Ep 13: Addressing climate change and energy independence with nuclear energy - Mark Nelson
Energy analyst, Mark Nelson, explains why nuclear energy is seeing a bipartisan renaissance and has the potential to solve our most pressing energy problems.
Arjun: The rising price of gas has affected everyone worldwide. There's several reasons for this, but one outcome is that people realize now that energy independence and reliability is of the utmost importance. But how do we meet our energy needs while balancing concerns about climate change and cost?
Our guest today is Mark Nelson, an energy analyst and founder of Radiant Energy Group. Mark has been an advisor to the clean energy industry and environmental organizations around the world. His analytical work has been covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many leading European newspapers.
Mark is an aerospace in mechanical engineer from Oklahoma state university. He also holds a master's in nuclear engineering from Cambridge university. If you follow him on Twitter, by the way, his,handle is EnergyBants, you'll immediately see that he's blunt witty and very data driven. He's exactly the kind of person that we like it at Unbiased.
So Dan and I are delighted to welcome him today. Welcome Mark.
Mark: Thanks for that kind introduction, Arjun.
Arjun: Excellent. All right, so let's get right to it. Mark, a lot of your writings and your work has been about nuclear energy and how it can be, a very useful part of the energy mix. And in fact, just a few days ago, the EU termed nuclear energy as green energy. Why did it do this? And what's the significance of this statement?
it was a giant battle, an ugly battle that pitted country against country allied countries practically at war with each other for years over this definition is nuclear energy green energy. Now nuclear energy is clean energy. The scientists commissioned by the EU to study the issue were unequivocable. They said, yes, it's at least as good. If not better than other clean energy sources, in terms of the amount of land, it takes the amount of waste.
It has the environmental impact, the social impact, including of the mining, the processing of uranium, the usage in power plants, the decommissioning of power plants and waste management. They studied every part of the process. And the answer was, yes, it meets the criteria set out by the EU for what counts as clean energy criteria, what criteria?
So the EU wanted a legislative response, a policy response to coronavirus and the economic downturn that it caused and the need to upgrade energy infrastructure in the EU to reach all sorts of goals. For example, climate change goals. So what counts as clean energy actually matters if you're putting say 500 billion euros of EU money, a lot of it coming from Germany, of course, towards the next few decades of clean energy infrastructure. Who should get the money? What technologies count?
Arjun, did you already think that nuclear energy should count as clean energy?
Arjun: You know, it's so funny, Mark. I did a project for nuclear energy back in grade eight and, right from then I was always fascinated by the energy. I don't know that I have the technical backing to term whether it's green or not, but I always thought it's byproducts are largely, I think water and dirty water if you will, but it's not particularly dirty in the sense of coal. So I thought it was pretty good.
Mark: So then here's another question. Is clean energy, green energy? And here's where it got weird in the EU. Green parties were not founded to stop climate change. They were not even founded really to protect the environment. They were founded to eliminate nuclear technology. All of it, not just the bombs, they were founded to eliminate all nuclear powered technology. The most extreme greens that I've talked to want to get rid of nuclear medicine.
Those are the real, these are, those are the logical warriors right there. The people who have the courage of their convictions to say, get rid of nuclear medicine along with nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. But,the 1950s and 1960s were a different time. There were different panics. There were different visions of the apocalypse, shall we say.
And the way that people thought the world would end in the 1950s and sixties was use of nuclear weapons by one or more waring superpower. That brings us back to the EU. And it brings us back to Germany. Germany started a big war that they lost. They lost the war, got divided in half and then were prevented from ever having nuclear weapons.
Maybe that's fine, but it meant that Germany rose back into power only through money, only through industry, only through manufacturing, not through military might and not through having nuclear weapons. So young Germans, idealistic Germans thought that the risk to the world was from the military, from the cold war, was from the dangers of this new fire nuclear power.
And they fought against it. And it wasn't a fight against nuclear weapons. It was a fight against all nuclear energy and that's the green party. That's the green movement. Once climate change started to be an issue. Green parties were, if anything, slow to adapt to this new reality, that carbon was something that was causing changes to our climate system.
So although it might sound obvious to say nuclear is clean energy so therefore it's green energy, green politics, capital green, capital G was founded against nuclear specifically. All other goals are optional.
Dan: How did this influence the adoption of nuclear power in Europe?
Mark: At first it couldn't make much of an impact because a lot of the building of nuclear was done by an elite technocratic, clique, you might say. So for example, in France, there was almost nothing you could do as a voter or as a normal person to slow down nuclear energy. The state had a massive nuclear energy program.
The state financed it, the state owned and operated. Decisions were made by a relatively small group of men on the basis of these grand ideological visions of what France should be. And you as a voter, didn't really have a say. Now there are pluses and minuses here. one plus is that France built an extraordinary nuclear fleet that ought to be the foundation of European prosperity, climate action and energy independence into the future.
We can talk about why that currently isn't the case, but at least they should have been, they were nearly there. They had it for a moment. The bad part is that because the public didn't get a say, they also didn't have an understanding of nuclear that included the benefits of the technology. Teachers in France, they rose an entire generation of pupils to dislike nuclear. And those pupils eventually became heads of state. They became high ministers, they became industrialists and that's when France started to turn against nuclear. When they actually democratized decision making, without correcting for an era that needs energy security and, climate change.
Arjun: So let's bring this back to, to U.S.. and by the way, I think most of our listeners know. But France, I think still is majority nuclear power, which is why it's such a fascinating country. But here in the United States, I don't think we've built a nuclear plant for 30 years, at least. We're just coasting on the plants we had from a while ago.
Why did we stop building nuclear plants? We don't have green parties. What happened in the US?
Mark: So in the U.S., we have two main parties, so who even needs a green party. Right? A lot of the most prominent figures of the democratic party of the past few decades had important roles in the anti-nuclear movement. And just like in Europe, anti-nuclear did that mean energy or weapons. Ah, who even who's even keeping score.
To show that you're against the Vietnam war as a young man, you would've needed to go out and protested a nuclear plant. is there a connection between nuclear plants in the U.S. And the Vietnam war? It's kind of a vibe man. Look, Jerry Brown of California was one of the early leaders back in the sixties, even though his own father was in support of nuclear.
Like most mainstream politicians at the time were in support of nuclear energy. He bucked the trend, fought against nuclear and then served two terms or two different periods as, governor of California. And he was able to fight off and kill nuclear plants in both cases. So who even needs a green party. He was a mainstream, democratic politician.
Or let's take another example. president Obama came out of the Chicago political machine, right? He came out of Illinois, the strongest nuclear energy state in the nation, an immense amount of nuclear power. There's only a few countries on planet earth that make more nuclear power than Illinois does.
And a lot of those plants are concentrated right outside of Chicago. they're powering our conversation right now. It's like between 70 and 90% nuclear power, depending on the time of day and the season. Yeah. And you would've thought that means president Obama might be a pronuclear president.
But he needed the cooperation of a powerful Nevada politician. That Nevada politician wanted to, stop Yucca mountain waste storage facility. And that meant that to do it, you needed to cause as much damage to nuclear energy as possible. And that got very powerful anti-nuclear, political operatives appointed to the nuclear regulator. That combined with the low price of natural gas helped kill off the last attempted nuclear Renaissance.
You say 30 years. there was an almost entire lost decade. We attempted to start building nuclear again in the U.S. With, plant Vogtle in Georgia and the Summer nuclear power plant in, South Carolina. In both cases, we had a nuclear construction industry in name, only. The people working on the plants had never worked on nuclear plants. Promises were made that could not be delivered upon.
And when it all started to go wrong, only the immense power and size of the utility building the Southern the Georgia plant Vogtle was enough to keep the project. So, although we've completed a reactor in that time span, it's more like the concept from oil and gas of a drill, but uncompleted power plant at Watts bar, but again, it was only Tennessee valley authorities, long term vision and special mandate that led them to starting up a nuclear plant. We've turned away from high focus, high integrity, long time commitment, infrastructure building, and for better or worse, that's what nuclear is.
Dan: I'm glad you brought up harry Reid and Yucca mountain, because that was something that I discovered as I was prepping for this and to bring the listener up to speed, right now Yucca mountain in Nevada is designated is the ideal spot to store nuclear waste. And it's actually has a lot of actually has a lot of local support, amongst people who live in the area.
And it was Harry Reed at the time was, Senate majority leader who knocked the whole idea down. Harry Reed's gone. what is the political likelihood that we'd be able to address the waste issue here in the United States and start to scale up, nuclear production?
Mark: I'm glad you brought up, Yucca mountain again, specifically because one of the several areas that I overlap almost perfectly with anti-nuclear people is that I think Yucca mountain is ridiculous and should never be built. Nuclear waste storage is one of the things that makes me embarrassed for nuclear engineers and embarrassed for people in the nuclear industry.
Why? Because they've accepted the complete fabrication that somehow we're gonna be harmed or hurt by nuclear waste. So we have to spend a hundred billion dollars or $200 billion putting it deep in the ground, even though that doesn't seem to be an issue for almost any other type of waste, including the waste that's much more toxic and much more dangerous. And some waste streams from energy are so vast that despite their higher toxicity and bigger risk to the public, we don't even dream of storing them. whoever heard of storing all the carbon waste from a coal plant or a gas plant, We just put it out. Now, carbon dioxide is not toxic when diluted into the atmosphere, but coal Ash is toxic.
And we really don't have any solution for that because the amount is so vast. So the quantity of nuclear waste is so minuscule. It's so tiny that the claim that we have to build some giant facility under the earth to put it in,it's theater, it's engineers being convinced of the lie that nuclear waste is uniquely harmful.
And then trying to act on it in a way that gives out tens of billions of dollars of engineering contracts.
Dan: can I push you on that one a little bit? We can jump to a real world example because you mentioned France is the premier country when it comes to nuclear power generation, how are they dealing with their waste? How are they disposing of it? And what can we learn from that?
Mark: Sure. So first I wanna say a few words about nuclear waste. What is nuclear waste? The number one thing that people are thinking about are the spent fuel rods. The spent fuel bundles that come out of a nuclear plant after three, four or five years of making power. So I think it's difficult for people to envision what nuclear waste is, but trying to draw a picture is really important for understanding why it's not the problem people think it is.
First of all, nuclear fuel is little bitty pellets that are stacked up into long thin metal rod. Depending on the power plant, they can be anywhere from say six feet to maybe 20 feet long. So these skinny metal rods surrounding these little black pellets of uranium dioxide are then packed into bundles.
The bundles are then packed into a core. So it's sort of like the old children's riddle about. I met a man going to St. Ives each man had seven wives. Each wife had seven bags, each bag. So that's nuclear fuel, tiny little pellets in rods, and bundles. In the core, those bundles sit there for about five years, making an immense amount of energy for, depending on the reactor design, tens of thousands of people are getting continuous power from each bundle.
Then the bundles are taken out and they sit in water in order to cool down. Why do they need to cool down? Because when you break apart uranium into smaller bits, those smaller bits themselves are radioactive for some period of time and they are putting off heat. So you have heat coming out of the bundle.
You cool it off in water, typically for about five years until the amount of heat it's putting off is like a, like a blow dryer. So then you put those bundles into concrete and steel lined containers. Each container tends to weigh about 100 tons. So about as heavy as an M one Abrams tank, and then they're lifted into place and you set them down on a concrete pad, just out in the weather.
It's no biggie. Some countries put them all in like a glorified shed. And each nuclear plant may be powering one, two, 3 million people at a time, but is only gonna have a few of these concrete and steel canisters. So the claim is that, although there's never, ever been an incident of either leak contamination or injury from these nuclear canisters, the claim is that we have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars digging a facility deep in the earth to put them in.
But they're just fine the way they are. You asked about what France is doing. First, france has a recycling program where they take those bundles. They send them app back to a factory on the English channel and they chop 'em up. Dissolve them. Put some of the particles that have already broken the hot particles over on this side, they put the uranium and any plutonium that's formed on this side, they take the uranium plutonium, mix it back into fuel.
They take the spicy particles, the smaller ones, they trap it in a block of glass, you know, sort of like, what Darth Vader did to, Hans Solo.you freeze it in glass and then it's a glass cube. That's just putting out heat. It's like a heater that glass cube could then go and be stored in, above ground facilities below ground if you wanna dig a hole, but it's, it can't do fi vision anymore. It's not ever gonna make power. You can't harvest it and put it back into reactor. it's just a big paperweight. Then the fuel goes back into reactors. This ends up leading to about 50% less mining, which since there's so little mining in the first place, it's hard to see the environmental advantage, if they do it and it's fun, good on the Fridge. So you put that fuel back in when it burns. At that point, it enters the stages I already talked about in the American system. the solution they're going for is to make a research and development center, not a waste repository center where they're gonna do science.
The science is, we're gonna look at waste, for a few hundred years and just make sure it's doing well. And then we'll write it up on our clipboards. This is important because people don't want to feel that they're being burdened with somebody's waste that's with somebody's rejected material.
Somebody's dangerous refuse. But if you show directly to the people who live near one of these facilities, we are doing science, we have jobs, we are paying attention. This isn't final. Then there's a lot of communities around the world that would be interested in hearing about that proposal. It's not a punishment.
Arjun: let me just clarify a couple of things and pardon if some of this is somewhat naive, but it sounds like once the fuel rods are taken out and ready for waste, and whether you go through the recycling process or not, you let it sit in the water for five years. Are you saying that there is zero radiation coming out of this thing? It is just heat?
Mark: Yeah. So I've got pictures of me and my staff hugging these waste canisters, putting my full body there. And I'm, let me be honest with you, Arjun. I plan to have a family. I wouldn't be taking that risk, except that I know both with my own engineering education and with radio dosimeters right there that it's fine. The NRC, the nuclear regulatory commission is awfully particular about radiation. In fact, they're so particular about radiation that they don't even compare the risk of not having nuclear to the risk of having nuclear and having radiation. So we are so sensitive about radiation, partly because of political pressure, including from the greens, but also because it's so easy to measure. You must know in business, if there's something that's extremely easy to measure down to the tiniest level of detail, you can get a little carried away, right?
So we can measure even the tiniest amounts of radiation. We can put a radiation detector up to our own bodies. We have naturally radioactive elements coursing through our veins, right? So radiation's all around. We've decided that any radiation that can be legally connected to nuclear power operations, we have to treat that entirely differently than naturally occurring radiation or say the radiation from flying on an aeroplane.
Stewardesses, stewards and pilots are subjected to elevated radiation levels. They've looked at it. They've decided that they don't wanna make a big issue about it because what they're gonna try to shut down their own careers. Instead, we can just see over many decades of experience. Low levels of radiation are fine, but they're not accepted at nuclear plants.
So the standards are extremely high. And even within those tight standards, people tend to over-fullfill their requirements. Not under-fullfill because the the penalty for missing the mark is so severe, so harsh. So yeah, I'm telling you, you can go stand next to nuclear waste in these containers today.
Arjun: My mind is blown. I had no idea.
Dan: no, this is, I'm in the same boat. First off, I think one, one question I'm sure that the listener wants to know is how does the cost of nuclear compare to the cost of other forms of energy?
and I think more importantly, couched in that is how are those rigorous standards maybe artificially inflating the costs or reducing the competitiveness of nuclear energy when it comes against, for example, fossil fuels.
Mark: Great question, Dan, and this gets us into one of the most confusing and controversial topics in the world: electricity. Because not all energy is coming to us from the electricity grid, electricity. Is interwoven with other energy systems. We discovered this in Texas last year, when part of the grid was shut off to conserve power, but that electricity was going to pumping stations that was pumping the gas that was going to the power plants that were making the power.
So you had negative, feedback, cascades. So electricity is not all energy. And it's extremely complicated. The vast majority of people involved with regulating electricity, building electricity, operating electricity, and trading electricity, have a very weak, an incomplete understanding of the system.
I don't claim to have a complete understanding of the system either because it's that complicated. Electricity is a heartbeat. Okay. If the heartbeat stops you don't just get to make up for lost time. You've got to correct it almost immediately or there's death. that's a little bit of a weird analogy.
The reason I brought that up is because I have to say this. Renewables are turning out to be a cheap way to make expensive electricity. Nuclear is a proven expensive way to make cheap electricity. One more time, wind and solar are cheap ways to make expensive electricity. Nuclear is an expensive way to make cheap electricity.
So the question I have to ask you, where are we measuring. If we're measuring at the socket, if we're measuring at the factory that is purchasing electricity to manufacture goods, the evidence is that cheap, clean energy historically only comes from nuclear and hydro in some mixture. We are still awaiting any evidence that a high amount of other options can produce cheap electricity contracts for the consumer.
Arjun: Okay. So let me make sure I understand this. Wind and solar cheap way to make expensive electricity. Expand on that a little bit again, bear with me on the simplicity of the question. Sun is shining I'm here in California. We have giant open fields that you can just paper over where solar panels. Elon Musk, frequently says, if you covered one tiny percentage of the United States with solar panels, we could power up the whole country.
It seems to me like when you hear all these anecdotes and again, very naive, but it seems like there's a lot of sun. There's a lot of open things. If we could just store the energy, isn't this the best solution in the world? What am I missing here? Why are wind and solar not good? Other than you have time of day issues or intermittent sort of generation.
Mark: You've got it. Supply and demand is trickier and more sensitive for electricity than for any other commodity or service on planet earth. You can have little internet disruptions across a whole country and people get upset. It might stop credit card payments for a bit. People wait, and then it can come back.
That is not acceptable for electricity. In fact texas last year was seconds away from a total collapse of the grid. As in all power going off in the part of the grid that's contained within Texas. If that had happened emergency procedures that have never even had to be used before, would've had to work under crisis conditions for the first time.
Estimates I've seen from experts or that it would've taken between two and four weeks to restore electricity in Texas, if they lost it. Instead, when we say blackout, we typically mean partial blackouts, where you're still keeping some part of the system alive. You see why I called it like a heartbeat?
You don't just get to say 99.9% reliability on your heart. No 99.9% isn't good enough. 99.99 isn't. Arrhythmias are one of the most dangerous things that you can find in a young athlete or a medical patient, because it's a sign. These little bitty blips. They're not. They're a sign of a potential complete collapse. In electricity this comes when there's even a tiny percentage difference between supply and demand. There's no buffer or there's almost no buffer building that buffer is extremely costly. So if you have the ups and downs of consumer demand, that's one thing. If you have the ups and demands of natural energy flows, intermittent flows from either the wind or the sun. The reason why that hasn't collapsed the grid is because somebody or something is paying for the system to make up the gap between consumer demand and the wind in solar. You'll often hear people working in clean energy industry say, no, the problem isn't the wind and sun going and coming. The problem is that people just expect energy all the time and they need to stop just expecting energy.
That's true. Maybe we're spoiled, I would argue that having energy when you want it is a birth right of modern. It's, what we're paying taxes and bills for. At minimum, we should have access to the energy. And if you are saying renewables are cheap, but people need to stop having the same service that our grandparents or our great grandparents had from the grid. You can see how that's a little bit of a difficult sell. What they're really saying is as long as wind and solar are a sufficiently small percentage of the grid, the total percentage of costs that have to be borne outside of the wind and solar to manage the wind and solar is relatively small. Let me give you one more example.
Wind power is the cheapest power in the UK, which is why in order to expand it, they're set to spend 54 billion pounds not to do one little bit of making the service better for the consumer, but just to expand the grid to connect extremely far, flung, renewable, energy sources. So if you count that as part of a system, the system costs due to wind and solar, for example, you suddenly start expanding the price of the wind and solar yet, because it still goes to zero some hours you still need an entirely separate system plugged in, fueled with fuel contracts, built, pipelines built, operators standing by everybody waiting to put the full other system back in operation. Does that make a little bit more sense? You can't interrupt the heartbeat in order to not interrupt the heartbeat? Somebody has to be making up for the difference in natural energy flows and society's needs.
Dan: As someone representing the, safety school, half of this hosting duo, I'll just rephrase it to make sure everybody gets it, which is, it sounds like renewable energy is cheaper on its face. So the actual production of wind and solar electricity by themselves is relatively cheap. However, the system that needs to accompany that to keep the grid reliable, ultimately drives up the cost. And that's not what we're measuring in the equation. Is that correct?
Mark: Correct. The way I'd compare it is that when people say cheap and expensive, they're typically meaning levelized cost of energy, L C O E. What is this levelized cost? It's saying that if you look at all the construction costs and operation costs of an energy source, including the financing costs and you put them in a diagram going all the way out to the future. And then you discount it based on the estimated,capital recovery that you need or let's call it the interest rate, the return on investment. You use a discount rate. What you find is a single number that can apparently be used to compare nuclear versus wind, for example.
The problem here is like saying that if you need 100 square feet of living space, per person in a family, let's say a family with small expectations, right? This is San Francisco living. Let's call it 200 square feet for family. If you calculate it, you're gonna find that a tent is much cheaper than a house, but they don't do the same thing, do they? Now you might say, oh, we can replace the tent several times. yes, but there are characteristics that are left out of that comparison. If you focus a little much on just. Covering square footage, right? There are more factors to continue consider in housing quality. let me also say that the number one problem facing the wind and solar industry that I keep hearing about from folks in the wind and solar industry is that they're too cheap and nobody's making any money. Like the folks building the wind turbines and the solar panels are under extreme pressure and are warning that they may have to stop building. That they may have to stop accepting contracts.
So that raises a very interesting question. The wind and solar, maybe can't yet stand on their own, but they're also not producing returns for those manufacturing them and even further wind and solar manufacturing is moving out of the places with high percentages of wind and solar on the grid. This starts to get very weird.
Apparently the energy service needed for industrial facilities to manufacture at competitive rates on the global market. It's not clear that's provided by the wind and solar power. Instead, the manufacturing goes off the places with really strong, really secure, really cheap coal or nuclear or hydro base load power.
Arjun: Man, I've gotta read so much after this podcast. There's just a ton I need to go back and read now. mark, imagine that, We waved a magic wand and you were, I don't know, chief energy minister or whatever. You got to decide the optimal energy mix for the United States. What would it be, given the resources we have? The cost constraints, the expectation of consumers, blah, blah, blah. What do you think is the right thing that we should be doing as a country?
Mark: So there's an easy thing to just bust out. Let me show you my three point plan for transitioning an entire industrial economy in a way that's never been seen before in on planet earth. No,first we have to say, just as I mentioned, that electricity is not all energy. energy in total is doing an immense array of things where even if you could say all automobiles in all of America suddenly don't have emissions, you've only solved a part of the problem while implying a cataclysmic change to society, right? I'm not even saying good or bad people can debate what they like or don't like about cars and driving and liquid fuels and carbon emissions and all that. I'm just saying anything that's big enough to matter is immense and has weird knock on effects to the rest of this system.
Mark: But, breaking this down really simply so people can understand. In terms of the fuels that power, the US we have the big fossil fuels that is natural gas, oil, and coal. other fossil fuels are very small. And then we have of the non fossil fuel, major energy sources, nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar. There's also biomass coming in at various parts of the system, only some of it is in electricity. Most of it is not right. So how do these sources compare in size? Natural gas and oil are the two biggest and they together make up almost two thirds. Of, the primary energy supply. What does this primary energy mean? It means the energy before it's converted for any kind of worker power. That means energy before you break it apart to make different fuels before you burn it to make electricity. Final energy is that the point it arrives and satisfies the need of a consumer. There's a lot of middle points where you use energy to make energy, or you use energy in three different stages in order to make a final product for the consumer.
Keeping it simple, though. Most of our energy in the us, I think, it's gonna be over three quarters maybe even 80% is going to be burning things between biomas oil, coal, and natural gas with oil and natural gas being the most flexible and the most widely used. I think that we should move towards non-carbon emitting fuels as fast as we can without breaking the systems that already work. That is to say the effects of climate change may be bad, they'll, they will never be worse than breaking the electricity grid or breaking down the trucking network that supplies all of our stores. That would be the real crisis. In fact, when people talk about the horrible things that might come with climate change, it's true. They talk about say species collapse or ecosystem collapse. But what they're really trying to say is not, oh, we won't have a national park to visit. They're trying to say there's gonna be chaos and death in the cities. There's gonna be loss of supply chains. There's gonna be the panic and breakdown of an insurrection or a war, but in many countries at the same time. that's the same thing that'll happen, if we suddenly stopped using fossil fuels today, It's the same thing that might happen this winter in Europe with only a partial reduction in fossil fuels.
So I don't think we should move on this transition any faster than we can substitute reliable energy that pollutes the atmosphere with reliable energy that doesn't. And if that means some combination of intermittent power and non intermittent power, then that's definitely a discussion to be had, but the priority should be on not breaking the systems that work, because that will destroy the good things we're trying to protect when we fight against climate.
Dan: so how long is that? Because the UN is given a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and net zero by 2050. Is that a realistic timeframe? Again? Mark is king of all energy. You get whatever you want. Do you have enough time to implement that plan?
Mark: Frankly, I don't think so. But I understand why people set powerful goals. They want to inspire, they want to scare, I appreciate why goals like that are set, but we're in a time when carbon emissions in many of the leading countries that set that goal, they're going the other way. Germany is needing to recommission coal power plants and buy new coal contracts and increase the carbon intensity of their natural gas system.
Instead of pipeline gas, their they're wanting liquified natural gas, which involves significantly more energy consumption and therefore emissions in order to get your energy. Yeah, if Germany is doing this, then what hope is there for the developing world to get it right? I don't think that those goals are going to happen except in the worst possible way.
There are many cautionary tales out there in the world. It's part of many mythologies of getting your wish, but getting it in the most brutal and horrible way that make you regret ever giving that wish. Genie and lamp parables include this sort of problem or the most famous one is the monkey fist, right? A, a cursed object that grants the wish maker three, or maybe anything they ask for, but they will wish they hadn't. That's this carbon goal. If we achieve that goal, it means that the most vulnerable people in the world are going to be less protected, not more protected from the climate. That is the highest risk to the developing world is not being able to use energy to protect themselves from the climate. Not that the climate will change fast enough to be worse than not having sewers, not having power plants, not having air conditioning, not having heat. These are the things that would cause a very large amount of death. Climate change is something I think we should try to stop, but we shouldn't destroy society to save it.
Arjun: and to put a fine, point on this. we were talking about a book called Apocalypse Never, which is written by Michael Shellenberger, who Mark worked with for many years, prior to starting the energy fund. And, Mark was actually the lead analyst on all things, energy related. It's a very good book.
I highly recommend I'm reading it right now. And, early in the book, it talks about what Mark just said, which is, Michael and his team visited developing nations and saw what it really means to live with very little. And saw what they need to live healthier, safer lives. And what they concluded was the things we take for granted in the west, that's what they really need. A lot of times, electricity, shelter, housing, just safe security sort of stuff. And sea level rise or changes to the global planet, ecosystem while important to us, weren't going to materially change their lives, but if you took away electricity or if you took away their ability to be protected against, the harms of the environment, that would destroy them.
And so it was just a very stark reminder of, oh, that's really what we're dealing with. So I thought that passage in the book was very powerful, the way that, Michael and Mark had written in, I think that's what you're effectively, referring to mark.
Mark: was, it was a powerful experience for me to work with Michael on that book. I've traveled to some developing countries, but nothing like what he saw and what he did traveling to areas that were quite nearly open war zones. and trying to understand, okay, is it an environmental. Is an environmental crisis if there's illegal logging and poaching going on, because there is not the rule of law or because there's nothing else you can do to feed your family? what is that an environmental crisis? Is it climate change? Is it a lot of the ways people say that climate change is gonna hurt us is saying it'll cause instability that reduces law, the rule of law, that induces war and, loss of harvest.
these are all things that can happen from lack of energy. We're about to see a lot of examples in Europe of what can happen when you lack energy. although we don't know what climate change is gonna do, there could be weird tipping points that cause, sudden catastrophic change. That's something like the sudden catastrophic change experience in the society under war conditions. And to fight against climate only at the expense of people who already are not protected from the climate. It's not just hypocritical. It's not just imoral, it won't work because if you're rich, you're going to just retool and have your energy regardless of the environmental costs if you are short. Germany is gonna burn whatever they can find in the whole world, the dirtiest coal, the most, they're gonna burn down trees.
Mark: They're gonna do whatever it takes to stay alive. And they're gonna still have ministries reaching out to the poorest countries in the world, signing deals to tear apart their existing coal power plants. Isn't that wild. Isn't that insane. It won't even work. That's the biggest message here. It's not that it's wrong, even it's that it won't work to permanently reduce emissions except through imiseration at the level that throws out the baby with the bath water.
I am so glad you brought that up because one of the things that's been on my mind lately is the role of cheap and abundant energy and democracy in and of itself. And if I sound alarmist to anyone listening, this comes from a couple books I read one by a guy who you might know, mark, Carrie king, out of the university of Austin. Or university of Texas at Austin energy Institute book called the economic super organism. And what it does is it traces the access to available fuel and rising living standards. And one of the big inflection points is when petroleum takes over is the primary fuel source. And all of a sudden you see higher crop yields, lower instances of poverty, democratic reforms. There's other research that shows that prosperity actually brings about democratic reforms and not the other way around.
Dan: And that these things do go in reverse. So maybe it's because I watch too many mad max movies as a kid, but I do feel that an energy crisis could result in some serious problems for everybody. and I guess one, one question I have for you now that I'm done pontificating is one of the things I've heard is that there's no transition to a carbon neutral economy without some trade offs in the wealthy world.
So we may have to deal with some, with fewer creature comforts in order to meet the goals we want to. And in order to make sure that the way we address climate change is equitable. Do you agree with that or no?
Mark: this is one of the most sensitive issues for me, because I work with people on the entire spectrum of attitudes towards climate change from those claiming it's a complete conspiracy and I'm like, okay, let's just do nuclear energy because it's really secure power, can last for a hundred years incredible jobs and makes us just really, powerful.
Isn't that great. And they're like, oh yeah, that sounds good. It'll even keep those climate change freaks happy. And I'm like, okay. All right.
And then there are people who are like, I think we're all gonna die. We're gonna die in five years. Exactly. we, aren't gonna be able to stop climate change. It's gonna kill every last person on planet earth. And I'm like, okay. So how about we do some, nuclear energy to try to cut down on carbon emissions? Can it really help? Can anything really help? Yeah, I think this is a good target. Okay. So I work with people, every part of the spectrum, sometimes people say, oh, do you really think that we can live without trade offs?
And other people wanna accuse me of saying that we have to make do with less. So I will say for myself, I like a lifestyle in a big city powered by nuclear. I don't have a car I'm I don't drive. I happen to live next to a bunch of lovely grocery stores. I live above a dry cleaner, a haircut place, pharmacy, clothing stores. It's all within 2, 3, 4 minutes walking from my front door. I want a world where people have the option to live extremely well without as much energy as it takes to live acceptably in the US.
So let's put it this way. US has what 330 million people or so, and we are living on approximately 230 kilowat hours per day, per person of energy. Don't worry about how big that is just, a kilowat hour is if you rent a hair dryer for an hour, That would be one kilowat of heat. You generate yeah. One kilowatt hour of electricity you consume. Everything in our entire society added up from growing the crops to importing things from China to heating our homes, to building our homes, to traveling for work or for leisure all of that adds up to about 230 kilowat hours per person, per day. Europeans rich and middle income combined somehow managed to make due for about a hundred kilowat hours per person, per day. Higher energy in really rich industrial economies like Germany at 130 kilowat hours per person per day, and then lower in some of the, former Eastern block countries. They're gonna maybe go on 40 or 50 kilowat hours per person per day. Sorry to introduce a unit, just to say an answer to this, but I think that the world may able trans transition to what feels like bountiful luxury on 150 kilowat hours per person per day. And I think we can get there by the end of the century, primarily from uranium, thorium, and plutonium fuels.
And I think that we will never, ever stop using hydrocarbons. We shouldn't have to burn them however. We should eat them as fertilizer. We should, use them as plastics and other materials. We should, capture the waste from them if we can do that without collapsing, say steel production. I think it's a worthy goal, but if we can not burn fossil fuels, I think they're too important physically to our society to waste and burning. We just have a really long path and a lot of work to get nuclear energy from even in France where nuclear energy is something like 10 or 15 kilowat hours per person, per day of uranium fuel in their mix. That's France. They need to get that up to 40 or 50. And at that point we're well on the path towards prosperity without using up the Earth's resources.
mark, I've gotta sneak in another question on nuclear because you brought it up and man, this topic is so fascinating. I envy you that you get to study this and do this all day. It's cool. you brought up the different types of, reactors: uranium, thorium, and plutonium. most people are familiar with uranium. I don't know that many are familiar with thorium. Can you just briefly talk a little bit about the different reactors, safety, cost, any of these things so that the listeners know that we aren't trapped with the technology we had in the fifties and sixties necessarily. What is state of the art and why do we like it in nuclear?
Mark: Great question. first of all, it's a bit of a misnomer that a new reactor is advanced and an older reactor isn't. and the reason why I say that is because first of all, It doesn't matter how advanced a reactor is if you can't build it. And our problem, isn't the type of technology we've chosen. The problem is that we're bad at projects, right?
So the existing reactors, we have phenomenal performance and there's enough uranium for a really long time. In order to look at advanced reactors, I'm skeptical. Sometimes I want them to prove that they are gonna answer our difficulty in construction. They're gonna answer our, any limitations in fuel supply. And since there isn't really a limitation in fuel supply, that one doesn't really do it for me. Since existing reactors are very safe and secure, the safety argument doesn't quite do it for me. it takes more to get me excited about an advanced reactor.
Let me give you an example. A lot of new reactors are sold as small or modular. Modular implies that you can easily construct it with pre-made parts or modules that are coming off an assembly line in a factory put together under control conditions and then plugged in at site. In reality, plugging it in at the site does not work as well as people would hope.
That's part of what's failed so spectacularly at Vogtle in Georgia. the modules were prefabricated sent to the site and then they were not acceptable. And they set out rusting in the rain until they were rebuilt from scratch sometimes right there at the construction site by hand custom. So module does not guarantee that you're gonna get good outcomes.
You need to make good modules. The Russians make large plants, they make small plants and they make all the parts and factories and they ship them to site and then construct them. The difference is they're good at construction and they're good at the modules. Does that make sense? Having said that, here are some things that I think illustrate this best, that would be advancements. That would be innovations.
The Canadians operate a type of reactor that was once fashionable and has fallen out of favor. That is a heavy water reactor. What is heavy water? It's like light water, but it has slightly different properties in the nucleus of the hydrogen that goes into the hydrogen and oxygen.
H 2 O that is water. That changes how well it saves the neutrons coming out from uranium. Heavy water reactors, reflect neutrons more effectively back into uranium fuel to break it apart and make power. If you take thorium, which is a nuclear fuel in waiting, you can't use thorium directly in a reactor. You have to convert thorium to a flavor of uranium by hitting it with neutrons before you can break it apart. Why would you go through these extra steps? one reason is that many countries all over the world have easy access to thorium.
It's one of the most common elements in the crust of the earth. The idea being if you can include countries in their own fuel supply, that's part of the safety and security argument for nuclear that most resonates to developing countries that don't yet have what rich countries have their own fuel. If you take a heavy water system and you combine thorium plus uranium, you can build a system that takes advantages of reactors that already exist while combining them with, fuel participation from countries around the world, lower refueling costs. And if you, if people are excited about this, the idea of absolutely limitless power on the time scales that matter to planet earth, in the next million years or so.
So the reason why I said that is because these heavy water reactors are one of the oldest types of reactors, but they perform well. Their core is modular. It's made up of a bunch of different small tubes rather than a large piece. And some of the plants today that use this type of reactor have eight, eight reactors in a complex. All of these things, hint at the capabilities that advanced reactor enthusiasts claim they want, but in the oldest type of reactor available, does that make sense a little bit? That's just one example of an old system that has the attributes of an advanced system. Plutonium is also another possible fuel. Plutonium is naturally created and consumed during the operation of reactors. The idea would be that you make a reactor specifically designed to run on more plutonium.
Dan: So you could do something like spin down the stockpile of nuclear warheads by consuming them in reactors. It's not clear whether that would reduce nuclear weapons overall, but a lot of people love the idea that you could take a weapon and use it to make abundant clean energy. And that tells you something about the power and the duality of nuclear energy. One of the comments you talked about was eating fossil fuels rather than burning them. And I think a lot of people don't realize 50% of the world's food is produced with petroleum based fertilizers.
So once I discovered that fact, the fact that we're burning it in our cars seem a little bit absurd and I still drive two gas powered cars. So I'm among the guilty here. the final question I had for you is you've talked a lot about the political headwinds that are facing nuclear and the global energy market has changed a lot with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Do you feel like that might be the trigger that might restart the conversation around nuclear?
Mark: Yes, absolutely. And it was not obvious in the opening days of the war. Here's what I mean. For the first time in human history, a nuclear plant was attacked and captured by an invading army. Russia still occupies and operates the largest nuclear plant in Europe. It's a six unit plant in Ukraine called Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
And there was a battle in a parking lot, a small battle, but shots were fired. There were tanks, there were rocket propelled grenades. There was gunfire, there was a fire that, that burned up one of the buildings on site and the nuclear plant operated continuously the entire time. If you asked me, Hey, mark, would you love to prove to the world, that nuclear is the ultimate survivor energy I might have said, yes, that'd be great.
Let's prove it. Monkey fist closes. And we have a war that captures a nuclear plant. workers in the plant, we're trying to use megaphones to shout out don't fire, large weapons at the nuclear plant, and yet the world saw it was scared for a bit. Heard the news saw that the nuclear plant was fine and moved on. Maybe they shouldn't have moved on. I think we should be thinking about the terrible working conditions for the workers at an occupied nuclear plant. there's some evidence that Russia is fortifying the nuclear plant with entrenched, equipment to fight off any attack. This is not a good situation, but it also shows that unlike say an oil refinery, you can survive and operate a nuclear plant under war conditions.
That's an extraordinary thing who would've ever thought. And it's almost like an immunization against the empty fears left over from the sixties and seventies and eighties. So in other words, the need was revealed by the war, the sanctions, and the interruption of natural gas flowing to Europe. The question was, did it scare people so much with the danger that it counteracted the rising appreciation. And what we're seeing now five months almost after the war started is no the need for nuclear, if anything, was revealed even further by the survival qualities of nuclear in the country that's being invaded.
Ukraine is still mostly nuclear power. They're probably the most pro-nuclear country on planet earth. They even wanted to keep operating Chernobyl after the blast. And the only reason they shut down Chernobyl is because, Germany and other countries offered to pay them money to start up a different nuclear plant to replace the nuclear energy they were losing in year 2000 from shutting down Chernobyl noble. Isn't that shocking?
Arjun: it is mark. Sorry, I have to sneak one more in then since you brought it up, what about something like Fukushima at Japan? Wasn't the tsunami and subsequent disaster, that nuclear plant evidence that you can have extraordinary circumstances where nuclear energy decimate a portion of the landscape for potentially decades. Are we misinformed on this?
Mark: Let me answer this in two different parts. The first is the devastating the landscape for decades didn't happen. that, that didn't occur. There was an enormous and thorough cleanup. but that cleanup was not a medical choice. It was felt to be an obligation. And what was owed the people of the pre fixture, who without choosing it, without even being told it was possible suffered, measurable contamination of their lands and homes. So notice I said it did occur. It definitely was measurable, was not a health risk longer than a few weeks in a few specific areas. The massive cleanup operation, has been an important ritual. I don't know of healing yet, but at least of penance on behalf of the utility and the Japanese nuclear industry for having had so many failures that they had a triple meltdown.
So again, it wasn't that it was a health risk from radiation. It was that it was a fear and panic risk, and quite frankly, disrespecting people's private property with measurable contamination. That was the problem. It should never have happened. and we're certainly working on the engineering side to make sure it never happens again.
But let's also put the disaster in perspective. Fukushima Daichi was one of several nuclear plants on the coast of Japan that was hit by the earthquake and the tsunami. Of the nuclear plants that were most impacted, only Fukushima Daichi suffered sequence of errors and oversights that led to the disaster.
Here's one, they knew the seawall was too low. They knew they needed to upgrade it. They had a plan to upgrade it and they just hadn't completed the work, why they didn't want to scare the local community by suddenly upgrading the seawall, because that would imply that the seawall had been too short. And they thought that might break trust.
they got unlucky there. Second one is they had backup generators, diesel generators for keeping water on the core after the safe shutdown to keep the heat moving away from the reactor until it was not a danger. those pumps, those generators were down at the level that was flooded. So in other words, we're now two layers, deep of things that have easy engineering corrections, one raise the sea wall two, put the generators on high ground three. procedures used to protect the reactor appear to have been interfered with on a political level in ways that may have magnified the disaster far beyond its, necessary size. That is decisions were made to save face early on that apparently backfired later and made the disaster much worse. And then finally there was a misunderstanding of what people demanded from this nuclear response.
Mark: So here's an example. If you turn off all the nuclear plants in Japan and you start rationing energy, that goes beyond what most people would've asked for. And it also caused immense suffering and actually a lot of deaths, according to epidemiological studies of Japan afterwards. It's not clear that when people wanted nuclear to be safe, that they were signing up for the trade offs of turning off nuclear.
Finally, there just wasn't very good communication during or after the accident of what was happening, what to expect, and where to look for danger and where to not look for danger. That failure of communication is something we can also learn from. here's what I would say. There used to be plane crashes all the time.
Now there are very few. Why? Because plane crashes educate everybody else on how to survive the next time. Nuclear plants are like that. Except for now, even the biggest accidents are not particularly dangerous to physical health. They're dangerous to mental health. So Fukushima Daiichi gave us a checklist of things that have now been implemented at every single nuclear plant on planet earth to raise sea walls, to expand emergency generating capacity, and crucially to intensify the training for emergency preparedness of every operating crew at every shift change on the planet.
That's if we can say, if there's a silver lining to Fukushima Daichi it's that we can see that like Ukraine with Chernobyl, Japan is returning to nuclear power in earnest. The other most famous disaster with three mile island in the United States. The United States has now has a bipartisan consensus that nuclear energy is an important part of the future. Should tell us something. There's an inoculation that comes from getting it wrong and then correcting it.
And I think we're going to see. Ukraine, Japan and the U.S. Be three of the most important leaders on nuclear energy, not despite their accidents, but in part because of them.
Arjun: , well thank you so much, mark. As you can tell, the conversation is chock full of really insightful facts. Very current, very important to, the environment today and all the discussions that we're having, in the news today.
one last one, mark, for, folks listening who want to stay abreast of this information and yeah, play a role in ensuring the energy safety of their communities and their countries in the future. Any suggestions on what they could do?
Mark: Sure. Since I'm on Twitter a lot, let me put in a plug for what you can learn on Twitter. Now, there are advocates for nuclear around the world on Twitter, some of whom work in the industry, some of whom have never stepped foot in a nuclear power plant. We are in a crazy time where if you want to hear directly from people who have just gotten off a shift, working at the control panels of a giant nuclear reactor, those people are gonna burn off steam on Twitter.
You can reach out and get answers directly from the humans, most direct, most directly responsible for nuclear safety. And you can get it today. What other time could we say that in the past, only the people professionally motivated to stop nuclear energy were willing to talk in public. Now we have a different time where the people most eager to talk about nuclear energy are those proud of running nuclear plants and living next to the nuclear plants with their families.
So I would say, twitter is where you can get incredibly accurate firsthand accounts of both the good and the bad and the ugly of every aspect of nuclear energy. And if you find what I've found, you'll see that on balance it's not just the future we want it's the future we have to have.
Arjun: Very cool. excellent. thanks again, mark. we will list all of the resources, in the resources section below this podcast episode and, yeah, thank you for your time. And hopefully we stay connected and continue to follow your work. feels very relevant and important for the future.
Thank you so much for your time.
Mark: you bet arjun. Thanks for having me.