May 18, 2023

Ep 402: Kevin Cramer - Senator for North Dakota, U.S. Senate

Senator for North Dakota
U.S. Senate
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Show notes

Phoebe Lind [00:00:59] Hi, I'm Phoebe Lind, and you're listening to another episode of the Titans of Nuclear Podcast. Today, I'm here with Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. You are a champion of nuclear and now you are a Titan of Nuclear. It's great to have you on the show, welcome.

Kevin Cramer [00:01:14] It's great to be on the show. Thank you for recognizing our unique role, I guess, as North Dakotans, and our leadership in all things nuclear. All things energy, really. But it's impossible to talk about energy without talking about nuclear, in my view.

Phoebe Lind [00:01:30] Absolutely. And also, before we dive in, we'd love to talk a little bit about this amazing photo that we have behind us right now. As our listeners are well aware, the Navy and nuclear energy have a very long, very interesting history. Would you mind sharing a little bit about this submarine?

Kevin Cramer [00:01:47] So, the submarine behind us, that's the USS North Dakota. It's a Virginia-class submarine. It's a spectacular ship with a great crew that ships out pretty regularly like all Navy ships do. But as I like to say, the name matters. North Dakota means "Northern friend" in the Lakota Sioux language. But to your point, and I think to the point of your mission of this podcast, the Navy and really military use of nuclear and nuclear energy cannot be separated because... And we can certainly elaborate a little bit on this, but because I feel so strongly that one of the things that the United States has lost in recent decades by acquiescing so much of our nuclear energy resources, and especially I'd say intellectual resources, is that we've weakened the supply chain to include the intellectual supply chain that we've invented.

Kevin Cramer [00:02:52] You know, we were first; we were the leaders. We live in, obviously, a global economy and global society where I think we've given away too much of that, and now we're in the mode to bring a lot of it back. And it's not unimportant that the Navy... They've been the intellectual source, really, of nuclear engineering and nuclear engineers really throughout this gap. And so, it's all interconnected.

Phoebe Lind [00:03:19] Absolutely. That's part of the reason we're here. It's a super exciting industry to be in as a young person, and it's very exciting to see this renaissance that we're having. But turning the conversation to you a little bit, we would love to hear a little bit more about your background and how you sparked your interest in politics, in public service, and how you came to be a U.S. senator.

Kevin Cramer [00:03:39] Yeah, well, there are a lot of people, teachers and professors scratching their head thinking, "Did we make a mistake here?" But here I am. Here I am. And so, my background, actually, from from birth really is directly related to energy in North Dakota. My dad was a rural electric lineman. So, he had an 11th grade education. He learned to climb poles at a young age and learned that you could make a decent living and make a difference in the distribution of electricity. He'd spent his whole life, really, his whole career as a rural electric lineman. And then when he retired, he did some other fun things around the town.

Kevin Cramer [00:04:23] But I grew up with a dad who went out in all kinds of weather to make sure that the lights stayed on. And that when the weather was good, he was in the maintenance world and he was in the building world, advancing communities and advancing farms and making sure that our communities had what they needed to grow food for a hungry world. So, I grew up in that. In fact, in high school for three summers, I worked at the rural electric cooperative warehouse.

Phoebe Lind [00:04:57] What did you do there?

Kevin Cramer [00:04:58] I loaded the trucks, I kept the inventory, I swept the floors. I painted the numbers on the transformers. And it was a real construction time. It was a time when there was a lot of development going on, so it was exciting. And each year, I learned more and I advanced a little bit until I was eventually putting together the meter boxes and putting them on the poles and delivering them to the crews that would then apply them. So, this is how I grew up.

Kevin Cramer [00:05:24] In terms of politics, my dad was the union shop steward. My mom was on the city commission in our little town of about 500 people. And active... They were both active in lots of things and just had that sort of servant's heart. I was the nerd in high school... I was in all the sports like everybody was and was the quarterback of the football team and all those things, but I also had this other weird thing about me where I was the guy that always gave the pep talks at the pep rallies after they asked every other athlete if they'd do it and they all said, "No." I was the guy who would always say, "Yes.".

Phoebe Lind [00:05:59] That was a funny thing to do?

Kevin Cramer [00:05:59] Yeah, wasn't that weird? Anyway, because it's the number one fear most people have. But early on, I realized I liked to talk to people. I liked to give speeches.

Phoebe Lind [00:06:11] We do, too.

Kevin Cramer [00:06:12] You do, too. Yes, you're in the right business. And so, anyway, that led me to my desire to go into the ministry, actually. But while in college, using the same skill sets, I realized that the ability to persuade, the ability to listen, even the ability to counsel, really, was conducive also to politics, and I was always interested in public policy. My interest in politics was always more about public policy, and still is, than it is about elephants and donkeys or red and blue. I'm not naive about it, but I prefer my politics in the context of policy.

Kevin Cramer [00:06:48] So anyway, I became, actually, a state party chairman. We elected a governor; I was on his cabinet. I served as a tourism director, the most fun you can have at work, and then became the Economic Development Finance Director for our state of North Dakota. And in that role, I was able to see the role of low-cost, reliable energy of all sorts, and what that meant from a competitive advantage in building an economy. I also understood the role of a regulatory regime and the tax policy and the importance of all of those things in development of these incredible resources we had.

Kevin Cramer [00:07:30] And then eventually, I did some other things in academia and still missed out a lot as an adjunct professor and whatnot. But Governor Hoeven, at the time, was now the senior senator from North Dakota. He appointed me to the North Dakota Public Service Commission during a vacancy. And then, it's a position I ran for twice and won, where we regulated the energy sector. And in North Dakota, the Public Service Commission... It's usually called the Utility Commission, in most states... Not only does it set rates for electricity, retail electricity and business and whatnot, as well as natural gas, but we had a lot of siting authority, permitting authority over things like transmission lines and pipelines and even power plants and wind farms. And I carried the coal portfolio, for example. I carried the pipeline portfolio. Sited the first Keystone Pipeline through North Dakota.

Kevin Cramer [00:08:26] And all of that just was sort of a constant building on my understanding of the importance of energy as a reliable source, its importance to the economy as well as to the quality of our life. It helped me to better understand the various fuel sources and types, particularly for electricity, and helped me understand that policy matters, that it really makes a difference what you incentivize. Not just what markets incentivize, but in the utility world where there are largely monopolies that are governed and regulated as monopolies, that you've got to send the right price signals to the marketplace to get the right mix that makes you a competitive community, state, and country.

Phoebe Lind [00:09:16] And North Dakota, in particular, has a very diverse, very interesting energy mix. Would you mind sharing a little bit about that? How does that inform your work here in the Senate?

Kevin Cramer [00:09:27] It's a great question, because it informs everything. I mean, my time on the Commission was during the Bakken boom. And so, we went from... I don't know what we were, to second, the second leading producer of oil in the country, largely because of our soft touch regulatory regime. Now, when I was on the Public Service Commission for 10 years... And that's what I did until I ran for and became a member of the United States House of Representatives... We had, I mean, hundreds of hearings throughout the state, because whenever there was a pipeline, a transmission line, a wind farm, a refinery, any type of energy conversion facility, or for that matter, a rate increase, we were required by law to have hearings in the communities affected.

Kevin Cramer [00:10:09] No one ever showed up at those hearings to tell me what a great regulator I am. They all wanted to know if they were going to have a wind turbine on their land or, "How can we prevent this transmission line from going through our land?" Or, "How do we ensure that this pipeline is safe under our farms?" So, it informed me a lot on not just what the law says, but what the people say. And I learned that the collective wisdom of the people was far greater than the wisdom of an engineer or a scientist.

Kevin Cramer [00:10:43] One example I love to share is... When we sited the original Keystone Pipeline, it went through 600 landowners' land. Not one inch of it had to be condemned. There was never a taking or a use of eminent domain on the Keystone Pipeline through North Dakota. But there was a lot of debate about where it should go and why it should go certain places. And I was at a small town at a community meeting... Not a hearing; it was prior to the hearing. The company was doing these community meetings. And this farmer came up and asked me, he said, "Commissioner, could you come over here? I want to show you a map.".

Kevin Cramer [00:11:18] So I go over, and they had these big maps laid out. And he said, "This pipeline will go right through a rock quarry. I mean, I don't know much about pipelines, but it seems that's not a great idea. If they just go around it like a little ways this direction, they could avoid this gravel pit and this rock quarry." So, I called some guys over from the company and they go, "Yeah, that's not a great idea." And I kept thinking, "Somebody got paid a lot of money to site this here."

Phoebe Lind [00:11:46] And site a pipeline through a rock quarry.

Kevin Cramer [00:11:47] That right, through a rock quarry. And this farmer who knew better. And that's just one of many, many lessons I learned from the collective wisdom of people living their lives every day. So, it really informed my work in the House when I became a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and certainly now in the Senate, as well. It's just been an additional learning process for me.

Phoebe Lind [00:12:13] And were you aware of what was happening with nuclear energy at that time?

Kevin Cramer [00:12:17] So, interesting point, because North Dakota does have uranium and they've done some, although not great big mining of uranium, but discovery of uranium, looking for it, finding it. But getting back to my utility regulatory days, as you know, most utilities are interstate utilities. Now, there are rural electric cooperatives and whatnot that are oftentimes within a smaller vicinity that are distribution co-ops, and there are distribution utilities, but we are a pretty vertically integrated state in the energy sector. So, we have some big companies, too. And the biggest company in North Dakota in the regulatory side or on the electricity side is Xcel Energy. And everybody's heard of Xcel Energy. Xcel Energy has three nuclear plants in Minnesota. And so, their resource plan includes, obviously, their entire footprint. And when you regulate utilities, rates and whatnot, your consumers, your constituents pay for the entire footprints of certain investments.

Kevin Cramer [00:13:25] So, the nuclear plants in Minnesota are part of the resource plan of Xcel Energy. And in the eastern part of North Dakota where Xcel is really quite big, places like Fargo and Grand Forks, they do benefit from nuclear power coming up from the Monticello plant in Minnesota. So, I had to learn about it. I also had to learn about the costs of storing the waste, nuclear waste, which is a big deal, and how that gets socialized, those costs get socialized across the footprint. So, yeah. I toured the plant in Monticello. I had quite a good understanding, I think, about nuclear waste and how it's paid for. But we didn't have plants in the state. Never sited a plant, of course, which is... Talk about big things to talk about.

Phoebe Lind [00:14:13] Do you think if people are aware that their electricity is coming from nuclear, that influences the way they might think about it? Like, how do North Dakotans feel about it?

Kevin Cramer [00:14:21] Yeah, it's a great question because North Dakota produces a lot of electricity burning coal. We also have a lot of gas in North Dakota, and so there are some gas plants, peaking plants, in particular. We have several thousand megawatts of nameplate megawatts of wind energy in North Dakota. North Dakotans are like most people in that what they really care about is when they flip the switch, the lights come on. And so, they're very energy savvy. They understand baseload versus intermittent. They get that, just intuitively.

Kevin Cramer [00:14:55] To your question about whether they care if it's nuclear or not, I don't think they do. North Dakotans are pioneers. We're in the middle of the North American continent. We're largely reliant on ourselves. We grow food for a hungry world. We're very savvy to what exports mean. We're global in our business minds, but we're also fearless. Now, North Dakotans rejected the opportunity, once, to take nuclear waste, and that's a longer story. So, we're also important stewards of our land. We're environmentalist by nature.

Phoebe Lind [00:15:36] In that case, do you think people would be more interested in clean energy in their state?

Kevin Cramer [00:15:40] So, now you're touching on the real motivation and why nuclear, this nuclear renaissance you speak of, is happening. Because nuclear represents, in my view... I always say this, and again, reminding people that we don't have nuclear in North Dakota... It's the perfect fuel. If emissions are your main concern, nuclear is the answer. If baseload's your main concern, nuclear is the answer. If reliability is your main concern, nuclear is the answer. It's the answer to so many of the things that are our goals as a more carbon constrained future are carried out. Nuclear just plays such a critical role in it.

Phoebe Lind [00:16:22] So, turning to some of your current work in trying to increase our access to nuclear energy in the US, especially. So, you sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee here in the Senate, which has oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. So, our audience usually doesn't get this kind of access to government leaders. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about your role on that committee and how that might influence how we approach nuclear energy in the US?

Kevin Cramer [00:16:49] Yeah, so a couple of things. Obviously, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is exactly that. It's a regulatory commission, and it is nuclear. On the Environment and Public Works Committee, it's interesting, because a lot of energy policy falls under our jurisdiction, while there's also an Energy and Natural Resource Committee that oversees the Department of Energy, which also has nuclear. But I'm also on the Armed Services Committee, which also, of course, sees nuclear. So, it's really a pretty interesting, I think, portfolio.

Kevin Cramer [00:17:17] At EPW, one of our biggest areas of jurisdiction deals with, again, nuclear waste. Again, environmental issues, but also the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I think for me, what I look at is how can we advance good, modern, clean nuclear energy opportunities and investments? How do you assure that capital will follow this old but emerging technology? Because we know that most nuclear plants in America, I think it's all nuclear plants in America, use light-water. And of course, that's old technology. While it's been modernized since the 1950s, the new technologies of modular, or...

Kevin Cramer [00:18:06] In fact, I just saw a story today on E&E that the Tennessee Valley Authority wants to build four modular nuclear reactors, but the first one won't be online for about 10 years. And so, when you start to think about how it takes decades to build and site things, I think the first one becomes the second, third, fourth and fifth one rather quickly. So, on the NRC and on EPW, what I want to do is send the signals, the regulatory signals and the legislative signals to the marketplace that this is a good technology, that this is clean technology, but that we also have appropriate oversight to make sure that it remains such. So, what I like to do is send the right incentives that accelerate nuclear development, while at the same time assuring people that it's safe, that it has the appropriate oversight. And striking that balance is what I try to work hard on. And the nice thing is that it's a bipartisan effort.

Phoebe Lind [00:19:10] Absolutely. That's one of the reasons I was interested in politics from a young age, as well, and I love working in nuclear energy because we really can bring people with a lot of different interests together to advance nuclear and solve a lot of these problems that we're dealing with on a national and global stage. Also, which is a perfect transition to my next question.

Phoebe Lind [00:19:29] You've spoken in the past about America's global leadership in nuclear energy, how we need to improve that. A lot of our adversaries, including China, including Russia, are investing a lot of money into nuclear energy, especially small modular reactors, which is, as you mentioned, a very exciting up-and-coming technology. But what do you think the US can do to compete on a global stage?

Kevin Cramer [00:19:54] So, I think the first thing we have to do is reclaim it. And because again, I talked earlier about acquiescing not just to other countries, but to our adversaries, to your point. And you've named them, perfectly. And that's sort of scary stuff. And realizing that our adversaries in this realm, as well as several others, aren't as good at it as we are, nor are they as conscientious to the safety and the environmental and the workplace issues. They don't have our values. And so, we ought to reclaim that while we still can. And I think we can, and I think we have. But I think we can do more to accelerate that.

Kevin Cramer [00:20:33] It gets back to this Navy of ours, right? We've had this stable source of smart, academic and intellectual resources. Even though we've given up a lot of our uranium mining and plutonium creation, the enrichment processes, we can claim that back. We have utilities that do it. We have utilities that like it. We have utilities that want it, which means we have customers that want it. So, I think the first thing to do is to claim it. But then, to find the right incentives, whether it's tax incentives, which is something that we have done. Senator Ben Cardin and I, as you know, co-sponsored legislation that became law to provide some tax credits, much like the production tax credits and other investment credits for utilities that use nuclear.

Phoebe Lind [00:21:25] Would you mind explaining that a little bit more? I think that would be super interesting.

Kevin Cramer [00:21:29] Sure. So, in the emerging technologies like wind and solar, for example, they're not emerging anymore, and it is time for them to be done with their credits. But I was a strong advocate for it in the beginning because but for the generosity of the American taxpayer, certain early technologies would never advance. There's not enough of a natural market incentive. But with a little help from the federal government, they do advance and then they become sustainable on their own. Well, I've always believed that these types of incentives should be, basically, fuel neutral. If it meets certain goals, whether they're environmental goals, emission goals, reliability goals, then we ought to provide equal incentives.

Kevin Cramer [00:22:16] So, why not then, nuclear? Particularly when we're making this transition from sort of old nuclear to modular to advanced nuclear technologies. And so so by offering up an incentive in investment credit that applies to one industry, why not apply it to nuclear? And that's basically what we did. But it was confined to the utility side of it. In other words, not the big production side, but the utility side, so that you had a market dealing with on the demand side. There are other things as well that have been done. But again, really, you're talking about such large capital investment with such high risk, but with such incredibly rich rewards, not just on the return on the investment for the investor, but on the communities and on America's excellence.

Kevin Cramer [00:23:10] Then, to your global point, once we reestablish... Our edge in the United States has always been technological advancement, innovation. This is where we've always excelled. Our adversaries can take that oftentimes, and then they'll apply it quickly or they'll even steal it and apply it quickly, but not with the same care and values that the United States has. Once we've established that, I'd much rather... I often say, "Please don't impose your mediocrity on our excellence." I'd much rather to export American ingenuity, intellectual property, and excellence than to sort of import somebody else's mediocrity.

Phoebe Lind [00:23:54] I couldn't agree more. But going back to your point about reclaiming it, what do you mean by that?

Kevin Cramer [00:23:59] Yeah, I mean reestablishing the United States' role as the leader in nuclear innovation, in nuclear advancement, in nuclear investment, going all the way to the mining of the fuel, to the enrichment process, to the fission and fusion process and the other science that we should excel in and that we really can intellectually excel in, and establishing to the world that we're the leader in this. And then, sharing that on the global stage, remembering that if climate change is your number one concern, realizing it's a global issue. And the United States' excellence over the years, whether it's carbon capture, utilization storage, whether it's natural gas, whether it's cleaning up... I mean, I've seen it all in the coal world. SOx, NOx, particulate matter, mercury. Our ability to clean up our energy sources is remarkable. And we ought to be advancing that by selling it, marketing it to the world, so that both very advanced countries and developed countries, as well as developing countries, have access to our ingenuity. That way we are contributing in a much larger sense to not just energy, cleaner energy around the world, but energy security, which is of course, national security.

Phoebe Lind [00:25:26] Absolutely. I think energy access around the world, it's a human right and it's exciting to see. Hopefully, the US can scale up quickly and deliver that around the world. Do you think the business case for nuclear might be changing as we have these emerging new technologies, as we have, maybe, more support from the federal government? Like with small modular reactors, a lot of people are going smaller to try and reduce that risk and get something out the door a little bit faster than with these gigawatt scale technologies.

Kevin Cramer [00:25:55] No question about it. I think that's sort of the magic, if you will, of the modular reactor. I mean, the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, the TVA is talking about building four of them. You could probably end up doing 40 modulars in the time frame it would take to permit one gigawatt, as you put it, plant. There is a safety component to that. There's also just a production scale up, to your point, again.

Kevin Cramer [00:26:26] And not only that, but it recognizes the diversity of our country. This is a big country. I come from the center of the North American continent where there's a lot of distance between people and there are fewer than 10 people per square mile. You have a technology that has smaller units that are reliable, inexpensive, and in many cases, even mobile, and you can change the world pretty quickly. And then, you reduce the need for large transmission and other kinds of intrusive things, imposing things that become barriers to the distribution of this clean power that a modular unit can create. So, I can get over my head pretty fast on all this, but I understand it well enough to see the opportunities that you're expressing.

Kevin Cramer [00:27:16] And then, like I said, then our companies are creating something that the world needs and we sell to them, creating jobs in our own country as well as with our allies. You know, I don't believe in an America-only future, but I do believe in an America-first future. We've shifted. One of the things that scares me a little bit is that... America's exceptionalism used to mean that America leads. Then, we kind of became an America-first. And I'm not opposed to America-first; I think you lead from the front. But I worry about is that we've become America-only. And then, we are acquiescing our leadership in the global economy, and I think nuclear presents a grand opportunity to be the leader, but bring a lot of people along.

Phoebe Lind [00:28:02] It's a very interesting time to be saying that, right now, as well, because our allies in Europe, especially, have really needed our help on the energy front. Energy security has been a major concern, and nuclear power is also something that we've started to discuss a little bit as something that could help solve those problems in the future and reduce our reliance on Russian gas in Europe. What do you think about how that could support energy security and geopolitical issues abroad?

Kevin Cramer [00:28:28] I don't know, I kind of like just listening to you. That was really good. That was really great, actually.

Phoebe Lind [00:28:34] That's what's so exciting about nuclear, you know? You're at this intersection of geopolitics, climate change, energy access. Every single problem, we can elevate people all around the world with nuclear energy. That's why I love it. That's why I'm excited to be here.

Kevin Cramer [00:28:49] That's very cool. No, I agree with you, one hundred percent, on everything you've said. Absolutely. And the geopolitics of it are exciting because... You're exactly right. Our European allies are a great example of people looking for what we have. They want it. I would say, in my office, in this room... I mean, just last week, the CEO of Naftogaz was in here, from Ukraine, asking for our help. Over the course of the last year, maybe a little better than a year, several European energy leaders have been in my office asking for our help. And you know, trade, for example, with Europe has oftentimes been challenging for us because we're kind of on different sort of wavelengths, but the war in Ukraine has sort of put us on the same wavelength where our alliances are stronger than ever, our dependence on one another is stronger than ever, and our opportunities to identify our similar values have, I think, brought us closer together. And energy, I think, plays a really important role, because I'd much rather use the peaceful tools of energy development than the weapons of war to keep our adversaries at bay.

Phoebe Lind [00:30:10] We're starting to come up on time. So, I would love to hear your final thoughts on maybe how we can work together with your colleagues. Any final messages you might have for our audience, as well?

Kevin Cramer [00:30:20] I think the ways to work with our colleagues, as you put it, is first of all to find common ground. And a lot of us are working on that. And I think nuclear is one of those areas of some common ground. But then, to persuade and try to educate, to do things like what you and I are doing right now, to help people feel more comfortable with something they don't know a lot about. They maybe have preconceived notions, some of them good, some of them not good. But the United States... Again, there's no place in the world that will do this better than we do it. That will do it safer, that will do it cleaner than we will here in the United States.

Kevin Cramer [00:30:53] And I think we always have to talk to our constituents. I think the first thing is to talk to constituents, and then colleagues. And in some cases, you talk to the colleagues who will talk to their constituents, but to get people comfortable with the future of nuclear energy and nuclear development. I just think the case has never been better, and we just have to make the case.

Phoebe Lind [00:31:16] All right. With that, thank you so much, Senator. I hope you've enjoyed your experience on Titans of Nuclear.

Kevin Cramer [00:31:21] I've enjoyed it a lot. I've learned a lot just listening to both your questions and your commentary. And I love the opportunity any time that I can be helpful to add to the conversation.

Phoebe Lind [00:31:31] All right. Thank you so much.

Kevin Cramer [00:31:32] Thank you.

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