Founder and Executive Director
The Breakthrough Institute
August 10, 2023
Phoebe Lind [00:00:58] Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Titans of Nuclear Podcast. I'm Phoebe Lind, and today we have Ted Nordhaus as our very special guest. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Breakthrough Institute. Ted, welcome to the podcast.
Ted Nordhaus [00:01:15] Thanks for having me.
Phoebe Lind [00:01:16] Of course. Just to dive right in, tell us a little bit about how you got started. We'll start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Ted Nordhaus [00:01:25] Wow, that's a long time ago. I've been at this for a long time. I spent the first half of my career in the environmental movement, really in a lot of cases doing real grassroots work. Knocking on doors, running campaigns, that kind of thing. I spent some time as a pollster for environmental groups. And in the early 2000s with a number of other people, I helped launch a thing called the Apollo Project, which was in some ways really like Version 1.0 of the Green New Deal. It seems a little quaint now, but we were calling for $300 billion over 10 years to invest in a clean energy economy.
Ted Nordhaus [00:02:29] I wasn't a big nuclear guy; I didn't know that much about nuclear energy at the time. A lot of the focus on that was just wind and solar, bringing clean energy manufacturing jobs to America. And this was all right after 9/11, so there was a big focus on energy independence and getting off of oil because it was funding terrorists and things like that.
Ted Nordhaus [00:02:57] So I started that in the early 2000s. Like I said, I knew environmental politics really well, and it was this very different approach to dealing with climate change. Again, this was a long time ago, so we say things now that seem like really conventional wisdom, like, "Climate change is fundamentally a technology problem." But actually, the environmental community itself did not look at the problem that way at the time. It thought that climate change was just like a big air pollution problem, and we would solve it the same way that we had solved problems of smog and sort of more conventional environmental problems. Like, the EPA would write a regulation and tell everyone to sort of reduce their emissions and they would do it however they did it. Energy efficiency, some renewable energy, some pollution control on the end of the pipe, that kind of thing. So, that was really the mental model or paradigm for climate change when I started really engaging the issue in the way that we've been at for almost 20 years now.
Ted Nordhaus [00:04:24] The interesting thing was this was this big, exciting, new, innovative idea. It is now sort of the conventional wisdom in the environmental community. But at the time, it was kind of heretical. And so we had this coalition. We had some labor unions, we had some progressive groups that weren't really environmental groups. And we start taking this idea around to all the big environmental groups, and they're like, "Yeah, not interested. We've got our program here. Just going to do an international treaty, a cap-and-trade program for emissions, and we're going to solve the problem." They were very, very confident that they knew exactly what to do.
Ted Nordhaus [00:05:02] So we got really frustrated. In 2004, I wrote an essay with a guy who probably some of your listeners know who's gone on to do some very different things since then named Michael Shellenberger called "The Death of Environmentalism," which was like a pre-Twitter social media call out of the entire environmental movement for just abjectly failing on climate change. It was already clear even then that the environmental community's agenda on climate change was not succeeding. They'd made no progress; emissions had just been going up. They were still going up at the time in the US. They were rising very rapidly globally, especially as China was industrializing. And the environmental community insisted that they knew what they were doing and they had this all covered, but it was obvious even 20 years ago that this wasn't the case.
Ted Nordhaus [00:06:02] So we write this thing. It kind of went viral, one of the early internet things that went viral. Everybody wrote about it, talked about it. We self-published it on this little website that was The Breakthrough Institute before there really was an institute at all. It was kind of this internet, media sensation, even in the environmental groups. It's interesting because it came out right before the 2004 election. We had interviewed the leaders of all the big environmental groups, and they were all very confident that John Kerry was going to win the election and then we'd go do this cap-and-trade bill. I think everyone on the left including in the environmental community was really shocked when George W. Bush wins reelection. There was a sort of a brief window for introspection on the left and in the environmental community right as we had self-published this essay. And so, it just hit at exactly the right time for a bunch of people to go like, "What the hell are we doing here and isn't it working?"
Ted Nordhaus [00:07:25] And so, even in the big environmental groups, people were literally organizing reading groups to read this essay and talk about it. There was a big debate; all of that. So, that's sort of where the present iteration of Ted Nordhaus and really where the Breakthrough Institute starts. And we spent a bunch of years, really a decade after that going like, "Okay, so we know that this thing that the environmental community is not doing isn't working." We had this idea that a technology-centered, public investment focused approach would have been better, but we didn't really know what that really meant. And so, we spent a lot of years sort of both looking at the policy and what the problem was.
Ted Nordhaus [00:08:17] A few years later, we published the first white paper that we ever published called "Fast, Clean and Cheap," which really said, "Again, this is a technology problem. We need to cut this Gordian Knot." The idea is that by regulating fossil fuels, you would make them more expensive with a price on carbon or a carbon cap-and-trade program, and then that's how you would get the clean energy. We're like, "No, actually, we're living in this world..." You know, at the time it was almost 7 billion people, now it's 8 billion people. A lot of them are really poor. They need to consume way more energy. They can't actually afford fossil energy, in a lot of cases, at the price that it costs today. So, you really have to make clean energy cheap. You can't solve climate change by just making the dirty energy expensive. You know, everyone now says, "Make clean energy cheap." That's what we're all trying to do here. But we kind of invented the term. It was literally invented at The Breakthrough Institute, and I think that paper is the first place where those words were literally written.
Ted Nordhaus [00:09:36] We were looking at energy technology and we were like, "This is an energy technology challenge. The clean energy is too expensive to do all the things that everyone wants it to do to deal with climate change and lots of other problems." And we had this idea that you need public investment and you need government to accelerate that innovation challenge. Again, we were still pretty much focused on... I think we mentioned advanced nuclear and nuclear energy for maybe the first time in that "Fast, Clean, and Cheap" paper, but we're still mostly focused on renewable energy. And it's not until a few years later as we're diving deeper into the various sorts of pathways to get lots of cheap, clean energy that we started looking at nuclear energy pretty seriously.
Ted Nordhaus [00:10:24] We really started looking at nuclear for a couple of different reason. We're having these debates with the environmental movement, and so there's sort of two debates that we're in the middle of where we're pushing against what is the conventional wisdom. The first was there was this idea at the time that you could mostly solve climate change with energy efficiency. And if you went back, there were these big McKinsey studies. They had this McKinsey cost curve and it showed all of this below-cost energy efficiency that would allow you to very cheaply address climate change and deeply cut emissions. And we were really skeptical of that right from the start.
Ted Nordhaus [00:11:15] And then the second was this idea that... Again, it's like the whole discourse has shifted, but really the entire environmental movement was convinced that you would just put a price on carbon and then you would let markets solve the problem. It was very what people say today "neo-liberal," but even all the big lefty, liberal environmental groups were like... You know, you had Bill McKibben and Van Jones. The environmental left was like, "We'll put a price on carbon. A global price on carbon, the markets will solve it." And we were like, "No, we don't think it's going to work like that."
Ted Nordhaus [00:11:54] So, we were looking at what the track record was in terms of how modern economies that had actually been reasonably successful at reducing their emissions had done it. As anyone who's looked at this, you keep coming back to the same places again and again. There's France and Sweden; there's a handful of these places. And we got interested in them because we're looking at them and we're like, "Well, mostly they're not doing this with energy efficiency. They're actually doing it on the supply side by just basically replacing fossil fuel with clean. And they're not doing it with a regulatory or a pricing or a market-based scheme, they're doing it with just direct public investment in energy infrastructure." And so, we're like, "A-ha! We have our proof of concept here. We're right; the environmentalists are wrong."
Ted Nordhaus [00:12:54] And then you go through the list of all these places and of course there's this thing that we weren't really talking about that's at the center of all of them, which is that they all do it by basically doing state-led deployment of nuclear energy. So that's the moment where we're like, "Okay, we can't..." We always knew that nuclear was out there and people would always ask us about it. We were always like, "Well, I don't know. We're trying to move this whole environmental movement." Finally, we were like, "Okay, we can't keep pretending like the evidence for the places that really have pretty successfully and deeply cut their emissions, at least in the electrical sector, is not pretty centrally a story about nuclear energy."
Ted Nordhaus [00:13:36] So, we start talking about it. We put out some papers where we made nuclear part of the solution. And then in February of 2011, I went to Yale. It was maybe six or seven years after "The Death of Environmentalism." We'd been given an invitation to go to what's now called the Yale Environmental School, but it used to be called the Forestry School and give a talk. We'd gone there right after "The Death of Environmentalism" and had done this big thing. So we go there, and I write this speech. It's called "The Long Death of Environmentalism." It was sort of looking back even then, which wasn't that long ago at that point. It's like, "Here are the key things that we've learned and here are the key things going forward." We had these 10 or 12 theses for the new post-environmental politics. And for one of them, it was really the first time that we came out and really, really clearly and unambiguously said, "The environmental community needs to get serious about nuclear energy."
Ted Nordhaus [00:14:53] So we give that speech and it got noticed by a bunch of people that we were not just saying, "Yeah, there's a little bit of nuclear over here," but that, "This is one of the things that's really critical to the future." And then literally two or three weeks later, Fukushima happens. There were a lot of people who were like, "Haha, joke's on you. You said nuclear and now look, there's this terrible catastrophe." And I think the reaction for us, as with a lot of early nuclear advocates was actually, "Okay, this is sort of the test if you're serious about nuclear, if you're ready to defend it in the middle of a meltdown."
Ted Nordhaus [00:15:51] I think if you look at a bunch of the early folks, Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas, me and Breakthrough, we're all like, "No, actually... Yeah, this is an accident. This is a serious industrial accident, but it is literally not the end of the world." It's happening in the midst of this terrible natural disaster in which... You know, 20,000 people died in this disaster, and none of them died from the nuclear meltdown even though Fukushima is now synonymous with the meltdown and not a tsunami that swept across much of northern Japan, wiped out the entire region, and killed 20,000 people.
Ted Nordhaus [00:16:43] I think in some ways, the birth of the modern pro-nuclear movement actually is Fukushima, ironically, because again, it's this moment where you're like, "Okay, if we're serious about this we need to actually talk back to the catastrophizing, the knee-jerk, freak out catastrophizing that's happening." So we did that, and we did it probably more publicly than anyone else at that moment. And we opened a whole part of our website where we were actually really tracking the radiological doses and explaining to people what they meant. And at the same time being like, "The media and the environmental community are taking the wrong lessons from this."
Phoebe Lind [00:17:38] What lessons did you think that they were taking?
Ted Nordhaus [00:17:39] Well, their lessons were, "This proves we can't do nuclear. It's far too dangerous." And we're like, "No, it's actually not that dangerous. There's a massive overreaction going on here from the Japanese government, among others. And that's not to say that there's not something here that we need to deal with, but if you put this in the context of just the realities of energy production, globally, this is a relatively mild problem to have to deal with. If you're rational about it, you don't evacuate the entire population. It's a manageable problem and we should handle it the way..."
Ted Nordhaus [00:18:29] Like, I live a few miles from a set of major refineries here in the San Francisco Bay area. They have accidents and toxic pollution releases all of the time, and we don't evacuate the city of Richmond every time it happens or insist that we have to end refining of all petroleum products, which if you're serious about climate change, sooner or later you need to do. That's not the reaction to this thing, where from any rational public health perspective, you would go, "That's a much more serious accident than even Fukushima."
Ted Nordhaus [00:19:16] And then from there, we started really leaning into nuclear, doing a lot of analysis. Just running the numbers on the closure of the San Onofre plant, it's something where it's like you close it and everyone's like... The environmental groups, the Friends of the Earth, they're all like, "No, no, no, we're going to replace it all with renewable energy." And then of course, emissions go through the roof. And Germany's closing plants after Fukushima and the same thing has happened. And Japan shuts down and their emissions go through the roof. And we're documenting all of that. And at the same time, we're also talking about what the options are in terms of new nuclear technologies that maybe look somewhat different than the ones that everyone has been accustomed to over the last generation.
Ted Nordhaus [00:20:06] You get to the end of that a few years later with a set of the folks who were really early, very public sorts of non-industry pro-nuclear advocates. And we write and publish "The Eco-Modernist Manifesto," which really puts sort of all of that thinking around clean, cheap, abundant energy, understanding environmental problems as fundamentally technological problems, and understanding technology as the critical fulcrum that mediates the relationship between human well-being and material well-being and environmental protection of all sorts. And then nuclear energy being really at the center of that challenge and nuclear being a really critical energy technology that will be necessary to sustain large, modern human civilizations while dealing with climate change and other environmental challenges. So I'll stop there because that was a while. That was long.
Phoebe Lind [00:21:16] It's all right.
Ted Nordhaus [00:21:18] It's been a long journey.
Phoebe Lind [00:21:19] I mean, you've been a part of so many different aspects of the environmental movement. And it has changed a lot in the last 20 years, especially, as people have become more aware of climate change and the effect that it has on their lives. More people are talking about it. You have newer perspectives, new solutions. We talk about those for a while; we try to figure it out. We still have a lot of work to do to figure out which solutions will work in the future. But yeah, there are a couple of things I'd like to respond to in terms of your journey.
Phoebe Lind [00:21:49] First of all, it seems that writing has been a really key part of your career, of you building this brand. You said that you were in this new era of Ted. I mean, "The Death of Environmentalism" was one of the first times that I think you had articulated a lot of those ideas. Why do you think writing has had such a central part of your career and advancing these ideas?
Ted Nordhaus [00:22:17] I think that just inevitably, thoughts and ideas precede action, especially if you're trying to do something different or new. You've got to work it out conceptually and intellectually. There are labels of thought leadership or whatever, and it's easy to make fun of, but it's also really important.
Ted Nordhaus [00:22:52] I had spent a lot of years in the environmental movement in various roles. I sort of privately had just become increasingly very frustrated, very concerned, and being like, "What the hell are we doing and why is it that everyone believes this thing when I can just look at various aspects of it and go that doesn't really make sense?" So, the first step before you can have real politics or a real policy agenda or there's a whole grassroots, eco-modernist and pro-nuclear movement... You can't really have any of that before you have the ideas. The ideas always have to come first, again, especially if you're in politics trying to do something new and something different. And so, the writing is essential to that.
Ted Nordhaus [00:23:47] Like today at Breakthrough, we have a Washington office. We have a whole team. I think you guys did something with Adam Stein recently who leads our Nuclear Innovation Program. They are literally like at the NRC every day, sort of being independent, civil society, pro-nuclear advocates for sensible regulatory policy. There was no demand for that. We're a decade into renewed public policy to try to support new, advanced nuclear technologies, and there's a whole set of policies that haven't necessarily hit the headlines but that have been really important for that. And that all happens for a long time before there's really a lot to go to the NRC and advocate for. And for even all that policy to happen, we had to be out just making the case that we needed nuclear, that it was a critical climate technology.
Ted Nordhaus [00:25:00] We did our first big nuclear report in 2013, 2014. It was called "How to Make Nuclear Cheap." We had like 100 congressional staffers who came to this briefing we organized, because they were just like, "What is this nuclear thing? I thought nuclear was not something... And here's and environmental group that's saying we need new nuclear." And then, we'd literally go to the Department of Energy and we'd meet with the guy who runs DOE's Advanced Nuclear Office. It's like a one guy at the end of his career sitting in a room with like a $25 million budget, which is nothing. You know, it was sad. He's like, "Yeah, I spent my whole career here. It never worked out, and it'll never happen." If you talk to that guy, you would be like, "Advanced nuclear is never going to happen."
Ted Nordhaus [00:25:57] And we went and got a meeting with the head of the Obama White House's Council on Environmental Quality, and they're like, "What is advanced nuclear?" They'd literally never heard of it. Within a couple of years, they're sort of putting some real resources into advanced nuclear at DOE and in the Obama administration. That continues through the Trump administration; it's now kind of a major commitment of the Biden administration. But none of that can happen until someone is writes something and is like, "Hey, here's the case for advanced nuclear. Here's why we need it. Here's why we need to reconsider the role of nuclear given everything that we know today versus what people thought in 1978." So yeah, the writing and the thought leadership and the ideation, it's critical. And we continue to do that at Breakthrough. Not just me, but our team, because it's how you stay out. And it's not just about advocating for things you already believe in, but we try to always have a really sort of critical culture where we're always trying to stay out in front of where that discourse or debate is now. And that's how we keep ourselves from getting really sort of ossified and too set in our ways as well.
Phoebe Lind [00:27:28] I would say it's also certainly probably led to your ability to go viral, as you put it earlier. I mean, even with your very first publication. What was it like to be caught in that viral moment when "The Death of Environmentalism" took off?
Ted Nordhaus [00:27:44] Well, it was really crazy because there weren't viral moments then. So it was sort of like, "What the hell is happening?" But suddenly, people were emailing from all over the world. Again, this was before social media at all. It's was just sort of early blogging days, really. There was a lot happening on blogs and all the sort of big legacy... Like, The Atlantic, New Republic, places like that are all just launching digital platforms and publishing their content digitally. And you have sort of a set of the first bloggers associated with the set of these outlets who were writing about it.
Ted Nordhaus [00:28:32] You know, I was not a public figure at all until that essay. And suddenly, I'm getting invitations to come give speeches at universities and places like Yale and Princeton from all over the world. Yeah, it took a while to be like, "Oh, okay, this is different. This is not being an environmental organizer or a campaign consultant or a pollster. I'm doing something different now." It took a while to figure that out.
Phoebe Lind [00:29:05] What lessons did you take away from some of those earlier moments that you apply to your life as a public figure now? People pay attention to the things that you say because of some of those earlier moments.
Ted Nordhaus [00:29:19] [00:29:19]I think the biggest thing is if you're going to go say something, make an argument and be clear. There are a lot of people, especially when they write... People want to be experts, and the expert writes in a different way than a thought leader writes. And you can be an expert and a thought leader, but they're not the same thing. [37.0s]
Phoebe Lind [00:29:58] Would you consider yourself an expert, a thought leader, or both?
Ted Nordhaus [00:30:03] Definitely a thought leader. I'm not a Ph.D. energy systems modeler or nuclear engineer, and I don't claim to be. I'm a guy with a B.A. In history from UC Berkeley. And I don't want to dismiss expertise; it's really important and it's valuable, but there's also just a lot of stuff that gets obfuscated by expertise. One of the things I always tell my staff is like, "Before we get to the creating a really complicated model, let's do some descriptive statistics here." If you can't just put it in a pretty simple spreadsheet and look at it and be like, "There's a relationship here," or, "There's a noticeable trend here," you can go and you can go...
Ted Nordhaus [00:31:15] We used to see this, for instance, in all the arguments about how effective actually in the real world is putting a price on carbon, or how effective has climate policy been. You would go look at, for instance, the carbon intensity of energy before 1990 when everyone starts really paying attention to carbon because climate change is really coming into view or before '97 when the Kyoto Accord is done, kind of these different points. In a lot of cases, the carbon intensity of energy falls faster in the era prior the beginnings of climate policy than after. And you don't need a very complicated, integrated assessment model to see it. And people would go, "Well, no, but you haven't controlled for like the 17 different factors."
Ted Nordhaus [00:32:35] We'd have these debates with people, the cap-and-trade and carbon pricing people after the European Emissions Trading System went into place and everyone was like, "No, the Emissions Trading System, this is what we should be doing." And we're like, "Well, but except it doesn't seem to be having any impact on emissions." And they'd be like, "Well, that's because of all these other factors. But we have this very complicated model and we've totally controlled it and controlled for every factor that we can think of. And when we do that, we can find a statistically significant impact, as theory suggests, of the price on carbon on emissions." And it's like, "Well, even if that's true..." If the impact is so minimal that you just can't actually see it in the basic descriptive statistics... The carbon intensity of energy does control for economic growth rates and things like that. So if you can't see it in using these very basic metrics, whether or not it exists, it's just not very significant.
Ted Nordhaus [00:33:45] There's a corollary to this in the nuclear space. There are these debates about linear no-threshold, like what is the impact of really low-level, low-dose radiation exposures on human health? Is it bad and does it go all the way to zero? And there's cancer and bad things that go all the way there. Or is it the opposite? Is there hormesis and low levels are really good for you. But the truth is it's actually like an unfalsifiable argument because literally you're talking about... It cannot be resolved empirically because the impact, whether it's positive or negative, is so minimal that you can't actually observe it in even a very, very large exposed population. It's just too small of an effect to be able to sort of see it in a statistically significant way against the background cancer rate, what mortality rate metric you use.
Ted Nordhaus [00:34:50] And people are like, "Okay, well, so what do we do?" And I'm sort of like, "Well, I don't actually care." Like, if I can't see it... If the effect one way or another is so minimal that you literally can't observe it in the real world, this is not a serious public health concern. Hundreds of thousands of people just in the United States die every year just from exposure to conventional air pollutants. That's an effect that we can see, we can track. There's no debate about this. Why are we talking about low-dose radiation? It's just not significant enough for anyone to be concerned about at all much less for us to have an entire federal regulatory framework predicated on mitigating theoretical public health risk, which is actually what the NRC is mostly doing at this point.
Phoebe Lind [00:35:50] Do you find that in your advocacy for nuclear energy that's one of the major issues that people will push back on?
Ted Nordhaus [00:35:58] People don't push back on it, they just assume it. We're like, "No, actually, this is a problem. We need to stop doing this." Because in sort of innumerable ways, as you actually get into the nuclear regulatory and the obvious and not so way obvious ways in which it imposes very substantial costs on nuclear technology that no other technology bears, it's really because of this sort of radical conservatism in the regulatory environment around regulating entirely theoretical public health risk.
Ted Nordhaus [00:36:45] My point about expertise... On all these cases, a kind of expertise can get in the way. And I think part of what differentiates thought leadership is to cut through some of that. There are expert communities that for a bunch have a lot of perverse incentives on both sides of the issue to endlessly debate the linear no-threshold hypothesis and hormesis. It's literally a debate that is totally irrelevant to public health. And it obscures the real question which is, "Why do we care at these levels of theoretical risk?" So, thought leadership is doing something different. Thought leadership goes, "We shouldn't care about this, and here's why." And it's a very fact-based and empirically grounded argument. And in this case, the empirical is, "It's literally impossible to see an effect."
Phoebe Lind [00:37:54] Do you find that this pragmatism that you speak to has been a key part of your thought evolution regarding nuclear energy in particular? You had mentioned that this was a solution you saw when you were looking at how other countries abroad were reducing their emissions. But how has your perspective on nuclear energy shifted since then?
Ted Nordhaus [00:38:20] You kind of come to it from the pragmatic, but once you get your head around it, of course, it's completely consistent with our broader view of climate change, particularly. Here's a technology, it's a critical technology. It's a technology that the traditional mainstream environmental community has not just rejected, but as I said, essentially attempted to regulate and fear monger out of existence. And then as we dive more into understanding why nuclear has these unique characteristics, a lot of the ideas in "The Eco-Modernist Manifesto" come out of wrapping our heads around nuclear to start with. The value of density, shrinking the footprint...
Ted Nordhaus [00:39:20] If you look at the prototype mental model of nuclear as an environmental technology versus renewables, you go to the opening line of "The Eco-Modernist Manifesto" and it says there are sort of two environmental ideas that are actually totally inconsistent with one another. One is shrinking the human footprint, and the other is harmonizing the provision of human material well-being with nature and with natural energy flows. And so, renewable energy is this idea that you're going to gently capture the existing natural flows and human societies will sort of support themselves by capturing these natural energy flows.
Ted Nordhaus [00:40:16] And nuclear is really predicated on digging uranium out of the ground, refining it, splitting atoms to unleash this energy that is otherwise sort of not accessible. And because it's such a powerful source of energy and it's not dependent on these natural energy flows, you can meet human needs on this tiny footprint. Land use footprint, material footprint, all of those things. That's literally like the third sentence or something in "The Eco-Modernist Manifesto, and it's an insight that comes right from thinking about why nuclear is different than these other clean energy sources and has different characteristics and quite different possibilities for human societies if you fully utilize it.
Phoebe Lind [00:41:24] But to that point, I mean, if you actually consider what in reality it takes to capture solar and wind energy, it's still just as much of an intensive process because of the mining and manufacturing that goes into producing that technology as well.
Ted Nordhaus [00:41:41] Right. All of which get sort of airbrushed out of the picture of these nice little spinning windmills. I mean, you go and you look at the prototypical and you see it in the marketing propaganda or whatever. It's always like a hand drawing of a bucolic landscape of sort of suburban homes with solar panels on them and then beautiful, organic, small-scale farms with windmills spinning in them. And then, there's all this nature everywhere. There are mountains in the background and animals wandering around everywhere. The reality of it...
Ted Nordhaus [00:42:29] My family's originally from New Mexico. I live in California, we go to New Mexico every year and we drive out there. We go out through the Tehachapi Desert. And let me tell you, the reality of industrial scale renewable energy looks nothing like that. The scale of it on the landscape... I mean, coming back to California, you come in through the Mojave Desert into the Tehachapi Mountains, which is one of the windiest places in California. And it's just massive wind farms as far as the eye can see. And then, you come over and get into the Mojave and you go a little further. You come into these little valleys, and just literally the entire valley is a solar farm. To do this at the scale that anyone's talking about, there's going to have to be vastly more of that.
Ted Nordhaus [00:43:32] So, the prototype of this renewable energy future and the realities of it... And that's before we start talking, as you said, about the cobalt in Africa and the slave labor in China and on and on. And it's not that nuclear hasn't had some of those problems, but the scale of it is totally different when you try to do this just purely with the sun and the wind and just sort of harnessing these natural flows. It then actually implicates... I mean, if you look at the math on what a 100% global variable renewable energy system looks like, it's basically the size of global agriculture today in terms of its land use. Global agriculture is by far the largest, most significant human impact on the environment. And so it's like, "Let's double that to do it with renewables."
Ted Nordhaus [00:44:42] To be clear, some people in the nuclear advocacy space... We're not anti-renewables. We think there's a significant role for renewables to play. But when you go from, "It's one source of clean energy among a number of others," to, "We're going to do it all with variable renewable energy," the environmental consequences of that are just enormous. And we're only just now beginning to come to terms with that.
Phoebe Lind [00:45:13] Yeah. I mean, the main reason I bring that up is just because it is interesting with the public narrative around renewables versus something like nuclear energy, which has an even better possibility of reducing emissions and just increasing energy access. And granted, I do think that nuclear energy is getting... We've discussed the concept of a renaissance. It is definitely increasing in popularity in public polling, and that's very exciting to see. But how do we get nuclear energy to get the same kind of treatment that renewable energy does, where there's real optimism surrounding growing nuclear energy. And I think that's true among some groups, but it's definitely not widespread yet. So how do we bridge that gap to get environmentalists to understand this could be a really, really great way forward?
Ted Nordhaus [00:46:13] I mean, I think there's a part of the environmental community that honestly is just going to have to die. Back to "The Death of Environmentalism." And I say that literally. Like, there's a generation that is just never going to come around on nuclear in the environmental movement that came of age in the '60s, '70s.
Phoebe Lind [00:46:38] Granted, there were much scarier aspects.
Ted Nordhaus [00:46:38] I don't know if you saw this. Someone put up this picture, a side-by-side picture of the anti-Diablo group and the pro-Diablo group. Like, literally pictures of a bunch of the key people, and it's completely generational.
Phoebe Lind [00:46:57] I can empathize with the idea of growing up during the threat of nuclear war. I'm very lucky that was not something I grew up with.
Ted Nordhaus [00:47:03] Yeah, yeah. I mean, we talk about climate change as an existential crisis, but global nuclear holocaust is a whole different animal.
Phoebe Lind [00:47:14] So I have empathy there, but we do have a bridge to gap.
Ted Nordhaus [00:47:17] Yeah, yeah. And if you were doing duck and cover in the '50s in elementary school, that leaves an impression.
Phoebe Lind [00:47:25] 2023.
Ted Nordhaus [00:47:26] Yeah, yeah. It's like we're 70 years later and it's a different world. I mean, I think the biggest thing though is we've to put some steel in the ground. It's all fine and well to sort of talk about this great nuclear renaissance and all the benefits and how it's great and we need it and blah, blah, blah, but you've got to get it built and you've got to demonstrate that they're new nuclear technologies that at least have potential to scale. And it's one thing to build paper reactors and put that into a spreadsheet, and it's another thing to actually build a real reactor and have anyone look at it and go, "Let's do that again."
Ted Nordhaus [00:48:07] The industry has a history of overpromising and under-delivering. Part of that history is tied up with this insane regulatory framework that it's been saddled with, particularly since the creation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. My view is that we've got to have some success stories. We've got to get some new nuclear technology commercialized, and I don't think we're going to be successful doing that unless we fix the NRC. So that is the thing that we've been sort of laser-focused on the last couple of years. We got to this point where there's real technology, real companies that are trying to actually license new technology so they can go build it at the NRC, and it is going to be very difficult given the current regulatory framework that we have. So until we get that changed, I don't think that nuclear is going to be able to sort of deliver on the promise that a lot of us believe it needs to deliver on.
Phoebe Lind [00:49:13] So, your priority now is modernizing the NRC, so to speak. What methods are you trying to pursue in order to do that?
[00:49:25] Well, Congress directed the NRC to do this, and it has not gone well thus far. In 2019, Congress passed something called the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, directing the NRC to create a risk-informed, performance-based pathway for licensing advanced non-light-water reactors. And basically what the NRC staff did... This is kind of a sign of a pretty dysfunctional institution. In response to that mandate, they just sort of basically cut and pasted the existing frameworks for large light-water reactors and put them into their new proposed rule. And they sort of changed some language to make it ostensibly technology neutral. But it's basically the same old regulatory framework designed for large light-water reactors that the staff says, "This should be the framework for small, advanced, and non-light-water reactors as well.
Ted Nordhaus [00:50:43] So, we spent a lot of time in that process in public comment, engaging the NRC staff, organizing stakeholders to be like, "Don't do this. You need to actually start with a clean sheet of paper here." The staff was unwilling to do that. About eight or nine months ago when the first draft that was going to go to the five appointed commissioners went public, we went public and said, "This is going to be trouble, and anyone who's counting on a bold new future or brave new future for nuclear energy should not bet on that if this is the framework that the NRC is going to use to license advanced reactors."
Ted Nordhaus [00:51:45] That got a lot of attention. A bunch of people wrote about it after we put out our analysis and did our thought leadership, whatever you want to call it. The Washington Post editorialized and said, "This is a problem." It got the attention, importantly, of a number of key Democratic senators who've become pro nuclear. So, I think that the five commissioners, or really four right now, are really trying to figure out what to do with that. I think hopefully, they are going to send that draft rule back to the staff with very clear direction from the Commission that the staff needs to make very significant changes to this framework.
Ted Nordhaus [00:52:31] At the same time, they're sort of increasing the appetite in Congress to take further legislative statutory action to reform the NRC, including things like amending the NRC's mission to make clear... It's always been clear in the statute, but the NRC has ignored it that the NRC needs to consider the benefits of nuclear energy for public health, for climate change, particularly, and not just sort of try to eliminate all risk associated with low-level radiation release at the plant level, which is really the mission that the NRC... Despite the fact that there's no basis for it in the statute, the NRC insists that this is their mission. So, those two things are happening.
Ted Nordhaus [00:53:31] There's also a fight right now over the reappointment of Jeff Baran, who has been a commissioner. The Biden administration submitted him for reappointment. He went through the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee on a straight party line vote. But you know, Baran is sort of like the last real sort of Democratic obstructionist commissioner on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He was the last commissioner placed on the Commission by Harry Reid, who was the very powerful President of the Senate for many years and was from Nevada. And so it was basically like no new nuclear, no new anything to help the industry until there's a long-term waste solution that's not in Nevada. And so, this Yucca Mountain controversy literally for a generation dominated all Democratic thought and action related to the NRC.
Ted Nordhaus [00:54:48] You know, we still need a solution. It's not actually an urgent problem. The waste is totally safe. It's stored on site. It can be stored there for a very long time. I think we will figure out a solution. But the future of advanced nuclear energy should not be held hostage by the ghost of Yucca Mountain, and that's what Jeff Baran really is. That's why he's on the Commission; that's why he was put on the Commission. And you know, everything has radically changed since he was put on the Commission. The Biden administration is sort of full bore ahead, "We need nuclear." Democrats in Congress are appropriating huge amounts of money to demonstrate new reactors. And at the same time, none of that is going to happen if we don't fix the NRC. So, the Democrats need to put someone...
Ted Nordhaus [00:55:47] You know, they've made a couple of appointments. There are two other Democratic commissioners. I don't always agree with them, but they take nuclear as a critical climate technology seriously in a way that Jeff Baran does not. So, my message to all of your listeners would be to call your senator, Democrat or Republican, whatever they are, and urge them to vote against the confirmation of Jeff Baran. I think it's a kind of watershed moment, particularly for Democrats in the Senate about whether they're really serious about nuclear and a future for advanced nuclear. And if you are serious about that, sort of job one, the very first thing, is to stop putting guys like Jeff Baran on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Full stop.
Ted Nordhaus [00:56:41] Part 53 and the licensing of advanced reactor applications at the NRC, congressional action to take further action to fix the NRC, and the Baran confirmation, those are sort of really the cutting edge of the political battle to actually make a nuclear future possible right now.
Phoebe Lind [00:57:05] Thank you for delivering such a clear message. I feel like it's rare that we can really leave people with a strong action item. I always appreciate clear instructions.
Ted Nordhaus [00:57:15] Yes, yes. And you can find out much more about that and figure out how to reach out to your senator and that kind of thing at a website that we've launched with a number of the more grassroots pro-nuclear groups called Build Nuclear Now, www.buildnuclearnow.org. Mothers for Nuclear Energy, Generation Atomic... I'm sure a bunch of the folks that you've had on the show before are partners and part of that effort. And people should go to that website. Learn more both about the effort to fix the NRC and about the Baran confirmation, and let their representatives know that it's just unacceptable to put an obstructionist back on the NRC if you're serious about a future for nuclear energy.
Phoebe Lind [00:58:04] And we certainly are very serious about it. So with that, thank you so much for coming on the show and I hope you have a great one.
Ted Nordhaus [00:58:11] Yeah, great. Happy to do it. Enjoyed the conversation.