Ep 67: Kirsty Gogan - Environmental Activist, Energy for Humanity
Environmentalist Preconceptions of Nuclear
How did you find your way into the nuclear space?
Kirsty Gogan studied politics and became an environmental activist, mostly focused on cars, forests, and environmental and social justice. Gogan grew up in Ireland and moved with her family to England when she was ten years old, which helped her interest in politics and the world early on. As an environmentalist, Gogan considered herself anti-nuclear by default. As a young girl, Gogan talked with her friends about whether they would want to survive a nuclear war. The apocalypse seemed real and was reinforced by the media. Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons were conflated at that time. After spending some time traveling and performing on-the-ground environmental work, Kirsty Gogan started working as a freelancer in a government press office, eventually serving as Press Secretary to the Prime Minister. She led the sustainability agenda, working mostly on the housing and planning agenda. After five years, Gogan went back into the civil society sector, working for a small charity focused on specific policy areas, and began to lobby the government from the outside to affect change. Climate change was a new idea at this time and needed its own review to explain it to the heads of government.
Global Effects of Climate Change
How do you see climate change evolving as it relates to nuclear?
For decades, it has been the environment ministers that show up to the climate talks, not the economic, business, or public health ministries. Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but affects factors such as drought, public health, and the advent of new diseases. One goal was to make urban planners aware of how instrumental they were in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Gogan went on to work for a consultant firm in the United Kingdom that focuses on sustainability communications, spending a lot of time on perception change on sustainability, show how it is more substituting instead of sacrificing. Social license is important in considering how issues are framed and perceived. One common perception that’s actually a misconception is that individuals can solve climate change. Climate change must be looked at from a macro perspective to enable people to continue to live their lives in a way they want to live and make it very easy to live more sustainability. It is easier to change infrastructure engineering, putting new systems in place, than social engineering, changing people’s minds and actions.
Strategies for Achieving Climate Change Targets
When did you become focused on climate change?
Kirsty Gogan started out focused on more traditional environmental concerns, such as cars and water, but eventually and gradually began to focus on climate change, as did many environmentalists. Gogan was gifted a book called “Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air” written by Sir David MacKay. MacKay, a Professor at Cambridge, number crunched through the question of how the U.K. could meet its climate targets using existing technologies within 2050 timescales. He illustrates the extensive resources that would be needed to meet everyone’s energy needs, including power, heat, and transportation, with different technologies. Gogan’s first insight while reading this book was that climate targets were not achievable with renewables alone. Her second insight was that almost everything she thought she knew about nuclear was wrong, as MacKay goes through every nuclear topic that is generally raised as a concern: safety, waste, and proliferation cost. Gogan was approached by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and invited her to pursue a path in the nuclear directory. She accepted the challenge to run the public consultation on nuclear new build. Gogan is not afraid to make decisions that are counterintuitive or challenge her tribal norm, but faced disapproval from her environmentalist groups who thought she was selling out. Nuclear is increasingly our fastest, most feasible, most cost effective way to solve the climate problem, but is very unpopular. During the consultation, Gogan listened carefully and genuinely to the NGO community. She created an NGO forum that met quarterly and was chaired by a Minister, which allowed the government to carefully listen to the concerns brought forward by the NGO community. This reduced conflict in public domain because there was an opportunity to be heard and improved the government process.
Nuclear and the NGO Community
By carefully listening to these NGO groups, do you negate the driver of why they oppose your position?
Kirsty Gogan puzzled for a long time over the question of why men are twice as likely to support nuclear compared to women. One compelling argument why older white men are more likely to support nuclear than younger people, women, and ethnic groups, is that these men feel secure in society, the elites are acting in their interests, and they are less likely to be impacted. People who feel more exposed to risk and more vulnerable are more likely to oppose nuclear. Being respectful to everyone who has a different perspective and trying to find common ground is important, but may not happen without dialogue. Shortly after this consultation and having a baby, Fukushima happened and Gogan got a call from the same government department asking her to return to work in communications. She was asked to review the national communications response to Fukushima. After reading all the reports from Chernobyl in preparation for her response to Fukushima, Gogan was shocked to learn that the biggest public health impact from the accident had nothing to do with radiation, but instead the fear of radiation.
Challenging Radiological Protection Standards
How do you institutionalize protecting us from the protectors, especially as it relates to radiation?
Sometimes the radiological protection committee does more harm than good, but we have to learn from history, otherwise we are doomed to repeat it. Kirsty Gogan raised the issue surrounding the radiological protection committee and pushed for changes to the U.K.’s nuclear emergency plan in light of lessons learned from Chernobyl and Fukushima. Gogan was supervised the revision of the Nuclear Emergency Planning and Response Guidance (NEPRG) in the U.K., which brought a broader risk assessment that goes beyond radiological protection. It analyzes the impacts the countermeasures can have in order for leaders to make an informed decision. Gogan advocates for changing the paradigm around radiological protection more generally in the entire industry, from cradle to decommissioning, because it is probably the biggest thing that has an impact on the economics of nuclear. One barrier to climate change from a nuclear perspective is low public confidence, due to with how the industry communicates and the perceptions that exist from nuclear’s historical presence. Another barrier is the high cost of nuclear energy. The U.K. government has accepted that nuclear is important in a cost-effective decarbonization pathway, but the Hinkley power station is considered a blemish in that plan. Hinkley Point C is the the first new nuclear power plant build in the U.K., a European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR), for a generation, but the negotiations have been going on for a decade and the construction has barely started. The design is very complex, as light water reactors have high safety records, but EPR’s take it to the next level. When looking at nuclear economics around the world, two key insights came to light. Nuclear new build projects are being delivered for half, or even a third, the cost of what Europe is trying to deliver. Also, inflation in nuclear power comes from indirect costs, such as professional services fees and design changes, not materials.
Keys to Low Cost Nuclear Energy
Can nuclear be the cheapest source of energy if done correctly?
Kirsty Gogan supports the argument that nuclear power can be the cheapest source of energy if done correctly, and if economics is the real barrier to climate change, which is solvable, it should be addressed. Finding the fastest, most cost effective, most feasible way to solve climate change is imperative. Gogan’s study for the Energy Technologies Institute and focused nuclear build out experience around the world and understanding the outcomes they had. The lazy assumption has been that labor is cheap in China and that safety shortcuts were being made, but the study aimed to investigate. The study found that the important features leading to low cost outcomes in China had more to do with excellence in project management and construction, than previous assumptions. If the U.S. and U.K. starts with an honest appraisal of the current situation, changes can be made to achieve the excellence seen elsewhere. Nuclear energy does have a learning curve, but it can be engineered with intentional investment. Kirsty Gogan founded Energy for Humanity, a civil society-based group advocating for nuclear, after meeting Robert Stone, the director of “Pandora’s Promise”. When her idea to start an NGO that includes nuclear as a climate solution came to life, it was the first of its kind. In years since, many more have cropped up and it is becoming a movement.
Energy for Humanity
What does Energy for Humanity do to bring forth what you see as a good solution for climate change?
Energy for Humanity (EFH), co-founded by Kirsty Gogan, advocates for nuclear in climate change on a very small budget. EFH tries to broaden the conversation beyond wind and solar energy and efficiencies to include a broader range of technologies. People who care about climate, air quality, or energy access, can quickly come around to why nuclear is needed and bust through misconceptions of the technology. However, it is different to have someone agree in a private conversation, than to have one take a public stand on the topic. Gogan recently pivoted towards a business model for nuclear. Unless we can make nuclear investable and commercially viable, by transforming the industry to make products that people want to buy, conversations about the technology will not change. Cultural transformation would be if everyone working in the industry felt like they were making a major contribution at scale. Nuclear can be profitable and the market already exists. Fossil fuel infrastructure needs to be replaced and heat, transportation, and shipping needs to be decarbonized. The supply chain has a predatory mindset, as they are being asked to invest without knowing the future of the technology development. This drives up the cost, which makes future development less likely and makes regulation very difficult. Lessons learned can be adapted from other sectors and applied to nuclear, such as using a manufacturing, factory-based delivery model.
Collaborative Hybrid Energy Solutions
What is your perspective on where nuclear energy is going and why it’s important?
Kirsty Gogan is excited to see initiatives like those brought forward at the Clean Energy Ministerial in Copenhagen, where hybrid energy system events took center stage. The international community looked at is less from a technology-focused outlook, and more of an outcome-based perspective. The destination is zero-carbon fast, and nuclear is going to play a role in that, but will need to integrate with other clean energy technologies. Having nuclear as part of the conversation and seeing the industry consider itself part of the wider effort is successful in Gogan’s eyes. Kirsty Gogan continues to collaborate with the growing, global community working on the issue and contributing however she can by advocating for nuclear energy.