A podcast featuring interviews with experts across technology, industry, economics, policy and more.


All Episodes

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

1) Doug’s early interest in nuclear energy, how he ended up in oil and gas, and his eventual return to his passion for nuclear

2) How Doug caught up on the history of nuclear and recent events, as well as his mission to create Oil & Gas Executives for Nuclear

3) How different industries can work together toward the goal of abundant clean energy

4) The future’s energy mix and the development of SMRs

This transcript is pending.

1) How designing a net zero refugee camp led to Richard’s long-time advocacy for energy, sustainability, and, later, nuclear power

2) Richard’s work with the Department of Defense and how he saw the awareness of nuclear energy increase over time

3) The effects of climate change on valuable resources and how the Department of Defense made climate adaptation an effort

4) The use case for modular reactors at operational bases and growing enthusiasm for nuclear energy

Phoebe Lind [00:00:59] Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the next episode of Titans of Nuclear. I'm Phoebe Lind, and today our guest is Richard Kidd. He is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment and Energy Resilience, and now he owns a small consultancy helping to advise on energy and sustainability issues. Welcome to the show. 

Richard Kidd [00:01:19] Hey, Phoebe, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. I appreciate it. 

Phoebe Lind [00:01:23] Of course. We're excited to have you. So, our conversation will mostly be focused on your work in energy and climate resilience at the Department of Defense throughout the Department of Defense and the Army as well. And I promise we'll get to nuclear energy, but I do want to set the scene for some of our listeners who may not be as aware of the connections between the US military and climate and energy and how all of these things work together. 

Phoebe Lind [00:01:46] So, the US military is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and obviously has a very large footprint around the world. That said, DoD is also very well-positioned to be a leader in climate resilience. It commands many buildings, planes, ships, and people, and all of the energy that goes into powering them. Tell us a little bit about your career journey and how you became interested in energy issues. 

Richard Kidd [00:02:17] Sure. So Phoebe, first of all, you're right. The US Department of Defense is a very large consumer of power. It's needed to do the Department of Defense's job in terms of training and preparing for conflict. So, the Department of Defense emits about 1% of the US's greenhouse gases at Scope 1 and Scope 2. The Scope 3 are probably higher than that. And if the Department of Defense were a country in the UN, we'd be about the 55th or 56th largest emitter. So globally, it's a very large emitter. And it does have a potential to affect the clean energy transition, but only up to a point. And that's what we'll talk about later. 

Richard Kidd [00:02:56] In terms of me, I have an interesting journey towards issues on energy and resilience. So after finishing graduate school, I actually became a relief worker for the United Nations. I was an Emergency Logistics Officer for the World Food Program, responsible for logistics and support on refugee camps around the world. And these were sort of the ultimate energy-scarce environments. If we ran out of fuel, diesel fuel, we had some very hard choices to make about whether we power the water purification or the cold chain or the security systems. So, it really focused my attention on the issue of energy efficiency. I had the opportunity to go work with Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute to design a net zero refugee camp. And ever since then, I've been a strong advocate for all things energy resilience, energy security, energy sustainability, energy efficiency, renewables, and now, later, nuclear power. And I'll be happy to talk about that in a few minutes. 

Phoebe Lind [00:04:09] What was your first interaction with nuclear power? What were some of your first experiences like? 

Richard Kidd [00:04:15] Well, my first experiences... When I was a small boy, I visited the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon which has now come offline, unfortunately. But I was fascinated with the Trojan plant and the technology. So, I certainly have been a hobbyist in terms of tracking the technology and the evolution of the technology. But I'm really a policy guy. I'm really about policy issues and how do we provide public goods and services for the lowest cost and the greatest benefit? And so, when you start to look at the public policy case for nuclear power, it just gets stronger and stronger. Whether it's from the climate lens or from the Department of Defense's national security lens. 

Phoebe Lind [00:05:02] So in your career, you were working with energy issues from very early on with your experience at the UN. When did you start to make those decisions about where energy was coming from and considering nuclear as an option in your operations? 

Richard Kidd [00:05:19] So, I followed energy issues, as I said early on, from the lens of logistics. Fortunately, I was able to make a mid-career transition and joined the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Management Program, FEMP. FEMP is like a consultancy service for the federal government. It advises federal agencies on how to comply with their statutory goals and mandates, whether it's carbon-free energy production or renewable energy, building performance, fleet optimization, petroleum reduction, a whole range of issues. 

Richard Kidd [00:06:00] I started to take a look at all these mandates that were put on federal agencies, specifically the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, both of which have been revised and updated since then, and the definitions of "clean energy" and the policy momentum that the various administrations were placing. And it appeared to me very early on that the numbers don't add up without nuclear. 

Richard Kidd [00:06:36]  I was a career senior executive, so I worked alongside the political appointees from four different administrations: Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden. And while the Obama administration said "all of the above," there really wasn't the funding, the enthusiasm, or the commitment from the majority of the political appointees on nuclear. Renewables and efficiency were primary, and that's great. There's still tremendous opportunity in renewables and efficiency and we should be doing all we can. 

Richard Kidd [00:07:09] Now, in the Biden administration, though, it's very clear that there's a lot of emphasis on nuclear. And I think that for folks who are watching the issue, the numbers just don't add up without nuclear. By that, I mean the numbers in terms of our required carbon reduction, our expansion of electric power to support the electrification of vehicles, AI, data centers, all these other items. And to provide the Global South with the lifestyle that they need, want, and deserve, without having to go through the transition of coal plants first and then clean power later. 

Phoebe Lind [00:07:49] Yeah, I would say a lot of our listeners would certainly agree with that sentiment. Another concept that we talk about on the podcast every once in a while, something that I really love, is the idea of energy abundance and the fact that people around the world deserve to have access to energy. Because the reality is that it has given us much better lifestyles and much better outcomes across all sectors of life. And nuclear energy is a great way that we could increase energy around the world and no one has to reduce the amount of energy that they use. And that's not really fair to people in developing countries when people in the US, we've had access to so many opportunities because of abundant energy resources. 

Phoebe Lind [00:08:31] But also given that sentiment, what are your thoughts about the current state of affairs of in nuclear energy? Do you think that shift from the Obama era when we were more focused on clean energy, but renewables... And now that nuclear is a little bit more a part of that conversation, do you think it's enough? Do you think we need to go further? 

Richard Kidd [00:08:55] I would just say that every conversation... During the Obama administration, every energy conversation I was involved in, very seldom did nuclear power come up. Now, every conversation I'm involved in, nuclear power comes up. So, there's this awareness of the role that nuclear power can and should play if done correctly and safely. And I think we now have the technology and the commitment that we can do that. 

Phoebe Lind [00:09:29] What do you think instigated that change? 

Richard Kidd [00:09:34] I can't speak for the whole industry. I can only speak for how I got to this position working two very difficult policy issues in the Department of Defense. The first was the policy requirement and requirement physics simply for the Department of Defense to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And the second was the requirement of the Department of Defense to have power on the battlefield to do the things that we need to do to prevail in any future conflict. So from those two angles, that sort of decarbonization angle and that power sufficiency in the operational space, in both of those thought processes or policy evolution processes, I came to the conclusion that we don't get there without nuclear. And I'm happy to talk you through those, if that's all right. 

Phoebe Lind [00:10:30] Yeah, absolutely. 

Richard Kidd [00:10:32] We'll take them one at a time. 

Phoebe Lind [00:10:33] Sure. 

Richard Kidd [00:10:35] Right, so you began the podcast by mentioning the fact that the Department of Defense is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the country. And I doubled down on that by saying, "We're about 1% of total US emissions." So, all greenhouse gas emitters are contributing to the problem of climate change. And there is a need to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions. 

Richard Kidd [00:11:02] The Department of Defense, when I was there, or annually, we publish an annual energy management report which shows the Department Defense's energy consumption. It's about $13.5 billion a year, plus or minus. About 70% of that energy is liquid fuel and about 30% is purchased commodities, electricity, natural gas, coal, and other items. And that fluctuates; the more active the military is, the greater the proportion of fuel that's being consumed. 

Richard Kidd [00:11:42] There is a task given us by Congress and in Executive Order 14008 to essentially transition all federal agencies to zero carbon emissions not later than 2050. And the president outlined a number of steps and Congress outlined a number of steps to do that. In all previous executive orders from Presidents Bush and Obama and Trump on federal efficiency or energy efficiency or sustainability... They were called different things over the years. There was always a national security set-aside. So in other words, essentially any military operations of the department were exempt from those executive orders. 

Richard Kidd [00:12:31] In this executive order in this administration, that was not a priority case. So, we as a department were then tasked to plan from Congress about how do we get to net zero? So, for those activities in the Department of Defense that are analogous to civilian activities... Let's say, the Department of Defense runs 600 small towns and cities across the United States. We have a pretty clear technological pathway that gets the department close to net zero through energy efficiency in buildings, electrification, onsite carbon-free electricity production through renewables and solar, and then the purchasing of carbon-free electricity from an ever-greener grid. So, that's a pretty clear pathway. 

Richard Kidd [00:13:24] Unfortunately, it's a lot harder when we talk about operational energy. So, the Department of Defense has one common fuel on the battlefield; it's called JP-8. It's a jet fuel derivative. It runs everything from a generator in the Army to a tank to a self-propelled howitzer to an F-35 fighter plane. The department also has bunker oil for ships and then very small amounts of hydrogen, diesel, benzene, and other items for niche applications. 

Richard Kidd [00:14:01] Again, the good news on the operational energy side in terms of decarbonization is there's plenty of room for efficiency, plenty of room for new technologies, plenty of room for changes in the way that we do things. But at the end of the day, we're not going to get to net zero. The terrific advantages of liquid fuel in the form of JP-8, the form factor, the energy density. The Department of Defense is buying equipment now that's going to burn liquid fuel in 2045. And we did a deep dive on sustainable aviation and there's still a question mark about sustainable aviation fuels. But it doesn't look like there's a clear pathway for SAF right now that will produce the fuel in quantity and at the cost acceptable to the Department of Defense. And also without secondary adverse effects, whether it's water consumption, deforestation, reduction in food production, or other things. So at the end of the day, we don't get there without nuclear power. 

Richard Kidd [00:15:09] We, the Department of Defense, need that secure baseload nuclear power for our installations, we need that nuclear power to produce sustainable aviation fuel, we need that nuclear power, perhaps, to propel some of the ships and other items. So, there's no technological pathway to the department... And I should say, even with that nuclear power, there's probably going to be a residual amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the Department of Defense is going to have to offset, capture, utilize in some other form. So, there's going to be a CCUS at the end of the technological pathway for the Department of Defense. 

Richard Kidd [00:15:51] So given all of that, I'll stop there and then switch to the second line of argument. But I'll stop there if you have any questions or follow-up on sort of the argument around greenhouse gas reductions. So basically, the Department of Defense doesn't get there without nuclear power. 

Phoebe Lind [00:16:10] Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it's not just about saving the environment, right? You said previously, national security was always exempt from a lot of these executive orders and acts from Congress about reducing greenhouse gas emissions across sectors in the federal government, but now I think it's becoming better understood by national security experts and also the general public that climate change can be very destabilizing. And as climate change affects... You know, it puts more pressure on other resources that you mentioned too, like food, water, the availability of energy itself, and that could exacerbate conflict too. How can you explain the necessity of planning for climate change and prioritizing that in military activities to people who don't understand that it's not just about saving the environment?

Richard Kidd [00:17:00]  You've switched topics a little bit, and that's great. So, it's on the notion of adaptation and resilience under a world that's going to be increasingly defined by the effects of a changed climate. So, climate change is about physics, not politics. And that physics is going to affect the world that the military operates in. So, the Department of Defense had a major effort about climate adaptation. We developed a tool that looks at our installations across two time epochs and two greenhouse gas emissions scenarios and takes a look at the effects of climate change on military installations. Whether it's sea level rise, riverine flooding, heat, drought, wildland fire, increased energy consumption, all of these effects. And then, we've developed the ability to model and score the effects on our installations. 

Richard Kidd [00:17:59] And it's not just on the installations. Climate change is affecting the Department of Defense at three levels. One, on the installations and infrastructure. A lot of that infrastructure is being destroyed every year through extreme weather events that are outside of past patterns. So, the climate is changing, driving these extreme weather events. It's also affecting the Department of Defense in terms of its people and equipment. So, helicopters that were designed to carry a load for a certain distance in a normal window of weather conditions, now that window has been reduced. There's more extreme heat and extreme humidity, so the aircraft is less efficient. In some cases, our runways are too short. In some cases, the runways have been made out of asphalt that will melt in temperatures today that weren't the case 50 years ago when they were first put in place. 

Richard Kidd [00:18:59] And on terms of the effects on the people... So, 36°C wet bulb... At that point, the body can no longer cool itself. At lower temperatures, you can't have sailors on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf doing their job without being at risk of heat casualty, or Marines or soldiers or airmen. So, we have to think through the effects on our equipment and the people and effects on the supply chain, and of course, the military's relationship with the population and the communities that support the military. 

Richard Kidd [00:19:42] The Department of Defense has a Defense Climate Adaptation Plan, and I would encourage readers to find that. It was required by the White House, but in fact, we were already doing it. And it outlines this comprehensive set of responses that the department has to take to adapt to the effects of climate change and to build resilience. The Department of Defense also has a number of policy documents about how climate change will affect the security environment, which is what you raised. But I'll stop about the summary of adaptation. I'm happy to take some questions about the security environment. And then, noting we still have to get to nuclear power and operational energy. So, we've got a couple of things out there. 

Phoebe Lind [00:20:31] I know, it's definitely... That's all my fault. I have an interest in all of these different topics. 

Richard Kidd [00:20:35] No, it's terrific. 

Phoebe Lind [00:20:36] It's fascinating how they all work together. But I'm happy to switch gears and jump into the operation side of things. 

Richard Kidd [00:20:44] Operational energy or climate change in the security environment?

Phoebe Lind [00:20:48] Let's switch to operational, considering that's more in your wheelhouse as well. 

Richard Kidd [00:20:52] Sure, sure. So again, another policy challenge that I and others in the Department of Defense wrestled with was the ability to move power around the battlefield. And so, we've built this terrific military, the best in the world, that requires huge amounts of power and energy to do its job. And in Iraq and Afghanistan, a very significant portion of the casualties were lost defending and protecting fuel convoys. And that meant combat power was diverted from fighting the insurgents to protecting the convoys. 

Richard Kidd [00:21:37] If we fast forward to today... If we look at a conflict in the Pacific or in Europe, we're going to have to move even larger amounts of fuel across longer distances against more sophisticated adversaries. And these adversaries have also developed the ability to sort of reach out and touch us here at home through cyber attacks on our energy grid, our pipelines, our pumping infrastructure. All of these critical nodes in the energy supply chain here in the United States are now held at risk in ways that they haven't been for the last 60 or 70 years. So, this notion of a contested environment and that the homeland is no longer a sanctuary is still very prevalent. 

Richard Kidd [00:22:26] I also had the opportunity to work on national security documents across different administrations. And Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put into the Trump administration's document on national security strategy that "the homeland is no longer a sanctuary." And guess what? The Biden team kept it. So, if there's a notion that goes across administrations, it's this fact that the homeland is no longer secure and our ability to move fuel across the battlefield can no longer be taken for granted. 

Richard Kidd [00:22:59] So, if you look at this challenge of contested logistics... Again, tremendous opportunities for energy efficiency. I can give you some little examples. The M1 tank in Iraq has a 1,500 horsepower turbine engine. After the initial invasion, it spent 70% of its time stationary, and it spun the engine just to power air conditioning, communications, and sensors. That's about 1,495 wasted horsepower. That was all wasted energy. So, simply by putting a Honda generator in the bustle rack or a generator under armor, tremendous efficiency gains for that vehicle. 

Richard Kidd [00:23:47] Likewise, the largest fuel-consuming assets in the Department of Defense are heavy aircraft, transportation aircraft. Putting on Microvanes, winglets, changing the orientation of the windshield wipers... Little things, right? But these can save 3%, 4%, or 5% of the energy consumed. So, there are plenty of opportunities for efficiency. There are opportunities for new equipment like a blended wing body aircraft which increases fuel efficiency by 30%, 35%, using drones more instead of manned vehicles, less fuel for the drone, integration of AI and solar on some of the drones, a whole range of items. And in terms of the operational energy, the department sort of focuses on demand reduction, so using less, and then fuel substitution, using different fuels. 

Richard Kidd [00:24:48] Again, you take a look at this, and we still can't move the fuel we need even after all of those efficiency gains. So, what does that mean? Well, that means we need to produce more power across the battlespace. And then, that moves to the conclusion that we, the Department of Defense, needs microreactors both to power forward operating basins, installations, and ports, to provide the power needed for directed-energy weapons, which is going to be a huge new demand, to provide the power needed for AI and data centers. 

Richard Kidd [00:25:26] So, you're going to have AI and data centers at the edge of the battlefield. Well, how are you going to power those, right? Huge energy demand. And then, nuclear power across the battlefield to actually produce liquid fuel. So, you're still going to have those F-35s. You're not going to put a battery or a nuclear power unit in the F-35, a nuclear battery, but you could produce fuel at the edge of the battlefield and not have to move it around. So, that reduces the risk and it reduces all the fuel that was burned moving it around the battlefield. 

Richard Kidd [00:25:59] So, the point being there from a policy construct... As we look at how do you reduce the Department of Defense's greenhouse gases, you don't get there without nuclear. How do you meet the Department of Defense's current and growing power demands on the battlefield? You don't get there without nuclear. 

Phoebe Lind [00:26:17] Could you explain a little bit more about how nuclear at the edge of the battlefield will contribute to those things? We'll still be using that liquid fuel for many of these other larger things that we're powering. And I'm less of an expert on the mechanics of aircraft. 

Richard Kidd [00:26:37] So, I said "edge of the battlefield." I should probably walk that term back. It's not going to be on the cutting edge of the battlefield. It's more like in the hilt of the battlefield. So, behind the front lines in sort of operational bases that are semi-permanent. And if you look at concepts across the Pacific, there's this notion of having a range of airfields and ports distributed across the Pacific outside of the missile range of the Chinese, but still manned with aircraft and other items. So, that would be sort of the use case for a modular reactor of a few megawatts of range. 

Richard Kidd [00:27:26] There has been some discussions about nuclear batteries, modular reactors below a one megawatt. And you could see applications for those in, say, the High North, up in the Arctic, or communications nodes and other centers like that. One of the ideas for the larger reactors, above five megawatts or so, is that they would actually be able to do air-to-fuel. So, you take carbon out of the air and combine it and inject energy and you make a liquid fuel. It's an energy losing equation, if you will, but it's a form factor conversion. And by converting that energy into a different form factor, you're able to use it across some of the systems that already exist out there in battlespace. 

Phoebe Lind [00:28:19] Switching gears a little bit, considering both operational and installation energy, while they have very different demands. Have you seen enthusiasm around the Department of Defense for nuclear energy and applications in general? 

Richard Kidd [00:28:34] I think the answer is yes. I mean, I know the answer is yes. There's been a range of documents internal to the department that have explicitly called for the integration of nuclear power on to the installation of energy microgrids. So, there's a large construction budget for energy resilience. And in the guidance documents provided across the department, it says, "As you plan your energy secure microgrids, design them so that you can have nuclear power." We also have a lot of interest in advanced or next gen geothermal, where it makes sense to do so. So, that's in the policy document. 

Richard Kidd [00:29:18] You have a number of preliminary procurement actions underway. The Air Force initiated a procurement action for an SMR up at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. There have been some procurement challenges around that, but I think that's an early signal. I know that the other services are also taking a look at nuclear power options on their installations. 

Richard Kidd [00:29:43] If I digress for a second about American policy... The US government right now has lots of money going in for nuclear technology development through the Department of Energy and they're doing great work. The government has loan guarantees through the Loan Program office at DOE and tax incentives. There is not yet a deliberative commercialization effort across the whole of the US government. And the Department of Defense has a lot of tools that could be useful for nuclear power commercialization, but it doesn't have all the tools. 

Richard Kidd [00:30:23] So right now, the Department of Defense can offer land, accelerated permitting, security, and a 30-year power purchase agreement. That may not be sufficient for a first-of-kind or second-of-kind reactor, which is going to require some cash infusions throughout the initial process. So, I think there's a look towards the US Congress. I mean, there's tremendous bipartisan support for nuclear power. It's one of the few things that Congress can agree on right now... For ways that you might be able to do some capital injects across the department as it moves forward with nuclear power projects for its installations. 

Richard Kidd [00:31:05] In terms of operational energy, the Department of Defense has a program called Project Pele, which is for a mobile microreactor. It sort of started... I wouldn't say in secret, but it didn't get a lot of attention. It's now a well-known project. It's got a lot of momentum, it's got good leadership. And I think the combatant commands and the command structure out there across the globe is really interested in the benefits that attributes of Project Pele offers or similar technology. Project Pele now has two different companies that are sort of in the mix, and there are more companies out there that are hot on their heels with new options and new technologies. 

Richard Kidd [00:31:52] And that's what's exciting about this industry. I mean, this is a classic sort of business school case. There's a huge market opportunity. There are lots of new entrants, lots of great technologies coming out. And which ones are going to make it, which companies are going to have the best value proposition... And all of the companies struggle with who's going to pay the money to build the first one. Once you build the first one, then it gets a lot easier. 

Phoebe Lind [00:32:20] What do you think is the biggest challenge or the biggest hurdle to building the first one? Is it that missing money for commercialization that you mentioned? 

Richard Kidd [00:32:28] From the Department of Defense's perspective... I can't speak for all industry. I mean, there are a couple of challenges. One is cost. So, there's cost, technological risk, complexity, in terms of the procurement complexity, and then aligning public and private sector incentives. 

Richard Kidd [00:32:48] A long time ago when I was at the Army, I helped build an office called the Office of Energy Initiatives Task Force, now the Office of Energy Initiatives. And this was to develop large-scale renewable energy projects on Army land. And I walked around the building and said, "Look, the private developers have to make money. If you're going to do a public-private partnership, that means the private sector has to make money. It has to be a bankable, financible project."

Richard Kidd [00:33:15] And so, that was a hard thing to do on a relatively simple set of technologies, solar panels, more specifically. But we were able to get there and now the Department of Defense is... I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but anyway, a gigawatt plus of large-scale solar across military installations. So, we have to replicate that operating model for more complexity, more cost uncertainty, more regulatory uncertainty. So, the permitting, all of that needs to be addressed. I think the greatest single challenge is just managing complexity across multiple dimensions. 

Phoebe Lind [00:34:04] With your work at your consultancy, how are you thinking to help solve some of these challenges? 

Richard Kidd [00:34:13] It's interesting. I thought when I left public service, I was going to be the climate and sustainability guy. I'm certainly getting a lot of interest there. But there has been a lot of discussions around nuclear with different clients. I'm fortunate to be a Senior Advisor with the Boston Consulting Group. So, I work on their energy team. I'm also working with an engineering firm, advising a country on its energy transition. I'm an advisor on CORE POWER, which is a maritime application of nuclear. 

Richard Kidd [00:34:54] It's good; it's exciting. And I do that humbly because as I said, I'm not necessarily a titan of nuclear. You've got other great minds around the technology, around the manufacturing, the sophistication, the fuel cycle and pipeline. I try to look at the policy dimensions and how can you make a strong policy case for nuclear power? 

Phoebe Lind [00:35:21] Again, I mentioned this to you before, but I would absolutely consider you a titan of nuclear. I've seen you around the DC circuit. And it really is a team effort, and there's so many very difficult challenges to overcome with getting nuclear on the grid, whether in the US or abroad or through the US military, so we're very grateful to have your perspective on Titans of Nuclear today. And now that you are almost done with the podcast, you're a titan here at the very least. Are there any final thoughts you would like to leave our audience with? 

Richard Kidd [00:35:53] No, Phoebe, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to be here and to join the team. I continue to listen to Titans of Nuclear, scrolling back through the old episodes and learning as I go. So, this is a great resource for all of us who have either been in the industry for a while or are relatively new. So, thanks so much for what you do. 

Phoebe Lind [00:36:13] Of course.


1) George’s move from Greece to the United States and how it led him to engineering, becoming a lawyer, and nuclear

2) Why George flew to Japan three weeks after Fukushima and how to communicate with people who aren’t familiar with nuclear

3) The involvement of government in nuclear and different ideas on the subject

4) New generations in nuclear and how their mindsets will shift the industry

This transcript is pending.

1) How James got his start in the nuclear industry as a painter and who inspired him to start his career in the first place

2) Explaining nuclear in the 1980’s and how this advocacy has changed over time from generation to generation

3) Day & Zimmermann’s current work and upcoming projects

4) Encouraging people to join the nuclear workforce, advice for those looking to enter the industry, and why nuclear is here to stay

Phoebe Lind [00:00:59] Welcome back to another episode of Titans of Nuclear. Today on the podcast, we have our special guest, James Chesnut. He is the Senior Vice President of Nuclear Operations at Day & Zimmermann. I'm Phoebe Lind. Again, welcome. James, how are you? Welcome to the podcast. 

James Chesnut [00:01:17] Hey, I'm doing fine. And thank you for this opportunity. 

Phoebe Lind [00:01:21] Of course. We're excited to have you on today. To jump right into things, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? 

James Chesnut [00:01:29] Well, again, I am a second-generation nuclear worker. I grew up on the Chattahoochee River down south in Georgia. Just so had the opportunity to watch this big facility nuclear plant being built, the Farley Nuclear Plant. So, definitely was interested in what was going on over there. 

James Chesnut [00:01:52] Again, like I said, I'm a second-generation nuclear worker following my dad and my two uncles into the construction phase of building a nuclear facility. That was right there near our home. It was pretty interesting because where I grew up was a very agricultural area. And one of the things that you did where I grew up was you either concentrated on farming or you concentrated on working somewhere in the neighborhood supporting farming. And it was the fact that we'd seen this big facility being built near us that was requesting craftsfolk to come and support the construction, and that's how I got involved in the nuclear industry. 

Phoebe Lind [00:02:39] What was your first job? You were one of those craftsfolk, as you say? 

James Chesnut [00:02:43] I was. My first job in the nuclear plant was as a painter. It just so happened that as part of the farming... One of the things that we would do during the during the off-season in farming is that myself, my dad, my brother, and my uncles would help the farmers continue to keep their equipment in good condition. And what that meant was we would apply new paint to them during the non-farming seasons of the year and get them ready for the farming season. So at a young age, I got very familiar with painting equipment. How to sandblast the old paint off, how to do maintenance on the farm equipment, how to apply new paint on the equipment. And I got very good at it. I was probably 13, 14 years old doing the work of adults who were doing the same kind of craft. And so, that gave me a little bit of a head start in the nuclear plant that was being built. 

James Chesnut [00:03:43] Right out of high school, I got the opportunity to follow my dad and follow my two uncles into the construction phase of that. And as one of the youngest workers in the organization, I qualified very quickly as a journeyman painter. For those of you who do not know what a journeyman painter is, that is someone that has the skill and competency at the top of their trade. And of course, I was 18 years old. And because I already had five to six years of experience doing this work, I qualified very quickly. And so, that got me in the opportunity to join a large organization doing construction and watching this big nuclear facility of two units come out of the ground and get ready for generation. 

Phoebe Lind [00:04:32] I'm sure your family members were very proud of you for doing that at such a young age. Did your father and your uncles encourage you to follow their footsteps, or was that a choice you made all on your own? 

James Chesnut [00:04:42] Actually it was encouragement by my dad and and my two uncles. I had no intention of pursuing a college degree. I was always someone that worked with my hands. I've always worked in a vocation of some type. Through high school, I learned how to weld, learned how to be a carpenter, learned how to paint. And those were the things that were being offered through my high school. And so, I was encouraged by my dad and my uncles to come over to the nuclear facility because, as they saw, this was a great opportunity for a good career to develop into. 

Phoebe Lind [00:05:18] So, it was a very economical decision I imagine as well. 

James Chesnut [00:05:23] Yes it was. Yes it was. At 18 years old, making a salary that most adults were making or could not even make was very interesting. My skill set and the fact that I was making the same kind of salary that most adults were making, it continued to influence me to stick with it. 

Phoebe Lind [00:05:50] And then going from being a painter to where you are now as an SVP, did you have an "a-ha moment" where you realized you wanted to work in nuclear energy and make that your career because of the work and the mission itself? Or, was it always focused on the project that you were delivering in your career development? 

James Chesnut [00:06:12] When I started at the Farley Nuclear Plant in Alabama which was right there on the Chattahoochee River... We finished the construction at that particular point... At that time, I was a construction worker and I hadn't really gotten that involved in the operation of a nuclear facility. Didn't know much about it. All I knew was my craft and how my craft could help build something as large as a nuclear facility. And when the construction was complete and the facility went into operation, I had a choice. I could go back into agricultural and farming, or I could follow my career which led me to Kansas, which was one of the last two facilities under construction in the US back in the early '80s. 

James Chesnut [00:06:55] So I followed my career path, moved to Kansas. My family moved to Kansas. My uncles went to Kansas. And we went right back into construction of a facility there in Kansas. And of course, through the years... I was there about 10 years. And of course, continuing to grow up and getting familiar with the area. Met someone from Kansas. Wanted to stay in Kansas. And it was at that point in time that I decided to pursue a career in the operation of the facility. 

James Chesnut [00:07:24] I mean, I knew a lot about the facility. I helped build it. When it went into operation, I was part of the team that was helping to maintain it. I learned a lot about the operation and what it took to make it operate very efficiently, and just got more and more involved with the people who were operating the plant. That's when I decided, "Nuclear energy is something that is very familiar to me. I'm very comfortable with it. I feel safe with it." And so, I just stayed on and went to work for the actual utility company. 

James Chesnut [00:08:01] And it was at that point where I was thinking that, "This facility is... Even though it's a very nice facility, a very small community..." I was looking for more out of my career. And I had several friends who were engineers, project managers, superintendents who were moving to a new opportunity in Arizona. And this was in 1995. My dad had moved to Arizona. One of my uncles had moved to Arizona. And so, I started inquiring about the opportunities there. And it just so happened that they had an opportunity where they were beginning to be evaluated for an INPO 1, or an INPO evaluation. 

James Chesnut [00:08:46] So, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators... They evaluate each station and they give them a classification of how well they're performing. And this plant was looking to prepare themselves for an excellent report. And because I had just finished working with the facility I was on, helping them get to that same standard of excellence, I got the opportunity to move to Arizona and do the same thing. 

James Chesnut [00:09:10] When I moved there, it took me about six months to get them prepared aesthetically for an INPO evaluation. And once they received their INPO 1 evaluation, which is Excellence & Standards, I continued to stay on there because my background became more around project management, delivering projects, improving the plant. And so, that's really where I felt like my career started to excel, was in the largest nuclear facility in the United States. And I had an opportunity to be a part of its growth and its operation. 

Phoebe Lind [00:09:49] I love that it remained a family affair from Georgia to Kansas to Arizona. You kind of brought your roots with you in that way. And I want to return to one thing that I thought was interesting you mentioned. You felt very safe working at a nuclear power plant. Was that something that you had to explain to people? I mean, obviously, your family members understood that concept. But I mean, in the '80s, that was also the rise of the environmentalist movement and there was a lot of anti-nuclear sentiment there as well. Did you ever have to explain why you loved your work to other people in your community? 

James Chesnut [00:10:24]  You know, I did, because the perception of nuclear in the community... And all that they ever heard was the accidents that have happened in the nuclear industry. You know, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl. And so, I had to explain to them about the amount of safety that goes into not only the construction of the nuclear power plant, but the operation and how they have so many safety barriers that protect the community. And as a young man, I was able to give my own experience around the fact. 

James Chesnut [00:10:55] When I would get into community events and I'd tell them that I worked at a nuclear plant, the most common comment that I would get said, "Well, you don't look like you're shining green just yet." And so, I had to explain to them exactly what that meant in regards to radioactive exposure and let them know of how safe the plants operate in regard to that exposure. And that through a lifetime of working in the facility, I probably had less exposure than most folks in other industries, such as medical, dentistry, and other types of industry that use radiological components as part of their technology. And of course, the fact that I continued to stay very healthy, didn't have any issues. I mean, I was a prime example of, "Wow, if he can work there for several decades, it must be a good place to work." 

Phoebe Lind [00:11:52] So, bring us back up to speed. You were in Arizona. Did you stay in Arizona for the remainder of your career? How did you get from Arizona to where you are now? 

James Chesnut [00:12:04] So in Arizona, I became the site manager for a three-unit facility for my company, which meant that I oversaw all of the maintenance, all of the construction, and all of the refueling every year. And I got the opportunity to learn how to perform along with excellent standards. And as the company started growing through the industry, the opportunity came for me to grow within the company as well and take over more of the fleets in the West. And so, I got an opportunity to move to Texas for a short period and a corporate office. 

James Chesnut [00:12:44] Picked up all of the western fleets and was able to move them into the same kind of operation that I was familiar with, performing their maintenance, performing their construction, and performing their refueling. And it just so happened that I got a chance just to continue to grow my reputation as an individual, as a leader, and as someone that was mentoring others. Just really gave me the opportunity to expand in the company. And as opportunities came within the company to grow, I definitely was very interested in moving more and more into the organization to help move our company into an area of an excellent company for nuclear power, nuclear construction, and nuclear maintenance. 

Phoebe Lind [00:13:30] Okay, so what did your fleet look like? It was the entire western fleet. Were those mostly pressurized water reactors, or what kinds of plants were you working on? 

James Chesnut [00:13:37] So, it was both. It was pressurized water reactor, it was boiling water reactors. Those are the two types of reactors that we have in the United States. As I picked up the West, as others were moving in the company I got a chance to pick up all of the non-union fleet for Day & Zimmermann, which included all of the East Coast plants. It included all the specialties like radiation protection technicians, valve technicians, instrumentation technicians. And so, we started really concentrating on what our delivery was to these facilities to make sure that they were operated in good maintenance, good construction, and refueling. 

Phoebe Lind [00:14:22] So, I know your transition to Day & Zimmermann was a more recent event in the context of your entire career. You went there in January, 2022. Is this still the same work that you're doing today? What are your focuses in 2023, now almost 2024? 

James Chesnut [00:14:39] So, as the company continues to evolve as a nuclear organization, we are setting a standard for... This is the company that we're looking for all of the operating nuclear fleets to come to for their work. And also, we are moving into the opportunities to get involved with new reactor technology. Small modular reactors, advanced reactor technology. So with that, one of the things that I've got the chance to do is just to be on top of that and lead the market. As a market leader for nuclear, one of the things we're concentrating on is, "What does it take to continue to look 10 years, 20 years down the path to see where we need to be as a company to be ready for the next new reactor technology?" 

Phoebe Lind [00:15:37] What technologies are you most excited about? Do you have any projects in the pipeline? 

James Chesnut [00:15:42] We do. We actually have an opportunity to participate in the design and construction and the implementation of a small modular reactor called X-energy; it's the Xe-100. I would like to, as part of my career, be involved in getting one of those small modular reactors in operation and getting people comfortable with that technology. Because once one is built, I believe they'll just start stacking up on top of those and they'll be 10 a year that will be constructed. People will be looking for that kind of technology. 

James Chesnut [00:16:21] With the small modular reactors, what you're looking at is something that's a little more simple in design. It's quicker to get from construction to operation. And you're not looking at these big, large buildings of reactor plants that we have today. 

Phoebe Lind [00:16:38] I will say our listeners are definitely very familiar with SMRs. There's a lot of enthusiasm for exactly the reasons you just stated. The fact that they're safer, can be built faster. Hopefully, it's a little bit faster to get to our first of a kind, and then our "Nth of a kinds" will come out at a more rapid pace. What is your role more specifically with the X-energy project? What services are you providing there? 

James Chesnut [00:17:03] Well, if we could back up just for a moment. An area that I'm really concentrating on now and am concentrating on in a variety of different paths is the nuclear workforce. The nuclear workforce has seen a downward trend in the availability to fill the pipeline of available workers. And a lot of that has to do with... Like, prior to the Inflation Reduction Act, with the sustainability of the operating fleets, the perception of the communities around nuclear, people just were not following that career path. I mean, they were following career paths around newer technologies, health care, tourism. 

James Chesnut [00:17:43] And so, the nuclear pipeline of workers became depleted, so to speak, for everyone that was considered a greengrass worker. Which, those who grew up through the construction of nuclear, the Baby Boomers, those folks started retiring out and a new nuclear workforce was not coming in. So, part of my goal today is to work with the nuclear community through the Nuclear Energy Institute and through communities that are developing trade schools for power plant technology, things like that. We're trying to have some career awareness as well as creating pipelines for people to find their way back into the nuclear industry. 

James Chesnut [00:18:27] Back in the early 2000s, I think it was... The technologies around the world today require people to go out and get four-year college degrees, right? And schools started moving away from things like shop and shop fabrication. And it started influencing high-school students, rather than go into vocational schools, go to four-year degrees. And I think we're trying to overcome that concept now where we are advocating for those who are in high schools that... 

James Chesnut [00:19:08] The kinds of careers that we have to offer are not alternative careers. These are good career-sustaining, good-paying jobs. You can definitely have a lifetime of work, raise a family, live in a community for a long term and basically have a good opportunity to reach retirement being a good craftsman. 

Phoebe Lind [00:19:36] Absolutely. I mean, the success of many of these projects that we talk about all the time... And there are plenty of businesses now that are very excited, from X-energy to ones all over the US and the world... It's critical that we have a workforce that can actually support those projects or else we're not going to see that clean energy coming online anytime soon, especially if we have to wait years and years for people to get trained up on actually how to build and construct these projects. 

Phoebe Lind [00:20:04] That said, what inspired this passion of yours? Was it more from your background and how much joy and success you found from your career starting out as a craftsperson? Or, is it something where you saw a problem in the industry and said, "I can be the person to help solve this?"

James Chesnut [00:20:25] Well, it's a combination of both. Being in the role that I'm in, my responsibility is to bring nuclear workers to the nuclear facility for their refueling outages. We started seeing a significant decline, not only in the pipeline of available workers, but in the skillsets that workers had who were coming to work for us. In other words, they lacked certain components because they just did not get that type of skilled experience through their family, through their community, through their schools. So, that was one thing that got me highly involved with addressing skillset around nuclear workers. 

James Chesnut [00:21:09] The next thing was the training and career awareness. It's like, people did not know that nuclear was starting to grow in regards to helping the US reach its decarbonization goals. People did not realize that nuclear could be a significant part of providing that and providing clean energy. So, career awareness has been a big piece of my work, especially with the Nuclear Energy Institute and some of the things that we're trying to do to advocate for not only nuclear, but nuclear careers. 

Phoebe Lind [00:21:48] So, what do you think some of the winning strategies will be to encourage new people to join the nuclear workforce? Have you started implementing any of those strategies yet? 

James Chesnut [00:21:59] Yes, we've been highly engaged with educational institutions around where we're located, around nuclear plants where we are doing work. I'm involved specifically in one in Arizona, where we work directly with high-school students and the parents to let them know there's a very large clean energy nuclear facility right here that their graduating class could have opportunities to go to work at, learn a good career, learn a good craft, and not even have to leave the state of Arizona for a good job. 

James Chesnut [00:22:40] A couple of things that we are doing is trying to find ways to help people get into nuclear quicker by addressing training, training qualifications. When I was growing up through the nuclear industry, it took three years to go from an unskilled worker to a skilled worker. And with today's ability to have quicker access to information, more technology around the tools that we use... You know, three years... Kids today, after a year, they want to know that they have achieved their goal and they're looking for their next goal. I mean, we just have to find ways to get people more qualified, quicker, and get them more competent in the work that they're doing. 

Phoebe Lind [00:23:27] Yeah, I can absolutely see how, especially younger, generations would be more interested in nuclear from a climate perspective, especially. That was my background. I was interested in climate change and clean energy, more broadly, and that's how I came to nuclear. What kinds of responses are you seeing from these programs that you have with educational institutions, like these high-school students who... I had no idea that I would be working in the nuclear industry now when I was 14 years old. 

James Chesnut [00:23:56] Well, that's just it. As we're starting to engage these facilities and advertise for these types of careers, that's one of the responses that we're seeing, especially from the parents. Because they did not know these type of careers were available to them or to their kids. Otherwise, they probably would have been advocating more for that. Because most of the kids these days... And I've raised several kids myself. Not only my own two boys, but several others. And and if I had not been able to give them information, they would never know that there was an opportunity that existed there. Most of the kids these days, their environment's around tourism. It's around technologies, around gaming. It's around industry and health care. That's exactly what they see. It's manufacturing, it's retail. And I just see this in my community. 

James Chesnut [00:24:56] With me being able to talk to them about the availability of energy-type careers. You know, working as a carpenter, learning how to be a welder, learning how to be a painter, learning how to be an insulator... Things that do not require four-year degrees to be able to be very skilled and skilled quickly. That's exactly what they're looking for, "How can I get a job out of high school and be able to start living a life that I want to see for myself?"

Phoebe Lind [00:25:29] Do you think your boys will also follow in your footsteps and continue on the family tradition of working in nuclear? 

James Chesnut [00:25:36] Well, it just so happens that... I have two sons of my own, and both of them pursued nuclear careers. With my knowledge of the career paths for them, I was able to help them get through it a lot quicker. I did have the opportunity to raise three other boys who had come to our family for a variety of reasons. All three of those boys right now have nuclear careers as well, as well as others who they're friends with. I mean, the word gets out that they're working at this big nuclear plant, and then the friends go, "How do I get involved with that?" "Well, you know, you give James a call. He can help you."

Phoebe Lind [00:26:20] It sounds like you were extremely persuasive, then. It sounds like you're the perfect advocate for continuing to grow the workforce. When you were going through your career, you could show people that nuclear was safe through your own experiences. And now with this new passion of yours, you can show just how successful you could be in nuclear and say, "Don't just look at me. Look at all these other people I've influenced." That's fantastic evidence right there. 

James Chesnut [00:26:47] Absolutely. 

Phoebe Lind [00:26:49] But also looking to the future, there's been a lot of really great news coming out of COP 28. We had a couple of members of our team who were there. One thing that I was really excited to see were these new commitments to scaling up nuclear energy. Which again, workforce will have a major impact if we can actually achieve that. The US was one of a number of countries that pledged to triple nuclear capacity by 2050. What impact do you think these commitments in COP 28 will have on the nuclear industry? 

James Chesnut [00:27:29] I've read some of that around the commitments that they're looking for. They're looking for for countries to get engaged around clean energy, correct? That commitment means that they're advocating for clean energy. They're advocating for the ability to generate energy clean. So, that commitment means a lot of things. It means working together as organizations to help push through any type of regulation to get nuclear more advanced and get it out there faster. 

James Chesnut [00:28:04] I think with the US Department of Energy driving toward... Especially in the US, driving more toward net zero greenhouse emissions, I think that's going to help the US start looking at their position around how they generate their power. And if you think about generation of power, that also follows along with energy security. And where would we be as country in the area of security if we did not have good, clean energy supporting us? 

Phoebe Lind [00:28:39] Absolutely. And I think we see that argument come up more often, too, especially looking in the context of these international conferences. While climate change is certainly a priority for many governments around the world, they have other commitments they also need to balance, such as their national security, their energy security, and how their energy ultimately props up their economy at the end of the day. 

Phoebe Lind [00:29:02] Do you think there are any changes that the nuclear industry needs to make in order to meet some of these commitments and continue to support our economy in the way that it has over the last couple of decades? A lot of people don't know that nuclear energy provides so much of the clean energy that we get every day in the US. 

James Chesnut [00:29:27] Well, I think that part of it is that there needs to be more campaigning around nuclear when it comes to talking around clean energy and advocating for the younger generation, especially when they're getting more environmentally conscious around what life looks like for them, 10, 20, 30 years from now. Everyone needs to concentrate on the fact that nuclear energy is clean,it's sustainable energy, and it's secure energy. And I think that's one of the things that Day & Zimmermann has an opportunity to do is to get really involved, especially when it comes to messaging and branding around our nuclear craft careers and what we're doing to help support the nuclear industry. 

James Chesnut [00:30:20] So, if there was a young person who was interested in a nuclear career, what advice would you have for them? 

James Chesnut [00:30:27] My messaging to the people who I talk to today is that nuclear energy is here for the long term. There are great careers that come from supporting nuclear construction, nuclear technologies, nuclear operations, being able to be part of something that is bringing energy security to your communities and to the nation. The messaging that I would give is that these careers, they're easier to get into. They don't require a four-year degree. You can find almost any place in the United States that you want to live, depending on what you're interested to hobby-wise, whether it's surfing on the East Coast or rock climbing in the mountains. You can find a nuclear facility somewhere near those areas that can support not only a good life with your family, but also provide you in an area where you can support raising a family. 

Phoebe Lind [00:31:38] Okay, let's say I'm convinced. I'm a senior in high school and I'm about to graduate this coming spring and I really want a career in nuclear energy. I'm going to move to San Diego because I love to surf. What would you say to that student? What would you say to me, in this case? What are the first steps I need to do to go get that career or where can I learn more? Where could I begin to actually pursue that career that I'm now convinced I want? 

James Chesnut [00:32:09] Well, there are a lot of career opportunities advertised through the utilities that support the states, that support the local areas and local regions. My first thought would be to get online and research the types of careers that are available for you. I mean, nothing says you have to be a craftsperson to work in a nuclear facility. If you want to be a designer, you want to work in IT, you want to work in warehousing, you want to work in operations... There are more careers around a nuclear facility than just working with your hands and working as a craftsperson. 

James Chesnut [00:32:50] At the end of the day, you can actually see that you've done something with your day that made a positive impact for the facility that you're working in. So, for those folks who are applying for those jobs, it's more about understanding what you want to do as a person. Whether you want to work at the facility, whether you want to work in a particular area, just look and do the research. 

Phoebe Lind [00:33:24] Okay, thank you. That's great advice. Now, I can go out and pursue that career. As we start to wrap up here, we like to give our guests an opportunity to end with a final thought or a final message that you want to share with our listeners. What would your final thoughts be? 

James Chesnut [00:33:43] My final thoughts are going to be nuclear is here to stay. We have a lot of opportunity in continuing to maintain the safety and the security of our nation by continuing to help grow our energy sector. And nuclear happens to be a very large portion of that. It is safe energy production. It provides communities with a lot of support. It doesn't require, necessarily, spending four years in college to get an opportunity to have a great career, a great, sustainable career. It provides a good life. Easy to start raising a family, building your own home, and getting started in your community. 

Phoebe Lind [00:34:41] Nuclear, absolutely, is here to stay. I'm certain that will resonate with our listeners. Thank you again so much for your time on Titans of Nuclear today. I hope you enjoyed your interview. Thank you again. 

James Chesnut [00:34:55] Okay, thank you.

1) How Princess ended up on the path to becoming a Nuclear Communication Specialist

2) The current nuclear development plans for South Africa and what this might look like in the future

3) Desalination, SMRs, and advocating for nuclear across the African continent

4) Princess’ vision for the future of nuclear and the energy mix as a whole

Olivia Columbus [00:00:58] We are here today with Princess Mthombeni, who is the founder of Africa for Nuclear. Princess, welcome so much, finally, to Titans of Nuclear. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:01:07] Thank you so much, Olivia. Hello, everyone. 

Olivia Columbus [00:01:10] We're really excited to have you here today. And to kick it off, we want to learn a little bit about you and how you got into the nuclear space. Can you tell us a little bit about your story and what initially brought you to nuclear and why you stayed? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:01:23] Definitely I can. I have such an interesting story. I work as a nuclear communicator. I'm a nuclear communication specialist for one of the nuclear organizations in South Africa. But I'm also a founder of Africa for Nuclear, which is an advocacy campaign that promotes nuclear as a key contributor to achieving Africa's agenda for sustainable development. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:01:46] How I got into the nuclear industry? It was by mistake because I was out of a job and I was looking for a job. I was very young, and I got a call from a recruiter saying, "You have to go for an interview at this organization." I didn't even know the name of the organization at that time. Then I traveled about 100 km to get to that organization and I first went to the wrong place. And then, when I called the recruiter, I was told, "No, you are still 30 kms away before you get here."

Princess Mthombeni [00:02:21] And then, I got there. The interview was at 10:00. I got there at 2 p.m. I'm tired, I'm hungry, I'm exhausted. I'm like, "I don't even know what's happening here. This doesn't even look like a legit company." And then, there's security clearance access that I had to go through. And I'm like, "You know what? Let me just do this interview and go back home and never come back here." Then I get in, I do an interview, and I get a call next week saying, "Come back and work." And the rest is history. 

Olivia Columbus [00:02:52] And where did you end up working? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:02:54] I ended up in that organization. 

Olivia Columbus [00:02:56] Oh, okay. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:02:57] And I'm still there even now because you know when something is a calling for you. 

Olivia Columbus [00:03:02] Yes, yes. So, you were totally unfamiliar with nuclear at that point?

Princess Mthombeni [00:03:07] Never heard of it. 

Olivia Columbus [00:03:08] You never heard of it. And what was it about nuclear that really, once you started working there, got you hooked, that made you want to start an organization like Africa for Nuclear? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:03:18] I realize that there's so much that as Africans we deprived of, information particularly. Especially things that matter to us, things that would change our economy. Because nuclear is one of those things that is really beneficial to the spinup of the economy. And I said to myself, "I will shoulder the responsibility of going out there and educating people about this technology so that they make informed decisions." Because it's one of the best technologies that Africa needs, especially a continent that suffers from energy poverty. 

Olivia Columbus [00:03:59] Absolutely, absolutely. And South Africa is the only nuclear nation on the African continent right now, correct? And I know a lot of great nuclear engineers have been educating themselves in South Africa but then they've been leaving for jobs in other countries. So, the more that you can develop more nuclear in South Africa and really create a nuclear culture there like there is in a country like France, I'm sure the better for the longevity of the nuclear program there. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:04:28] For me, it's a sad story because we have South Africans spread all over the world building other countries' economies when their economy is getting destroyed. And I do wish that they can come back home. But the only way for them to come back home is this decision to build nuclear power plants at home so that they come and build in their own country. 

Olivia Columbus [00:04:51] Yeah. And what are the current plans to develop new nuclear in South Africa? Is there anything currently underway? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:04:56] There's definitely... There is something on the way. Number one, we have a policy which is due for review. And that policy promotes energy mix which includes nuclear, particularly 2,500 MW of nuclear capacity. In the implementation of that policy, the government has issued out the request for information. And they are in the process of issuing out the request for proposals where they invite bidders to come and pitch. 

Olivia Columbus [00:05:26] Interesting, interesting. One of the interesting things about nuclear is that given its carbon-free baseload capabilities, it is not only an energy source for grid scale applications, but it's really great for certain industrial applications that can provide resources like desalination, which I know is also a huge concern in South Africa. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:05:46] It is. We are a water-scarce country. And at some point, Cuba helped us to basically desalinate the sea water. And also, South Africa is among the top four purchasers of new ore in its context of nuclear medicine, globally. 

Olivia Columbus [00:06:03] Wow, that's fascinating. And are there any SMRs that are currently looking at developing in South Africa or have made public announcements in South Africa that you're aware of?

Princess Mthombeni [00:06:12] Yes. You know, I always say the story of SMRs started in South Africa with Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. 

Olivia Columbus [00:06:18] Yes, of course! 

Princess Mthombeni [00:06:19] Yes, which was put under current maintenance in 2010. So now, every country has an SMR except South Africa, which is a sad situation. But we do hope that soon we are also going to have our own SMR technology. But yeah, SMRs are one of the technologies that we are advocating for because you know that we are mostly powered by coal. 

Olivia Columbus [00:06:41] Right. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:06:42] Yeah, so some of those coal power plants are aging and they need to be repurposed. And for me, the best solution is nuclear. 

Olivia Columbus [00:06:52] Absolutely. So, tell us a little bit about Africa for Nuclear and what you're trying to achieve and how you started it. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:06:57] It started as a campaign when I just wanted to advocate for nuclear problems on the African continent, obviously looking into different stakeholders. But the main stakeholders were policymakers, the government people, because we need a political role. And once we have that political role, I believe we can achieve just about anything. But also, we need to advocate members of the public to join into the fight, fighting for nuclear problems on the African continent. So, that's how it started. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:07:28] And then, it grew into a nonprofit organization. Now, what we have achieved as Africa for Nuclear is that it's recognized globally. I mean, it's known. Many people know Princy from Africa for Nuclear. Even the government at home, they're getting familiar with Africa for Nuclear. And I think that's basically what I want. But for me, if I say Africa for Nuclear has achieved something it will be the day when I see the first concrete being poured for a nuclear power plant anywhere else in Africa. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:08] Yeah, so you guys don't just focus on South Africa. You're looking at any African country that is interested in building nuclear. And where are you seeing a lot of interest right now? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:08:18] I'm seeing a lot of interest in Ghana. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:19] Interesting. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:08:21] Ghana is pushing. And I think Ghana will have an SMR before anyone else in Africa. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:27] That's fascinating. How long ago did you launch this campaign, initially? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:08:33] Since 2021, so it's kind of new. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:37] Okay, great. Yes, so there are lots of opportunities still. Well, that's really interesting. And I know there's also interest in Nigeria and in some of the North African countries as well. I know Egypt has a lot of interest. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:08:48] Egypt is building. Oh, yes. Thank you for mentioning this. Egypt is currently constructing a nuclear power plant. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:54] Wow, that's very exciting. That'll be great. And yeah, I mean, providing that energy security is so critical and nuclear is such a valuable resource. Also, I believe a lot of uranium is mined in African countries already, right? Is that correct? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:09:11] It is mined in them. I know about uranium, yes. 

Olivia Columbus [00:09:14] That's a nice story of bringing the resources back to the places that they're coming from. Well, that's fascinating. So, why are you here at WNE? What is your role here today? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:09:25] Firstly, I have to say it's my first time here and I'm loving it. I'm here because I was invited by the organizers to come and chair a panel session on advancing nuclear through sustainable territorial and sustainable development as well as digitalization. 

Olivia Columbus [00:09:40] That's very exciting. And have you had any sort of very critical meetings or conversations here? What has your experience been? Do you feel like this is a really valuable conference to attend? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:09:52] I think it is especially for businesses and people, countries that want to build and want to meet this and to see how these different technologies work, and I think it's best for them. And for me, I think it's best to see how these mockup models are built. I also try to help African countries to have this mockups so that they go to the public and educate the public because seeing is believing. If I take a mockup of a reactor and show people how it works, they'll start believing. I haven't been here before, but from what I heard is that it's good this year. Because even students are coming from the first day where as previously, they only came on the last day. And I'm so happy that tomorrow I'm addressing students. I can't wait. 

Olivia Columbus [00:10:41] Yes. Yes, absolutely. This is my second time here. It's definitely bigger this year, way more people. It's really great to see all these folks from the nuclear industry come out especially given the COP meetings next week. I know there was some concern, maybe, that people wouldn't be able to make it, but it seems like that hasn't really stopped very many people. So, that's really exciting.

Princess Mthombeni [00:11:03] It is. I was saying, "There's so many people here." It's fascinating. And to think that all of us tomorrow... I'm flying to COP tomorrow evening. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:12] Oh, great. Great.

Princess Mthombeni [00:11:12]  There's so many people. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:13] I know, it's sort of "everyone's traveling together," almost. So, what are you going to be doing at COP?

Princess Mthombeni [00:11:19] I'm going to be making nuclear part of the script. Because we know it's a scripted event, but yeah, I just want nuclear as part of the script. And it has worked before because we managed to get nuclear in the green taxonomy of Europe. So, I hope we achieve something at this COP as well. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:36] Yeah. And so exciting that nuclear is such a big part of COP this year. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:11:40] It is. I can't wait for the pledge, the American pledge. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:43] Yes, yes. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:11:44]  We hope to be unveiled. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:44] Yes, I know our team is heavily involved and is working on some things there. They're excited to be attending and excited to be seeing all the other folks from the nuclear industry who we get to talk to every day. It's been great to see how the government of the UAE has been so supportive. Obviously, they have an incredibly successful nuclear program. They're really such a great example of building a program from scratch and how you can do that. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:12:09] And finish it on time. 

Olivia Columbus [00:12:10] Finish it on time, on budget. We've done some great podcast episodes with them about that. So, I highly encourage everyone to go listen listen to those. I'm very excited to hear that you're going to be in Dubai as well. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:12:22] Thank you. 

Olivia Columbus [00:12:24] So as we wrap up here, I want to give you the opportunity to share your thoughts on your vision for the future of nuclear, both in South Africa, on the African continent, but also globally. Where do you hope we can take this technology? What do you hope we can achieve from it? 

Princess Mthombeni [00:12:41] First, my vision for Africa is that at least let us try and and focus on addressing the energy poverty. And let us make nuclear a part of the energy mix. By saying part of the energy mix, I'm saying let's consider all technologies that have worked in developed nations because we cannot reinvent it all, but we can think of things that have not worked somewhere else. So, let's think of things that have worked in developed nations. And nuclear has worked. Yes. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:13:11] And globally... I mean, they are speaking about net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And how else are you going to achieve that without including nuclear as part of the energy mix? That's just my vision to say, "Let's work towards the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050."

Olivia Columbus [00:13:30] Absolutely. Well, Princess, it was such a pleasure having you on. You are our most requested guest today. We had several people come over and ask us when you were coming, so I'm so glad we made it happen. Thank you so much for joining us on Titans of Nuclear. 

Princess Mthombeni [00:13:41] Thank you, Titans of Nuclear. This is long overdue, by the way. 

Olivia Columbus [00:13:44] Yes, absolutely. Glad we got it done. 

1) How Myrto arrived at energy, specifically nuclear energy, as the root enabler of prosperity

2) Voices of Nuclear, it’s mission and vision, and recent updates

3) A deep dive into the Voices of Nuclear “Energy Transition Scenario” and the relationship between innovation and progress

4) The symbolism and messaging of Voices and what they see for the future of nuclear energy

Sarah Howorth [00:00:57] Welcome to Titans of Nuclear. Today, I'm here with Myrto Tripathi, who is the President and Founder of Voices of Nuclear. Welcome. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:01:06] Thank you very much for having me. It's a great pleasure and a great honor because, Titans of Nuclear... I've been there for a long time. It's a little bit humbling to be invited to a podcast that's called Titans of Nuclear. I'm not sure I feel like a titan quite yet, but hopefully one day. 

Sarah Howorth [00:01:25] Well, we certainly think you are and it's a pleasure to have you on. Let's go ahead and just get started by talking about your background and how you ended up in nuclear. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:01:36] That's a good question and generally rather long story, but I'll try to make it short. When I left school, I very much wanted to change the world and every single piece and bits of it, but couldn't decide if I had to start with the pandas, the hunger, the wars, the sanitations, the gender equality or whatnot. There were way too many issues, so little time. I early on decided that energy was probably the root cause and the root enabler, the greatest enabler, for all of those causes at the same time. And if I could manage to bring energy to people, then not only would they be enabled to achieve all those things, but also they would be enabled to make their own choices without me having to direct what they were doing or not doing. Hence, my first orientation towards energy. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:02:33] Naturally, I found my way to nuclear energy because I'm French and the nuclear energy sector was something pretty important and exciting. Still at the time... I'm talking very early 2000s here, even if the atmosphere, the public opinion around it was not so good. Still then. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:03:01] I worked for 10 years for Areva, the front end of the fuel sample, mining, chemistry enrichment, then fuel manufacturing and design. I was Market Strategy Director for Worldwide Areva, which is now Framatome. And then, I ended my career in 2014 in charge of conducting the negotiating teams for selling the third-generation nuclear power plant, the EPR. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:03:35] And so, I was a salesperson, so to speak, a pretty strategic one, but still a salesperson, until I realized that as an engineer and as a business developer, my role was not so important and not so useful because everything depended on public acceptance. The political decision, the financing, the startup of the projects, everything. And if you didn't have public acceptance, then you didn't have projects. And you could be as smart and dedicated and engaged as you wanted, those power plants would never see the light and you would never bring energy to people while ensuring their environment was preserved and the climate was stabilized. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:04:22] So that's when I left Areva, just prior to the Paris Agreement and the COP 21 and joined the UN Global Compact to mobilize industry, business around the climate negotiations to try to make sure that the solution providers would be part of the organization. I worked for the climate negotiations for three to four years. Then was very, very disappointed by what I found there. I apologize, and I'm sorry to say that. Because I essentially met a lot of people who were really enthusiastic and were doing really great work, but were little interested, or little did they realize that the technologies they were advocating for didn't always work, or not quite yet. And they had a pretty dogmatic approach to all these things. And in particular, nuclear was a complete taboo. Completely absent from anything environmental, climate-related. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:05:29] And it threw me off entirely. I was pretty desperate. It's one I touched for myself, what we now call the famous generation despair toward climate change. I went through that myself for a short period. But I guess that's a question of character. It didn't last very long, and I decided to take it upon myself to start an NGO, a particular NGO to back nuclear and the civil society into the conversation. And making sure... And that was my first mandate... That the contribution of nuclear was clearly and largely recognized as a key contributor to the energy transition worldwide. And I'm happy today because I think I'm at the end of a first season, that mandate, because it's achieved. And what we see today is I think we can say it worked. 

Sarah Howorth [00:06:36] That's amazing. It's so interesting. And how did your background, engineering, sales and going through all of this translate finally into Voices of Nuclear? 

Myrto Tripathi [00:06:47] In many ways, I think, because when you are trained in sales, you learn to understand what your counterpart needs. You try to put yourself in the shoes of the people you're talking to and you actually develop communication skills. And a lot of engineers tend to think that communication is just a side or a secondary skill. I'm quite convinced now that it's not. That engineers, technicians, scientists need to stop despising too much these kinds of communication skills, because it depends on how we communicate to people those technologies that they will choose to adopt them or not. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:07:40] So, you can be an engineer and develop the greatest technology in the world, like nuclear in my mind is, and then it's being rejected, not used and left aside. And what's the point? So technology, it's nothing else but science applied, made and put to work. But then, we need all that effort of convincing and communicating which we put to use. So, you want science to be put to use? Let's do those podcasts you do. Let's get that civil society working. Let's get that communication going. So, I think that helped a lot. That was a very important aspect of things. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:08:20] And the engineering part of your question... I think translating into a thirst for rigor and a lot of expertise, even in something that was communication, NGO, and civil society, you can be dancing with a polar bear in the street while providing very sourced numbers, while being very thorough and rigorous in every claim you make. And I think the combination of the two is what made the successes of Voices. 

Sarah Howorth [00:08:54] Right. So, tell me a little bit more about the current work of Voices and what the mission and vision is there. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:09:03] So, the first objective we gave ourselves when we created the Voices back in 2018 was what I mentioned earlier, achieve the recognition of nuclear energy as a key contributor to the energy transition and the fight against climate change. To do that was a lot of changing the conversation, acting on the messenger in addition to the messaging next to populations. Making sure the balance, risk benefits, was clear in the mind of people so that citizens could make their own decisions while having the right facts in their hands. And that includes trusting the citizens with that choice. And when we realize that people actually do make pretty rational decisions once they're being fed with whatever facts, then they are able to balance out their own interests and to make the decision. But you have that trust in them. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:10:06] And so, there's been a lot of pedagogy. There's been a lot of media, street action, influencing political and decision makers and so on to reach the point where we are today. We are realizing now that... I think with the industry and with the public opinion, we've managed that. We're pretty happy and we consider it a great success and that the job has been done. And now we're embarking on a new journey, hopefully, what I call Season Two of the Voice of Nuclear, which is now to help the projects gain of ground. Because now nuclear is on paper, most of it, and it's strong enough to make sure that those plants start producing that famous low-carbon energy we've been talking about so much. 

Sarah Howorth [00:11:00] Right, absolutely. I picked up a pamphlet from your area earlier today and I was wondering what an energy transition scenario is. I was reading about those in it. And I'm wondering what is the Voices scenario and how is it different? 

Myrto Tripathi [00:11:19] Oh, well, thank you very much for this question. We have indeed produced, in-house... So, I need to remind here that we're only volunteers. So, that's quite a huge effort coming from us. We produced an energy scenario for France, 2050, based on the realization that all the scenarios that were up for debate prior to new decision making at the French and European level on energy mix in our minds were flawed. Were deeply flawed because they were relying on hypotheses that were way too risky and way too wishful thinking for us. And as citizens, what we wanted was to make sure that the energy transition would see the light. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:12:11] And we've seen a lot of relying on innovative technologies that were not very mature, not industrialized. There were no supply chains associated to it. Natural resources consumption.... Of the charts, as if everyone would have more than 100% granted of those resources for their own use while there was a lot of competing uses actually in place. They were relying on levels of sobriety for the populations that are nowhere to be seen when we look around us. They were relying on potential relationships and collaborations between countries in a geopolitical future, close and far, that again, were not so clear. And so, we thought all those were a lot of uncertainties. And we thought that those scenarios would not actually reflect what would be a credible future. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:13:19] So, we made a scenario where first we decided that it would not be a question of more renewables or more nuclear. It would be a question of taking all the low-carbon energies and using them exactly to what they know how to do. You don't sleep on a stool and you don't sit on a bed, but those are different devices for you to rest. So, same thing with the energies. They don't have the same impact on the grid. They don't provide the same services. So, we need to put them exactly where they need to be. We need to have all low-carbon sources. That means nuclear, but that also means hydroelectricity, pump and storage, solar, wind, geothermal. And we need to use them side by side to what they know how to do best. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:14:09] All those were hypotheses that we took, saying we want mature technologies, we want realistic hypotheses and then we will see if it passes or not. Do we manage to succeed? And we do; we do. The very good news is that we made what we call the "no bullshit scenario." Sorry, for my French. And we did the most pessimistic scenario we could imagine and decided we would put progress before innovation. Innovation is great; progress is better. And we would see if we would actually succeed in reaching net zero while providing energy to people. And we do. So, it's a very optimistic result to a pessimistic scenario. 

Sarah Howorth [00:14:59] That's amazing. And let's talk a little bit more too about how Voices communicates with the public. Earlier you mentioned a polar bear dancing in the streets, and if people are familiar with you already, they might know what that means. But what's the symbolism there for people who don't? 

Myrto Tripathi [00:15:17] Well, the polar bear, first, was an idea that did not come from the Voices originally. The pro-nuclear community is a small one, but very diverse and dispersed worldwide. Eric Meyer, who is the head of Generation Atomic that you may know came up first with that idea which we thought was brilliant. And we love good ideas and we love to put our friends forward, so this is why we used it and reused it again. Because it's a great way to communicate to populations that did not associate, nuclear with climate and with the environment that we reclaim those symbols. That the youth can be pro and imagined this to be an old technology because it has very concrete and very clear benefits for its future. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:16:20] And we need to consider that whatever works and actually provided results that we can measure, that we can see, that we can enjoy, is something that we need to push forward and continue. Because nuclear energy is not a technology, it's physics. And you can do millions of things with physics and it can take you forward forever. It's a very enthusiastic way of seeing things. So, using those symbols that mean already a lot to people and explaining to them why it makes sense, why those symbols are naturally also ours, is a great and actually an easy way to get the conversation started. 

Sarah Howorth [00:17:09] Right. That's a great point and a great way to describe it. And some other really interesting things that you all have here is a sticker, for those who are watching on video. It says that "Nuclear is dangerous for fossil fuels." Can you explain that a little bit more as well? 

Myrto Tripathi [00:17:29] So, that's how we try to do things at the Voices, which is to take very simple and straightforward formulations to explain some very rigorous concepts behind it. And the one behind this one is to say that today there is no other form of energy than nuclear that's capable of displacing fossil fuels anywhere at all times. If you take the set of criteria of having low-carbon, small environmental footprint, always available, anywhere geographically energy on the planet, only nuclear answers that set of criteria. And the other energies that answer that set of criteria, but they are very high carbon content, are fossils. So, you cannot degrade, or you will have the hardest time to create the level of service you provide humanity. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:18:43] I mean, humanity has enjoyed a certain level of service thanks to the energy the Industrial Revolution has been able to provide it. And we discovered living long lives, enjoyable lives with leisure, with cultural and intellectual pleasures, with time on our hands to enjoy our children and to raise them and so on, etc., etc. Not go hungry, not be sick... I mean, all of those are very important things, right? So, we're not going to degrade the level of service. And if you don't replace the service of the fossil fuels with rendering humanity by something at least equivalent and why not even better, you're just not going to do it. People are just not going to run with it. And considering we also like all democracies and we also like what the kinds of systems we've achieved and are always making demonstrations that we can take us even further, we have to understand... 

Myrto Tripathi [00:19:48] And I know it's a little bland and I know have been called out a little bit before because of this, but I'm pretty convinced that the path forward is what I call the nuclear scene. Where fossil is essentially going to be replaced by nuclear and the proportion of the world's energy mix will remain with renewables maintaining 20% of the total. And in renewables, of course, that includes hydroelectricity, which is a very important renewable energy. And I exclude biomass, please, because I only want the low-carbon ones. And all the fossils are going to be replaced by some generation, some technology that's nuclear-based. So, I am a nuclear scene advocate because I think that's where the physics of it takes us. 

Sarah Howorth [00:20:49] Yeah, I love that. And as we begin to wrap up, I want to ask you what your vision personally or maybe Voices of Nuclear sees for the nuclear industry 10, 20, or 30 years down the line. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:21:09] That's a good question. Well, I express myself for myself, but maybe also a little bit for the Voices of Nuclear because it draws on the principles we would like to put forward up to now and hopefully in the future. The nuclear industry will have a bright future. There's almost no way around it. It's needed; it's required. There are actually little alternatives. And the fact that there are little alternatives is not bad news, it's a good one, because it's a good technology. It's a good technology with lots of benefits and manageable risks. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:21:47] Now, what I would be more worried about is maybe the next five or ten years. Why? Because the situation towards the world's public opinion, the decision makers, the level of understanding and familiarity of the populations with nuclear is still very fresh. It's still very unstable and fragile. We need to consolidate that a lot and it is going to take time. And I wouldn't want the nuclear industry to become too confident too quick and to start making the mistakes that some other technologies have made to just ride, surfing the waves... That's an expression we have in French. I don't know if you have it in English as well. 

Sarah Howorth [00:22:46] Yeah, it translated.

Myrto Tripathi [00:22:50] Okay. And you enjoy the hype, right? And then, you maybe start making claims that are a little bit too forward and then take the risk of losing the hard-won credibility that nuclear enjoys today. So, coming from people like myself as a volunteer full time, which is a very, very important effort... I've been working for nuclear to regain that credibility, for the industry to regain that credibility and not to be discarded as a non-player. I am asking the nuclear industry to take its responsibility now and to just not forget too quick and run too fast. It is a bright future out there, so no need to be over-optimistic in what we're saying. I think we can just tell the truth. We can be reasonable and cautious because that's already very positive, much better than anything anyone else can propose. And it's already a very, very good value proposition. So, no need to overdo it. Just be who you are. Do what you know how to do, do it well, and it can only go very well. 

Sarah Howorth [00:24:18] That's a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Myrto, for your time and for coming on Titans of Nuclear today.

Myrto Tripathi [00:24:23] Thank you so much, Sarah, for having me. It was a great time. And it's a great setting and situation to have that conversation. Because, yeah, I think we actually did it. So, well done, all of us. 

Sarah Howorth [00:24:39] Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much. 

Myrto Tripathi [00:24:41] Thank you.

1) What sparked Grace’s resolve to become a part of the nuclear industry

2) Grace’s recent work as Miss America 2023 and an active nuclear advocate

3) Women in the nuclear industry, young people engaging in nuclear, and committing to changing misconceptions

4) What’s next for Grace and the continuation of her nuclear advocacy work, as well as core design engineering, in her next role

Olivia Columbus [00:00:58] We are here today with Grace Stanke, who is currently Miss America and is a very accomplished nuclear engineer. Grace, welcome back to the podcast. 

Grace Stanke [00:01:06] Well, thank you so much. So excited to be back on Titans of Nuclear. I know so many people that listen to it. It's awesome. 

Olivia Columbus [00:01:12] So glad to hear that. You've been on the podcast before and we won't go too deep into the stuff you've already covered, but we just want to quickly have you recap your background and how you got into nuclear. 

Grace Stanke [00:01:23] Yeah, I'm Miss America 2023 right now, so I'm in this position to help advocate for nuclear, right? The unique thing about being Miss America is I'm working with a totally separate demographic from what the nuclear industry typically reaches, which allows for a lot more different conversations to happen in terms of changing public perception. So, that's the main goal of my year as Miss America and advocating. 

Grace Stanke [00:01:44] How I got into nuclear overall... I'm still a student right now. I'm in my last semester of school to graduate. But I got into it out of spite. My dad told me not to go into it. And as a 16-year-old teenage girl, your first instinct when your dad tells you not to do something is to go and do it, and that's what got me into it. 

Grace Stanke [00:01:59] But what I say is, what kept me in it is the fact that I learned that this industry literally has the ability to change the world. It has the ability to cure cancer. It has the ability to create clean, reliable energy for Americans to use and people all over the globe to use. And I just kept learning about it. I'm like, "Why are more people excited about this? Why aren't more people dreaming about nuclear?"

Olivia Columbus [00:02:18] Yeah, absolutely. I think this week here at WNE, we've just constantly heard the concept reiterated of "energy access is so critical." Clean energy, energy security... Those are all important aspects, but really, providing energy for those who don't have it is so critical, and nuclear is the best and most sustainable way to do that. 

Grace Stanke [00:02:37] Exactly, exactly. 

Olivia Columbus [00:02:39] So, when you set out as Miss America, what were some of the goals that you set for yourself in terms of educating folks about nuclear? 

Grace Stanke [00:02:47]  It's so interesting to think back about where I was about 11.5 months ago after becoming Miss America, right? My main goals were really... I set some parameters of what I wanted to achieve as Miss America with wanting to interact with "X" amount of people. I wanted to travel to... I believe I had five different countries. Because I believe that the United States of America is a superpower, right? I think Miss America should have the ability to represent the United States as well, which I've been able to do that. 

Grace Stanke [00:03:12] The United States Department of Energy invited me as the honorary delegate to attend the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference. Which I was sitting there and I'm like, "Oh my God, what did I get myself into?" But it was so cool because what I've realized that I've been able to achieve this year is to make sure that youth have a voice and young women have a voice at the table. 

Grace Stanke [00:03:32] As I sit in these international conferences and look at who's making the decisions, I realize that the people who are making these decisions aren't going to be around to run the plants when they're fully constructed, right? There's just a certain reality of that. So, it's been really incredible to make sure that young people still are heard, still are valued, and still are being considered in this equation when we're looking forward to years like 2050 and 2060 when we set these carbon goals. 

Olivia Columbus [00:03:55] Absolutely. And I hear you'll be attending the COP conference next week? 

Grace Stanke [00:03:57] Yeah, so I have to go back to the States and then I go back to Dubai. So, I'm like all over the place, but I'll be at COP, yes. 

Olivia Columbus [00:04:03] That's very exciting. And it's so exciting to see nuclear featured at COP this year. I know that's something that hasn't had as much of a voice as it should have in years past, but this year with COP being hosted in the United Arab Emirates, which is a nuclear country, it's so great to see that. 

Olivia Columbus [00:04:20] Think back to the last year. Is there anything that really stands out? Any example of when you sort of shared your story of why nuclear energy is this incredible, incredible tool? Is there something that sticks out to you as a moment where you felt like your impact was really being felt by an individual or a group? 

Grace Stanke [00:04:37] Well, I want to share a story about... Actually, a social media post that I made. Because social media is something anybody can do. And I want to emphasize that for the listeners. This is not something that's specific to me, because I know the listeners can do this too, right? 

Grace Stanke [00:04:50] I made a social media post about cooling towers and about how it's water vapor and it's not radioactive material coming out of the top of that. Which is something that I feel like in the nuclear industry, we're like, "Okay, yep, we've been over this." Well, that video has already gotten over 5 million... I think it's at 5 million views; I'd have to double check. It's like either 4.8 million or 5 million. 

Grace Stanke [00:05:10] And the thing is that there was tons of engagement on the post. The candid discussions that happened in that comment section, the amount of DMs that I got of people saying, "Hey, I'm thinking about going into a career like nuclear now because of this post or because of this series of posts that have been made. Like, thank you." That's something that... A little bit goes a long ways. And that's true in nuclear. We know a little bit of fuel goes a long ways in terms of producing energy, but a little bit of words and a little bit of action can go a long ways in terms of convincing people as well. 

Olivia Columbus [00:05:41] Yeah. And so much of the fear around nuclear comes from misconceptions. 

Grace Stanke [00:05:45] Exactly. 

Olivia Columbus [00:05:46] So, the more that we can correct those misconceptions... I think, obviously there are always going to be people who are emotionally driven against nuclear and it's not always easy to change those emotions, but if you can just change folks' misperceptions and educate them on why nuclear is safe, why the waste isn't scary and put it on the same level playing field as other energy sources I think you can do a lot. 

Grace Stanke [00:06:10] Exactly. And that's something anybody can do, really. That ability to educate... We've got this wonderful, wonderful thing called the internet, right? It is there; it's available. I encourage anybody and everybody to be their own advocate. 

Grace Stanke [00:06:22] I know Thanksgiving happened last week, but I've said it since the beginning of my year. In all honesty, start your family Thanksgiving fight. The conversation of changing these misconceptions starts in your own home; it starts in your own circle. You can be the one neutron that starts the chain reaction, if that makes sense, right? You have that conversation with your aunt and your aunt tells her kids. And then, her kids go to school and tell them about how cool this science is that they learned about from their aunt's niece or nephew or whatever it may be. And that's something that is so cool, is everybody has that ability to do that. 

Olivia Columbus [00:06:52] Yeah. And you shared another point that I think is so important to drive home which is this idea that young people need to be engaging and working in nuclear. That is so critical. I mean, this conference has been a great example. There have been students here the last few days. And to see so many young people just even representing their companies has been really exciting. 

Olivia Columbus [00:07:12] They are the future, we are the future. I mean, you and I are there. And I think we're also seeing a younger generation really starting to get excited about nuclear, and that is what is so inspiring to myself and, I think, to a lot of the folks who I work with and who I know in the space. 

Grace Stanke [00:07:33] Yeah. It was really crazy because talking about this and how young people are excited about nuclear... So, I am so used to battling... Not battling, but talking about Chernobyl, talking about Fukushima, talking about spent fuel, and talking about safety. Those are the four topics that I spend most of my time discussing with the general public. That's where concerns lie. That's where concerns exist, which are all completely valid. That is a completely valid concern to have. For someone outside the industry, those look like scary things. 

Grace Stanke [00:08:00] But it was really crazy because I was giving a presentation to middle schoolers in September and I started talking about Fukushima. And let me tell you, I looked at them and they were looking around at each other like, "This lady's on something right now." And I was like, "Oh my God." It hit me. I'm like, "Do you guys even know what Fukushima Daiichi is?" And they don't. 

Grace Stanke [00:08:19] But this is so important to recognize because this allows for us as the current people in the industry to provide that crucial first impression of what nuclear is. We can talk about the whole picture. We can talk about the goods, the bads. We can talk about what it's like to be an employee in nuclear. As long as we're open and honest about it. That's what we need. That's what those middle schoolers wanted. And we sat and talked about nuclear all day long. I had all these like, fuel pellets that were 3D printed. They went insane for those fuel pellets afterwards. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:49] That's so interesting. It is a really interesting concept because nuclear is so simple, really. 

Grace Stanke [00:08:54] It is. Boiling water. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:55] It's something that you should be able to explain to kids. I know we always love to say it's just water passing over a hot rock, right? 

Grace Stanke [00:09:01] Yeah, fancy hot rocks boil water, steam rises, turns a turbine. That's what I use.

Olivia Columbus [00:09:04] Yeah. It should be something that's so simple we can teach the kids, yet it seems so scary and so complicated. And that sort of leads me into my next topic, which is I would really love to talk to you about the impact you specifically feel like you've had on women in nuclear and inspiring young women to become not just nuclear engineers, but work across the nuclear field. I mean, as someone who's not math and science inclined, I think that was really daunting to me. But understanding that there's a role for everyone in this nuclear sector and anyone who's interested in joining it can and should. 

Grace Stanke [00:09:34] Yes. This is something I say a lot in terms of there's a place for everybody here in nuclear. We need technicians, we need engineers, we need managers, we need legal teams. We need literally anybody and everybody on board to make a nuclear power plant run. But when it comes to specifically women... I've had my fair share of sexism. I've had my fair share of bad experiences. That's just the certain reality of it, unfortunately. And I wish change would happen overnight. But the reality is, it won't. However, what I always ask for is...

Grace Stanke [00:10:04] I had an experience this year where someone was offering me a job. And they said, "Grace, we really want you to come work for us. One, because you're a woman." And I went, "Of all of the things you could have said, you chose that to lead with, my biological makeup." And it is so frustrating to me that women are put in this box because we're a nuclear engineer or because we're involved in this industry in some way, shape or form and we're a woman. It's like we're some mythical unicorn. No, we're not. We're human beings. We have so much more to offer. 

Grace Stanke [00:10:32] And that's something that I think I really can represent as Miss America is showing that not only am I a nuclear engineering student, but I'm also Miss America. I'm also a D1 competitive water skier. I'm also a classical violinist. Like, heaven forbid we're humans with personalities and multifaceted hobbies. That's something that I think has been really crucial to this year in terms of highlighting that women just want to be treated like any other human being, right? Not separated, not isolated, not put on a platform either because of our biological makeup. But making sure that we're receiving fair and equal treatment. And in addition, being respected as a human being in a whole picture aspect. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:09] Absolutely. That's absolutely true. I will say it has been really exciting to see more and more women joining this industry. 

Grace Stanke [00:11:16] Oh my gosh. Every time I see one, I'm like, "Ahh, let's go." 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:20] It's really great to see. And I hope it's a trend that we continue to see and we continue to see it grow, especially young women coming out of school and deciding to pursue nuclear. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:29] So, let's talk a little bit about your next venture. You'll be joining Constellation fairly soon. What specifically are you going to be doing there? 

Grace Stanke [00:11:40] So, I finish Miss America January 14th of 2024, and then I'll be starting with Constellation in March of 2024. I will be doing a very new role, which I hope other companies follow suit in this, because I think every company could benefit from a role like this. Primarily, I will be a core design engineer. I just got my degree, so I'm doing the engineering; I want to learn. I want to keep learning about this industry. I want to be at outages and help with that process, all of those things. So, that's about 60% of the role. 

Grace Stanke [00:12:07] But the other 40% is continuing the advocacy work that I've been doing as Miss America. We've seen the impacts of many, many advocacy groups and many companies putting efforts forward on programs to help promote nuclear. Now it's time that we start defining roles surrounding "let's build more nuclear." Let's start supporting nuclear on a public, external-facing front. Not just an internal, nuclear-to-nuclear front. We need nuclear-to-external facing fronts. 

Grace Stanke [00:12:34] And I'm really excited because I've already got events set up with colleges and with eighth-grade girls in Alabama and in Oklahoma. And all of these things starting right away in February and in March. 

Olivia Columbus [00:12:44] That's so exciting. And just to wrap it up... We spoke to you a year ago, you're going to continue your advocacy. What do you hope in one year from now you will have achieved in terms of nuclear advocacy? 

Grace Stanke [00:12:58] The one thing is I do want to see the percentage of women in nuclear increase. I want to see that number go from 14% to like 16%. Because like I said, I know that this change won't happen overnight. I know that it will take time. But I would love to see those numbers start to increase. 

Grace Stanke [00:13:13] Additionally, I want to see ground being broken on building new nuclear. We have done a lot of talking. I have done a lot of talking this year. Let me tell you; let me tell you. 210,000 miles of travel, okay? And I'm at the point where we need to start breaking ground. We need to start building that workforce in terms of construction, making sure we've got qualified construction people working on building these nuclear power plants. And then they can, in turn, maybe potentially work at those power plants in the future. So, those are the main things I want to see within the next year to two years, maybe at the next WNE. 

Olivia Columbus [00:13:46] Yes, absolutely. Grace, thank you so much for joining us on Titans. 

Grace Stanke [00:13:49] Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you.


1) The stillness of the French nuclear sector in the 80’s and why Cyrille’s passion for physics led him there

2) The impetus for launching OAKRIDGE SAS and what the company focuses on

3) The countries OAKRIDGE SAS works with, current projects, and an exciting, recent announcement

4) SMRs, COP28, and what the future holds for nuclear energy

Olivia Columbus [00:00:58] We are here today with Cyrille Molina, who is the founder and president of OAKRIDGE SAS. Cyrille, welcome to the podcast. 

Cyrille Molina [00:01:05] Thank you. 

Olivia Columbus [00:01:07] Before we jump into OAKRIDGE and everything that you do there, let's talk a little bit about you. Where are you from? Where did you study and how did you get into nuclear? 

Cyrille Molina [00:01:19] I'm from France. I graduated nuclear engineering in the '80s because I wanted to work in nuclear. Even at that time it was not so obvious because there was almost no future at that time for the nuclear sector. It was very still. For instance, in France, we had just finished installing all the units and there was no more new build program. But still as a physicist, I really wanted to enter that sector by passion. 

Cyrille Molina [00:01:53] And after that, I worked some years at the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety, which is a TSO to the French regulator, as a Assessor of Safety of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Plants in France. And then, I incepted OAKRIDGE in 2002, so that's more than 20 years now. 

Olivia Columbus [00:02:20] Interesting. Is that CEA, is that the nuclear regulator that you were working with? 

Cyrille Molina [00:02:25] In France, that regulator's name is ASN. And its TSO, Technical Support Organization is IRSN. So, I began there. 

Olivia Columbus [00:02:36] Interesting. So when you were there, you worked on the fuel cycle; is that correct? 

Cyrille Molina [00:02:39] Yep. 

Olivia Columbus [00:02:41] And is there anything from that experience that led you specifically to creating OAKRIDGE? What was the impetus for launching your company? 

Cyrille Molina [00:02:52] Well, one impetus is the company I was in, working for the IRSN, was acquired by a bigger company and the mood was not the same in the big company of the small company I was in. And so, I decided to quit and to found my own company to work by myself as a self-employed person. But then when I started OAKRIDGE, a few months after that some former clients asked me to do more, and so I needed to hire my first employees to face all the work we had to do. 

Cyrille Molina [00:03:35] And just one year after the inception of OAKRIDGE, there was a big announcement, a decision by Finland to start a nuclear project, Olkiluoto in Finland. So, that gave me a push in the business. And we've managed OAKRIDGE to enter the very first panel involved in the engineering of this new build project. And since 2004, we have continuously worked on the EBR new build project; in France, in Finland, in China, and also in the UK. 

Olivia Columbus [00:04:19] Interesting. So just to sum up, what exactly does OAKRIDGE do? Where do you focus? 

Cyrille Molina [00:04:25] We are a 100% nuclear consulting company. We do engineering for the install phase and for the new build projects. We intervene at the different phases of the project, like conceptual design, basic design, through design and commissioning. And then when plants operate, we help them to improve their maintenance and safety by giving advice, doing international benchmarking. For instance, helping them to get the best practices in terms of nuclear safety. 

Cyrille Molina [00:05:05] I must add that nuclear safety is our core business and we are very strong at that. Whether it's deterministic safety or probabilistic safety, we have experience and we like to provide this to our clients. 

Olivia Columbus [00:05:25] And how large is your team now? 

Cyrille Molina [00:05:26] The team is almost 60 engineers. 

Olivia Columbus [00:05:29] Wow. That's very exciting. 

Cyrille Molina [00:05:31] And we work in some countries... So in Europe, in France mainly, but also with South Korea and South Africa. 

Olivia Columbus [00:05:41] Very interesting. So just out of curiosity, because I think often times when we hear about your company, people get very confused because there's also a National Lab in the US with the same name. Is there any connection there, or is it just a coincidence? 

Cyrille Molina [00:05:53] No, it has no connection. In fact, Oak Ridge in the US is in two words; Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is famous for Oak Ridge National Lab. And my company's name is OAKRIDGE, just one word. The fact is, at the time I founded the company, I was looking for a name with my wife. We had a dictionary and turning the pages I saw "Oak Ridge," the Oak Ridge site. And I said, "Oh, this name is excellent, because for the ones who know the history of nuclear, they know that was one of the secret sites of the Manhattan Project. And so, that's a good sound. Let's stick the two words together, register the name in France, and that's it." 

Olivia Columbus [00:06:47] And now you've become so well-known that people confuse the two. Well, I'm glad we clarified that; we now have it on official record. So, you said you guys work on EBR projects. Are there other types of designs that you guys really specialize in or do you sort of work across? 

Cyrille Molina [00:07:06] Yeah, we have a lot of experience with EBR, and more widely with the PWR reactors. But also, we have skilled people in other technologies such as BWR. We now currently are involved in a new project which is a molten salt reactor. We signed yesterday an MoU with Thorizon. 

Olivia Columbus [00:07:31] Oh, congratulations. 

Cyrille Molina [00:07:33] A company from the Netherlands. And they have a concept which is very clever with a molten salt reactor, with some cartridge composing these molten salt reactors. And we'll work with them, of course, in the part which is our main concern which is nuclear safety. 

Olivia Columbus [00:07:53] Got it. Interesting. We had Sander de Groot from Thorizon on yesterday, so if folks haven't listened to that episode yet, they should go over and listen to that one as a Part Two. But that's really exciting. So just out of curiosity, is the French fleet primarily PWRs? 

Cyrille Molina [00:08:10] Yeah, the French fleet is PWRs. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:12] Just PWRs. Okay, interesting. Interesting. 

Cyrille Molina [00:08:14] We have 56 reactors operating currently. 

Olivia Columbus [00:08:19] Fifty-six, wow. That's crazy. That's so many; that's very exciting. You mentioned that you guys work... Obviously, you did the project in Finland, in Korea, in South Africa. Is it that you work there, or you have engineers there? 

Cyrille Molina [00:08:35] No, we work with them. Sometimes we will send people to the countries. We had people, for instance, in China for two-and-a-half years during the commissioning of the Taishan Plant. In the past, we had people in South Africa near Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant. Currently, we work a lot for Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant in probability safety and accident simulation. 

Cyrille Molina [00:09:04] One thing I would like to add... You may have noticed that the very first company in France to get the ISO 19443 standard, which is the standard dedicated to nuclear safety, was OAKRIDGE in 2020. 

Olivia Columbus [00:09:15] Interesting. That's very interesting. So, you guys do a lot of work on the big builds. You've got an MoU with an SMR company. Are there other SMR directions that you're interested in working on further?

Cyrille Molina [00:09:31] Yeah, sure. We have also begun talks with Canadian companies. And also, we have signed yesterday an MoU with a Polish company. So, we want to join our forces to participate with the numerous projects in nuclear in Poland. Among them, there are big units, but also SMR projects. 

Olivia Columbus [00:09:57] Absolutely, I think the Polish program is so interesting. There's such a desire to build nuclear there both big and small. And so, I think they're a great example of a country that's really moving towards increasing their share of nuclear. Having just a research reactor right now, but obviously a strong regulatory body and I'm excited to see what happens there. 

Olivia Columbus [00:10:20] In addition to that, we're excited to see nuclear being featured COP next week in the United Arab Emirates. It's so exciting to have the conference in a country that has been so successful with their nuclear program. I think the Barakah Program is something that we should really all be looking to as a way to successfully develop big nuclear projects. 

Cyrille Molina [00:10:44] Yeah, and actually they achieved this after beginning from scratch. In 2009, when it was decided and signed with the current team, there was nothing there. Now it works; it operates. So, it demonstrates that it's possible just to implement a big project with numerous units in a non-nuclear country. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:17] Right. They took a proven design. They built that exact design. Actually, one of my favorite podcast episodes is when we had His Excellency Mohamed Al Hammadi on and he walked us through, really, the process and how they did it. It was so interesting to hear about how they really took the Korean design, very proven, and really stuck to it. And that was, I think, a huge part of the efficiency in building those new reactors. 

Olivia Columbus [00:11:46] I know they said yesterday that the last one, I think, is going online at the beginning of next year. And then, 25% of the UAE's power will be nuclear, which is such a fascinating jump to go from 0% to 25% so quickly. So, very exciting to see nuclear heavily featured at the COP events. 

Olivia Columbus [00:12:06] So to close us out, in the next 10, 20 years, 30 years even, what do you hope the status of nuclear is globally? And as we head into such a critical time in climate energy security, how do you hope nuclear is used as a tool to help solve those challenges? 

Cyrille Molina [00:12:24] I hope that more and more countries and more and more economic players, such as big industries, will adopt nuclear and remove the coal and fossil fuels like gas. We have good assets to get there from this. We have a young generation, which is very invested now, advocating nuclear and trying to gather more forces around them. So, that's a good point. 

Cyrille Molina [00:13:00] And we have also reorganized the industry here in France to be ready for that big change. In fact, for instance, we say that we need in the next decade to hire 100,000 more people in France. And at the European scale that represents 500,000 people more in Newcastle. 

Cyrille Molina [00:13:23] So, for the next decades, I see that Europe is the place that nuclear will expand more. But other countries in Africa and in South America and in Asia will also enter. And newcomers, they will adopt nuclear because now the game is more open. Thanks to the SMRs, you can access a smaller amount of power and you can also find the money to do that project. So, that's really a game changer, the SMRs. 

Olivia Columbus [00:14:06] Absolutely. Well, Cyrille Molina, thank you so much for joining us here on Titans of Nuclear. 

Cyrille Molina [00:14:09] Thank you so much for Titans of Nuclear and congrats for what you do. 

Olivia Columbus [00:14:13] Thank you, thank you.

Sign up for our newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

No results found

Please try different keywords