Ep 100: Bret Kugelmass - Managing Director, Energy Impact Center
1 - Path from Robotics to Nuclear
Todd Allen: Tell us about your career and how you started the Titans of Nuclear podcast.
Bret Kugelmass: Bret Kugelmass’ background is in robotics, but Titans of Nuclear (TON) satisfies his curiosity. In college, Kugelmass worked for Goddard Space Flight Center, where he developed a control unit for a Mars rover. In graduate school, he started a lab at Stanford for Panasonic and was tasked with envisioning a future of mobility, leading Kugelmass to design an electric, autonomous, single-seater car. Kugelmass continued down the robotics path after graduation and participated in an open source community working on auto pilot. He started a company, Airphrame, and developed fleets of drones which were controlled over the internet to map out millions of homes across the U.S. When Airphrame was acquired, Kugelmass had the time to pursue climate change, the issue of the era and it didn’t seem like people had any solutions. He re-read “The Whole Earth Discipline” by Stewart Brand and climate change didn’t seem like a daunting challenge, as Brand dispelled all the myths of nuclear energy. Each TON podcast starts with clips from a speech President Eisenhower gave to the United Nations called “Atoms for Peace”. He painted an optimistic, and transparent vision about nuclear power, even though the origin of the technology was the nuclear bomb.
2 - Optimism in Nuclear
Todd Allen: Are you seeing a turning point in optimism around nuclear?
Bret Kugelmass: There is more optimism about nuclear; so many industries have risen from nothing into multi-billion dollar industries with optimism. In searching for Titans for the Titans of Nuclear (TON) podcast, Bret Kugelmass started reaching out to professors and graduate students in nuclear programs. It took him three months to get his first five interviews, which included Todd Allen, who introduced him to many people in the industry and invited him out to Idaho National Lab (INL). As his list of future interviewees grew, Kugelmass started doing series interviews in which he interviewed multiple people at a location to paint a picture of the culture from multiple different perspectives. Nuclear is challenging because there are so many different facets to it and relationships between those facets, requiring a deep dive in every technology and every area of expertise from multiple angles. Kugelmass also conducts international interviews, including at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA makes sure that countries don’t take their nuclear energy technology and use it to make nuclear weapons. They also guide countries that are interested in becoming nuclear countries through the process. Safeguards must be built into the technology up front, especially if developers are looking into the nuclear export market.
3 - Common Themes in the Perception of Nuclear
Todd Allen: Are you noticing grand themes in your conversations with the hundreds of Titans of Nuclear you’ve interviewed?
Bret Kugelmass: There are themes in the Titans of Nuclear interviews that are positive things that everyone in the industry knows, themes that are talking points about nuclear mythologies, and themes that Bret Kugelmass likes personally and wants to promote. On the positive side of nuclear, something that comes up often is the energy density. Since nuclear energy is six magnitudes more dense than fossil fuels, there is a million times less material that has to be dug up and moved and a million times less waste. Another positive trends are the nuclear industry's safety track record, the 90% capacity factor, and it’s carbon-free energy production. Making an interview personal is important for the message and for human communication in general, including how the nuclear industry communicates. There are talking points that Kugelmass withholds healthy skepticism for, including the point that nuclear must work with renewables and it is an all-of-the-above solution. Gen IV and advanced manufacturing are treated as if they will definitely lead to cost reductions, but Kugelmass is not sure of that, even though he hopes it is the case. Kugelmass loves the idea and theme that nuclear power can provide triple Earth’s energy supply, be cheaper, fix climate change, bring people out of energy, and provide limitless clean water.
4 - Competition in the Nuclear Industry
Todd Allen: Is the technologist approach to nuclear convincing to people?
Bret Kugelmass: After interviewing Todd Allen in the third episode of his nuclear podcast, Bret Kugelmass changed the name of his podcast from “Why Not Nuclear?” to “Titans of Nuclear”. “Why Not Nuclear?” had a negative work in it, but “Titans of Nuclear” conveyed something strong and powerful that could change the world. Kugelmass sees nuclear as something super optimistic that will launch humanity into the next era. Another factor is the competition in nuclear, and if the U.S. doesn’t deploy nuclear reactors in the next few years, China will beat the U.S. to it. Nuclear energy can be framed in a way that asks who will get there first and deploy the technology that will save the world, similar to the Space Race. Kugelmass received many emails from listeners and the word of mouth growth of the show has been amazing. His business philosophy is that you don’t want to pay for growth too early, because you don’t know if you’ve hit profit market fit. Kugelmass hasn’t put any money into the marketing of the Titans of Nuclear podcast but now has over 10,000 active subscribers.
5 - Entrepreneurial Activity in the Nuclear Space
Todd Allen: What is the future of Titans of Nuclear?
Bret Kugelmass: Bret Kugelmass is trying to create the most thorough analysis of the nuclear space from as many different angles as possible. This year, Kugelmass completed 100 episodes this year, with another 100 in the works. Eventually he will pass on the baton and help in other ways, but he has a list of 2,000 potential interviewees. After Kugelmass has met with and identified enough key stakeholders, he wants to take those relationships and use them to encourage entrepreneurial activity in the nuclear space. Another them he hears that he disagrees with is that the government needs to narrow the path the industry is taking and invest in a few technologies, instead of all the startups. This approach is opposite to the approach taken in Silicon Valley. With more startups, people become more educated and investors are more willing to invest. The best thing that can happen to a startup is more entrepreneurial activity and competition in the space. Bret Kugelmass wants to bring the stakeholders in nuclear together with his finance and entrepreneurial relationships in Silicon Valley. He wants to encourage entrepreneurship in the space and break down barriers for companies that want to secure financing, which will be his focus moving forward. Each startup has the potential to raise hundreds of millions of dollars each because that much money is available for investment. Nuclear energy has the potential to capture the entire six trillion dollar a year energy market. From a first principles perspective, nuclear has advantages orders of magnitude over any other energy source.