we're going to- I'm going to first point everyone to go listen to all your episodes with him. But then also, I'm going to make you repeat your life story right now, so kick it off for us. Who are you? And where do you come from?

Mark Nelson
Oh, god, no, I'll have to tell it differently, so I can be all things to all people. I'm from Oklahoma, land of cattle and tornadoes and fracking and aerospace industry. Land of a lot of things, but not of nuclear, for sure. My family came to Oklahoma, in part, for oil and gas. My grandfather helped open up the Ekofisk fields when he was one of the head engineers of that effort for Phillips Petroleum in the late 60s and early 70s. So I am oil and gas dipped. Because I, like many teenagers, are assholes, the moment I discovered nuclear in college, I told my parents that I would try to put the family and everybody else out of business by decarbonizing everything. So I definitely have that "biting the hand that feeds" energy that comes from a place of coming from oil and gas.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, cool.

Mark Nelson
And continuing this irony, I studied engineering at Oklahoma State University, and then a head of Phillips Petroleum, previous CEO and Chairman of the Board of Phillips, actually sponsored a special scholarship just for Oklahoma State engineers, called the Wayne Allen scholarship to send two engineers to Cambridge for graduate studies. Cambridge, in that time, had just started a Master's program in nuclear engineering. So all these things came together. I knew I wanted to do engineering. I was a little dispirited as an aerospace engineer seeing that you could go your whole career working on maybe one plane design, maybe two, if you're lucky. In many ways, engineering culture has slowed down in a lot of sectors. Or at least it appeared to. This is at the dawn of SpaceX, the dawn of Boom Technology. We're gonna get back into supersonic flight, I guess. But at that time in 2011, 2012, things felt stuck in aerospace and in astronautical engineering. That's when I discovered nuclear and then took this oil money to go study nuclear engineering in the UK.

Bret Kugelmass
And you thought that aerospace was slow and conservative in their engineering.

Mark Nelson
Yeah, so I had an

Bret Kugelmass
You had an awakening coming for you.

Mark Nelson
The grass is always greener, right, Bret?

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Okay, so-

Mark Nelson
You can't give me crap about this. You're working on OPEN100. You've got a pretty little model over there is a you're clearly trying to Boom Technology your way out of the stagnation too. For nuclear. Yes.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think what Boom is doing is interesting. Obviously, what SpaceX is doing is super-duper pioneering. I think that there are still some fundamental obstacles to overcome that have nothing to do with technology to help create a culture in which technology can flourish. But we can get to that in a little bit.

Mark Nelson
In other words nuclear is special. Even looking at everything under the stars-

Bret Kugelmass
Don't lore me into a verbal trap already. This- we could spend an hour just talking about what that means.

Mark Nelson
This is Episode One of Mark Nelson's Energy Impact Center podcast with my guest, Bret Kugelmass.

Bret Kugelmass
I think we do- you might have to be our first repeat guest on the show as well. But okay, we've got to continue with your story.

Mark Nelson
So I've gotten over to the UK. It's 2012. There's a great deal of excitement, because maybe the UK is going to build, not one, not two, not three, but maybe four nuclear plants, all with different designs, from different vendors, from different countries.

Bret Kugelmass
I think for anyone listening to the show, I think they know what that's in reference to, but go ahead.

Mark Nelson
So, to be fair, I don't think the plan was ever to do them all, but until they decided on one, it was kind of an open season for vendors plus sites. Anyway, so EDF, Électricité de France, or EDF Energy, the British subsidiary, bought and owns all the British nuclear plants the British taxpayers built under their previous national utility. Now the French taxpayer has-

Bret Kugelmass
-got a hold of them. Yeah.

Mark Nelson
Look, I like what- you know, nuclear special. And EDF was pretty sure it was going to go ahead with Sizewell- Hinkley Point C, but they hadn't quite made the decision. And they were being- even though they were generous in helping set up this program at Cambridge and there was an incredible program - I was delighted to hear my Director of Studies and the founder of that program, Tony Ralston, just on Chris's podcast just a few days ago - there was not a lot of options for the graduates of that program. Not that many graduates in the first couple years actually went into nuclear. It was interesting, the disconnect between the excitement I felt people had for there being a nuclear engineering Master's degree at one of the most prestigious universities, in not just Europe, but the world, and whether those students were actually going to go into nuclear or not. I was one of the weirdos. I was one of the true believers, in that I was going to find a way to stay in nuclear, even if it meant not being successful, rather than finding a way to leverage a bold-sounding degree into a good job outside the industry.

Mark Nelson
Anything with you being American and some of the more rebellious spirit there?

Mark Nelson
Actually, I think it had more to do with the fact that engineering salaries in Britain are preposterously low, especially for starting engineers. You'll make significantly more managing or even assistant managing like a small fast food restaurant almost anywhere in the US than you will starting as an engineer for most disciplines. in the UK. Yeah, so I don't know how that is gonna work out.

Bret Kugelmass
But free healthcare.

Mark Nelson
Yeah, but in the end, I think you can read something into the priorities of a country by whether engineers feel that their starting salaries are competitive, even with basic other salaries in other sectors. And almost everybody in that program did want to stay in the UK, which, for most of them meant not considering nuclear engineering jobs.

Bret Kugelmass
Yep. Okay. So where did you take your fancy education?

Mark Nelson
Back to Cambridge, I got a PhD award that I was very grateful to have to stay on as a foreign student studying nuclear engineering. And I was delighted because I just felt that there was so much to do in academia. There must be, because nuclear energy was very important and wasn't progressing the way a lot of us young idealists wanted it to. To me at the time, that meant, by definition, there was a lot to do in academia. I think I had a very interesting first year of my PhD where I just explored every topic under the sun. In general, I was trying to look at fuel cycle optimization, where I knew we had a bunch of interesting efforts around the world to make fuel cycle optimization programs. And I knew there were a bunch of smart and brilliant people all over the world willing to share their work, share their code, bring me in and tell me what their program had been doing.

Bret Kugelmass
I was gonna ask you what resources you feel like you had special access to you because you were a student in terms of just gaining general knowledge of the sector. Was it just because you're like, Hey, I'm a student, I'd love to learn, people just are more open?

Mark Nelson
No, I think it's because no one wants any of that. I hate to say it, I think, because nobody asked how to optimize a fuel cycle - and to maybe generalize a little soon to other problems like electricity or site at-large - optimization is really dangerous. It is dangerous, it goes wrong in brutal ways.

Bret Kugelmass
What do you mean?

Mark Nelson
Well, optimization is fragile. It's very fragile. And especially-

Bret Kugelmass
Are you saying essentially that, in trying to optimize something, you might erode the gains you had already?

Mark Nelson
It's that you might be chasing pennies in front of a steamroller in that you might collect known, small, limited upside in exchange for potential racking up fragility and risk. that's

Bret Kugelmass
Well, that is the essence of construction complexity overall. You can maybe show on paper how by going much bigger, or by adding in another reheat site, whatever it is, you're just this much more efficient. But at the end of the day, you never factored in just what everyone should know, that when you add complexity to a system, costs will find their way in through every little which cracking and crook and nanny, or whatever you call it.

Mark Nelson
Yes, but even tougher than that, you can say, Oh, we're going to get rid of complexity and use that as part as your optimization. And if you're doing it in concept, or if you're doing it on a computer, or if you're doing it with 3D CAD, and you're doing it surrounded by a team of bright young things who have never worked a day at a construction site, no one-

Bret Kugelmass
Practical experience, right.

Mark Nelson
-ever worked a day at a construction site in their life.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I think something that's super emblematic of that is with materials. People will look and be like, Well, I'm gonna, run my- I'm gonna design my system and say, Okay, well, that's steel, or that's graphite, or that's water. And they don't realize that water has other stuff in it. And so you can run all of your models, assuming that's good old H20, but you don't know. You're not factoring in, Oh, there's actually loose oxygen, there's all sorts of other stuff in there. And that adds corrosive factors to your entire system over time. And so those other perfect materials that you chose, they don't last as long as you thought.

Mark Nelson
Or the fact that so much of what we know is unstated and possibly unstable.

Bret Kugelmass
Institutional knowledge is what you're saying.

Mark Nelson
Not just institutional knowledge, but in that sometimes you have to just be safe by assuming there's no such thing as institutional knowledge, that any pretending to institutional knowledge as opposed to individuals that have gotten dirty doing a thing. It's just not real and it's not to be trusted. Let me see if I can- I was very lucky in having solid, middle-class parents who thought it was a rite of passage for their kids to go work dirty jobs. And I didn't do a very long, but I did some dirty, ugly jobs in Oklahoma, where just earthy sayings themselves will come back to me at some point where some guy I worked who had said something crude about designers of buildings always forgetting to leave rooms for the ducts. They just always forget to leave room. And then you think, Wait, I'm designing a building now. It's many years past. I'm hearing in my head as I'm covered in fiberglass insulation, or insulation and dust and nastiness, breathing through a mask before it was cool. And then I'm up there with a grunting dude who never went to college, barely finished high school saying, These damn architects never leave enough room. Mark, grab this crap, haul it away. And if I were designing a nuclear plant, I would like to think that I would make it a little larger, even if it didn't optimize the amount of concrete used because of the diameter of the plant. Because in the end, you never know what the buildability is truly going to be on the site when it counts. And look, they optimized the AP-1000 all the way, almost to death. Right?

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, yeah.

Mark Nelson
And as I mentioned in the podcast with Chris recently, I felt, it felt claustrophobic to walk around the container.

Bret Kugelmass
I remember hearing you say that, it made a lot of sense.

Mark Nelson
I actually did end up hitting my helmet on things repeatedly. I mean, I'm six-three, but I did not have that feeling visiting Borssele in the Netherlands. A spacious, beautiful German-designed PWR, big old sphere. Plenty of room to walk.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, but that's funny, because, I mean, now you're not talking about a startup who's never built anything before. But I guess the point that you're making is the people who designed AP-1000 have never built anything before.

Mark Nelson
Yeah, and I don't think there's any way out of it except aggressively poaching talent from everywhere on Earth. Using money up front, cry once, hire people who have built any kind of nuclear plant.

Bret Kugelmass
And why does it have to be people who built any kind of nuclear plant. Most of the nuclear plant has nothing to do with a nuclear plant. Most of a nuclear plant is a coal plant.

Mark Nelson
At some point, we have to admit that there are mysterious ways the world works. And just like I could try to sit here and come up with reasons why that might be the right thing. But you know what, I'm gonna go the opposite and say it's good karma. Okay? Where there's a lot of things people say, like Locke, or inshallah, good karma, all these phrases that we like to make fun of as engineers and scientists, because we're also rational. But I'm just gonna say, if there's a type of building that could use more superstition, its nuclear. I'm saying we need people who have built nuclear plants, and they have a habit of burying a good luck charm right there under the cornerstone, because they did it on all five other plants they built.

Bret Kugelmass
Interesting, I'm going to push back on you here, because I think that most people who have built nuclear plants that are not dead-

Mark Nelson
The people or the plants?

Bret Kugelmass
The people. I mean, they're not the types of nuclear plants that I think that we're thinking about building. The people who have built nuclear plants in the last 20 years, they built AP-1000s, right?

Mark Nelson
You know what, in the end that seems to matter much less than having built nuclear plants. And why make the barrier?

Bret Kugelmass
I think I get what you're saying, but I think what we really need are people who have built stuff, like involved in the design process. People who have climbed in those rafters, I think, will do the trick for most of the plant design. And then you've got your containment, and then maybe that you pull in whatever expertise you can from, I would say like operating utilities, where those people are kind of in there everyday and can kind of see what's going wrong and have to repair things.

Mark Nelson
Maybe we can land somewhere there. Certainly with Hinkley Point C, the gentleman who showed me around the site when I visited before the pandemic, he'd come off of building the Dubai Metro. And I asked him, Wait, is this as big a project as that? And he's like, Well, it's about the same size. But in the end, a civil engineer in my generation knows that nothing is like capping your career with nuclear. Nuclear is the ultimate job. I was like, Okay, that's impressive. And sure enough, you look it up. Dubai Metro is at the investment scale of Hinkley Point C. Certainly a lot more physically extensive than a concentrated worksite like Hinkley Point C. But you know what, there I think I can agree that for civil works, doing large civil works, if you just absolutely cannot get somebody who's done the same plant design, then you get somebody who's done plants, and if you can't get that, you get a megaproject builder.

Bret Kugelmass
But you're kind of implying that a nuclear plant has to be a large civil works project. And that's another area that I would like to push back and see what you have to say. Just because- I'm not saying that we should go small, super small in terms of power output. What I'm saying is that a lot of these plants that were built - maybe not in Oklahoma, but there's one in Nebraska - that was like, I don't know, 600-megawatt reactor. It was a really small facility. It's on the side of a river. And I looked at the acreage and the size of the building.

Mark Nelson
Is it Cooper?

Bret Kugelmass
I think it was Cooper, yeah. It's not a big building. It's not what you would call a major civil project. That's what you would call a building. Someone built a building and people who know how to connect pipes. Oh, and by the way, it was the first of a kind, and it was super cheap when they built it, and people who knew how to connect pipes just kind of went inside that building and connected the pipes. It was no big deal.

Mark Nelson
Okay, I think we could start to get back to that era. At the same point we can undo some of the security theater that grew up around our nuclear plants.

Bret Kugelmass
Thank you.

Mark Nelson
No, wait, wait, wait.

Bret Kugelmass
Security theater, yes.

Mark Nelson
That was partly - I like to think I'm optimistic - I'm just saying that if we can't undo some of the obvious bulk in terms of just costs and theater that's grown up around nuclear, it's difficult to imagine we'd go backwards on things where you could, if you wanted to, make a technical argument that this makes our nuclear plants last longer and safer against more extreme events, because we have a different appreciation than we did when we built Cooper. I'm just saying I can see where people are coming from if they say, Let's build them thick, and on they'll tick, right? They don't say that. I just said that on Twitter a few weeks ago that's me bringing it back. But I can see arguments for why you'd overbuild if you're making stuff to last for a very long time. I can't really see why you would want a massive amount of weaponry at a nuclear plant.

Bret Kugelmass
A mass amount of weaponry?

Mark Nelson
Yeah, just like guns at a nuclear plant.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, you're going back to security.

Mark Nelson
Put the weapons near the nuclear plant. Put it right outside the gate. Put them ready to rock. But the Dutch have this figured out. The Dutch think that having weapons, especially automatic weapons in a nuclear plant, is a safety risk.

Bret Kugelmass
Is a bad idea.

Mark Nelson
They're not- and again, they're not trying to over optimize. They're not trying to think, Well, what if it's a good guy with the gun versus bad? They're just saying that if you're looking at nuclear safety, they've secured the operation of the reactor, they have backup generators, next step, make sure there's not deadly guns at a plant.

Bret Kugelmass
How come nobody's- we've lost the thread on your career. But we'll get back to at some point, I think, but this is too interesting. How come nobody actually has pushed back on the security theater? The whole thing is just so crazy. The rationale, the justification that I hear for having this 110-person army per plant? I've asked many professionals about this. Can you just explain to me what is the scenario that you're imagining that justifies this? And there's no good- no one's given me a good answer, which makes me think that it's actually probably easier to dismantle this security theater apparatus. Obviously, more easy than it would be than like the TSA, which, they let 96% of weapons through or whatever, so that's aside. But I can see how there's real lobbying power behind that. But who's lobbying for these security fleets at the nuclear sites other than the one company that probably helps provide the services for it?

Bret Kugelmass
I think it's just an asymmetry. Too much downside for an individual inside or outside of the bureaucracy to push back on this, too much downside for utilities to be seen pushing back on the regulator in this manner. No politician is gonna stick their head up and say, Of all the problems today, I think the one I really want to spend my political capital on is desecuring nuclear plants. I think it's just, it's really hard for anybody to take the lead, and need to be bold on something like that.

Bret Kugelmass
And would any of the vendors do it? Is there any reason a vendor would want to do it? To me ,it just seems like-

Mark Nelson
I mean, the vendors are trying to design in less need for armies. You're trying to- I mean, you can see this as part of the same argument of producing a site boundary where you can claim, if somebody took over and conquered this plant, did their worst, and nobody could intervene for days or months or whatever and we've lost even a sovereign spot of American territory to some army that has taken over to try to hurt us, and the maximum accident that could be foreseen was small, then you could maybe start arguing that you shrink the army along with the emergency.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, but if we're using logic, I mean, we can say the worst that can happen at any nuclear site - let's say a Fukushima style scenario- is zero deaths due to radiation and one teaspoon of iodine-131 in the environment. So that's the worst thing that can happen. But it doesn't- we don't need to talk about like an army invading a nuclear plant. A guy with a truck can kill 12 people by just plowing into a crowded street. We don't put a hundred person army for every truck that gets ran-

Mark Nelson
I understand, but that's not the worst that can happen to the individual that proposes this and takes the fall and loses their career.

Bret Kugelmass
And now you're speaking logically, yeah.

Mark Nelson
Well, I mean, so this is what I'd say. I tangled a little bit with beloved energy writer, Dr. Vox - I think he goes by Dr. Volts now on Twitter - and he made some snarky comment about, Oh, here's the logic brigade with all the rationality when I was just mentioning that he couldn't do his own math, and so be careful about his claims. Anyway, and I've just realized that, again, it's not that- I don't like using the word logic or rational. I basically never used them and get them out. Typically, when individuals are acting, they're acting in ways where even they may not understand, but it's in their long-term survival interest. If they didn't do that, it'd be filtered out. In the case of the life of bureaucrats or the life of politicians or the life of somebody in the nuclear industry, to be seen pushing back on something like that means concentrating the personal risk of that leadership. And look, I just think we're a little light on leaders. We're a little bit light, especially in the nuclear industry, in people willing to break rank and break rules. And maybe there's a very good reason for that. I mean, the irony really for nuclear is that the same iron discipline that's given us our current 93, 94% capacity factor over a national fleet - where it's like, different utilities claimed to be good or better at operating nuclear, but in the end the fleet is extraordinary - that same iron discipline, that same absolute deference to hierarchy, or at least to the rules about how to report problems and act on them, is killing us in communicating with the public. And in the end, it's the public's response that will make or break an effort to reduce the armies at a nuclear plant.

Bret Kugelmass
I agree. And I think listeners to this podcast have heard me say enough times that nuclear is its own worst enemy, especially when it comes to communication. But okay, we got to go-

Mark Nelson
I was talking about dirty jobs and what happened when I got into a PhD, and I was searching for something. I had all these methods.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, I don't want to spend too much time on your PhD. We have too many other things, fun things to talk about.

Mark Nelson
Oh, good. I didn't spend time on my PhD. I left, but had an amazing time. Made incredible friends. Studied every topic under the sun that I thought could lead me to one simple question, which was, Who needed what I was working on? The answer was nobody. But since I had a lovely scholarship, I was going to take my time figuring out that answer. I ended up trying to re-approach EDF for a job and they just couldn't quite get the paperwork to me. It's like this person emailed and that person emailed and this person couldn't remember what was on the email chain. And then time just ran out. It didn't matter. I was gonna work for $38,000 a year to be a nuclear graduate degree-holding nuclear engineer. I told you salaries are really low.

Bret Kugelmass
Pounds or dollars?

Mark Nelson
Dollars, which is like under 30,000 pounds. Yeah. Anyway, but the job sounded amazing. They have a scheme to bring in graduates and engineering programs to go do tours of duties at the different crumbly graphite reactors to just basically do the projects to assure both the owner and the regulator that you know how the cookie is crumbling there in the core, and that it's safe to continue operating or pull the plug, stop operating. And that sounded like a very cool job. Real problems at least, yeah? But in the UK, it was really anti, kind of anti-immigrant at the time. And I was an immigrant and I fled back to the US.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. Came back home, good old America.

Mark Nelson
Yeah. Good old America. And you know what, that was really important. Because if you haven't felt what it's like to be in a land where your passport doesn't match the name of the government that you're there, it's sort of a gnawing insecurity that you'll never forget.

Bret Kugelmass
Wow.

Mark Nelson
And in the end, I think that it's important to love your country in a real way, not in the whole, like, I love it, so I'm going to try to improve it. That kind of rings hollow for a lot of people, but to actually say, My passport matches the name of the government of this land and that means I have a stake in it somehow, makes you feel a little bit empowered, I think, in a way that I wouldn't have had otherwise. So I came back to Cleveland, Ohio, having a giant blasted hole in my resume. I'd been a good little student. I'd gotten good grades. I'd passed all the tests. I'd gotten into grad school, gotten the scholarships, and suddenly, I hadn't had any accomplishment, in the formal sense, in years. That was another thing that was really important, because I didn't have to worry about whether I'd be afraid to fail or not. I literally got kicked out of my PhD by Cambridge University. I got actually kicked out and my visa stripped.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh my god.

Mark Nelson
That was a really important step. So I spent a year on an Obamacare fellowship, which is another one of the cheeky ways to say I didn't have a job and was just too old for health insurance under the parents. I worked a manual labor job carrying boxes and instruments for a small Baroque orchestra based in Cleveland and I just learned electricity. And I just looked at data coming in from the European electricity grid and I just stared at it for hours, and clicked different date ranges and looked at different websites, checked out different visualizations, started making my own, and I accidentally made one of the early viral energy Twitter graphs. Just on Excel. I was using a laptop leftover from my, practically from undergrad that was so slow that I broke my- I repeatedly crashed my computer trying to make that first plot.

Bret Kugelmass
What was so viral about this? What caught people's attention?

Mark Nelson
I plotted a bunch of data points and everyone loves a bunch of data points. I just calculated how much CO2 was coming out per hour in France from their grid, and from Germany and their grid, and then I put it all on a chart. And then I think a few other things that I'm I tried to be a stickler about, like axes at zero, and very clear documentation right there on the graphic. I think it's just people were not prepared to see what it looks like when you have a grid that's decarbonizing with weather-dependent energy. And I think that even people who held up France as an example, and defended France, were not prepared to see what it actually looked like when you showed 8,760 data points over the course of a year, every single hour of every day, what the CO2 was.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, but what you're saying is, the France, their CO2 was, I'm guessing was relatively stagnant at nothing. Whereas the counterparty, Germany, that was the one that was fluctuating with higher emissions.

Mark Nelson
Hey, I mean, France was fluctuating more as a percentage. I mean, they were going from hours at 18 to hours over 100 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. That's more fluctuation than Germany. Just you could barely see it, because it's too low. France was too clean. So in effect, you had a complicated year of trial and error and very, I guess, dispiriting lack of success, getting a real job, barely surviving, knowing that I'd failed out of a PhD where I'd had everything given to me, including the full tuition and living stipend. All of that ended up turning into a graph that just quite simply said, Germany's this dirty and it looks ugly, France, is this clean, and it looks good. And that's it. And then Rod Adams, that sneaky, sneaky son of a gun leaked my graph out on the Twitter. I wasn't on Twitter at the time. I'll never be able to thank him enough for this. I wasn't ever, I was just posting these-

Bret Kugelmass
Rod Adams of Atomic Insights, another podcast you've never listened to.

Mark Nelson
Yes, but at least it's equal. I'm an equal opportunity non-podcast listener. Rod Adams said, This needs to be seen by the world. He took my chart from a private little Google discussion group and he put it out on Twitter. And it almost immediately became his biggest tweet ever. And then it got retweeted by somebody else who experienced that. And then, finally, it made it to the Breakthrough and Environmental Progress corner of the country.

Bret Kugelmass
Now, Breakthrough and Environmental Progress are two think tanks, right, that focus on how nuclear is good? Is that- can you say that?

Mark Nelson
That is way too narrow for both of them to be sure. Even think tank at this point may be too narrow. But I would say that the main thing about Breakthrough and Environmental Progress is that they're kind of united around the idea that humans are good and they just accept that as a matter of faith. They're not religious institutes, but they just accept that humans are good. And they deal with the implications of that attitude, while wanting to see a better world.

Bret Kugelmass
Right. Okay, sorry, yeah, I should have- well, no, I'm glad you corrected me. So the whole concept there is that you want to see human flourishing. It's not like- like, historical environmental movements actually are like very anti-human in many ways. It's just like, the rich people want to have their luxurious gardens and farms, and they want everyone else to suffer. That's like historical environmentalism, and then what Breakthrough and Environmental Progress did is they flip that script and they said, No, no, come on, guys. We want a healthy environment and a flourishing human race to enjoy and embrace it. That's their unique aspect. And then stemming out of that comes, Okay, well, how are we going to do this? Well, it'd be really nice to have an energy source that was extremely abundant, that was extremely clean to fuel this human flourishing. And that's why they're pro-nuclear.

Mark Nelson
Right. And in the end, this is all very self-interested for me. I just finished being both a successful and a failure of a student, followed by being essentially a lay-about for a year in Cleveland while I just messed around with spreadsheets. I wasn't exactly bringing in the wheat crop to feed everyone. If I survived in that parasitic existence, it's because a lot of extra flourishing happened to feed me along the way, where even a few days or a few days a month of really hard work was enough to keep me essentially housed and fed.

Bret Kugelmass
And just the advances of modern medicine that enabled, what do you call it? Not relaxation, but just when you're not working, but surviving, right? It's like there's so much that goes into modern civilization that we take for granted.

Mark Nelson
Yeah, exactly. I was inclined to support and defend nuclear. That is something that both Environmental Progress and Breakthrough were doing. So I ended up applying for and receiving a spot in the Breakthrough generation of 2016. Yeah, that's how I went west.

Bret Kugelmass
Yep. And then you worked at Environmental for a while?

Mark Nelson
Yes, so after a summer at Breakthrough, I joined Environmental Progress and-

Bret Kugelmass
With Shellenberger, who is the Titan number one. First episode.

Mark Nelson
No way.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, the first episode of Titans of Nuclear.

Mark Nelson
And now here I am, the last episode.

Bret Kugelmass
Hopefully not.

Mark Nelson
Oh, okay. All right.

Bret Kugelmass
Let's say most recent episode.

Mark Nelson
That's another way to put it.

Bret Kugelmass
I didn't know if there's an earthquake coming or something.

Mark Nelson
Very cool. I guess I didn't realize that, I should listen to more podcasts.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, yeah, I was-

Mark Nelson
Are there a lot of them?

Bret Kugelmass
Well, I was still living in Cal- there are quite a few. I was living in California at the time and I was just, I didn't know anything about nuclear, but wanted to look into it more. Because the climate scientists I was talking to were like, they were like, Go look into nuclear. Bret, if you really care about climate change, go look into nuclear. And I could do some math, so I thought that was a good idea. And then, yeah, so I was still in California and I was like, Who are some nuclear experts I can talk to?

Mark Nelson
Stop. That's not good enough. Not that you- it's not that you can do math. Trust me. I was in academia. Academia is filled with a giant crowd of people who are very good at math, and they do it, defend and expand on the dumbest shit to be rude. Can I add a correction?

Bret Kugelmass
Yes.

Mark Nelson
You were young enough not to share in a deep gnawing anxiety about nuclear, either the bomb or the energy.

Bret Kugelmass
That's probably true.

Mark Nelson
You were eager to do something where you had the biggest impact on the center of energy possible.

Bret Kugelmass
Perhaps.

Mark Nelson
Just to guess. And then, in the end, that's sufficient. You don't even have to be good at math at that point. And that's important, because if we are going to say that coming to nuclear is about being good at math, then a bunch of people didn't have good experience with math and are not going to do math-

Bret Kugelmass
God, you're right.

Mark Nelson
Whether it was the family budget, or if they getting into poker, they'll get into numbers. They'll get a hobby in chess, they might do it.

Bret Kugelmass
I shouldn't have said it like that. I'm glad you corrected me. Yeah, no, that is- yeah, that's probably elitist thinking there to say that you're good at math and that's why.

Mark Nelson
In fact, I have worked with folks that I've mentored or on my staff where they discovered for the first time they could do math and enjoy it, because they fell in love with new nuclear. That's the opposite, that's the opposite of what you said.

Bret Kugelmass
When you're right, you're right.

Mark Nelson
Sorry. I didn't mean to-

Bret Kugelmass
That's okay. I'm glad you placed that correction. I think that was actually a very valuable insight for this episode, so I'm glad you went there. But yeah, Shellenberger was episode number one. I was looking for people in the area, found him, found some posts, found some articles. Went over to the office, setup a little interview. I love that story.

Mark Nelson
Yeah. And the rest is history.

Bret Kugelmass
You were working there at that time. We just didn't run into each other.

Bret Kugelmass
Interesting. Okay. Well, yeah. It was-

Bret Kugelmass
Right, this was 2017.

Mark Nelson
Yeah, it was like, my time at EP, it was- it's kind of a blur. Crisis after crisis after crisis.

Bret Kugelmass
What were the crises?

Mark Nelson
Let me give you an example. I get to Environmental Progress and Michael says to me, Hey, Mark, can you get me a list of all the nuclear plants in trouble? Well, that should be easy. There's only a few 100 to check on, right? So I go and start making my list of all the world's nuclear plants, like a… It's like Mark's Nuclear Plant List. And then one day, I say, Hey, Michael, we've got a big problem. There's something going wrong in South Korea. What? Oh, turns out that South Korea just got an incredibly anti-nuclear president, and in the exact same time, Bret, that a lot of our community was going around saying South Korea is doing this and this and it shows that we can, South Korea was starting to cripple and intentionally disable its nuclear capability.

Bret Kugelmass
Which is so crazy, because- so I have Korean family and they tell me, like they don't forget to tell me how, after the war how dirt poor Korea was. Like really. Like, no, no, like really bad. And nuclear was their saving grace. It brought them out of, brought the whole country out of poverty. Made them an industrial powerhouse, because they had this state-owned clean supply of independent supply of energy.

Mark Nelson
And then imagine my horror where, not too long after I discovered this issue, we're looking at a Korea that had, I think in 2019, its capacity factor for its fleet - and we're not talking about France, where they load follow when they go on holiday, so they turn off half their fleet to eat cheese and drink wine or whatever - in Korea, they need it every hour of the year. The Korean fleet had below 60% capacity factor in recent years, in 2019.

Bret Kugelmass
Wow, why is that?

Mark Nelson
Well, that's an interesting sort of question that comes up when you just check and see how the nuclear plants are doing. How about this. Where we were already- when I arrived, talking about Canada as a good example, for this and that, and Ontario being great, and then we look and see that Canada was on pace at the time to lose a huge amount of its nuclear - heck, still is on pace - to lose a giant chunk of its nuclear plants in the next few years.

Bret Kugelmass
And why- what was the- when he sets you up and says, Hey, go find out all the- why all the nuclear plants, find all the nuclear plants that aren't doing well? Like what, why? Is the mission of the organization "Save all the nuclear plants that aren't doing well" or like what's going on?

Mark Nelson
Because they were turning off. And I mean, a few years before, Michael had been saying, Oh, there are these advanced reactors, we can save humanity. He was in one of the documentaries - I haven't seen it, or is whatever-

Bret Kugelmass
Pandora's Promise.

Mark Nelson
I'll put that in the podcast queue. Anyway, he's been in movies and been part of a narrative that said that the reason why nuclear isn't doing well is because we did the wrong design or something.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, he was of that opinion?

Mark Nelson
Well, I mean, if you go far enough back- Look, my discovery of nuclear, right on the eve of applying to grad school, was around seeing that, Oh, we've got these things. We have these things called molten salt reactors where we can use a fuel called thorium. And that'll solve all the problems that nuclear has had because we leave 96% of the energy unburned in the fuel. And if we can just correct that, then our molten salt thermal breeder will then solve the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation to lead us to the promised land. And then yeah, first day in at grad school, they're like, let's learn some reactors.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Oh, my God. It's just so- but it's so funny how many people could- actually do catch the nuclear bug with that kind of thinking. I need- we need to get a psychologist on-staff.

Mark Nelson
What's happening- eh, I don't know. Psychologists are the type that went to grad school, right? Remember, we talked about the problems with people went to grad school.

Bret Kugelmass
Hey, but they're the ones who probably finished grad school.

Mark Nelson
Oh man, okay. It is open season. I don't care if I'm a guest here. Or if I never get invited back, it is open season for the rest of this podcast. Even if it's five minutes. Anyway, the narrative goes, nuclear is not getting built because we don't have the right reactors or designs, and at the same time, nuclear plants that were already built - as in you don't have to pay for their construction, they're there already - were getting shut down.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah.

Mark Nelson
And Michael, I mean, had some pretty obvious intuitive connections that something may be wrong with the narrative that we will be saved by advanced nuclear-

Bret Kugelmass
But you're saying he supported-

Mark Nelson
-while at the same time you're shutting down reactors that don't have to be built, or troubleshoot, or restaffed.

Bret Kugelmass
I understand. What you're saying is when he first did the documentary, he felt one way or well, adhered to that line. But then over time, by learning more about the industry, he came to a different opinion. And you were part of that? Or you came in after he had already kind of- like where do you fit into this?

Mark Nelson
I mean, I think Cambridge has a great program, pretty small program, but they have people that have been part of many different interesting projects, for example, Tony. He helped build the nuclear subs, the last set of nuclear subs for the UK. And before that, he was part of the sodium fast reactor program up in the Dounreay in Scotland. And he had just been around a lot of reactors, sometimes from start to finish for their lifecycle. And it's just- he wasn't saying that we couldn't do advanced reactors. It's just he was speaking from the real world. He didn't go to grad school either. I know, right? There's a pattern here. And he just- you just feel a lot more realism there. I think. You're a lot more connected to the problem of a country that's desperately clinging on to the final remaining years of the last time they decided to go it alone on nuclear technology, right. So the Brits decided to keep chugging along with gas reactors because they were once the world leader in all nuclear through the use of the gas reactors, and then they were fairly brutally disabused of the notion that it was good to go it alone on nuclear. That was part of my journey. As for Michael's, I just think he couldn't get away from the fact that we were closing working nuclear plants. And the really interesting thing for us is that, at the moment he started speaking out to them, he started being approached, just approached out of the blue by people all over the world saying, Help us, our plants are dying. And that made him sound even less like a lot of the rest of the ecomodernist movement where, again, if you're hearing really distressing and disturbing things that are not a matter of public record from the inside of nuclear programs, it drives you to different viewpoints than if you're not at all connected to the industry.

Bret Kugelmass
So what is the different viewpoint? Where do you sit on this now with respect to-encapsulate these learnings for me, because I know where you're going, but I don't think our audience does.

Mark Nelson
I love exploring. I wrote my thesis at Cambridge on the reactor system that now is basically turning into the Terrapower thing in Wyoming, so on the PRISM, and had to research the entire history-

Bret Kugelmass
Molten salt or whatever.

Mark Nelson
No, no, it's the sodium fast reactor.

Bret Kugelmass
Sodium fast. Sorry, right.

Mark Nelson
There are a bunch of companies that sort of inherited directions from Argonne that led to the US's last attempt at building a sodium fast reactor. And I love it. I think any great nuclear country should have a sodium reactor program. I think that any great nuclear country - which is to say great countries - should have a high temperature program. But you cannot make a great nuclear country by having just those. Russia has the most successful sodium fast reactor program ever-

Bret Kugelmass
You're still beating around the bush. Just say it more clearly. Because I don't want to put the words in your mouth, but say it more clearly what you mean. There's nothing wrong with light water reactors, right?

Mark Nelson
In many ways, advanced reactor rhetoric and marketing is a cruel joke when we're losing the most beautiful electricity plants that humans have ever built. And those are light water reactors.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Okay, let's just let that sit.

Mark Nelson
I also like heavy water reactors. Let's not- for those at home who are fans of heavy water reactors.

Bret Kugelmass
Chris, like our buddy, Chris.

Mark Nelson
There are a lot of us CANDU fans out there.

Bret Kugelmass
I am too, I am too. And I would say the same thing. I'm a big fan of all these different technologies. I think they can be used for a lot of things. And I actually do think heavy waters maybe do have like a good way to scale in terms of like global energy production as well. But the light water reactors- there's a reason that we built so many of them.

Mark Nelson
Look, to just explain the way I believe Michael saw it, it's not that he was trying to get into the nitty gritty of exactly how the reactors worked or didn't work. He just saw that, upon reading from day one to the present, the history of nuclear energy, we ended up with this system for reasons that were reasonable at the time, and ended up working out at least to the point of having lots of reactors. The nuclear- the anti-nuclear movement was born and developed its full power before even, honestly, before a single nuclear meltdown filled the public consciousness. There was already a very strong, very elite anti-nuclear movement. They didn't give a crap whether it was this type of reactor or that type of reactor. It's just like the day we get significant progress towards fusion, people are gonna point out that we have fusion bombs.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, my God, and not just even fusion bombs. The fact that on a per reaction basis, more radiation is created from fusion than is from fission. Oh, and yeah, and the proliferation of fission weapons from fusion reactors. Oh, and so many other things. Yes. Coming back to the words you used, I think you said cruel joke, right? Like something around the advanced reactors, did you say those words? You said something like that.

Mark Nelson
No, couldn't have been me.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. Well-

Mark Nelson
I don't listen to podcasts, I'll never know.

Bret Kugelmass
But yes, this is just so crazy that people think that the public is just going to fall in love with advanced reactors. I heard you say this on another podcast, and it's just so true. It's like, the minute that you make it real, they're going to hate you. But what's your backup plan then?

Mark Nelson
So here's where I think I can-

Bret Kugelmass
Sorry, I also just want to caveat this with, I actually don't think that public support is that bad. And I don't think that we need public support to create a prosperous industry. I want to get those out there, but then we can come back to the actual what is public support question.

Mark Nelson
What I would say is, I've seen a lot of potentially well-meaning, folks. So what does that mean? I don't know, advertise advanced reactors that don't exist yet by leveraging them against reactors that do exist at the moment that those reactors were closing. That leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. For example, are the advanced reactor folks - some of whom I know and are good people and everything - are they secretly getting more hope for their individual device if we lose reactors that are critical to say, life on the West Coast? Because look, nobody wants a blackout, Bret, but won't that really show people how important it is to build advanced nuclear?

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, okay. So you're on the whole losing reactors thing. I had never focused that much on it. But I just think about it on the individual basis. You tell someone that your technology is safer than another nuclear technology, you will think that you're implanting - you're literally doing the inception thing - you're implanting an idea in their head that the entire category is so dangerous that people shouldn't have it. You think that you're saying something positive when you say the word that I'm safer? Like, who are you trying to fool?

Mark Nelson
Yep. And this is another thing where, if I made two buckets of how I thought and how I lived when I was trying to get a PhD going, and then how I thought after a bit of time in the trenches, doing manual labor, earning minimum wage - that sort of thing - here's the way I'd kind of look at it. Optimization, big studies, thinking you can learn how to do a thing by reading a thing, right? All of these outlooks are kind of, they all fit into a bucket for me. And then there's this other thing where it's like learning by doing which, of course, is a phrase used to promote advanced nuclear, I'm not denying. Also, I guess instead of- making things anti-fragile. That's the side I think I'm gonna find my way to. And in terms of marketing nuclear based on other existing nuclear being bad is a fatal flaw. It's a fatal error.

Bret Kugelmass
It's so crazy.

Mark Nelson
The public doesn't buy it anyway. The public is going to see any successes that emerge in Wyoming-

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. Yeah, sorry, that's the other part of it - not to cut you off, or to cut you off, but that's okay - there are two problems when they say that their technology is safer. Not only do they undercut the entire industry, but why should anyone believe- like who are you that somebody believes? Even if I was your mom, and you said that, Oh, my technology is safer. Your mom might not even believe you. What credibility do you have not having built anything ever, that anyone should actually believe you when you say the word safer?

Mark Nelson
Right. Where in the end, before you claim anything about nuclear, the person you're talking to has got to believe that if the chips were down, you would fight for them. You would suffer for them. Because in effect, if they don't trust a thing and you're asking them to, you're asking them to take on an unknown cost and unknown risk to themselves, right? And if you're trying to tell somebody something about nuclear, and that person doesn't believe that you would fight for them, or defend them, even maybe against your own interests, they're not going to change their heart for you. It's just not going to happen.

Bret Kugelmass
So where did you come up with all this insight? Is it from talking to people? Is it from just being in the space? Did you read a psychology textbook after-

Mark Nelson
Yeah, no. Gosh, Bret. In the Environmental Progress method, love it or hate, it was just wearing out shoes, talking to as many people as we could. Inside, outside industry, everywhere in the world.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, but some people do that and don't learn a thing. They just kind of hit their head against the same light pole every time. It's like, were you specific? Did you have intention?

Mark Nelson
That's not the way we were trained at EP.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. That's all I'm asking. There was training?

Mark Nelson
There was living. There was- So for example, we needed to know what was going on in Europe. And this young staff was asked by Michael to put together a research trip to Europe where we would go to Germany and to Switzerland and France to try to meet with as many politicians and policymakers and nuclear industry insiders, research institutes - anyone anywhere we could along the route to figure out what the heck was going on. And we kind of built it around Michael Shellenberger having a TED talk in Berlin. He was ill, he said, as we departed for the trip, I've got to ditch, you guys do it. And he goes, and he delivers, he somehow - in very poor health - delivers a TED talk.

Bret Kugelmass
I didn't realize.

Mark Nelson
Barely made his way through it, goes straight back home. And this scared group of youngsters, who are used to being led through everything, just conducted the rest of our research trip ourselves. And we could, because we're the ones who'd been asked to set up all the meetings, to get an audience with French ministries, to go to the lead research institute for physics in Switzerland-

Bret Kugelmass
You're asking a bunch of questions, and you're going around the world and you're trying to learn things, but how do you distill those learnings? Was there like a session when you all came back? Had a whiteboard? How did you- because you have very well thought-out arguments that I've heard you present on the other podcasts - even though you never heard them - that you're presenting here today. I want to know how the argument was developed. I understand where you collected the data, the research the learnings. Now I want to know, how did you turn that into something that you can talk about?

Mark Nelson
Brutal battles, sometimes successful, sometimes not to save nuclear plants.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, you're having these debates and talk-

Mark Nelson
You say debates, only a few debates. We're talking about, between the staff that came in and out of BP - do I say thousands, or it's hard for me to even estimate. At some point you stop trying to count or collect, because that's just like trying to get stats together to show in a report. That's not the kind of thing we did. If you're fighting to save a nuclear plant, you will talk to anyone, anywhere, pretty much any time. You'll travel anywhere you need to.

Bret Kugelmass
So you're just refining your arguments through many more conversations with-

Mark Nelson
Ironically, considering our skepticism of innovation to save nuclear, we were doing sort of innovating of just going to talk to-

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, okay, hold on. I am never skeptical of innovation. I am skeptical of technology innovation when the problem isn't technology-related. What you're talking about is a different type of innovation, and I am as pro-innovation as anyone.

Mark Nelson
All right.

Bret Kugelmass
As long as you get the right type.

Mark Nelson
But you know that innovation is a backwards-defined category.

Bret Kugelmass
Tell me more.

Mark Nelson
Okay. So a bunch of really awful, horrible innovations that we dare not even speak of happened, and then were thankfully stopped or failed or blew up, took a lot of people with them. And we don't call those innovations, because they didn't work. There's this assumption, if you're just playing with words instead of devices. If you're checking the temperature of donors and politicians rather than the temperature of pressure vessels, that innovation is like almost a magic phrase where you say it and it implies that you're going to arrive at a better state and not a worse state. If the 737 MAX hadn't crashed, that would have been a great example of how to push the boundaries in plane design while reusing as many working systems as possible.

Bret Kugelmass
I think they're still making more 737 MAXs.

Mark Nelson
I bet they'll fix the thing that made them crash, right. I'm just saying, people don't say, Innovative like the 737 MAX, except for the crashes. Look, if we- Bret, if we innovate ourselves to a reactor that can be built a bit cheaper and just runs at 40 or 50% more expensive per terawatt-hour, because it just has 80% uptime instead of 100% say, that's backwards. That's not good.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Well, listen, this is the other problem that I think that the advanced- once again, I love them, love the advanced technologies, love the advanced reactor developers. And I do, I really love them as people too. But I think the one thing that I'd never heard a good argument against is, okay, so let's say you convince someone to build your system and you convince them based on these economics, but these economics assuming 95% capacity factor. There's an understandable downtime in the first 10 years that, average it out at 70% capacity factor or something, and now your economics are fucking shit. Who's going to ever build another one of your plants again?

Mark Nelson
Let's even plant this even more in reality.

Bret Kugelmass
Like, why would you tell- utilities aren't stupid. And you might say that you've got a 95% uptime reactor, but they're not gonna believe you and they're gonna base their economic models on 70% or 60% or who knows, and then you won't be able to sell it to begin with.

Mark Nelson
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was never designed to have a whole army defending it or to defend against Fukushima-type initiating events. And it was also designed to have an- it was expected to have an uptime of about 75%. And despite all this awful, awful experience in construction - worse than Vogtle, we're talking 13 years or so to get that thing online - immense cultural forces brought to bear against it - that damn plant makes money. In today's California. With the wind and solar that's on the grid in California, that plant makes money.

Bret Kugelmass
So why are they shutting it down?

Mark Nelson
We get to there, we get to try five different advanced reactor systems in addition to building a bunch of the ones that work. I think that that-

Bret Kugelmass
So why are they shutting it down? Can you answer the question, please?

Mark Nelson
Yeah, so there are things that you say and don't say to allow people to save face and I hate being the type of person that beats around the bush. It's being shut down because someone or some small group of people demanded it and they got what they wanted through inside hardball politics. And the plant is owned by a utility that does not gain from more electricity sales or higher electricity prices, but can go bankrupt if they're forced to suddenly emergency shut their plant because of misuse of environmental restrictions. Diablo Canyon, most beautiful nuclear plant in the world, one of the most important nuclear plants in the world in terms of protecting life and limb - at least in the West, in terms of the severe electricity shortage that the California has - is just going to get worse. Their emergency permitting, everything, generators.

Bret Kugelmass
The madness that California blacks out, madness, and they're going to make it more vulnerable.

Mark Nelson
Right, but a few people wanted it gone. And PG&E was not in a position to tell the regulators who were being used as a tool. They were not in a position to fight. Look, honestly at the time, in 2016, nuclear energy was not legally clean energy under the law of the state of California, but now it is. In 2016, the gas side of PG&E was the dominant, they were the- they had the BDE, so to speak - the kids will know what that acronym stands for - and I got mailers. I got mailers. When I moved to San Francisco in 2016, PG&E used our money to send us mailers showing how it was best to use natural gas to cook your Thanksgiving turkey, because electricity was a lot more expensive.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh my God.

Mark Nelson
That's because the gas guys just had absolute run of the place. It was their own private little program. And the finance guys said, Hey, why are we even trying to put up a fight? If these politicians tell us we have to close our plant or else, why don't we just close it? It's not any skin off of our back. They don't care. And it's- you sort of had one of the last generations of leaders that maybe would have had the spine to say this is fundamentally wrong. This is wrong.

Bret Kugelmass
Who was the last generation of leaders?

Mark Nelson
I don't know. I mentioned in the podcast about France that the French nuclear fleet was built by dudes who were in the French underground and escaped Vichy France in order to go fight and shoot Germans and stuff like that. And the people they were replacing, the old guard, were the ones who like rolled over died and gave up their own population to prison camps. It's different. Different generations go through different crucibles. I don't know if we want to attribute too much or too little to that, but California has had easy times and it's made for weak leaders.

Bret Kugelmass
You don't have to say it, but do we know who that small group was, by the way? You know, okay.

Mark Nelson
Later, later, let's do- if you want to drag me back to this one-

Bret Kugelmass
If you want to get drinks, we'll do it.

Mark Nelson
If you want to bring me back, I will send somebody on to say it. But just, people in power now made it their personal objective and they were willing to brag about it in the climate of 2016-17, they were willing to brag openly about their desire to personally see through the closure of that plant. And now they're in power and maybe even for weeks longer.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, yeah, I've got it.

Mark Nelson
It's not even clear that it was anything personal. It's just, that's the type of leader we have now.

Bret Kugelmass
Politicians out there, I know, but so good looking. Okay, hold on.

Mark Nelson
So can we, at the moment, at the moment really does seem like NRDC is the fulcrum and if NRDC decided to not fight on the side of causing climate change-

Bret Kugelmass
I know, now they're just all stir crazy.

Mark Nelson
NRDC changing their position on it would probably be enough to fip it.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, that's what we were saying about these environmental groups not really caring about humans.

Mark Nelson
Yeah and look, NRDC budget is like 200 million or something. It's not absolutely clear. I don't even know if they know for sure, except the top people at NRDC, like how much of that money is at stake if they decide to do the right thing, but it's enough that they're just not.

Bret Kugelmass
Moment, inertia it's like-

Mark Nelson
They're king of the coop. They're in the White House. They're in positions of power and authority. They don't have to listen to anybody. They want that plant closed, Bret.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, okay. Geez, there could be a whole series on Diablo and stuff. Tell me more about you right now. Where do you focus your energy? Is it on the Diablo stuff? Or is it more broadly? What impact are you trying to have on the world?

Mark Nelson
I mainly focus on saving nuclear plants from closing and then getting new ones added.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, getting new ones added. Can we talk- we talked about-

Mark Nelson
And mainly on Earth.

Bret Kugelmass
Earth.

Mark Nelson
I don't work on space nuclear.

Bret Kugelmass
Do you know the Earth song by Lil Dicky?

Mark Nelson
No. Hey, audience, look at Bret just sitting there awkwardly trying to get out a song reference. I told you I know that I promised that I would skewer him straight.

Bret Kugelmass
People think I'm a nerd. I listen to rap songs.

Mark Nelson
Cool. And could you sing a little of it?

Bret Kugelmass
It's got all the actors... Earth. That's all I got. There's Earth.

Mark Nelson
We're gonna keep that in.

Bret Kugelmass
We're gonna take it out. No, um, adding new ones. What are you doing to add new ones?

Mark Nelson
Well, look. At the point that you're doing- talking heart to heart to as many people as you can to save nuclear, that's pretty much the same problem as the heart to heart talks required to get the trust building.

Bret Kugelmass
A heart to heart makes me sound like it's like a one to one thing. That doesn't sound very scalable.

Mark Nelson
There's a phrase that bounces around, all politics is local. In a way all fights for nuclear are gonna be one heart at a time.

Bret Kugelmass
Give me something scalable. Come on, are you- I mean, so this podcast is scalable. Are you writing a book? Can you give me something that's not just one- listen, I love the one the one talking. I especially love it for the learning process. But come on, you gotta impact- you only got so many conversations left the next five years?

Mark Nelson
Question for you. How many people who are not okay with nuclear are going to listen to this episode and say I'm okay with nuclear now.

Bret Kugelmass
I don't know if anyone who's not okay with nuclear listens to Titans of Nuclear podcast, the number one nuclear podcast on Apple podcasts.

Mark Nelson
Okay. All right. All right. So then here's a question. How many people in this are going to get radicalized enough that they're going to-

Bret Kugelmass
So I'm trying to add plants as well. But our tactic is not to convince people. Our tactic is to help the upcoming nuclear companies deliver a product cost effectively and in an expeditious manner. That's how I'm doing it.

Mark Nelson
Let me say this. If we're not probably expecting anti-nuclear people to watch this and to have their hearts melted-

Bret Kugelmass
What do you convince the anti-nuclear people for? Just convince the margins who have the power.

Mark Nelson
I've added a little bit of understanding or empathy for people who haven't used their math to decide if they like nuclear. And maybe if those individuals who hear this episode are like, Ah, until I learn how to really like or even love the person I'm trying to convince about nuclear, I'm not going to be able to convince them that I care about them enough for them to give up a deeply held fear, then maybe they will go and we're broadcasting to all of these who made themselves go and have the one on one conversation.

Bret Kugelmass
And that I do think makes sense.

Mark Nelson
Look, I'm working with a bunch of people who have tried it. I've moved from San Francisco to Chicago. You would have thought that moving to the state with the most nuclear megawatt-hours was going to be a big boost to the mood, but I moved straight into a firestorm. We're about to lose 35 terawatt-hours of nuclear electricity.

Bret Kugelmass
What does that mean in terms of plants?

Mark Nelson
Four gorgeous reactors at two plants right on the outskirts of Chicago. So I'm working with as many people as I can.

Bret Kugelmass
What's their plan? What's the state's plan? What are they gonna do?

Mark Nelson
It's the opposite. The state is wanting to put a plan into place for the long future and they don't have the votes for it. Like politicians don't have the votes for that plant.

Bret Kugelmass
Who needs to vote for it?

Mark Nelson
You know, we haven't gotten to the end of my story. We haven't gotten to the Diablo answer. We haven't gotten to anti-nuclear-

Bret Kugelmass
I'm trying to get to your story. We're getting to the end of your story, right? We're saying what you're doing? Did we miss something?

Mark Nelson
In the end, what we found to be successful is just calling our representatives and saying, Please, it would just mean so much to us to have a conversation to say why we can't lose these plants. And people want a call script, they want to be able to send it out-

Bret Kugelmass
Which representatives are you talking about?

Mark Nelson
Look, the national reps for Illinois, they don't seem to be doing anything. The senators don't seem to be doing anything. They are even really prominent former political leaders who started their political career in Illinois, went all the way to the White House, who seemed to be doing absolutely nothing about the biggest energy story in America. Okay?

Bret Kugelmass
For what's going on, clean energy is probably the biggest thing ever.

Mark Nelson
In a matter of days. They're starting the ramp down. Any hour now they're starting to.

Bret Kugelmass
Can you make a new map where the carbon emissions go up or something?

Mark Nelson
We've made all those and we'll make them again, because you never know what's going to go viral and scale the way you want it to. In the end, it's making calls, maybe without even a script, where people hear that we clearly care, that we're maybe a little scared, scared, but hopeful. And they hear that and they're like, even if this is industry, even if this is some trick, this feels real enough that I should at least investigate.

Bret Kugelmass
How do you help people do this? Do you have a website or something that people can go to- We're on a podcast. We've got to promote something.

Mark Nelson
Look, I've seen people-

Bret Kugelmass
Call scripts wherever, they go to www dot what?

Mark Nelson
One of the things I've had a problem with a lot of organizations that do work on advanced nuclear and stuff like that is, I see a lot of people say, Oh, we are not staffed up to do grassroots, or Oh, we just can't. Look, we may not have been able to build more nuclear in the last 30 years, but we've built devices that make it easy and free to communicate with almost anyone in the world effortlessly. Right? So honestly, for me and my staff, it's just open-hearted communication and generosity. It's WhatsApp groups. Somebody sends us a Twitter DM and says, Hey, I saw that tweet, what can I do to help? And we say, Where are you from? What are your interests? What's your background? Okay, let's have a quick call. Let's get you on our WhatsApp group. Here's when we have standing calls. Here's when we have meetings. Here's what we know, what we don't know. And we just get people added to free and open communities as rapidly as possible. And then anything that we hear from any of these communities around the world that works, we get that to everyone else. It turns out that running a well-designed poll is a spectacular way to understand the audience you're trying to pitch at-scale to in a country. And if you write your questions honestly and carefully, you will learn enough to get something that the media will care about. And at that point, you're off to the races in terms of mastering-

Bret Kugelmass
Polls? Now that's part of your thing?

Mark Nelson
We don't do the polls, we ask others to. And they find ways to get it done. And we just make sure that everybody hears the results of everyone else's polls. That everyone gets to know and feel included in any other spot in the world that's having troubles like them. Look, I'm not saying that people losing reactors need therapy over, but it is extremely rough. It is brutal, brutal to be caring about climate, or caring about union jobs, or any of a number of causes, and to see you losing nuclear plants that you know damn well are almost impossible to replace. People need help. And one of the ways to do it is to get involved in multiple groups trying to defend plants, right? Yeah, we just connect people up. We use WhatsApp. We use Facebook, Twitter DMs. Email, if we must. Signal, Telegram, wherever people feel most comfortable, we find them and make sure they have a way to contribute. There is always a way to start acting on local representatives. Now, that sounds like lobbying. This is one of those things where lobbying itself doesn't even seem to scale. This is heart to heart. And you might as well start with the people who win elections by the smallest margins. And that's the people in your neighborhood or your city or your county who actually want to represent you in a state house. That's the United States context, but what you'll find is that there's always a next step. There's always a next step. You know what, even with New York's brutal spring, I was there with my colleagues and the nuclear New York guys. We were strapping yellow helmets up to a fence line behind crying union leaders and politicians as we shut down one of the most important power plants in the world for keeping a population healthy and alive. There was still a next step. That demonstration, that silent demonstration got covered in National Geographic. It got picked up by photo wire services. We started seeing images pop up. And then we were ready, for example, to catch our NRDC celebrating, openly gloating about killing that plant. We were in a position to, from day one after those shutdowns, to fight to make the biggest possible gain for the world out of that crime. And we did that just through the simplest, the simplest- I mean, what is grassroots in the end? It's people who want to be there, couldn't be paid not to be there, and aren't paid to be there. Working because they love it. And because it means something. That's the way we fight for nuclear plants.

Bret Kugelmass
This has been a wide-ranging, very interesting, super insightful conversation. I'm going to give you the last word to wrap things up. And we can just cut if you've already kind of said your piece. And I'll give you one question to kind of think about if you want to go that direction, too. But I do want to give you the last word. I always like to end with, if you were to kind of wave your magic wand, put on your magic cap, 10 years from now, what does the world look like? And it has to be optimistic. That's the one rule to answering this last question. So you can just answer that or if you got any other final words to say it's up to you.

Mark Nelson
Days from now, August 12th, 2021, we find a way to save Byron and Dresden nuclear plants. From there, we save the Belgian plants. We save the German plants, We save California's plants. We reverse the nuclear attacks in South Korea. We get Japan feeling its oats in nuclear again. We start four or five new countries in the next few years down a path of adding nuclear. We stop the closure of nuclear plants in Canada. Within years we are attracting real talent, talent that's coming to nuclear maybe even for a pay cut from industries around the world, because they see it as the greatest hope. And we start building nuclear plants knowing that we're going to take some risks and lose some money on the first ones. We start building up a big group of millennials even, construction manager millennials, experienced tradesmen who are teaching the Zoomers coming on to the job site how to well, just right, tricks of the trade to get a good pour the first time. How to make sure that your rebar matches the diagram. And by 2030, we are maintaining our grids. We're electrifying where possible as fast as possible. Nuclear is at the dead center of energy policy in every country in the world. And people see hope. Even as they fight against flooding. Even as they fight against sea level rise. Even as as we lose some crops in some parts of the world and have to replace it with shipments from others. Where people- just like the way we fight for Illinois, where there's always a next step. There's never a moment where there's not a next step. That's a good way to build. And by 2030, there's no debate around, two different sides, anti-nuclear or for-nuclear, it's the best way to capitalize on the green shoots of new nuclear. I think that's my 2030 and can easily see the path almost hour by hour how we get there starting today.

Bret Kugelmass
Mark Nelson, everybody. Well done.

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