Ep 424: Will Shackel - Founder, Nuclear for Australia
Sarah Howorth [00:00:59] Welcome back to another episode of Titans of Nuclear. I'm Sarah, and today I'm joined by Will Shackel, the founder of Nuclear for Australia. Will's a part of our series highlighting young, influential leaders in the nuclear industry. Will, welcome.
Will Shackel [00:01:15] Thank you very much for having me on today, Sarah.
Sarah Howorth [00:01:18] Yeah, it's great to have you. So, I want to start off by just getting to know you before we talk about all the great work that you've been doing lately. So, tell us about yourself. Did you grow up in Australia?
Will Shackel [00:01:30] Yes, I did grow up in Australia. So, I'm Will Shackel. I'm a 17 year old from a little-known Australian city called Brisbane, which is in Queensland for anyone who's familiar with it. I've actually had an interesting experience. I was born in Sydney, Australia, which people are probably a bit more familiar with. I lived in Chicago for a few years in the United States and then came back to Sydney before finally ending up in Brisbane. And recently, I've become interested in the issue of nuclear energy as the Australian Government has a deeply-rooted opposition to nuclear energy. And as a result of that, I decided to start Australia's first youth-led campaign for the ban on nuclear energy to be lifted called Nuclear for Australia.
Sarah Howorth [00:02:20] So, you mentioned you're still in school. Did you learn anything at all about nuclear through school, or has this always just been a passion project on the side?
Will Shackel [00:02:32] Well, I guess when your country has a ban on nuclear energy, it's very unlikely you're going to hear anything about it in the education system, and that's certainly my experience. I'm a Year 11 student, and there have been very few, if any, mentions of nuclear energy. And there's certainly nothing about nuclear energy currently in the curriculum, which I think's a real shame, especially when as a country we're looking at being increasingly involved in the nuclear industry.
Will Shackel [00:03:03] And whilst we still have that ban on nuclear power, you look at things like Orcas, the nuclear submarines. We need to make sure that Australian children, Australian students, are educated in nuclear science and aware that the industry even exists and what nuclear energy is if we want to have those skills for the future which will be required for those submarines, and also, if one day the ban on nuclear energy was to be lifted. So look, then you probably get to the question of how did I even hear about nuclear energy and why did I become interested?
Sarah Howorth [00:03:38] Yeah, exactly.
Will Shackel [00:03:41] So, I didn't get that at school. I guess with Google and the internet you get access to a lot more information these days. And I guess just by chance, I came across nuclear energy on the internet. I saw some of Michael Shellenberger's talks. Clearly, he had a lot of traction in this and I decided to investigate it a bit further.
Will Shackel [00:04:04] I did an assignment on it in Year 6, read some articles about it, thought it was interesting, and was simply very, very confused why Australia would oppose, from my perspective, what was almost a perfect solution, a technology that was able to solve both issues, the climate and energy crisis. And I think after that, last year in Grade 10 I did an assignment on it again. And at school holidays I had some time to spare and decided to put that time into starting this campaign.
Sarah Howorth [00:04:38] Yeah, that's awesome. Tell me a little bit about those assignments or maybe even the piece of research that really turns that light on in your brain where you realized you wanted to learn a lot more about this.
Will Shackel [00:04:53] It's very hard to pinpoint where that happened; it was always random for me. What I would say is I was particularly intrigued about the debate we're having in Australia about the cost of nuclear energy. And there's a certain report... It's called the GenCost Report. And I came across that in this assignment I did in Year 10, which was an assignment for commerce. I could not find a definitive answer on whether nuclear energy is indeed the most expensive form of energy.
Will Shackel [00:05:26] And I was simply baffled that was the excuse that Australia had for having a ban on the technology and not even considering it, especially when there are so many countries around the world that for decades have invested in and supported nuclear energy, and I just didn't get why the situation was different in Australia. So without having that definitive conclusion and information, I guess it sparked my curiosity and was sort of a catalyst for the inquiry and investigation I am now doing.
Sarah Howorth [00:06:03] And do you have any mentors, friends, or family members who are interested in the same thing that you can bounce ideas off of and learn more from?
Will Shackel [00:06:15] Well, in terms of family, contrary to what many people will say on Twitter, my parents are not members of the nuclear energy industry, and I don't know why people instantly assume that. They've got nothing to do with nuclear energy. I'm not sure why they would given that they, like me, live in Australia. But in terms of mentors, I've been very fortunate. I quite early on... And you would see this over my social media accounts Nuclear for Australia. To form my stance... And this was during those school holidays where I had that time to burn when I was starting up this campaign... I reached out to people across the world, experts who are really respected in this field and just asked them lots of questions about nuclear energy.
Will Shackel [00:07:02] And I tried to get different perspectives on it to form my opinions, because clearly, as a 17 year old, it is a bit inaccessible as an issue especially when there's not much information. So, I reached out to lots of people and over time, I've accumulated lots of connections especially with experts around the world. And they've been able to really support what I'm doing, and I'm really fortunate to be in a group of people in Australia who support nuclear energy, a series of experts. But unfortunately, their voices get ignored in the public a lot of the time. But I've been able to have their support. They've supported me, provided me the information that they often don't get to share. And I've had the real privilege of giving a platform to that information that they share with me. So, I'm very lucky in that regard about the people who have been so willing and generous in mentoring me and supporting me on my nuclear journey.
Sarah Howorth [00:08:00] Yeah, that's awesome. And before we talk a little bit more about all of these platforms that you're active on, let's back it up and talk some more about how you started founding Nuclear for Australia. How did that all come together? How did you decide on the branding and what it was all going to be about and all that good stuff?
Will Shackel [00:08:24] I think it's probably quite obvious. It's all a bit random. I don't think there was much intention behind it and I was just going off my gut at that point. And that's probably why at the start I didn't execute stuff very well. I was using, basically, just Canva. My whole campaign was based on Canva, which is actually an Australian company, by the way, and just regurgitating information, sharing it with people. I guess in terms of the branding it's quite obvious for me, nuclear was green, therefore my branding must be green. That's what I thought was a spark of brilliance. I think it's sort of worked, that implicit connotation that I can build through that. But I would say, I'm not receiving that much professional support, so I've had to navigate this on my own and use my own intuition to work out what's best.
Will Shackel [00:09:25] I think it started on Instagram. I did a few posts and some videos using some school equipment I had. They started to get traction. I DMed a prominent journalist in Australia saying, "Could I have an interview on your program?" He said, "Yes." And from there, I guess this has all happened as a result. I guess I've been very fortunate that I had that initial supporter who was able to give me that platform to share with people my passion for nuclear energy so they became aware of my campaign and the petition and all the work that I'm doing. And now I guess it's just grown. Over time, I've had more and more support to help navigate these decisions. So now, I'm probably in a much better position, I would say.
Sarah Howorth [00:10:23] Yeah, it's really interesting that you've been learning by doing for the most part. And as a young founder, what has been your guiding lesson or way of thinking so far?
Will Shackel [00:10:39] That's a very difficult question, actually. I would probably just say that in terms of the decisions I make, to just be confident, be confident in them. Because I think it's really easy as a young person, especially when you're up against an issue that the Government of Australia vehemently opposes, it can honestly be quite scary and intimidating taking a stance on it. I've really popped in on social media by coming out in support of nuclear energy and I've had to make sacrifices, but I think for me, what's really guided how I've done things is just having confidence in myself, reminding myself that people do support me and that people are behind me. They might not express it publicly, but that I do have backers and support. And I think that's really provided me the confidence to do what I do on social media.
Will Shackel [00:11:49] Even with filming videos for social media, that is not something I would think I'd be doing, filming myself a year ago. Because it's quite intimidating, at least for me. I don't like the idea of filming myself. It seems a bit obnoxious, I think, until you do it and you realize, "Well, I guess it's not really that bad." The net benefit of it is probably much greater than any embarrassment you might feel standing in public with the phone in front of you. That's the other thing that's been interesting that I've experienced.
Sarah Howorth [00:12:29] Yeah. So, let's talk a little bit more about all of your work on social media. You're on a lot of platforms. Tell us a bit about where we can find you and what you feel right now is your most powerful platform where you're getting the most traction and having the most productive conversations around nuclear.
Will Shackel [00:12:49] So, I'm pretty much on every social media platform. Nuclear for Australia has an account on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube. They all have, I would say, different audiences. So, I cater different content to different audiences knowing that there are different age demographics. Different people have different politics depending on each platform, which has been something that I think is really interesting to navigate.
Will Shackel [00:13:24] What I would say in terms of the most successful one... I think it's interesting. In terms of converting to petition signatures, which is my current incentive at the moment... Because I run a petition at nuclearforaustralia.com/petition to legalize nuclear energy... It's probably Twitter, or X as it's now known, because you can integrate the links into it. But it's actually been quite surprising that with TikTok, I've been able to achieve the greatest reach.
Will Shackel [00:13:56] And I think it's interesting because that's a platform with a predominantly young audience. And I think the message that I convey, what I would hope is a really pragmatic and commonsense message, clearly it's resonating. And I've had great traction on TikTok. Quite a few of those videos have gotten in excess of 10,000 views. One of them, I think, has over 130,000 views, and that's just simply unheard of for me. It was really interesting because that video was about the impact that wind turbines have on the natural environment.
Will Shackel [00:14:37] For a lot of people outside of Australia, they might think, "Oh well, Australia's got one of the greatest land masses and the your density of people to land, the ratio or whatever must be so incredibly low that it doesn't impact you." But I think that's been something really interesting to witness in the nuclear debate. And I don't oppose renewables; my message is that we should keep all options on the table. But the message that nuclear is incredibly energy dense and doesn't require the same land footprint is really powerful in Australia when you consider the impacts that energy developments have on agricultural land, forests, precious natural land, and indigenous communities. And I think that's something that I've been able to capitalize on and it resonated in that video which had in excess of 100,000 views.
Sarah Howorth [00:15:38] Yeah, and now that we're talking a little bit more about your nuclear knowledge, let's get into some of your messaging also behind nuclear and start off with a big question. Why does Australia need to lift the ban on nuclear energy?
Will Shackel [00:15:58] There are quite a few things I could say about this because I just don't think that Australia's nuclear energy ban makes any sense. The first thing I would say is nuclear energy positions itself as a near-perfect solution for Australia. Unlike the fossil fuels Australia currently relies on, nuclear energy is clean, it has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any energy source, and it is safe. It's the second-safest form of energy generation. And unlike renewables, nuclear energy is reliable. It has the highest capacity factor of any energy source. And really importantly, it's proven. Nuclear energy has been able to successfully transition countries such as France to a low-carbon grid, and that's something that renewables have not been able to do except if you consider hydro.
Will Shackel [00:16:54] And that's something that's really important for Australia because my generation should not be taking on the risk of a renewables-centric plan failing, because that could be catastrophic. Not only in terms of the impacts of the energy crisis and how that would exacerbate that with the lights going out, but also the climate crisis which clearly has quite profound impacts on Australia. You look at bushfires and all of these other natural disasters which Australians have had to become all too familiar with. But I think the main thing with Australia's nuclear energy plan is it just does not make any sense. And there are so many contradictions in Australian government policy, it's not even funny.
Will Shackel [00:17:40] For instance, Australia has a nuclear reactor already. It's at Lucas Heights. It's a research reactor 30 kilometers from the Sydney CBD. So when people say, "Oh, nuclear energy's not safe. Australia won't be able to manage the waste," well, we already do successfully manage a nuclear reactor. And we're renowned around the world for being able to do that with our nuclear expertise. We've got 400 people with Ph.D.s managing that reactor; it's simply incredible. Australia's at the cutting edge of many solutions, in particular for managing nuclear waste.
Will Shackel [00:18:17] Then there's the issue of Orcas. And for people who are unfamiliar with that, it's really important for Australia. The government is investing, I think, in excess of $300 billion AUD into that for our nuclear submarines. There is a huge contradiction that the government is willing to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in floating nuclear reactors and they're perfectly legal, but land-based nuclear reactors are completely illegal and something that the government has a problem with. That just simply makes no sense.
Will Shackel [00:18:53] And you also have to think about it from a waste aspect. Apparently, one of the government's issues is with high-level waste. Well, in signing up to the nuclear submarine program, the Orcas, they've confirmed that they're going to have to manage the high-level waste here in Australia. So, they're fine with the waste from floating nuclear reactors in the submarines. Why aren't they fine with the same waste, albeit there are some differences, from land-based nuclear reactors? It goes on and goes on.
Will Shackel [00:19:24] The last thing I would say that just makes no sense to me... And this came up in a response to a letter I wrote our Prime Minister. And this was, admittedly, from a department official. But in that letter, the government said that they serve to reiterate the role that nuclear energy can play globally in the net zero transformation. So, if it's right for the rest of the world and they recognize the ability it has to transition countries to net zero around the world, why isn't it right in Australia? And why would you put a ban on it is my question? And it's something the government has not been able to answer to date.
Sarah Howorth [00:20:03] Yeah, it sounds like there are a lot of contradictions in what you've talked about so far. How did this ban originally even come about?
Will Shackel [00:20:13] Well, Australia's nuclear energy ban was never a good piece of policy. Literally, it was debated for 10 minutes in the late 1990s in the Australian Parliament. And it was basically a political tradeoff or compromise for a tax policy called the goods and services tax in Australia. So, it was never a good piece of policy. Unfortunately, it was supported by the government of the day because it was a political compromise. But I think that context is really important. The ban was never good policy. My generation certainly never had a say on it. Australians have never had a say on it, but we've been locked out of a technology that could potentially really benefit us. And I agree with many when they say it's anti-democratic to rule out a technology like that when we should be having all options on the table in addressing the climate and energy crisis. I think that's really important.
Sarah Howorth [00:21:21] Yeah, and we've touched on these contradictions. There are also a lot of misconceptions about nuclear that you've touched on a little bit so far as well. When you were originally starting to learn about nuclear, did you have a misconception that you had to overcome? Or if not and you were starting with a clean slate, what's the most popular one that you often talk about with people?
Will Shackel [00:21:44] I think I started off with a clean slate. I hadn't been exposed to the misinformation that many past generations, all the generations to mine, have been. And I think that's a general trait of young Australians. Because they received no education in the education system about nuclear, because they don't hear about it to the same extent in pop culture, we're relatively new to it.
Will Shackel [00:22:07] The thing that I've had to spend a lot of time getting people's heads around is the issue of nuclear waste because everyone sees it as a major issue. But what about the waste? It's not an issue? Chris Keefer... He's in Australia actually as we speak... He said in an interview, "If anything, in terms of waste, it's actually a benefit of nuclear energy because nuclear energy is the only form of energy which is able to manage its waste."
Will Shackel [00:22:41] You look at fossil fuels, which Australia predominately uses in our grid today... People need to consider where does the waste from that go? Well, it ends up permanently in our atmosphere and we in Australia breathe it in every single day. And that has consequences. People unfortunately die from that due to respiratory issues. That's some waste that does not seem to be a type of waste that we're going to be able to manage. Even the waste from renewables, that ends up in landfill. That's incredibly damaging. There are predictions of just the sheer volume of that which we'll end up with in the future.
Will Shackel [00:23:19] And you look at a solution like nuclear energy which is able to safely contain that waste and has an incredibly small volume of waste which is able to be reprocessed. I think that's really important to share with the Australian public. But unfortunately, it's very difficult to convey when you've got huge lobby groups which pump out this really emotional... I'd even describe it as propaganda. It is completely non-factual and it's really, I would say, difficult to get get through that and to convince people. But the thing I would just say is research it yourself. If you don't believe me... And I don't expect anyone to believe me as a 17 year old. Just do your own research. Have a look at images of nuclear waste. Have a look at images of pregnant women hugging the canisters of nuclear waste or the videos of jet planes... That's another example.
Will Shackel [00:24:17] Or in Britain, how they would slam trains into the nuclear waste barrels. Have a look at yourself and then make up your mind. Don't just listen to the propaganda and misinformation you've been fed. I think that's it's very difficult to convey that to Australians when they've been told to fear nuclear waste, whether it's from things like The Simpsons. But certainly something that I hope I'm able to communicate. I probably need a bit more practice on it to make it more concise because I have a tendency overtalk, but I think it's a big issue that we need to overcome here in Australia.
Sarah Howorth [00:25:02] Yeah, and you're obviously very passionate about this and you've learned so much so far. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was against nuclear and you were able to talk them through it and maybe change their mind a bit?
Will Shackel [00:25:18] Well, there have been a few instances, I would say, where that's happened. It's even interesting... And people would be able to say this on my social media, but I was on a national program on our public broadcaster, the ABC, called Q+A. And it's basically a panel discussion show where they get a series of panelists to answer questions from the audience.
Will Shackel [00:25:44] We had about 10 minutes on this news special where I was answering a question and we were all debating as panelists the potential of nuclear energy. And it was interesting to hear after that, people had verbally exclaimed when I was speaking that somehow I convinced them to support nuclear energy when they didn't support it going into that episode. And I think that's so interesting that just after a few minutes of speaking and sharing facts which they probably never heard, I was able to convince them. I was quite astounded that there were people in that audience who just from that were willing to support nuclear energy. And there were certainly a few discussions I've had with people at school where they've come onboard with it.
Will Shackel [00:26:39] I think it's particularly interesting at school because I do debating and stuff and I have, I'd say in theory, a very diverse group of friends in terms of their beliefs and values. But I've received very little pushback for supporting nuclear energy because I think they see what I do and they follow my stuff on social media. It's very hard to refute the evidence because the evidence is overwhelming that nuclear energy is beneficial. And in that respect, I think the broad assessment I would make is people can see what I'm doing. I'm not misrepresenting anything; I just provide facts. And for that reason, I've had very little pushback. Very few people that I've actually had to convince because they can make their own mind up based on the content that I provide, which they inevitably do see.
Sarah Howorth [00:27:36] Yeah, absolutely. And especially young people, like you mentioned before, having this clean slate, not having learned about nuclear in school. How do you think that's going to affect the nuclear landscape when all these young people grow up and they're the people in charge?
Will Shackel [00:27:52] I think it's really unfortunate that in the education system in Australia you're not allowed to discuss nuclear energy. I think that will have to change due to Orcas because clearly we're going to need a lot of skilled young people to be able to take up the roles to serve in our nuclear submarines and to service them. So, hopefully that will change to an extent. But I think it's really hard to have any action on nuclear energy when your government's not even willing to educate their citizens about it. That's a huge problem that we've got. And hopefully through my campaign, I'm sort of able to fill a bit of a void by providing young Australians those facts and that information. And my hope is that it reaches them and that I have enough of a reach to be able to compensate for that deficit currently in the education system.
Sarah Howorth [00:28:56] And for people who maybe stumbled upon this interview and now they're looking to learn more, where can they tune into things like Q+A? They know where they can find you on social media, but what else can they expect to see from you in the near future?
Will Shackel [00:29:13] I would probably direct them to my website, nuclearforaustralia.com where they can also sign my petition to legalize nuclear energy at nuclearforaustralia.com/petition. Once they sign the petition, they can sign up for email updates where I'll keep them updated on what I and other young people working in this organization are up to and the progress we've made.
Will Shackel [00:29:39] In terms of from here what I'm doing, there are a few things. I'm properly trying to establish this campaign because I really want to be able to share this information about nuclear energy and the facts with as many Australians as possible. And I'll be doing that through that website and with the support, hopefully, of the people.
Will Shackel [00:30:01] Also, I'm on another episode of Q+A which would have just occurred before this recording was aired where I'll be debating the Energy Minister. I'd encourage people to watch that because it will be my chance to pose my questions and to pose what I think is the other side of the story to him and to see his response. So to watch that, people will be able to surely go on our social media where I'll make sure to share that.
Will Shackel [00:30:37] And the other thing, at the end of the year I'm making plans to attend COP 28 in Dubai. I think it's really important that the nuclear movement in Australia has a presence to show the world that not everyone in Australia agrees with the current path the government is taking, and that Australians believe that we should be really open to nuclear energy and have all options on the table.
Will Shackel [00:31:07] If you may, just give me some time because Australians do support nuclear energy. Poll after poll... And remember, that's the only evidence we have in Australia because Australians never voted for the ban on nuclear energy. Poll after poll after poll shows that Australians support nuclear energy. In fact, according to one in May this year, 70% of Australians want nuclear energy in order to reach our emissions and energy security targets, and only 18% of Australians identify as anti-nuclear. So based on those statistics alone, surely it's undemocratic to maintain a ban on the technology when so many Australians not only support the ban being lifted but actually want nuclear reactors built in this country, which is also quite astounding given the political climate. So, I'll hopefully be capitalizing on that support when bringing people around me. There will be many more young people also coming onboard to support me and what I'm doing. And hopefully, hopefully we can see the ban on nuclear energy being lifted in Australia and maybe one day seeing a pathway for a civil nuclear power reactor being built in this country.
Sarah Howorth [00:32:28] Absolutely. And other than signing your petition, how can people get behind what you're doing?
Will Shackel [00:32:36] Well, at the time that this episode is launched, they should also be able to donate to my campaign, Nuclear for Australia. And that will help me share information with more Australians, which is really important. Because like I said early in this interview, once Australians hear the facts... And there are so few facts currently in this debate... They're much more likely to support nuclear energy. And if the government sees that Australians support nuclear energy and Australians are really powerful and vocal in that support for nuclear, then hopefully we can see some change on that issue.
Sarah Howorth [00:33:40] That's incredible. And is there anything else that we haven't talked about yet that we should before we finally wrap up?
Will Shackel [00:33:48] I don't think so. Unless you have any more questions.
Sarah Howorth [00:33:52] Let's just leave the listeners with one more message before we go ahead and sign off. Anything you want to say to people that have known about nuclear for a long time or maybe a listener who's just starting to learn now?
Will Shackel [00:34:08] I would say that we need to have all options on the table, globally, in our energy transition. And you shouldn't just rule out a solution due to your ideological position or what you've been told to think by people. We should have all options on the table. I think the thing is you shouldn't get focused on one path.
Will Shackel [00:34:33] The other thing is, if you support renewables, that doesn't mean that you need to oppose nuclear. And likewise, if you support nuclear, as a result of that you don't need to oppose renewables. There should be a really pragmatic, holistic view to this energy transition. We shouldn't get pointed in on certain ideas and ways of doing things. I think we need to have all options on the table and really pragmatically approach what is a huge issue for the globe as we transition to net zero.
Sarah Howorth [00:35:14] Awesome. That's a great way to end it. Will, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was great to have you and can't wait to see what you do in the future.
Will Shackel [00:35:23] Thank you very much for having me on, Sarah.