June 12, 2023

Ep 408: Ryan Pickering - Independent Researcher, University of California, Berkeley

Independent Researcher
University of California, Berkeley
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Show notes

Hana Chabinsky [00:00:59] Hi, I'm Hana Chabinsky, and you're listening to another episode of the Titans of Nuclear Podcast. Today, I'm here with Ryan Pickering, an energy policy researcher and nuclear energy advocate. Ryan, welcome. It's great to have you on the show.

Ryan Pickering [00:01:14] Thank you, Hana. Good to be here.

Hana Chabinsky [00:01:16] Yeah, awesome. So before we talk about all the cool stuff you're doing now in the nuclear space, I would love to dive into your background a little bit, just start with the basic questions. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What type of interests did you have as a kid, as a student? Who are you?

Ryan Pickering [00:01:36] My name is Ryan Pickering. I'm here in Berkeley, California. And I was actually born in the state of New York on the Hudson River, right upriver from Indian Point Energy Center. I followed my father's career around and moved to Colorado and North Carolina. And then when I was seven, we moved to Silicon Valley. My father is a technologists with semiconductors, and my mom is just down for the ride. So, I moved around a lot when I was a kid, but I've been in California since I was seven years old.

Ryan Pickering [00:02:18] I went to university in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount. I studied political science and renewable engineering. I got a fabulous education there. And then in 2009, graduated into the... What was it known as, the recession at the time?

Hana Chabinsky [00:02:39] Like, the worst recession, yeah, something like that.

Ryan Pickering [00:02:42] But I immediately got into the solar industry. And so starting in 2009, I started building rooftop solar power systems in Los Angeles. And that led to a 13 year career in solar. And it even brought me back to the Bay Area to where I am today, building some batteries for SunPower Corporation, and some other rooftop systems and software.

Ryan Pickering [00:03:05] And then two years ago, I just caught that nuclear bug. I changed my mind about nuclear two years ago. I was really against it, and here I am today, still in Berkeley, working on nuclear advocacy and some other entrepreneurial concepts.

Hana Chabinsky [00:03:23] Amazing. So, it sounds like your dad had some influence on you. Was there any other influence before you went to school that sparked that interest with the energy sector, specifically? Or is it mostly your dad giving you a push and you thought what he was doing was really cool?

Ryan Pickering [00:03:41] My father always was interested in energy. We built motorcycles growing up. I did my science fair in seventh grade on wind turbines in California. I did my eighth grade science fair on gasoline engines. So, I've always been interested in energy. And from an early age, I always linked energy to politics.

Ryan Pickering [00:04:10] When I was advocating for wind energy in junior high, I talked to some local officials, and it really connected to me that even these elected officials who are not engineers are dictating, in some ways, the future of local energy, American energy, global energy. And studying political science in college and renewable engineering at the same time, those two have always been in tandem in my mind.

Hana Chabinsky [00:04:41] Yeah, that's very cool that you made that link so early. What did you think you were going to do, when you decided on those two degrees together? It makes sense now how those work together, but take me back to when you were 18. What did you think? Did you think you were going to be more on the legislative and policy side of things? What was on your mind then?

Ryan Pickering [00:05:04] I really wanted to be a college professor. I love academia and I just loved being on campus and eating in the cafeteria and being a nerd. And I wrote my thesis. I studied abroad in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. They have quite a bit of energy issues there as well. I studied Eskom, the state-run energy agency there. I wrote my thesis on transition justice in South Africa, moving from apartheid. And my thesis advisor, when I graduated, took me out to breakfast and he said, "Ryan, you just don't have what it takes to be a college professor. And I've just got to tell you that."

Hana Chabinsky [00:05:50] What didn't you have? What were the qualities he thought you were missing? I feel like you'd be a great college professor.

Ryan Pickering [00:05:56] Thanks. I do teach a club at UC Berkeley, and so I get to live that out. But he was actually saying that he thought I had a lot of charisma and thought I could make a difference in the business world. And that we need folks beyond academia. We need people making an impact. And he said he wishes someone had told him this and he wishes he would have followed a more entrepreneurial path. He talked about the politics of academia and how tiresome it is.

Ryan Pickering [00:06:30] I'm very... I'm a contrarian and I don't really like to get in line. And he's like, "You're not going to have a good time here." So maybe it wasn't that I didn't have what it takes, it's that I had a different skill set and he thought I should explore that. So, that really rocked me, and I immediately made a pivot to designing solar power systems. It's amazing when you get engaged by something, how quickly you can change. And that's happened multiple times in my life.

Hana Chabinsky [00:07:06] Well, I'm glad he ultimately gave you that advice. Who knows where you'd be now if not? I'm glad you're on the grounds and advocating and having that entrepreneurial spirit.

Hana Chabinsky [00:07:17] So, let's go back to... Okay, so you've gotten these degrees. You've had this political science with renewables and then you're into the solar industry. How did you get that little nuclear bug we were talking about earlier? When did that come and how did it come?

Ryan Pickering [00:07:42] I arrived at nuclear through my dedication to 100% renewable energy. I really dedicated myself to that outlook. I took some classes at Stanford University where a lot of these ideas are emanating from and learned about this wind, water, solar storage concept to power everything. And I really ran with that for a decade. I ran an Instagram account called SunPower Everything, and really felt that as long as we could solve the long duration energy storage issue, we could pull it off.

Ryan Pickering [00:08:24] And as I deepened my understanding of energy as a whole, and as I saw a lot of the challenges of rolling out industrial scale renewables and storage, that idea just started to unravel. And I didn't like that it required less energy. I like energy efficiency to an extent, but I didn't like some of the philosophies that were coming out of it about the depowering societies. And while I think the aesthetic of that is really strong... As a Californian, we don't like to see industry. We like bucolic, pastoral landscapes and we like to import our industry.

Ryan Pickering [00:09:15] But also in my work with social justice, I did a lot of organizing on the far left and was involved in the Sunrise Movement, Green New Deal, Extinction Rebellion, Democratic Socialists of America, some eco-anarchy groups. Because there was this feeling that we were just careening out of control into the future and we really had to dial it back and return to this much more simple lifestyle.

Ryan Pickering [00:09:54] When I get into something, I'm about it. I want to live it because I don't like proscribing things to other people's lives that I don't live myself. During this time, I moved to a yurt that I built outside of Los Angeles. So, I was living off the grid in a yurt with solar panels and batteries and farming in my backyard, experimenting with composting and graywater systems, and really trying to live this sustainability thing. And it just became very clear to me that that lifestyle is not available to working class people, to most people. And the only reason I was able to do it was because it was just me and I had a good job and I could live out this aesthetic, but it wasn't something that could scale, nor was it something that I could really prescribe to other people. And so, all of these things started creating fissures in my worldview, and I just couldn't...

Ryan Pickering [00:11:07] It started to not make sense. I moved to Berkeley, got more plugged in with a lot more ideas. And I was sitting in this chair, got a San Francisco Chronicle article about closing Diablo, and it really was that moment. I just read this article and they were talking about how much energy it generates. It's more than all rooftop solar in California combined. And the article pointed out that it had 40 years left on its useful life. It just doesn't make sense to me.

Ryan Pickering [00:11:47] So, I got involved in the Save Diablo movement and have really been amazed by the whole nuclear advocacy community. At some point, I got so distracted by it that I had to quit my job in solar and just start working on nuclear full time.

Hana Chabinsky [00:12:04] Wow, I feel like I could pull so many strands and threads out of that story. Did you feel like most of the fissures that you were talking about were self-prescribed, like you came to that on your own? Or, did you ever feel any sort of outside pressure like, "Hey, this world you're living in," or "No, I don't think solar can be the 100% answer to this problem." Did anybody from outside come in and challenge your view, or did it mostly feel like you were doing that work on your own?"

Ryan Pickering [00:12:37] I definitely was challenged by being a part of Democratic Socialists of America and really centering on disadvantaged voices and labor. And what's interesting about the far left is that they're generally anti-nuclear. I think that's changing. And they're very pro-renewable. But I started seeing this disconnect because as I focused on labor and renters' rights... You know, I wasn't building solar for renters, I was building solar and storage for rich people.

Ryan Pickering [00:13:15] I think it really did come to a head with this debate about net metering in California, solar net metering. In the past, we've really subsidized solar. Not just from a financial standpoint, but also the ability to send energy to the grid and get credits for that. And really, only middle class to wealthy people were getting that advantage. And we did see some evidence that everyone else who was a renter or just couldn't get solar for one reason or another... You know, most homes can't get solar because of the architecture or the trees around it. I was like... this seems like a regressive tax against working-class people.

Ryan Pickering [00:13:59] And so, nuclear fit in really nicely to that because it works a couple of hundred miles away and everyone gets clean energy and you don't have to modify your home at all. And so, that was one of the primary factors that really made nuclear make sense to me and made me overcome my anti-nuclear bias, which I did have, growing up in California. I really just didn't even think about nuclear. It was never... It was always viewed as this ancient technology that we didn't need anymore because we had something better and easier and cooler and more feel-good.

Hana Chabinsky [00:14:37] Yeah, I don't think you're alone in that at all. I don't remember studying nuclear in school. None of my friends really did. It just wasn't touched on much. It wasn't talked about. I think there's a lot of people with you there.

Hana Chabinsky [00:14:50] So yeah, any type of career leap can be scary. What convinced you? What was the ultimate thing that convinced you that you had to take this leap in your career from solar to nuclear? Was it you were getting so distracted you didn't have time to even worry about solar anymore? Was it hard to make that leap after dedicating 13 years to the solar industry?

Ryan Pickering [00:15:15] No, it wasn't hard. I'm so ideologically motivated that I have to be working on what I'm interested in. Thankfully, I had worked tremendously hard and saved really aggressively. Like, living in a yurt is pretty affordable. And so, I had saved a lot of money and I was ready. I had always been envisioning something else. I had been saving aggressively for that, so obviously, that takes some pressure off.

Ryan Pickering [00:15:45] As soon as I started looking into nuclear, though I am an advocate and public servant, I'm also very entrepreneurial and I see so many business opportunities. Not just to design new reactors, but all the ancillary services that come along with nuclear, both existing and new, and just energy in general. I had the support of my family. I have these great entrepreneurial concepts that I'm still exploring.

Ryan Pickering [00:16:08] And I think also from a social standpoint, the pro-nuclear movement is this totally cool upstart thing with all these great characters who are looking for community. And so, that made it easy as well, because leaving an idea might be easy, but leaving the community is harder. Leaving all the people I knew in solar was really challenging. Thankfully, a lot of the folks in solar are now coming over to nuclear. I didn't burn bridges or anything, but I was also complimented by all these incredible nuclear advocates around the world who I've loved meeting over the last two years.

Hana Chabinsky [00:16:48] Nice. Can you talk about that exact transition? Where did you get started to even find that community that you're talking about embraced you pretty quickly? What was your first step? Like, if there's somebody listening and wanting to do the same thing, where should they start to find that community?

Ryan Pickering [00:17:08] The podcasts. Titans of Nuclear. It's funny, just two years ago I was on this road trip just listening to like 40 Titans of Nuclear episodes and just starting to piece it all together. I love to see... I love the patchwork quilt of any movement.

Ryan Pickering [00:17:27] And then, LinkedIn. I really started clicking around on LinkedIn and networking with people. And thankfully, I got connected with the folks at Stand Up for Nuclear, a Berkeley-based advocacy group. And they were like, "Hey, you should fly to Brussels next week. We're going to do a stand up event to save the Belgian nuclear reactors." I was like, "Okay, I'm freshly unemployed. Let's go."

Ryan Pickering [00:18:00] And so, I flew out to Belgium, met a lot of nuclear advocates from around the world. I reflect now, it's incredible. I mean, these are some of the global nuclear advocates and we're just a bunch of random people throwing this tiny rally right outside the train station in Brussels. And while I was there, everyone loved that I was from solar and had this conversion story. And they're like, "Come to Berlin in a couple of months. We're going to do a Berlin rally." And I was like, "Okay."

Ryan Pickering [00:18:30] So I went to Berlin, met more people. Really networked with a lot of Germans. I met some people who are really my friends now, at a deep level. They got me up on stage. They were like, "Hey, talk about California nuclear and saving Diablo." This was November, 2021. I'm up on stage. And in all this experience in throwing rallies to save nuclear reactors, behind the scenes, we were working to save Diablo.

Ryan Pickering [00:19:00] I got involved with Mothers for Nuclear, which is an amazing nonprofit based in California. Save Clean Energy, Isabelle Boemeke's group. Generation Atomic... And all of these groups came and converged and they're like, "We're going to throw a rally in San Luis Obispo, California to save Diablo in December, 2021." So, I was fresh off these other rallies and we came and really nailed it, I think.

Hana Chabinsky [00:19:33] Yeah, that was the biggest pro-nuclear rally in the US. And you were coming off all the hype from Germany and Belgium. Like, what an amazing few months. How did you take lessons from one rally to another rally to another rally? What were lessons you learned and how did you improve?

Ryan Pickering [00:19:57] Well, I learned a lot from organizing on the far left, and I've done many rallies against banks and fossil fuels and stuff. And so, one thing I've learned is that you've got to be excited. You can't just be like sitting in the crowd. You've got to yell out like, "Yeah!" when someone says something on the mic, and be smiling and nodding along. Body language really impacts... Like, if people are feeling it... Like, you go to a show and everything's lame, then... It's electric; you can create that. So, I like to be a hype man and just be so supportive of folks. So, that was one thing.

Ryan Pickering [00:20:41] And also, like packing, getting people close to the stage instead of... Everyone always wants to stay way on the perimeter, but that's not how you do it. You've got to get in there. You've got to get this crowd energy going, and that draws more people in.

Ryan Pickering [00:20:55] But also, doing the work and planning and making splashy things that the press can photograph and pick up on. Because sure, it's about the couple hundred people who are at the rally, but it's also about the tens of thousands of people who are going to see the press about it. And you've got to be mindful of that. And it's got to create a narrative that people can sign onto. And so, making something that's palatable and can move the needle, I think is really important.

Ryan Pickering [00:21:27] And credit to Isabelle Boemeke. She really had this vision for this rally and created the scene to make this thing pop. She had some props and, obviously, she blew up this huge blimp. It had just enough gravitas to make it "wow." And so, there's that aspect.

Ryan Pickering [00:21:50] And then, there's also the aspect of tying into the community. And I think this is something that advocates struggle with because we get so into creating this event. But I think some of the important things are to find out the elected officials in the area, get them invited. At Diablo, we stood outside of Diablo Canyon Power Plant for a week leading up to it giving out fliers to every employee in their car. As they were driving away, getting of work, we were like, "Come to this rally. Come to this rally." And making sure that your target audience feels addressed.

Ryan Pickering [00:22:26] As many people know, people who work in nuclear are not very good advocates for nuclear because a lot of their employers don't want them talking to the media unless they have media training, which is ridiculous. Who does that? And so, you see a lot of hesitancy, but you still have to give folks the opportunity to stand up. You know, connecting with local officials. We had a very prominent local elected official named Dawn Ortiz-Legg speak at the rally. And I thought that really tied it into the community. So, it wasn't just like a bunch of Californians trying to co-opt, but it was tied into the community.

Ryan Pickering [00:23:09] And finally, I think my most important contribution to this movement was connecting with the local Indigenous tribe in San Luis Obispo. Just doing a little research, I remember having this thought like, "I wonder who lived here before Westerners arrived. What's their opinion on all this?" And I just found them on the internet and they were immediately receptive. I found an email box, sent them something saying, "Hey, I'm part of this movement to save Diablo. I would love to get your thoughts."

Ryan Pickering [00:23:48] I came pretty humble. I said, "I'm sure that you have a long history here and I'm not aware of it, and I'd like to learn." And that's how I met yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini, Northern Chumash tribe. They've lived in the area for over 10,000 years. They go by ytt for short. They're very deep in the community. They're not a federally recognized tribe, but they have a lot of state recognition. They have a bunch of dormitories at the local university named after them. They have their own language. They're well documented at the Smithsonian. And I learned that ytt people helped build Diablo Canyon, 45 years ago. I learned that ytt people work at the plant today. And I learned, most importantly, that ytt people were seeking to get the land back around Diablo Canyon and had been doing this for decades, and that this is part of a much larger narrative for the tribe.

Ryan Pickering [00:24:56] Credit to the pro-nuclear community. We met with the tribe early on and have been mindful of them and learning their perspective. And there's a lot of nuance, just listening and learning and not trying to prescribe something to them, not trying to make them pro-nuclear or anything, just listening. And I have been nothing but impressed by the collective effort of the Save Diablo movement to be open. Instead of taking some vindictive tone, instead just being like, "Tell me more," and just being curious and optimistic.

Ryan Pickering [00:25:36] And so, I wish ytt people the best of luck in their effort to reclaim their ancestral homelands. They've met with the governor of California, and they actually met with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last night before a local NRC meeting. So, it's great to see our state government and our federal government listening to the agency of Indigenous people in the United States. And I think it will change history, ultimately.

Hana Chabinsky [00:26:07] Yeah, that's incredible. Can you talk more about the next steps for Diablo? Or, maybe we should go back a little bit and talk about how we got to Diablo in the first place and why it was going offline in the first place. It's such an amazing plant and it fuels so many communities. Why was it going offline? What's the short answer or long answer to that?

Ryan Pickering [00:26:33] Yeah, it's a tremendous history. I encourage you to look up a YouTube video I published on this, a lecture that I made at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo about the history of Diablo Canyon all the way from Indigenous times to today. California nuclear is fascinating because in the '60s, there was a plan to power all of California on nuclear. And that shocks people to even hear. It's a history that we've quickly forgotten. There were 16 sites planned, and we were going to be exporting power. And this was supported by the Sierra Club at the time.

Ryan Pickering [00:27:14] And it all centered around Diablo. All of those projects were canceled except for San Onofre and Laguna Seca, or whatever that one in Sacramento was called. But you know, that dream fell apart, but Diablo has stayed as this symbol. And it was so heavily protested when we were building it 40 years ago... I mean, the anti-nuclear movement probably started in New York to a certain extent, but really became real in California as an aesthetic, as a movement. And the people who were protesting Diablo when it was starting are still protesting it today. They're in their '80s. Groups like Mothers for Peace and the NRDC and The Friends of Earth, which spun out of the The Sierra Club because of a disagreement over Diablo Canyon. So this history is living today.

Ryan Pickering [00:28:17] Saving Diablo is more than just that plant. It's kind of like saving this nuclear dream. But in a very real way, we are short on energy in California. And unfortunately, that's what has made the difference. The governor, smart people at the CPU, the California Public Utilities Commission, and even at the California Energy Commission, which is like an anti-nuclear agency of the California government, they're all like, "Hey, Governor Newsom, we will have power outages if you don't extend this plant."

Hana Chabinsky [00:28:53] And there were. There were rolling blackouts all throughout California, for sure.

Ryan Pickering [00:28:59] Yes. Energy has always been a big deal in California. We impeached the governor in the late '90s over energy shortages and Enron. And that moved the needle, but it also is all happening during this nuclear enlightenment that's happening. And like, "Should we look at nuclear again?" And it immediately transitioned to this Legalize Nuclear campaign in California, which we can talk about.

Ryan Pickering [00:29:25] But the fight for Diablo is ongoing. Advocates and I called into an NRC meeting last night and many people showed up in person. The NRC meeting was in San Luis Obispo, right across the street from the courthouse where we held the rally. And we ran out of time. There were so many people trying to make comments. We couldn't even make time. But it was more than 2 to 1 in favor of extending Diablo. But decisions to close nuclear power plants are difficult to undo. It's not just one person's call. It's multiple agencies, federal and state, working together. And you've got to show up.

Ryan Pickering [00:30:07] That, to credit our movement, is what we've done best. Show up to every single relevant meeting, whether it's the National Resources meeting or all those other agencies that I mentioned, it's calling in and providing a counter-narrative to the handful of anti-nuclear people who call in and make it seem like the whole California sentiment is against nuclear, when in reality, it's very split. And both sides deserve to be heard, and our side is winning because we have a younger, more optimistic tone that's more inclusive and centered on social justice. Because the cost of energy impacts the cost of everything. And Diablo Canyon has been documented as the cheapest energy source in California. It's also our largest energy source.

Ryan Pickering [00:30:56] So, blackouts are a social justice issue. Obviously, it hurts disadvantaged communities most. But also, raising the cost of energy. We have the most expensive electricity in the continental United States in California. Shutting down Diablo will obviously hurt that. And so, we have this cost of living crisis. We just have a lot going for us, and we're trying to amalgamate all of those things together into this optimistic movement that includes nuclear in our future.

Hana Chabinsky [00:31:28] Yeah, definitely. And I would love to touch on... You have this beautiful story of saving Diablo, but not every plant is so lucky. I do want to touch on Indian Point as well and what happened there. It was powering a quarter of New York City for 59 years and then it goes offline. I can't fathom why this happens. I think you touched a lot on it before, but when you don't save these plans, what lessons are learned from those experiences too?

Ryan Pickering [00:32:01] Yeah, Indian Point Energy Center was a real wakeup call to the pro-nuclear community. I don't think the movement really existed. I would say that the closure of Indian Point really instigated the pro-nuclear movement because it was like, "Wow, we can lose these resources if a handful of anti-nuclears just show up. Especially if they're funded by a couple NGOs so that they're paid to show up." It was clear to the beginning that it was like assassinated. And that was really scary.

Ryan Pickering [00:32:47] I think it was the impetus for something bigger. It's hard to talk about. It's so deeply tragic, as you said. And it feels similar to what's going on in Germany and all these other closure movements around the world. It's so deeply misguided. You've got to show up. And people did not show up for Indian Point. And credit to the anti-nuclears, they really did.

Ryan Pickering [00:33:12] The Indian Point saga still continues. The anti-nuclear folks are trying to delay the decommissioning over like a thimble full of tritiated water that they want to release into the river. And hundreds of people show up with t-shirts saying, "Over my dead body will you dump nuclear waste in the Hudson River." And I'm like, "Well, that is effective messaging, but it's just not right." And we need to counter that and we need to show up.

Ryan Pickering [00:33:43] And like I said, the nuclear industry has not done a good job advocating for itself. I'm very critical of the nuclear industry. I used to blame everything on anti-nuclears and fossil fuels and the NRC. But also, there's plenty of critique for the nuclear industry itself for not painting a narrative that more people could sign up for. And coming from the solar industry, I know what that looks like. We painted a beautiful narrative and now the whole world wants it. And now we're trying to walk it back and be like, "Well, we weren't trying to power all of society. We were just... This kind of off-grid aesthetic." Anyway, we have to be cooler, we have to be more organized, we have to tell a better story and back it up by holding nuclear companies accountable to do just a phenomenal job. In many ways they have done a good job, but they have to do better, and advocates will hold them to that.

Hana Chabinsky [00:34:43] Yeah, definitely. I think that makes sense. And so, what strategies have you found to effectively communicate that pro-nuclear message and dispel misconceptions in a productive way? Obviously, when you're talking to somebody who's so anti-nuclear, it's hard to get through. But when you're talking to somebody who is just a little uneducated, like their aunt, their mom, their dad have this somewhat anti-nuclear sentiment, they're of course going to adopt that without doing much research. I'm talking about that stakeholder, that person. How do you dispel those misconceptions?

Ryan Pickering [00:35:25] I think there's a reason why some of the most powerful advocates were formerly anti-nuclear. Because we're coming from a place of empathy. And I tell people, I've been anti-nuclear most of my life, and I recently changed my mind on nuclear. And I begin with compassion. I try to listen to where they're at. I think a lot of nuclear advocates have all these canned responses and they just launch at people and say, "Oh, here are all these facts." And it doesn't land. And so, I just say, "Oh, I used to be anti-nuclear too. Where are you coming from?"

Ryan Pickering [00:36:10] This nuclear narrative is so complex and far reaching. And what I find is people have just these very specific experiences that are influencing their feelings, or they just have this general paranoia. But at least they'll let you know what their objection is. Is it nuclear waste? Is it nuclear weapons? Is it some of the incidents in the past? Is it feelings of cancer or feelings that we've gone too far as a society and we need to go back to the earth? Like, where are you coming from? And then whatever they're saying, I've got empathy for it, because I've felt all of those things in my life. And I still feel them. Being pro-nuclear... Sometimes I wake up and I'm like, "Am I into this? Like, this is so against the grain. Can I really hold on?" And so, I think starting with compassion.

Ryan Pickering [00:37:03] And then, providing great information. Not some anecdotal baloney, like real information. There's now so much good stuff out there that we can point them to. And then, make it feel like it's their choice. Like, I'm not going to push you to it. We all share the energy grid. We all need to contribute in this.

Ryan Pickering [00:37:30] And talking about energy blindness, which is a concept that I'm really interested in. Energy blindness, this idea that we enjoy this super high-energy lifestyle. We can barely perceive all the energy that's brought this world together for us. We're slowly becoming enlightened to these energy systems. And we can learn it together. And it's not too complicated for you to understand. We're dictating the future now. Let's build something really cool together. And I find that strategy to be very effective.

Hana Chabinsky [00:38:12] Cool. So it sounds like you don't really have an elevator pitch when it comes to it. It's listen first, hear what they have to say, and then tailor your message accordingly. I feel like when I'm talking to people, waste is the number one thing that comes out when I'm like, "Why are you anti-nuclear?" So if you're talking to somebody and you're doing your listening first approach and they're saying, "Waste seems like an issue." Okay, what are the facts? What's the really good information you're giving them there?

Ryan Pickering [00:38:41] I say, "That is a critical issue and something that I've been really interested in. I've done quite a quite a bit of research about it. I'd love to share it with you." At the end of the day, I was surprised to learn that nuclear waste is not this glowing goo, it's actually a metal and ceramic pellet that used to be in the reactor. And then they take it out once it's no longer making energy for that reactor. They store that pellet in a giant metal cylinder that is sealed until the federal government is ready to reprocess it in some way.

Ryan Pickering [00:39:18] And I was really surprised when I saw what nuclear waste actually was. It made me feel a lot more comfortable. And I'm very critical of the federal government because they have not provided a clear path for our citizens or a clear explanation of what's happening with this waste. But I am excited to see that the federal government is now performing something called a consent-based siting program in which different communities can volunteer to store this spent nuclear fuel, as many call it, until the federal government is ready to reprocess it. And my family actually applied for a consent-based siting at their farm in California. So, we have an application in with the federal government to store some of America's spent nuclear fuel out behind our plum orchard.

Hana Chabinsky [00:40:07] And then, I would say, "Whoa, that's so cool. I never knew that. And now I'm pro-nuclear." I love that answer. That was great. Thanks for taking me through that. I might have to use a little bit of that for next time when I get that question.

Ryan Pickering [00:40:20] Well, you can always apply to store nuclear waste at your home. It's available to you. I don't think you'll win the tender.

Hana Chabinsky [00:40:28] I'm a renter right now, so maybe in the future. Maybe I can tell my parents to look into it.

Ryan Pickering [00:40:34] The program does not require land ownership, at least on the first application. But yeah, I try not to be flippant about it. Sometimes I say, "Literally put it in my garage. You could pay me $60 a month or something like that." And people are like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa." And sometimes I am tempted to be flippant about a lot of these things because a lot of these objections we've heard before and we're like, "It's so irrelevant." So, I try to push back against that and be earnest in my responses when I can.

Hana Chabinsky [00:41:06] Yeah, that's interesting since I feel like the "not in my backyard" sentiment is so strong. You're like, "No, literally put it in my backyard. I would love that. That sounds great."

Ryan Pickering [00:41:15] I say it frequently and it's not very well-received. People think I'm not being serious. But I am. I'm like, "Put in a beautiful cask."

Hana Chabinsky [00:41:26] Plant some flowers around there, it would be good. Good to go.

Ryan Pickering [00:41:29] I've seen multiple instances of the areas where they stored spent fuel. The one at Diablo. I've also been to Indian Point in New York and seen those casks. And they said the only issue is that like things like to nest near them because they're slightly warm. They have to clear out bird nests and squirrel nests because they're a nice place to be.

Hana Chabinsky [00:42:00] I mean, they're squirrel and bird approved. It's like a warm, beautiful place to live.

Ryan Pickering [00:42:02] There you go.

Hana Chabinsky [00:42:03] Very cool. So, I'm really intrigued by the title Nuclear Advocate, such a strong, powerful job title almost. So, if that was a job role posted online, what sorts of responsibilities and objectives or character traits would be listed in that description?

Ryan Pickering [00:42:26] Well, that's an interesting question because it's an unpaid position.

Hana Chabinsky [00:42:32] Okay, internship. Unpaid internship. I'm interested. What else is in there?

Ryan Pickering [00:42:37] Yeah, I would say it's the ability to keep up with WhatsApp groups because most nuclear advocacy just a bunch of WhatsApp groups with volunteers working on different aspects of nuclear advocacy. And sometimes it's very overwhelming. The Save Diablo Group has like 100 messages a day, every day, always.

Ryan Pickering [00:43:06] Being able to contribute to that soberly and understanding what's important today and having respect for other people's time. We've had to chastise people who are too active in the chat because it's like, "Hey, we've got to keep this place for critical communications. If you want to talk about that, you should go create another group." So we have like a catch all group, like a wonks group for people to just nerd out. But it's all volunteers. And so, I think that's one thing.

Ryan Pickering [00:43:47] And then, the ability to understand data. The ability to write. I think nuclear advocacy has a bunch of great writers. And everyone's writing in different places. Obviously, we're very active on Twitter. I can't do Twitter. I'm just not quippy enough. I'm not pithy enough. So I publish on LinkedIn. We have a LinkedIn group where we brainstorm about ways to talk about nuclear to the business community. I think it's been very effective. I think it's probably why I'm on this podcast right now. That has been the platform for me to communicate my transition from solar to nuclear.

Ryan Pickering [00:44:28] So I think writing, reading, listening to podcasts, and speaking soberly and in an informed way, both privately and in public. There's a public speaking dynamic where we have to call in to these meetings and represent this movement and not sound unhinged, but instead sound informed and concerned.

Hana Chabinsky [00:44:56] Yeah, definitely. And going off of that, what are some nuclear advocates our listeners could follow on social media that you love or organizations? What are your favorite resources? I'm thinking of a person listening here who just wants to get started. They're inspired by your story and a little bit overwhelmed where to start, or maybe there's not a great place to start. Do you have any advice, any insight there?

Ryan Pickering [00:45:19] I would say nuclear advocacy is a choose your own adventure game. You should do the research and patch it together for yourself and make those connections that happen naturally. If we're all saying the same thing and all showing up at the same place, that's not effective. A movement needs many different groups saying similar things and showing up in different places. And so, I would say just get in how you fit in. But, shout out Mothers for Nuclear, who have just provided a lot of leadership to our group. Maybe leadership is not the right word. It's been more of like an example and just living it.

Hana Chabinsky [00:46:12] A real case study.

Ryan Pickering [00:46:13] Yeah. And just the way they talk about... They're so disciplined to keeping the message positive. Because it gets negative a lot. It's very frustrating to be a pro-nuclear advocate because of all of the things we've discussed. But they really do a good job. And even they catch themselves. They're like, "Hey, that was too negative of a take. I was frustrated. Here's how I'm feeling now." There's a lot of grace involved in nuclear and we've all said some stupid stuff and had some foot and mouth moments. And so, grace and forgiveness is also important. And just knowing that we're all trying to row the same direction.

Ryan Pickering [00:46:54] But Mothers for Nuclear, follow them. Stand Up for Nuclear here in Berkeley and around the world, very powerful organization. Generation Atomic has done a great job. Save Clean Energy is doing some specific work around Diablo. But also, Isabelle's doing a lot of work with Isodope. She was involved in the Nuclear Now film, which we're hoping is really going to move the needle. There are other lobbyist groups like Fission Transition and Californians for Green Nuclear Power. These are wonkier groups that are reviewing legislation and equipping lobbyists with what they need to make a difference in capital buildings.

Ryan Pickering [00:47:37] Americans for Nuclear, Phil Ord. Definitely follow Phil. He takes like a pretty hard line on nuclear energy. It's just one of the many voices that we have in our group kind of rowing in a similar direction. And then, a new group like Fire2Fission, which is a lot of fossil fuel people who are getting into nuclear. What does that look like for a just transition of fossil fuels to nuclear? So, I would just start clicking around and see what you can find.

Hana Chabinsky [00:48:14] Cool. That's great advice. We're getting toward the end, but I just want to ask you what is your vision for the future of nuclear energy in the US and abroad? What are your thoughts on the recent trajectory of nuclear? Let's be a little bit forward looking here. What's the best case scenario?

Ryan Pickering [00:48:36] I think the best case scenario is that young people get involved and see this opportunity and we push back against this nihilism that's happening. I spent my whole 20s thinking that the world was and is ending. And that is a very heavy place to operate from. And I see a lot of young people operating from that today. We deserve to have filled, meaningful lives. The planet will survive. Climate change is certainly real and we will adapt to it, but we have the power to dictate the future. And I hope to see more leaders arise and get into places of power and advocate for this.

Ryan Pickering [00:49:24] Based on my research, if humanity is going to survive and thrive, I think that most of the planet will be powered by nuclear fission a hundred years from now. Operating with that confidence and knowing it's all going in this direction, it's like how cool can we make it? How smooth and how abundant how affordable and how inclusive and how thoughtful can we make this transition to fission? So I try to wake up and embody that and have that confidence. And I see it so much in podcasters like Nuclear Barbarians and Decouple and Titans for Nuclear. So many people operating with this confidence and seeing this long-term vision.

Ryan Pickering [00:50:14] I find that zooming out and having a long-term vision gives me a lot of solace. And when I get really focused on some of the challenges of today, that's when I get all bent out of shape. So, I hope that young people can find optimism and meaning in this nuclear powered future. And not necessarily even working in nuclear, but working on a planet that has abundant clean energy for everyone, not just Americans, but all the developing world. I just find that future to be irresistible, and hope that we can illustrate that to the world. Because these ideas are floating around, abundance and this beautiful future, but we just haven't quite connected the dots to back to nuclear fission. And I look forward to doing that with patience, and I hope other people find that path as well.

Hana Chabinsky [00:51:18] Yeah, definitely. Thank you for sharing that. And if you would, could you give us any sort of peek into any projects or initiatives you will be part of in the near future? Are there any technologies you're particularly passionate about that are intriguing you right now? Just anything you can share with us.

Ryan Pickering [00:51:39] Well, I am an entrepreneur and I look forward to launching that company in about nine months from now. I've got to keep it in the garage for now. I'm raising capital from investors and trying to get that all figured out. And that's been a beautiful journey for me and a lot of self-growth through that. So, maybe a year from now you can have me back on.

Hana Chabinsky [00:52:00] Definitely. I'll take you up on that.

Ryan Pickering [00:52:03] Thank you. But as far as advocacy goes, I'm addicted to it. And I'm sure my investors don't want to hear that, but I'll always be rooted in advocacy because it gives me insight. And it's part of all of our jobs to stand up for this stuff. And so, we are working on a repeal of the nuclear moratorium in California. And while this is so outrageous to people, we don't even care if it's successful because we know that California has an influence on the world. The world needs to see that Californians see this opportunity. And whether we win or lose, it's our responsibility to show up in that way.

Ryan Pickering [00:52:43] I mentioned I work for a club at UC Berkeley called NICE Club, Nuclear Is Clean Energy. We had our last meeting of the semester before summer break last night. My associate, colleague, fellow volunteer Brendan Pittman presented his plan to repeal the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act of 1986. The people of Berkeley voted to basically outlaw all nuclear sciences in a paranoia of nuclear weapons, which I can really get down with. So, we're taking a modernized approach and we're saying like, "Yeah, we don't like nuclear weapons. And here's how we're going to use nuclear sciences to defeat nuclear weapons." And so, we're going to try to get that on the ballot in 2024, and really focus on the grassroots.

Ryan Pickering [00:53:44] Are we going to build nuclear reactors in Berkeley? Maybe someday. Is this going to get a bunch of nuclear reactors built around the world? I don't know. But it is important to get these little wins and to show up at every level. I think that's how grassroots works. So, we need 4,000 signatures from Berkeley residents. If anyone's in Berkeley, we would love to get that signed. Our petition is going to come out in two months. And so, we'll work at that and then hopefully that can lead to other legalized movements in California and around the world.

Hana Chabinsky [00:54:20] Nice. Anyone listening from Berkeley, you are now absolutely required to be signing. Okay, well, thank you so much. And it must be so inspiring to see those students in NICE Club there showing up and being the next generation of pro-nuclear advocates. That's super exciting. Are there any other final messages that you'd like to share before before we sign off?

Ryan Pickering [00:54:49] This movement needs to continue to grow. And right now we are just a handful of people and we're really not at these conversations. We feel like they're happening. And they are, and I'm not going to de-legitimize that. But we're not in the zeitgeist yet. We're not even close. And we need to move to critical mass. And so, if you're hearing this, in your own way, we need to figure out how to grow this movement. And we need to operate with confidence and elevate our effort. We've just been a bunch of nerds for so long, but it's got to be more than that. And so, I challenge everyone when we're talking about nuclear publicly, hold yourself accountable because this is a world changing idea. We can have fun with it, but we also need to be really inclusive because this movement is going to grow.

Ryan Pickering [00:55:49] We don't want to be like those people who liked that band before it got big and then the band gets big and we're like, "We don't even like them anymore." No, we have to be like, "Yeah, this band is for everyone and we're so happy to have you on board." And be respectful in the WhatsApp groups.

Hana Chabinsky [00:56:11] Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Ryan. It was a pleasure talking to you. I feel like I learned a lot. I'm so excited to be connected with you and your journey and just good luck on everything you're doing.

Ryan Pickering [00:56:23] Thank you for this platform, Hana. Thank you to Titans of Nuclear for compiling all of this information for advocates around the world to tap into.

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