June 19, 2023

Ep 410: Nick O'Hara - Writer and Producer, Gridlocked

Writer and Producer
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Show notes

Sarah Howorth [00:00:59] Welcome back to another episode of the Titans of Nuclear Podcast. Today, I'm here with Nick O'Hara, who's the podcast producer for Gridlocked, which is a podcast that is based on why the 21st century is broken and how we should go about fixing it. Nick, welcome. It's so great to have you on.

Nick O'Hara [00:01:18] Thank you for having me on the show. I'm actually a big fan of Titans. So, congratulations to everyone involved in the production. And yeah, it's a pleasure to be with you.

Sarah Howorth [00:01:29] Pleasure to have you here. Let's just start off by talking a little bit about your background, but also focusing on how you originally sparked your interest in nu clear. Give us some information on your early learnings of the subject.

Nick O'Hara [00:01:45] Well, my first interaction with nuclear was back in the late 1980s. That was during a school trip to the Fawley Power Station in Hampshire, and that's on the south coast of England where I grew up. But that didn't really spark my interest in it. Science didn't interest me at all, in fact, if I'm honest. We have to really fast forward 32 years to a point where I met a guy called Jacopo Buongiorno, who's Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. And he wanted to talk about some of the new technologies in nuclear, which I'm sure we'll come on to talk about in the show. But it was really the interactions with him and then going away and doing some homework on nuclear power that really sparked my interest. That was two years ago now.

Sarah Howorth [00:02:41] Awesome. And did you have any original hesitation about nuclear at all? During your trip to Fawley, did you just think, "Oh wow, what a grand structure. I want to learn more about it. This is amazing."

Nick O'Hara [00:02:54] Well, I'd love to say that was... Fawley, that was an interesting school trip. It was a day out at the station. My memories of it... I mean, don't forget, I'm going back to that in 1989. But I have memories of this really immaculately clean, pristine facility, which was safety. I think we were wearing overalls and hard hats. But yeah, this really safe and secure place and various people talking at me and my classmates and me not taking it all in, if I'm honest.

Nick O'Hara [00:03:37] I was ignorant about nuclear. I have to be completely upfront about that. I think like most people, I had a lot of misperceptions about radiation exposure risk, about security, about nuclear waste. And I'm talking now as the adult me three decades on. And so I thought, without really turning my attention, that nuclear was bad, renewables were good, and that my support for renewables therefore made me a climate conscious citizen.

Nick O'Hara [00:04:11] But then, sparked and aided by Jacopo, I started to do some homework on the subject. And I got talking to some people like Joshua Goldstein, who you've had on Titans Podcast. In fact, you've had him on twice, I believe. You've just had him on with Oliver Stone because he co-wrote the film Nuclear Now with Oliver, which is out in US cinemas. So, I guess my story really is one that I think is something that's familiar with so many people, certainly that I speak to.

Nick O'Hara [00:04:50] In fact, Joshua himself, if you ask him, he will tell you as he told me on Gridlocked... He talks about being a 1970s sort of environmentalist hippie. And like me, "Nuclear is bad," and grew up with all these these negative perceptions of nuclear. But then also like me, he started looking into the subject and realized that pretty much everything that he knew and everything that I knew about nuclear simply wasn't true. And frankly, we've kind of been brainwashed our entire lives about nuclear.

Sarah Howorth [00:05:26] Yeah, I think it's incredibly interesting that a lot of our current nuclear advocates and champions and even some Titans have had to overcome these misconceptions that are so popular in the public media. I'm curious, aside from sort of the mentorship aspect of it with Jacopo, with Joshua, and talking to them, are there any resources that you either read or consumed about nuclear that really just opened your eyes to what you think about it now?

Nick O'Hara [00:05:58] Oh, that's a good question. Well, I don't want to turn this show into a complete plug for Joshua Goldstein, but I would have to say... So aside from the academic papers and the great presentations... I mean, if anyone gets an opportunity to see anything that Jacopo and MIT are doing, they have some great learning materials. But I'd have to say, Joshua's book that he co-wrote with Staffan Qvist, who's a Swedish engineer... I think he's a nuclear engineer, in fact. It called... Now, the title escaped me, but it's basically how we solve climate change. It's a wonderful book. I think it came out probably around 2017, but it's still very current now.

Nick O'Hara [00:06:46] And in fact, I know that the film Nuclear Now really has its origins in that book. So, anyone who is kind of where I was two years ago and you're interested about issues around energy and climate change and how we decarbonize and how we move forward and meet the climate emergency challenges we face as societies, I would highly recommend that book as a good starting point. And finally, Joshua Goldstein, If you listening, you could send my check in the post, please, because I keep plugging in your projects.

Sarah Howorth [00:07:32] Perfect, and you're not the only one. I've heard that from multiple people at this point as it is such an amazing resource to learn. And that book, for those of you who want to go and check it out, it's called A Bright Future and it's definitely a good one to look through to develop your understanding of nuclear.

Nick O'Hara [00:07:49] I could tell this. I read it on the beach, on Miami Beach. And if that's not an image that maybe I want to leave listeners with, but it's so well-read, it's so accessible. It's covering technical detail, and as a communications professional I think this is so important. How do you convey technical and scientific content in non-technical ways to an uninitiated audience of people like me? I'm not an engineer, I'm not a scientist. But I devoured that book in two afternoons on Miami Beach, frankly.

Sarah Howorth [00:08:28] Yeah, that's amazing. Books are a great way to communicate that technical information in a really understandable way. And I would argue that podcasts also do the same thing, and we'll definitely get to talking about that a little more later as well. But before we get into that and before we talk about Gridlocked, which is what I know people want to hear about, give us a bit of a brief overview of your current work with Renovata. Tell us about that and what it's all about.

Nick O'Hara [00:08:59] Well, as grandiose as it may sound, Sarah, I want to see a more equitable world which operates sustainably, and I want to ensure that future generations can inherit viable societies in a livable planet. And so, that was, in a sense, the seed of Renovata. I established Renovata and brought in my business partner, Mark Havenner, about 18 months ago now so we could focus precisely on that and play our own small part. And increasingly, the work I do at Renovata has had more of an energy focus, more broadly, and nuclear in particular.

Nick O'Hara [00:09:47] I mean, I'm a public policy communications strategist by trade, by background. I could see that the external communications and media landscape that we operate in today is not the same as it was at the turn of the century. How we consume, how we produce content has changed almost beyond recognition just in the past decade or so alone. And to comms professionals listening, that distinction between paid media and marketing and advertising on the one hand and earned media, PR, public affairs on the other is so blurred now in this era of digital communications and social media. And as you just mentioned, it'd be great to talk about podcasting in the show.

Nick O'Hara [00:10:37] But that distinction, it's almost irrelevant now. And the name of the game is to produce relevant content on the right platforms such as thought leadership and podcasting and great blogs and essays and all the rest of it so people can find information at precisely the moment they need it. And I think the most effective way that we do that is to tell audiences stories that connect to their goals and their challenges and try and engage with them and demonstrate how we can solve those challenges and help them achieve their aspirations. And it's something I have to say, I think to be frank, I think a lot of PR agencies don't really understand the new landscape, and as a result, they don't deliver great results for their clients.

Nick O'Hara [00:11:27] So, Renovata was an attempt to try and address that and do things differently. And I think a lot of SME, small, medium-sized enterprises in particular, they may feel a bit trapped because they know that effective communications are more important to their business than ever before. So they're paying these handsome fees in monthly retainers to PR agencies, but they're not always getting a great deal by way of results. So instead, I would say to those people... I'm not saying all PR agencies are bad or a waste of money, but I think particularly, smaller companies should really look at how do they create an audience built on shared values and then generate that and engage them in two-way conversation. So, build a community around... And it could be a thought leadership piece; I think that's a great strategy right now.

Nick O'Hara [00:12:23] And really that leads on to Gridlocked, because Gridlocked is a discursive thought leadership platform centered around a podcast. But we're doing a lot of work that flows from the podcast, if that makes sense. Gridlocked is probably the most visible example of Renovata's approach and my approach to doing strategic communications in the 21st century.

Sarah Howorth [00:12:55] Absolutely. That's really well said. And I think going back to the beginning of your comments, I think your visions of equity and energy tie so well together because I think the driving factor for a lot of people in the energy sector, at least some, is public energy access and that being an equitable human right. So I think that's really well said and it's a great driving force to have as you move forward in your career and you produce and release more episodes of Gridlocked.

Nick O'Hara [00:13:25] Well, I hope so. We hope so. Mark and I and our colleague Rolake, who hosts the show with us, that's certainly what we're seeking to do moving forward.

Sarah Howorth [00:13:38] Yeah, so let's talk more about Gridlocked. How did the idea for the podcast come about and what motivated you to bring it from just an idea to now being an actual podcast?

Nick O'Hara [00:13:50] It was a team effort. I mentioned the relationship I had with Jacopo Buongiorno at MIT. And so, I brought Mark Havenner, my business partner in on a thought leadership project that we were doing with Jacopo and an MIT research affiliate called Rob Freda, and they're based in Boston. So Mark's in Los Angeles and I'm just outside London. I had a preexisting relationship with, actually, all of them, but I brought them together. And we wanted to create, as I said just now, that discursive platform. We wanted to take issues on energy and advanced production to a wider audience outside of the public policy and academic realm. It was actually Mark who suggested that a podcast could be the ideal platform because he's been immersed in podcasting for some years now, whereas the rest of us were quite new to it. And as I said before, we thought, "Let's create this podcast. We can build a lot of great engagement activity around that." So, it went from there, really.

Nick O'Hara [00:15:00] But in those early conversations, it became clear to all of us that whichever way you looked at the challenges we face in terms of climate change and the energy crisis, whether you looked at it from an economic, from an environmental, from a geopolitical perspective, particularly against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the one obstacle underpinning so many of the challenges that we face was the question of energy. So, that's how we decided that season one of Gridlocked would be on energy. But we really wanted to place it in a broader context of the more wide-ranging issues that are causing or holding societies back today. So it came to me that the term gridlock seemed to sum up the state we're in. And a lot of the messaging for the show came from that.

Nick O'Hara [00:16:02] We were talking about Joshua's book earlier. I started to think... And it's kind of how my brain works, but I thought about book covers, particularly those of popular economics or behavioral science books that you get, especially published in the US. And then the show strapline came to me, "Why the 21st century's broken and how to fix it." And the rest kind of fell into place from there.

Sarah Howorth [00:16:30] Yeah, it's incredibly catchy. I didn't even have to look at my notes in remembering the tagline. It's definitely something that sticks with you, and that's something that a lot of people are thinking about now. So, who can listeners look forward to hearing from who they might not have heard from already on the podcast? The first episode has been released, and we've talked about some of the voices that they're going to hear, but tell us a little bit about some of the others.

Nick O'Hara [00:16:57] We've released the intro episode only, not what I would call the substantive episodes where we really get into the different topics that we cover on this series on energy. So, what's available now? If Titans listeners can lend us their ears and go to gridlockedpodcast.com, they will hear the intro show which is Rolake, Mark, and I talking about Gridlocked more broadly. Many of the things I'm saying now, but also giving a preview of the energy season.

Nick O'Hara [00:17:37] I think we're at a point in history where a lot of us feel a sense despair and that things are broken, hence the tagline, but we don't know how to fix them. Or, those who do aren't getting the airtime that their ideas deserve. That actually really guided us in terms of the experts with the solutions that we wanted to get on the show. So, we've got a real mix of people. And as I said before, and forgive the shameless plug, but all one word, gridlockedpodcast.com. You'll see information on all of our contributors.

Nick O'Hara [00:18:14] We've got the most prominent living architect on the planet, I think I can safely say, Norman Foster. We've got Kerry Emanuel, who is a leading atmospheric and climate scientist. We've got Guillermo Trotti. When we sat down with him, as with other guests, we asked people, "Just briefly introduce yourself." And Guillermo's a lovely man, as all of our guests are, certainly others. And he says, "I'm Guillermo Trotti, I'm a space architect." And I just thought, "Well, that's got to be the coolest job title I've ever had in my life."

Sarah Howorth [00:18:51] Absolutely.

Nick O'Hara [00:18:52] So yeah, he's a design architect. He's worked on the International Space Station. We've got Dava Newman, who is Director of MIT Media Lab. Dava is wonderful, but all of our guests are wonderful, so I'm a bit cautious about describing each one in case it implies one is less wonderful. That's not the case. But Dava was appointed by President Obama to be the Deputy Administrator of NASA prior to her position now, heading up the Media Lab at MIT.

Nick O'Hara [00:19:25] And as I mentioned before, we've got two alumni of the Titans of Nuclear Podcast. We got Jacopo Buongiorno, MIT Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Joshua Goldstein, he's Professor Emeritus at American University. So Joshua, he keeps being described as a scientist, which I take issue with. Like me, his background is international relations. But he's on the show. Joshua was great. As I said before, he's got the film out, Nuclear Now, which is doing all of its opening sessions. In fact, he's doing what looks to me like a really grueling tour with Oliver Stone, doing all of these special showings followed by Q&A discussions.

Nick O'Hara [00:20:15] My goodness, we've got a lot of people. I'll mention some of them later, maybe, in our conversation. But if you go to gridlockedpodcast.com, you will be able to see all of our guests as well as some of the blogs I've written and some other information on the show. And I should just add, we might have one or two surprises up our sleeves in terms of unannounced guests. So, watch this space.

Sarah Howorth [00:20:41] Yeah, that's awesome to hear. I'll definitely keep an eye out for that and our listeners should as well. And then according to the experts, those in other fields like architecture, not necessarily with nuclear backgrounds, what did they think the present day nuclear industry should look like or be focusing on? What are just, in general, some of the most thought provoking things that you heard about the nuclear industry that you maybe didn't know already or what sort of opened your eyes to new ideas?

Nick O'Hara [00:21:13] That's a really good question. The season's on energy and nuclear is part of that conversation. But in a sense, our starting point isn't, "Let's talk about nuclear." It's, "Let's talk about the challenges we face." Really, if you think in terms of the climate emergency and against the backdrop of increasing global demand for energy, that kind of frames everything. And so, there is a logic there. You talk about decarbonization, then you get on to clean ways of producing energy.

Nick O'Hara [00:21:50] And I should also add that not everyone on the show would necessarily describe themselves as an advocate for nuclear energy. I do; I'm very upfront about that. But Gridlocked isn't about lobbying for a particular public policy outcome. So, it isn't a big exercise in advocating for one course of action or another, because we really want to have that conversation and that discussion based on facts and evidence. But ultimately, we want listeners to feel better informed and to make their own decisions on these issues. But yeah, there are lots of us on the show who are clearly... How could I say it? We're the crossover audience for Titans, really.

Nick O'Hara [00:22:41] But to your question, if I could talk personally, it strikes me that the nuclear industry has made great strides, particularly in recent times, I think, in communicating the benefits that clean, reliable, concentrated nuclear energy can provide for societies, especially the vital role that nuclear can play in our global efforts to combat climate change. If I think about the industry... Because I'm not in the industry, but I think about it from a communications or from more of a public policy perspective, and nuclear has got to continue to tell its positive story. And I think that the wider nuclear industry should get better at speaking with one coherent voice and advocate for nuclear as a whole, as well as for the specific different types, including large-scale reactors, small modular reactors, SMRs, micro reactors, nuclear batteries. Advocate for the whole piece because it's good for everyone, I think, inside the industry, but more importantly for society and for the planet.

Nick O'Hara [00:23:59] If I was advising the nuclear industry, I'd say, "Let's better coalesce around an agreed narrative, core messages from all parts of the sector." Because let's do the comparison. If you look at the fossil fuel industry and the wider renewables industries, they're streets ahead of nuclear when it comes to issues, advocacy, and lobbying. In fact, they seem to have formed a rather kind of unholy alliance, if I could put it that way. But they're better organized. They've effectively mobilized their supporters, their advocates.

Nick O'Hara [00:24:34] So nuclear, I think, is doing well, but it needs to up its game. And I'm really trying to play my small part in that as a concerned global citizen, really. But yeah, get better at telling the story. And particularly, I think, through the lives and the lived experience of real people. So for example, those who work in the nuclear sector and those folks in communities who live in the vicinity of nuclear power plants. And you know this, Sarah, all this connects with real human narratives, so let's start telling those human stories.

Nick O'Hara [00:25:11] And then, if I could just finish off maybe from a public policy perspective, because this is really important. The nuclear industry has to demonstrate to citizens like you and me and listeners of the show, but also key stakeholders in industrial sectors, national governments, regional intergovernmental organizations... Nuclear has to demonstrate how it can realize these public policy and these political climate targets and ambitions. For example, for net zero and the reduction or even the eradication of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear really has to... That would always be my starting point.

Nick O'Hara [00:25:52] And by the way, that's why I'm passionate about nuclear. You know, I don't fully understand the technology. I'm not a nuclear scientist, obviously. I don't need to be. Just as much as I don't need to understand how the technology in my cell phone, my mobile phone works. I just need to know that it enables me through apps. I can do so many things and I can use my Duolingo to practice my Spanish and I can book rail tickets and I can even make phone calls, amazingly. But the point is that the reason why I'm excited about nuclear is not only do I think it can save the planet, or rather, humanity, but it's that new future and the possibilities that nuclear can enable that new, clean, low-carbon future. And I really think that there's a great story to tell. And I think people are working hard and doing well in telling that story, but I think there's a lot more that can be done.

Sarah Howorth [00:26:54] Yeah, absolutely. And I think a lot of people, once again, would agree with you there. And one podcast producer to another, how can specifically podcasts and interviews, storytelling, communications, be important specifically to the nuclear industry?

Nick O'Hara [00:27:13] That's a good question. In fact before, if I may, there is another point here. I don't want to be guilty of doing the thing that I'm advising we stop doing, but if I could just say this to everyone in the nuclear industry or who cares about saving the planet. All the time that you spend trying to disprove a negative is time you're spending not winning an argument. And it's something that, for example, US presidential candidates have understood that for decades. So, if I could just put a plea out there, let's stop getting drawn into these specious arguments on safety and the disinformation about incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. They're not the cautionary tales that the opponents of nuclear want us to think that they are. They know what they're doing; they're just bogging us down on a defensive, and we can't tell that positive story.

Nick O'Hara [00:28:10] But to talk about those two examples that I've just mentioned, it's a bit like talking about road safety using a 1950s Ford motor car as our example. Just as today's cars have seat belts, they have airbags, they've anti-roll bars, they have anti-locking brakes systems, so too has nuclear technology moved on. And you don't hear airlines talking publicly about accidents that took place 40 years ago. They don't, and neither should the nuclear industry. These are not the cautionary tales that...

Nick O'Hara [00:28:45] I talked at the top of the show about my misperceptions. I don't want to get drawn into it, but people can go and just do a quick internet search and check the facts, the comparative safety records of nuclear against other forms, and you will see that nuclear is level pegging with wind and solar. So if nuclear's bad, then so are they. But then, your question was about podcasting, wasn't it?

Sarah Howorth [00:29:15] Yeah, but that was a great point, so thanks for sharing that.

Nick O'Hara [00:29:19] It's so important because... And you see it. And we will just spend... Let me give another piece of advice, if I may be so bold, to the nuclear industry. We cannot be here in five years time, ten years time, still on the back foot, talking about all these false narratives and false cautionary tales like the two I mentioned. I don't want to say too much because I'm not downplaying they were serious, but these were really important lessons learned. And nuclear has an incredible safety record. And partly, it has an incredible safety record because it's regulated to the hilt way beyond anything else.

Nick O'Hara [00:30:03] And if you look at coal, not only in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 emissions, which we're cramming more and more carbon, incredibly, which is causing all these issues. But just directly in terms of air quality, the particulates in the air that we breathe... The measures vary a bit, but it's around a million people are being killed every year from coal. We've got to stop it now. And nuclear is clean and we should be less defensive.

Nick O'Hara [00:30:36] But yeah, podcasting. I mean, look, I think podcasting is a great way of engaging with people. I think we respond to different mediums and there are different techniques. Sorry, I've lost my thread. Could you repeat the question? I've ruined your question, Sarah, by ranting about the nuclear safety record.

Sarah Howorth [00:31:10] No problem, no problem. You can't ruin a question with a good rant, so no worries there. But I was just asking how interviews, storytelling, and podcasts can really be important to the nuclear industry as we're sort of pushing this positive narrative forward?

Nick O'Hara [00:31:27] I think like we are today, because I think technical content, as I was saying before, scientific content... How do you convey that in a way that's engaging, that can resonate with people? And I think that having more, for want of a better description, these more human conversations, I think that's a great way of doing it. As I was saying before, we don't all need to understand the technology, but I think if we can understand how in this case, nuclear, how it can really transform our lives and build the kinds of societies of the future that we want, I think podcasting is a great way of getting that message out more widely.

Sarah Howorth [00:32:17] I certainly agree. Do you have any final thoughts about Gridlocked, thoughts about what you've learned recently that you want to share with listeners before we wrap up?

Nick O'Hara [00:32:32] That's a very good question. I'd encourage people to tune into the show because I think we've got a great show. I hope that we are really going to cover these issues. We're getting above the noise and the polarization that I think we face. Because we want to talk about these issues but not get into the sort of political divisions. It's so important because I think this climate emergency, it doesn't stop at borders, it doesn't stop at national jurisdictions, and it is pressing. We've got to act with urgency and we don't have time to waste. And frankly, we need solutions that are going to work now, which is why nuclear is so important. Let's get this show out and then maybe you can have me back on and we can talk about what you thought of it, and then we could look ahead to future seasons.

Sarah Howorth [00:33:46] Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's a great note to end it on. Definitely go and listen to Gridlocked. New episodes are coming out soon. We hope you enjoyed this podcast in addition to the other podcasts that you're going to be listening to about nuclear in the future. Thank you so much, Nick, for coming on the show.

Nick O'Hara [00:34:03] Pleasure to be with you. Thanks, Sarah.

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