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Making sense of nuclear’s resurgence

Nuclear energy recently received a bold bipartisan boost from Congress. But the sector still has many issues to solve before it can scale.

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Political Climate podcast

Image credit: Anne Bailey

Political Climate podcast

Image credit: Anne Bailey

The past month proved to be a dramatic one for America’s long-stagnant nuclear sector.

First, on June 10, TerraPower — the company co-founded by Bill Gates — broke ground on the Western Hemisphere’s first advanced nuclear facility, in Wyoming. A week later, the Senate passed the ADVANCE Act on a vote of 88-2. (The House already passed the bill by similar margins in February.) If signed into law, ADVANCE will streamline permitting and funding policies for future nuclear projects. 

In today’s episode, the hosts are joined by Boundary Stone co-founder Jeff Navin — who also serves as TerraPower’s director of external affairs — to explore the momentum behind nuclear’s resurgence.

Later in the show, Jeff takes us behind the scenes of TerraPower’s Natrium project to highlight its challenges, and its promise.

The episode kicks off with a discussion of both the recent Presidential debate and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the wide-reaching Chevron doctrine, which gave federal agencies like the EPA the room to implement ambiguous laws as they saw fit. In Chevron’s absence, those decisions will be left to Congress and the judiciary.

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Transcript

Julia Pyper: So I'm curious, especially for you, Brandon, have you ever visited a nuclear power plant?

Brandon Hurlbut: Well, we took our nephews to Universal Studios this week, and so there was the Simpsons exhibit where there was a nuclear power plant. So that's the closest I've gotten to one.

Julia Pyper: Wasn't there an instance when you were maybe in the administration of nuns breaking into a nuclear power plant?

Brandon Hurlbut: It was actually where we enriched the uranium for our nuclear weapons.

Julia Pyper: Even cooler.

Brandon Hurlbut: Yeah. So that was the real scandal that didn't come out. Solyndra was like a fake scandal. I couldn't believe.

Emily Domenech: Oh, dang. I wish I'd done oversight on that.

Brandon Hurlbut: Yeah, that was a legitimate. But when we had Fukushima, Secretary Chu did go with his science Avengers to crawl around and a nuclear reactor to help try to figure out how to solve the problem in Japan.

Julia Pyper: Emily, have you ever been to a nuclear power plant?

Emily Domenech: I've been to several. So I've been to the Watts Bar Plant in Tennessee when they opened up their fourth reactor. I have been to visit a bunch of different test reactor sites at Idaho National Lab in my old job as the science committee energy staffer, and got to talk to a lot of really smart nuclear engineers from companies all over the country. So I love the nuclear stuff. I will take the mantle on this one for sure.

Julia Pyper: Well, with that, let's get further into it. Welcome to Political Climate. I'm Julia Pyper. It's been an exciting and pivotal few weeks for America's long stagnant nuclear sector. First, Terrapower, the company Co-founded by Bill Gates broke ground on the Western Hemisphere's first advanced nuclear facility in Wyoming. A week later, the Senate passed the Advance Act on a vote of 88 to two. If signed into law, the bill will streamline permitting and funding policies for future nuclear projects In today's episode, why does nuclear have such bipartisan appeal right now? And do we need to grow nuclear to meet our climate goals, as Gates has said? We'll be joined by Boundary Stone co-founder, Jeff Navin, who also serves as Terrapower's director of external affairs. Jeff can take us behind the scenes of the company's project and explain the promise and challenges of expanding nuclear power. But first, we'll take a quick dive into two stories that have dominated the news, the recent presidential debate and the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the wide reaching Chevron doctrine. Chevron gave federal agencies, including the EPA, the room to implement ambiguous laws as they see fit.

In its absence, those decisions will be left to Congress and the judiciary. Will the ruling hamper Biden's actions on climate or leave those policies intact? And what will it mean for climate and energy policy going forward? As always, I'm joined by my co-host, Brandon Hurlbut and Emily Domenech. Brandon served as chief of staff in President Obama's energy department and went on to found Boundary Stone Partners and Overture VC. Hey, Brandon.

Brandon Hurlbut: Hey, Julia. I think the only person that hasn't texted me in the last five days with all the news that's been breaking.

Julia Pyper: Oh my gosh.

Emily Domenech: Political climate, we never sleep.

Julia Pyper: Exactly. Well, Emily, hey, nice to see you. How are you doing?

Emily Domenech: I'm doing well. It's an exciting week in Washington,

Julia Pyper: No doubt. Lots to cover. And for our audience, in case you're just tuning in, Emily served as Senior Energy Advisor to Speakers of the House, Kevin McCarthy and Mike Johnson, and is now Senior Vice President at Boundary Stone. All right. You alluded there, Emily, to the busy busy Newsweek. I want to underscore we are not a news show. We're not breaking any headlines here, but we do, I think have to just at least acknowledge the moment that we're in as we get closer and closer to the 2024 election. And just I want to get your gut reactions to how that debate went down, what it means for the issues we all work on. Brandon, let's go to you first from the Democrat side. What was your take?

Brandon Hurlbut: I think the debate showed that both candidates have been disqualified by a significant number of voters. First, Trump because he supports the January 6th criminals by calling them hostages and Patriots. He lied about things where he had to say, "I did not have sex with the porn star," and he's a convicted felon Biden. I think voters are disqualifying him because they don't think he's fit to do the job anymore. And on climate, it wasn't really a big part of the debate at all, barely mentioned. But when it was, Biden had the opportunity to talk about all the benefits of his historic climate policies like the IRA, and he really whiffed.

Julia Pyper: I was surprised by that. He kind of missed that opportunity in a big way. We kind of expected President Trump to sort of skirt around it as he did, but I thought Biden really missed a major moment there. And not to mention as the debate was happening, we've seen these record tornadoes and storms and extreme weather events were unfolding honestly in real time, and it could have been maybe something that resonated with viewers, but I thought that was unfortunately a missed opportunity. Emily, what about you? From the Republican camp, what have folks been saying?

Emily Domenech: Well, I'll say two things. One, I think President Trump probably benefited from the format of the debate. I think there wasn't a lot of crosstalk, which sort of allowed him to talk a little bit more about policy and a little bit less in that sort of bombastic style we are used to. But I would agree with you that I think both candidates miss an opportunity to talk about energy and climate. There's some really stark contrast between President Biden's record and President Trump's on energy prices that appeals to a lot of regular people. So I think I would've liked to have had that conversation happen, but unfortunately what we got instead was a news cycle that's very much focused on whether or not President Biden is going to continue to stay in this race. And I certainly don't pretend to know the answer to that, but from what I'm hearing from folks on Capitol Hill, there are lots of people who are concerned on the Democrat side for sure. And I think Republicans are waiting to see what happens.

Brandon Hurlbut: I think a lot could change before we record our next episode.

Emily Domenech: That's certainly possible. I think that's going to be true until November. You never know what can happen. I think we've seen it over and over again in US electoral politics. It's what makes this an entertaining place to work.

Julia Pyper: Entertaining is a good word for it. Well, I think we should just leave it at that for now, but we'd be remiss if we didn't touch on it. So I think my main takeaway on that is buckle up. The debate wasn't the only event to rock the country in the past couple of weeks. On June 28th, the Supreme Court ruled six to three to strike down the so-called Chevron doctrine. That policy was established in the 1984 case Chevron USA versus Natural Resources Defense Counsel, and it gave federal agencies the leeway to interpret ambiguous laws and implement them accordingly. According to Axio, Chevron went on to become the most cited Supreme Court decision in administrative law. As for climate policy, overturning Chevron could impact the EPAs ability to regulate emissions, pollution, permitting reform, and more. I'll quickly note, I think it's interesting that Chevron came out of this 1984 case where it was actually stemming from a decision the EPA made around interpreting the Clean Air Act under President Reagan.

In that case, the EPA chose to define the term source in a way that would allow a host of new industrial projects to actually avoid pollution emissions regulations. And the NRDC actually lost that case when the courts decided the EPA could make that call. They said the Cleaner Act was ambiguous enough that the court ruled EPA had made a reasonable interpretation. So kind of ironic, the setup to this doctrine that then became referenced so often in enforcing and following through with pollutions limiting regulations. With that, both you guys, I'm really curious to get your thoughts here. We'll save a deep dive for another episode, but I do want to get your first impressions. What's your 30,000 foot take? What does this ruling mean for climate policy? Emily, let's go to you first.

Emily Domenech: Yeah, so obviously as a conservative and someone who has a really healthy belief in the importance of Article one and congressional authority, I think this ruling is appropriate and long overdue. I would say I hear a lot from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and I'm curious what Brandon thinks about this, about concern about activist judges, but it is truly the job of judges to interpret the law, not the job of bureaucrats. I think we are way past time for Congress to take a little bit more responsibility for the laws that they passed for better or worse. And shifting all of that responsibility to federal agencies. It might be good for lobbyists, it might be good for activists, but I'm not convinced we're better off letting our elected officials shift the blame and get off the hook when they're not happy with how laws are implemented.

And the last thing I'll say is I've personally written laws. I think it's something we have to think about as we write them, that we need to be clear and concise and give the responsibilities to agencies in a way that doesn't open them up to this mushy interpretation. And I wrote laws that often got interpreted in ways really differently than how we intended. So I think some of this has to go back to Congress as a... It's not a good way to do business when you're shifting all the blame on things to the administrative state, and maybe they need to take a little bit more responsibility the pen.

Julia Pyper: I'm super curious to know how that's going to work in practice. Do you think, Emily, that will happen? Will Congress be able to write laws in a more refined way, given that we're having trouble coming together on anything?

Emily Domenech: I think we certainly can. I look at some of the things that were included in the IRA or as a good example of this, both on the good side and the bad side. In some ways it was we were a little more explicit about wanting to give the EPA the ability to regulate greenhouse gases. In other ways, I think that the way some of the tax credits were written, you ended up with one of the chief authors being really irritated with how they were implemented. That shouldn't be happening. And I think... Again, I think this comes down to Congress needs to take a little bit more responsibility for being clear in what we say. We talked about this when we talked about the power plant rule a couple of episodes ago, that the Clean Air Act is very clear about what system of emissions reduction can be used. Congress has the ability to change the Clean Air Act if we don't like that structure, and we ought to be able to do the hard work, frankly, to do that if we think it's not working the way it is.

Julia Pyper: Brandon, what's your take? Is this overhyped or is the threat really real here?

Brandon Hurlbut: It's real. I graduated from Georgetown Law School 20 years ago and I don't really remember anything other than how important Chevron was. So I think you noted the EPA. They're going to be really impacted by this. Also the Treasury Department in implementing things like the Inflation Reduction Act. And what I witnessed when I was in the Obama administration is when you're crafting these rules and regulations, they look to the courts to make sure... They want to try to avoid litigation. And you also have these lawyers who can be very risk averse. So when you see these delays and rules coming out, a lot of the times, it's because they're trying to craft something that can pass like judicial muster.

Because of this decision, that's going to slow them down even more, along with the gridlock in Congress. And we don't have the luxury of time on this. And the other point is, let's remember the crux of the Chevron doctrine was that you want these technical scientists implementing some of these very complex pieces of legislation. And so I wonder now, does that shift it back to Congress and the courts, when you really want the scientists doing that work? So I think this is the bad day for climate.

Emily Domenech: The only note that I would add to that is that I think while it absolutely is the job of the technical expert to follow the direction of Congress, it's not the job of the technical expert to set that direction. And as policymakers, we are supposed to be balancing those two things. I think there is a... And I also think truthfully, this is something that's going to end up swinging back and forth either way based on... This is not going to be a purely political thing. Sometimes I'm sure if there is a future Republican president, there are going to be rules that folks on the other side of the aisle don't like. That may not pass muster because Congress didn't really direct them. So I think a little bit more accountability that gets built into the system when we take away this automatic deference.

Julia Pyper: I think one thing I struggle with here is it's one thing to put the onus back on Congress, but in the absence of them taking up the mantle on that, it falls back on the courts. And Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent, in one fell swoop, the majority today gives itself exclusive power over every open issue, no matter how expertise driven or policy laden it is, involving the meaning of regulatory law. And that to me is kind of wild, to have the courts then ultimately become the decision makers on a wide variety of technical matters. That just doesn't seem like it's really the best setup for success on a lot of the issues in front of the country.

Brandon Hurlbut: It's really what President Obama did with the Clean Power Plan. He said, "The Congress should do this. It's their job. You need to come together and figure out something they could not." And a lot of that is because we have these rules like the filibuster where you have to get 60 votes in the Senate where 18% of the country can overrule the rest of the country. And so when they couldn't get it done in the Congress, that is why he used EPA regulatory authority to do the clean power plan. And so that's a tool that is going to be more limited now because of this decision.

Julia Pyper: And the upshot here, so if you're just tuning into the issue as frankly, I kind of was figuring out what does this all mean, it's really about the litigation risk, right? So the agencies are still going to interpret rules in response to laws that are passed, but now it comes down to how much will get stuck up in the courts depending on how, say the EPA interprets something. Is that kind of what the next step becomes?

Brandon Hurlbut: There will be more litigation, and you can forum shop and go to just circuits like the Fifth Circuit, which is very conservative, to get the ruling that you want.

Emily Domenech: But I think people have already been forum shopping for-

Brandon Hurlbut: Yeah, of course.

Emily Domenech: ... quite a long time in the environmental space. That's not new. The one thing I would say, just Julia, to your concern about like, oh, the judges are going to be deciding these technical things, all the judges can say is, does this follow the law? Yes or no? That is their job. That is their role in our system of government. And it's Congress's job to pass laws that allow people the agencies to implement them the way they have intended. So I actually think there's a real chance here that, to your point Brandon, about how when Obama couldn't get it done through Congress, they went to the regulatory side to move their agenda. That meant that agenda went away on day one under President Trump. I think you could end up seeing some lasting investment in things that frankly have a life beyond one presidential term if Congress has the pen. And we don't get that when we rely on the regulatory state.

Brandon Hurlbut: The last thing I'll say is I think the Supreme Court, these decisions is upping the stakes for the presidential election and causing a lot of this concern about Biden because the next president will be able to appoint probably two justices. And you look at what's happened with this court, Roe versus Wade being overturned, Chevron, presidential immunity, it's raising the stakes even more, because if the court goes seven, two conservative, you can have these type of rights taken away over a generation.

Julia Pyper: Let's get into our main topic for the day, nuclear power. The nuclear sector in America has barely grown in the past 30 years. Before Vogel units three and four came online in Georgia this past year, for instance, the most recent nuclear plant to be built in America was the Watts Bar Unit Two in Tennessee. Construction began in 1973 and the plant wasn't completed until 2016 due to a huge pause. Despite this stagnation, nuclear nonetheless accounts for 19% of all US energy today. It's the largest carbon free energy source in the country, topping solar, wind, and hydro, but nuclear might be about to start growing again. On June 20th, the Senate passed the Advance Act on a vote of 88 to two. The house had already passed the bill 393 to 13 in February. If President Biden signs it, the bill will help streamline the permitting process for new advanced reactors, reduce regulatory fees, and update rules that limit international investment, as Politico has reported. With that, let's welcome our guest, Jeff Navin, to dig into this policy and chat all things nuclear. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jeff Navin: My pleasure. Happy to be here.

Julia Pyper: Okay, we're going right in on nuclear. I know this is an issue you've been working on for many years. To set the scene for us, why do you think nuclear has seen such a resurgence in interest recently? We saw so little movement for so many years. What's triggering this right now?

Jeff Navin: Yeah, I think it's a couple of things. The obvious answer, which won't surprise you or any of your listeners, is climate change, right? The demand for clean energy, electricity that can be produced without emitting carbon dioxide. And I think for many, many years, what we saw was kind of a stagnation in nuclear. And as nuclear growth stalled, it was filled with natural gas. We saw that through the 80s, we saw that through the nineties, we saw that through the early two thousands. And most of our decarbonization efforts were really focused on those low costs, wind, solar, things that you could deploy very, very cheaply, very, very quickly. And those have been great, and those are going to provide the backbone of our energy and electricity decarbonization efforts, but there's a growing, I think, recognition that we need to have that firm clean and flexible backbone to the grid. And as you noted, nuclear has been providing 20% of our electricity, and for most of that time, the vast majority of our carbon-free electricity.

I think wind and solar are catching up, but nuclear as a standalone still produces more clean energy in the United States than wind or solar or hydro. And as we're looking to get beyond reductions in emissions to elimination of emissions, nuclear is going to play a really, really important role.

Julia Pyper: Brandon, maybe a question for you on this. I know you were in the Obama administration when Fukushima, the disaster happened in Japan. I just want to ask-

Brandon Hurlbut: Thanks for reminding me.

Julia Pyper: I know. Goodness. I know. I can only imagine how intense that must've been. But what's your read on the public in America's sense of security, not security, is maybe the wrong word, the safety of nuclear power. We had the three mile island incident back in, I think it was 1979. That's where some radioactive gases and iodine were released into the environment. And so I'm just curious, do you think we've moved on from that? Has the technology evolved? How have you perceived the dialogue shifting?

Brandon Hurlbut: Well, I think actually Jeff has played a major role in helping nuclear power be seen as a climate solution and being seen as safe. I think these instances like Fukushima are rare. There was that show Chernobyl. I think that wasn't a great advertisement for nuclear power. But I think where I stand on the policy is like we need to have everything on the table and can't take anything off to solve climate, and this is a reliable, safe form of clean power.

Julia Pyper: Jeff, anything you'd add on the safety?

Jeff Navin: Yeah. Look, I think in the United States we've had a really, really good track record of safety in nuclear, and as has been the case in most of the world. The amount of radiation that was released at Three Mile Island was less than you would get from most people taking a cross country airplane ride because you're just up in the air, closer to the sun. And I think nuclear radiation is obviously something that's scary because you can't see it or touch it or feel it, and obviously we had a whole generation of people, including old people like Brandon and I, who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, with imagery of nuclear weapons, right? And nuclear power plants are obviously very, very different than nuclear weapons, but it's something that obviously there are trade-offs in externalities with any kind of electricity or energy that you produce.

The key with nuclear is making sure that you do it in a highly regulated environment and that it's safe. And I think we've shown that we can do that in the United States. Most people in the US that get a big chunk of their electricity from nuclear probably don't even know it. There's a nuclear power plant about 45 miles from downtown DC that's been providing clean energy to this area for a really, really long time. And I think if you asked a lot of people who care about climate and energy where they get their power from, a lot of them probably don't even know that that Calvert Cliffs generating station is providing that clean electricity.

The timing of Three Mile Island happened when there was a very popular movie about a nuclear meltdown starring Jane Fonda, and it wasn't great timing, and then the nuclear industry did a terrible job of responding. And since then, I think the nuclear industry's kind of kept its head down and just churned out clean electricity, but they haven't done as good of a job of really highlighting and talking about the role that it plays. I think we've seen that change in the last decade or so.

Julia Pyper: I'm actually coming to you today from the Muskoka Lakes in Canada, in Ontario, Canada where over 50% of our power comes from nuclear. This is where I grew up. And I think we have four nuclear power plants in the country, three of which are in Ontario. And so nuclear here is not super controversial either. It's just sort of how we get our power, and it's been that way and safely provided for a long time. Not that there aren't things we need to discuss and impact there, but I appreciate tackling that point head on. Emily, do want to get your view from the GOP side. Why are you seeing this resurgence, or at least this growing more obvious interest in nuclear on the Republican side of the aisle?

Emily Domenech: So I think Republicans have been historically pretty pro-nuclear, but what we've seen recently, I think, is one of these areas where perhaps the big picture goals are different, but the policy outcomes overlap. Republicans are often interested in nuclear because it's this reliable base load power that's largely insulated from weather and other supply chain threats and happens to be emissions free. And the emissions free part might be the most important part to some folks on the other side of the aisle, but it's a bonus. It's the icing on the cake here. Republicans, I think, are also more and more focused on that long-term competition with China and Russia, not just in civilian nuclear power, but also in the broader research infrastructure that supports our nuclear navy and nuclear triad and all of this scientific expertise that we see at our national labs, which are a huge part of the civilian nuclear infrastructure here in this country.

And maintaining that sort of fundamental science expertise is really critical, not just in competitiveness but also for national security, et cetera. I would say I think when we look at why is nuclear doing better now, I think some of this is, to Brandon and Jeff's point, it's like aging out of those sort of legacy environmentalists who were sort of reflexively anti-nuclear. Some of this is thanks in no small part to Democrats like Jeff in particular who really leaned in on this issue and changed the narrative around nuclear as we looked for broader climate solutions.

But I also think part of the challenge here is cost. It is the massive regulatory burden and the subsequent cost that creates in preventing us from being able to build new reactors. I think what we've seen is a real growth in the advanced nuclear space, in innovative ways to finance nuclear power that have dealt with that cost problem, and we're starting to see some bipartisan agreement through things like the Advance Act to deal with streamlining that regulatory process. So we're coming at this problem from all angles, and I think that makes nuclear more appealing across the board.

Julia Pyper: So in November, a plug was pulled on a project called New Scale, a first of a Kind reactor citing the lack of investment and surging costs among other issues. What can nuclear proponents learn from new scale? You think, Jeff, I know we're going to talk about terror power a little bit later on here, but were there takeaways from the new scale project that you would call out?

Jeff Navin: Yeah, the biggest one is that nuclear is hard, right? It's really hard to bring a first of a kind nuclear technology to market. The majority of places around the world where that happens are state owned enterprises, right? You see that in France, in China, in Russia, in places where they're bringing these technologies. They tend to be state owned companies and they tend to have state owned grids, and it's a lot easier to do a deal with yourself than to try to enter into the regulatory structure that we have in the United States. I think the other thing is nuclear is going to be the first to run into some of these first of a kind big, expensive, capital intensive project challenges that others are going to follow, right?

Whether it's enhanced geothermal, whether it's building hydrogen production facilities and generation facilities, whether it's fusion, there's all of these tools that are kind of on the horizon and people are working really hard to bring to market. And they're going to run into some of the same challenges about regulated utility market that's very risk averse, that's gotten very used to deploying low risk, low capital intensive projects. And let's be clear, I love nuclear power. We need to be deploying all the wind and solar that we can. And that PPA model has served those kinds of technologies really, really well, and you can get a great rate of return over 20 year period. Nuclear power plants are a little different. They're going to run for 60 to 80 years. So finding ways to finance the cost of these things in an environment that isn't used to doing it, in a market that just isn't used to financing these types of projects, is hard.

So new scale broke a lot of ground. The company's still going. They're still looking at opportunities in the US. It looks like their first project is probably going to be in Eastern Europe in Romania where, again, you have a state owned utility that is a little easier to work with. And the war in Ukraine, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine has really unlocked a lot of demand in Eastern Europe for nuclear, right? Just like we're seeing an increase in demand in the United States, you're seeing the same challenges over there as they're trying to get off of Russian gas and look for something that's clean and reliable. So I think the lesson from New Scale is that you just got to persevere.

Emily Domenech: I would just add one thing on New Scale too that I think is a lesson for the Department of Energy is that for a long time New Scale was really the only player in the game getting federal funding in the advanced reactor space. And I think that's a mistake. I think there is real value in making some investments. As we looked at this first of a kind technology, don't pick one horse and stick with them for a decade, because if it falls through, it might not be the best investment. So looking at a diversified approach, which I think DOE is doing now, is I think the way to go to make sure that we can see some successful reactors actually get built in the United States.

Julia Pyper: We talked about the Advance Act and how it would help streamline some of the work around these projects. Senators Markey and Sanders were the two no votes on the Advance Act. What do you all make of their position? Markey, for instance, said the bill, "puts promotion over protection and corporate profits over community cleanup." He added that, "the commission's duty is to regulate, not to facilitate."

Jeff Navin: Yeah. For a long time, you would hear voices in the nuclear industry say that their problem is a lack of support from environmentalists and the opposition by Democrats, and they weren't able to build things because of all of this opposition, and it's just not true anymore at all, if it were ever true. It's simply not true. The Advance Act passed 88 to two in the Senate and 393 to 13 in the house. I'm not sure... You couldn't even come... I don't know what else you could put up that could get that level of support, right? You probably can't even get an agreement as to who is the president of the United States-

Julia Pyper: Currently, yeah.

Jeff Navin: ... and have a vote even get to that level, right? And so I think what you see with Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders is kind of the tail end of a long shift that's been happening on the democratic side on nuclear power. Brandon mentioned this. A number of years ago, I started working with some NGOs and some think tanks and we got a bunch of people together, but we got a bunch of modelers from a lot of the climate NGOs. And some of these climate NGOs had stated positions that they were opposed to nuclear power. And we got everybody in a room. We spent a number of months and we said, "Bring your models and show us how we can get to net zero in the power sector without nuclear." And a lot of folks came back and said, "Look, we just can't get there," or "We can get there, but it's going to be extraordinarily expensive."

And so that started a conversation where you started to see a shift. And the way that we approached it was just like we approached climate. You look at the science, you look at the numbers, you look at the data, and you make a determination as to what's the best path forward. And since then, it's been really remarkable. There should be absolutely no complaint from anybody in the nuclear industry about lack of support from Congress. Last year, we passed the Nuclear Fuel Security Act. That vote was 96 to three in the Senate. The year before that, in 2022, the IRA had the nuclear production tax credits and the tech neutral tax credits. Probably the nuclear industry's number one ask. The year before that, in 2021, the IIJA had the civil nuclear credit program and had billions of dollars for the advanced director demonstration program. The year before that NELA, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act. The year before that, the Nuclear Energy Investment and Modernization Act passed the House 361 to 10. And before that, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.

So going back to 2018, we've had significant nuclear legislation pass in each of the Congress by broad bipartisan majorities. So I think what's happening with Sanders and Markey, and they can obviously speak for themselves, but the opposition to nuclear came out of the environmental movement at the time when the primary focus of the environmental movement was stopping the development of things and slowing things down so that communities and people could have a voice. We're now in a place where the primary need for the environment is to build lots of things as quickly as possible, transmission, clean energy generation, electric vehicle charging stations, all of those things. And I think, I don't know if we'll ever get Markey and Sanders. I think being anti-nuclear is just absolutely core to their identity.

Emily Domenech: I laughed a little bit when I saw that vote breakdown, because I thought to myself, these are 1970s environmentalist talking points. And at this point, those don't even fit in some of the most progressive environmental groups that are out there. Shout out to Brandon and your friends at the Sunrise Movement. They're pro-nuclear. So we have really shifted this discussion, and it's part of why it's working.

Brandon Hurlbut: The things I did not expect on this podcast when we relaunched is Emily giving a shout out to the sunrise movement.

Emily Domenech: Don't worry, I'm going to give them plenty of hate too. It's a wonderful point to be made here though that sort of, again, really outdated environmentalism doesn't have a place anywhere, and it's part of why we're able to move forward on things like nuclear, like permitting reform that involve building big things in America.

Jeff Navin: Again, we went from a place where we were doing a managed decline, if you will, of nuclear power plants, and that demand. You saw California switch its position on Diablo Canyon. I never thought that was going to happen. You saw Palisades in Michigan, a plant that was shut down that's now being restarted. This morning, I actually saw an article that Constellation is talking about restarting one of the plants at Three Mile Island that shut down in 2019. This is about all of the new demand for clean energy from data centers and AI from electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging. And nuclear isn't going to be the only source of clean energy, not by a long shot, but it's going to have to play a key role. And so as we see increased energy, electricity demand, we're going to see increased support for nuclear.

Julia Pyper: All right, I got to ask another question though. I think maybe this is where some of the environmentalists are coming from as well, is what do we do with the nuclear waste? I think we have these ongoing issues with where to put it. There's this sort of a stalemate of what to do with it in the state of Nevada. No one particularly wants the waste. So how do we tackle that problem, especially if we're rebooting the industry and we have more of it in theory down the line?

Jeff Navin: Yeah. Brandon and I's old boss, Steve Chu, used to say, "This is not a technical problem. This is a political problem," and that's still true today. Right now, you could put all of the nuclear waste that's from all of the generation of carbon-free electricity in the United States, and it would fit onto a football field. That is not the plan, however, to store it long-term. Right now, all of that waste is sitting on storage casks at the sites of the nuclear power plants, and the DOE is going through a process that came through some bipartisan legislation that's called consent based sighting. And what they're looking for is to try to do the opposite of what happened at Yucca Mountain, which is instead of the federal government doing a heavy handed top down, you will take all of this, look for ways to provide incentives to communities where communities can raise their hand, and benefit from a permanent repository being placed in their community. So DOE working with a set of communities. There have been some communities in places like New Mexico and Texas that have raised their hand and expressed some interest.

And I think going about this, just like we found with some of our climate regulations, if you have carrots instead of just sticks, you have a better chance of a favorable outcome.

Julia Pyper: With that, let's actually zoom in on the newest nuclear project in the US. On June 10th, Terrapower's natrium facility in Wyoming broke round on the first non-nuclear section of the project. The project represents what's often called Next Gen Nuclear where the reactors are smaller than existing plants and they use gas or sodium to cool the reactors instead of water. Natrium marks a successful public-private collaboration as well. The estimated 4 billion project received upwards of $2 billion from the Department of Energy. Atrium still has a long ways to go before it's operational though, but Terra power hopes to wrap up construction by the end of the decade. Jeff, take us behind the scenes here. Maybe just actually describe the project in a little more detail first.

Jeff Navin: It's going to be the first commercial advanced nuclear reactor in the United States. It differs from conventional reactors like the Vogtle plant that just came online and all the other 90 some plants operating in the United States kind of in three key ways. The first is that it's smaller. So it's 345 megawatts baseload as opposed to 1100 megawatts for the Vogul three in VUL four units. So it's about a third or a fourth smaller than the large conventional lightwater reactors. That size makes it easier to finance and build. It means we can move faster, we can build a lot of the components offsite and deliver them and install them, and it helps decrease the overall cost of the project. It's also a really good size to replace coal plants, which is something that we're doing at our site. The second way that it's different and what makes it advanced is that instead of using water as a coolant, it uses sodium.

And when you're operating... A nuclear power plant is really just a fancy way to make steam, right? A coal plant burns coal and generates steam, and that steam spins a turbine and produces electricity. In a nuclear plant, we use the fission process to create that heat and generate the steam, and you can do that without producing carbon dioxide. The challenge though is that fission process is really, really good at producing heat. So you have to constantly have a coolant to remove the heat, or else the rods within the reactor corrugate so hot that they melt together, and then meltdown. And that's where that term meltdown comes from. It's actually you lose your coolant and-

Brandon Hurlbut: Jeff, are you talking about the Democrats over the last week when you were saying meltdown?

Jeff Navin: Yeah.

Brandon Hurlbut: That's also another-

Jeff Navin: Yeah, that's a cold meltdown, which is physically not possible, but still somehow we've figured out how to do it. So water's really great, add as a coolant, but the problem with water is it's boiling points a hundred degrees Celsius so you constantly have to pump cool water over that core and remove the heat. And in Fukushima, the pump stopped. Because they lost electricity, the water boiled off, and then they had a meltdown. Sodium's boiling points like 880 some degrees Celsius, so it can't. The fuel can't get hot enough to burn off the coolant. So we literally sit in a pool of liquid sodium. And as it gets hot, it rises and we use natural convection and physics to remove the heat. That means it has inherent safety baked into it, and it also means that it can be much simpler to design, operates at atmospheric pressure. You don't have to have all those redundant backup safety systems. We don't need auxiliary power. We don't need any of those types of things that you need on a water cooled reactor, and that reduces your cost, right?

And then the third way that we're different is that instead of just using that nuclear power to generate steam and spin a turbine, we use it to run a very large molten salt energy storage system. So molten salt energy storage is what's used with concentrated solar. Some of those projects in Nevada and California, we're using an off the shelf energy storage system. But it's gigawatts scale energy storage, 500 megawatts for up to five and a half hours, right? And so this is a nuclear power plant that is really designed to integrate into grids that have high penetrations of wind and solar. And in the case of Wyoming, it's wind. They're building a ton of wind in the state and atrium's going to be able to ramp up and down to meet the load when that's not happening.

I think the other thing that's important and interesting about this project that your listeners might find interesting is that we are building this across the road from a coal plant that's been slated to be retired, right? So we have transmission assets that we can connect to, we have water assets very important in the west that we can utilize, and most importantly, we have a workforce that we can put back to work. There are 109 IBEW workers at that Kemmerer coal plant. When that plant goes under, they'll be out of work. We have promised that those workers can come across the road, work at our natrium plant. We'll recognize the union. It is the only project that I know of in the United States where we have promised jobs to union workers at a fossil fuel plant that allow them to stay in their community to make the same, if not more money than they would working at the fossil plant.

Nuclear pays more than fossil fuel. And when you think about what the president has promised in terms of a just transition to those fossil fuel workers, this is one of the only projects that I know of where we're actually truly delivering on it. Obviously, I'm a little biased, but-

Julia Pyper: Yeah, seriously, go on. But I do want to ask about the challenges then.

Jeff Navin: Yeah. Doing something big and first is hard, right? There is no supply chain. We have to sort of stand that up from scratch. Like lots of other aspects of our clean energy economy, we're finding that there are parts of the supply chain, like fuel, where the United States is behind some of our allies, and importantly some of our adversaries. And the US is making investments, for example, in the kind of fuel that advanced reactors need. But right now, as of today, the only commercial supplier of the high assay low enriched uranium that these reactors need is in Russia. And so again, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Terrapower made very clear, we're not going to use them as a supplier, but it does mean that we're playing a little catch up because the US is not invested sufficiently in its uranium enrichment capabilities both on the LEU side, 20% of our fuel currently comes from Russia for the existing reactors, or on the advanced reactor side.

So Congress has spoken and has appropriated a lot of money to the department. They're working to get that money out the door to stand up that enrichment technology. We're finding ourselves in a high competition for workers. We need about 1600 skilled workers at peak to build this reactor. That's going to come at the exact same time that you've got hydrogen hubs, that you've got all of these IIJA and IRA investments coming online. I think we haven't fully comprehended how much of a challenge it's going to be for developers, and an opportunity for American workers, as all of these plumbers, pipe fitters, steamfitters, all of these jobs are going to be needed to help build these projects.

Julia Pyper: Brandon, I want to get your thoughts on this one. So Bill Gates recently told Axios, "If we don't have fission or fusion, we won't achieve our climate goals." He added that, "We should build as much wind as solars we can, but the theory that you're going to be moving power across the entire country, we'll never build a grid that's massive enough." I know you also work with some transmission related innovation companies. How do you square the balance between building solar and wind and other renewables versus nuclear and putting those pieces of the puzzle altogether?

Brandon Hurlbut: I’ll make a few points. First, as I said, I support all climate policy that keeps all options on the table. We need as many shots on goal as possible to solve this existential problem. Two, I separate my policy views from my investor views. All of my climate tech VC friends were anti-nuclear 10 years ago, and now they're all... There's a huge resurgence in the investment community to really look at investing in nuclear, which I think is good, but personally I'm a little more skeptical about how you can make money on it.

Emily Domenech: I would just add too to Brandon's point, EIA projects that we're going to see global energy demand growing through at least 2050. We need all the tools in the toolbox, and we can't afford to stop building anything. Particularly when we have big companies making net zero pledges, if they're serious about it, they need to be looking at nuclear power as an option specifically in the AI and data center boom. If they're going to be able to meet those pledges, I think they can do good in multiple ways, right? They can advance technology, and they can make some investments in emissions free nuclear power and help bring everything in the right direction.

Jeff Navin: Yeah, I was just over in London at the Breakthrough Energy Conference that Bill Gates and his team put together. And Terrapower is not a breakthrough energy portfolio company. His investment, and this kind of gets to Brandon's point, in Terrapower goes back 16 years, right? So a 16 year time horizon before you get your first product to market is probably not what Brandon's venture capital friends are looking for a return horizon. But that said, there were so many technologies there at the Breakthrough Energy thing. Some of these are companies that your listeners will know well, Fervo, and Antora, some new companies like Graphite that are bringing some really cool technologies to the market, and a number of fusion companies. And I think there was a lot of talk there about how do you solve this thing that we're trying to solve with nuclear, the keystone to sort of get you from 70% renewables plus storage then to, how do you get to a hundred percent? Right?

And fission right now is one of the only tools that we have that we know how to build that we know that works. Now, if there's a huge breakthrough in fusion or geologic hydrogen, or some of these long duration energy storage technologies, will that impact the market for nuclear? Sure. But there's a lot of cheerleading around sort of how we could just keep doing what we're doing. But I think Bill is right, that to do a grid, to build a grid that only relies on wind, solar, and storage and hydro, you need a massive transmission build out. That's not easy either, right? Fusion energy, a ton of promise, but really, really, really difficult, right?

A breakthrough infusion is when your plasma can hold together for less than one second, right? And for that kind of technology to bring electricity to the grid, it's got to hold indefinitely, right? So lots promise, lots of certain need and incentive to invest in those technologies. But we do know vision works, we do know how to do it. We've been doing it for over half a century, and I think walking away from it just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Julia Pyper: So it sounds like this is an area, just given what you're all saying about the investment appetite, that this is inherently a public-private partnership kind of endeavor. What is your view, Jeff, of the nature of a public-private partnership and how central those are here? And do we need to evolve the way those partnerships even work? What's your takeaway there?

Jeff Navin: Yeah. Like I said, in almost every other part of the world, nuclear is part of the government, right? Civil nuclear technology is developed as part of the government and it's deployed as part of the government. We have a very different system here, and our system in the past 30 years has evolved in which utilities haven't been investing a lot of money into new generation to the degree that they have. It's either been natural gas, which has a relatively low upfront costs, and then you're sort of shifting the risk to the commodity prices and regulators were fairly comfortable with that, and then wind and solar, which you can do on a 20 year PPA, which has no risk to ratepayers. The price is locked in, and a 20 year investment horizon to get your money back, which Wall Street is very, very comfortable with. Nuclear, kind of like wind and solar, huge upfront costs, relatively low fuel costs as you go forward.

But those upfront costs have to be sort of spread out over 60 to 80 years. There's not a lot of financial instruments that are really designed to take 60 to 80 years to pay something back, right? You can't get a 60 year mortgage on your house. And so I think the industry, because we stopped building these things back when most utilities were regulated and rate basing things was a pretty common way to fund these types of projects, we have to invent what that new kind of financing looks like. Now, people are going to figure that out. I'm confident that if there's a way to make lots of money, I have lots of confidence in our financial industry that people are going to figure out how to structure these things and how to make money. Just like the partnership flip model for solar, when that was developed 13, 14 years ago, all of the sudden it unlocked a ton of money being invested into the space.

Emily Domenech: I'll also just take this back to the AI discussion a little bit here. I think public-private partnership, absolutely. I think we've seen that. It's working successfully in many places. But the private sector is going to have to come to the table. And I think particularly those large tech companies who are building data centers and looking to really expand their clean energy footprint, we won't get this nuclear renaissance. If Google is just buying up existing wind and solar or nuclear power and not investing in new build. We won't make a difference. Their climate goals won't make a difference in global emissions if we don't see them becoming a partner in investing in some of these new projects, particularly in nuclear, which really meets the demand of those data centers.

Julia Pyper: Any closing thoughts, Jeff, before we let you go?

Jeff Navin: We didn't really talk a lot about the celebration of Vogtle three and four coming online. For many years, I thought it was likely to be the last large light-water reactors built in the United States, and everything was going to shift towards these smaller advanced units, but now there's a lot of talk about trying to get utilities and coalitions of utilities, technology companies and industrial users to even build the big large lightwater AP 1000s again. And so that to me is a surprise. A year ago, I wouldn't have told you that I thought that that was going to happen. But when you talk about 2.2 gigawatts of clean baseload power that can run at a 90 plus capacity factor, it's going to transform the clean energy grid in that part of the country. So it's not just the new exciting gen four things that are getting some enthusiasm.

Even these legacy reactors, these AP1000s are getting attention. So we have been here before as an industry. This is not the first time nuclear renaissance has been talked about, and really, I think we've gotten most of what we need from policymakers. We've gotten most of what we need in terms of public support, and now it's on us to show that we can actually build and operate these things.

Brandon Hurlbut:

Julia, I know we're running out of time, but just to provide a perspective on where I sit with my investment hat on, the Economist ran an article in the last week called The Exponential Growth of Solar Will Change the World, had two stats in there that I found really compelling. One was that installed solar capacity doubles roughly every three years, and so grows tenfold each decade. The next tenfold increase will be equivalent to multiplying the world's entire fleet of nuclear reactors by eight in less than the time it typically takes to build just a single one of them.

Emily Domenech: That's why we need to fix our permitting problem, Brandon.

Julia Pyper: Perfect closer.

Brandon Hurlbut: I'm all for that.

Julia Pyper: Love it.

Brandon Hurlbut: Always permitting pod with Emily, always permitting pod.

Julia Pyper: Can't escape it. Love it. Let's wrap up the show here. Political Climate is a co-production of Latitude Media and Boundary Stone Partners. Max Savage-Levinson is our producer. Sean Marquand is our technical director. Steven Lacey is our executive editor. You can get all of our show notes and transcripts at latitudemedia.com. And if you want us to talk about a specific topic, please email us at politicalclimatepodcast@gmail.com. Please feel free to help spread the word about Political Climate on LinkedIn, X, and beyond. I'm Julia Pyper. We'll catch you again in two weeks.

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nuclear
energy
TerraPower
energy project development