Beyond Fear: How to Talk About Nuclear Waste

Episode 21


Tay Stevenson

CEO of Envoy Public Labs

Beyond Fear: How to Talk About Nuclear Waste

In this episode, Tay Stevenson shares his experience in talking to communities about nuclear and nuclear waste and why it’s so important to take fear out of the decision-making process when it comes to energy.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Tay Stevenson (00:10):

Every one of those conversations, they want to know, ‘What about the waste?’ They’re not asking just because they’re afraid, you know, or they think something is bad. They’re asking because there is a sense of responsibility that I think is very noble and correct.

Narrator (00:27):

Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company.

Kari Hulac (01:20):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolations Communications Manager. Today I’m talking to Tay Stevenson, CEO of Envoy Public Labs, a company he co- founded to help companies, political campaigns and nonprofits create powerful communities of action. Tay previously was managing director of Generation Atomic, a pro-nuclear organization advocating for a nuclear future.

Tay Stevenson (01:49):

Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Kari Hulac (01:52):

I always start like to start by finding out how my guests got started in the nuclear world. So please share that story with us.

Tay Stevenson (01:59):

Sure. I suppose we should talk about this beforehand, but am I allowed to say the word as* backwards on this podcast, <laugh>? Cause I tripped. As* backwards into nuclear energy. That is, I mean, and really, I mean, I think it’s good to be honest about that because like a lot of people in nuclear energy, I mean this, like they’re kind of died in the wool, right? Like they, you know, they went on the nuclear engineering where they’re like some sort of engineering background. They’ve kind of come up through, whether it’s Navy nuclear or through a plant or whatever. And for me, like, and really for everyone who works at Envoy Public Labs, we’re very far field. We kind of came and found nuclear. And so my particular background, I have degrees in government and philosophy. And my first job coming outta college was, I was a state Senate candidate in Minnesota.

Tay Stevenson (02:51):

So I ran two state Senate campaigns, worked in nonprofit management and leadership and you know, really kind of, of that like grassroots politics and non-profit blend is kind of how you get to Generation Atomic. That’s, to make a long story short. And really, like my story and Envoy’s story doesn’t, isn’t complete without talking about my business partner, Sam Brewer, who he came out of, sort of the data analytics, you know, the big data piece that’s been so important in campaign politics in the last 20 years. So, we, we kind of joke that we make a pretty good political campaign or pretty good consultant if you put both of us together. And really that’s, I think a lot of the inner mechanisms of Envoy Public Labs’ start. And that’s what we’ve tried to bring. The nuclear is more of like a grassroots, bottom up lens, but with some particular market, market, you know, kind of a market and policy focus.

Kari Hulac (03:45):

And what was it about nuclear itself? Like what, what was behind you wanting to explore that vertical.

Tay Stevenson (03:54):

Industry? Yeah, so I mean, again, going back to like politics, I was, I’ve always felt very strongly that climate change, it will be the political, you know, sort of the community problem that’s gonna define my generation as a millennial, right? I, I think that, and you know, I had, I don’t really have evidence to the contrary. I mean now that a lot of us are in our thirties and forties, you know, where a lot of our careers in our lives have been defined by climate change. And, and to me I was looking for something and we look at, you know, kind of in hindsight at how I’ve gotten to at least this point there, there’s always something kind of bending me towards, you know, both policy, but really just trying to figure out how can I pull some of the levers to get carbon out of our air, right?

Tay Stevenson (04:44):

How can I, you know, give us a little bit more time to figure that out. And so, you know, whether it’s, I was one of the very few I, I ran as a Democrat where in Minnesota we have the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, I was one of the few Democrats that was well-known for being pro and open to the current generation of nuclear. And that was, you know, in 2010, 2012. And you know, I worked in a solar non-profit for six months trying to get a solar installation put on a hospital in rural Liberia, you know, so there were always kind of these things where I was nibbling around the edges of trying to get a climate change. And really with Generation Atomic, that was a grassroots effort to again, save, save, you know, current generation plants. But that was really just kind of an entry point to like, what is the nuclear industry? And I fortunately had a number of opportunities to get access to leaders and mentors in the industry who, you know, who, for whatever reason gave me their time and kind of showed me around and showed me the ropes.

Tay Stevenson (05:42):

And then I started to see nuclear as the biggest lever I could, you know, pull on, to try to help. And, really that kind of gets to the kind of the core, some of the core questions we’re, we’re chipping away at with Envoy.

Kari Hulac (05:55):

Right. That was kind of the next question I wanted to ask is: What is the key problem you’re trying to solve through Envoy? And maybe just kind of describe a little bit about what the day-to-day there is about.

Tay Stevenson (06:06):

Yeah, so, so at Envoy I think we initially started looking at the question of like, what is going to slow down or inhibit commercial deployment of advanced reactors? At the time, (Dr.) Rita Baranwal was the director of GAIN (Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear) and GAIN had just gotten off the ground. So, this was, you know, 2017 going into 2018 you know, GAIN is doing the voucher program still obviously, successfully doing the voucher program, but there was this sense that was growing, and it really came out of a forum that stakeholder engagement, you know, community, basically the utilities’ preparedness for the technology was getting called into question. I mean, we, we were all going to these same nuclear conferences and talking about how ready this technology was. And I mean, we really had convinced ourselves of that, but, you know, folks were noticing that, you know, the customers weren’t in that room and, you know, to the extent, you know, policymakers and NGOs and folks who are involved in energy planning weren’t necessarily inherently in those conversations.

Tay Stevenson (07:14):

And so initially I think we, we thought we were looking at, you know, hey, is this planning process, is this, you know, lack of policy momentum? Is this evidence that there might be, you know, a hurdle to commercial deployment of advanced reactors? What I think we’ve figured out by maybe year two, certainly within the last couple of years, is I think at the core of all of it, what we’re really focused on is taking fear out of the decision-making process when it comes to energy. And when you look at everything we do, it kind of pivots back to that central theme. And, and that’s really, I think, been kind of a key to our success in, in stakeholder engagement and market analysis, and policy analysis, is trying to understand the dynamics when you can get fear out of the equation. So you asked about sort of day-to- day and <laugh>, I’m like the absolute worst person to answer that.

Tay Stevenson (08:12):

You know, what I can say is that, you know, since we started in 2018 with, you know, a pilot program that was focused on engaging with utilities and their planning processes, I mean, the company has grown, our skills have grown, and just the demands on our services have become a lot more varied. Everything from, again, state level policy analysis, trying to understand, you know, both for the federal government where GAIN and other programs can help inform the decision making process, which, you know, is very different and separate from advocacy, you know, it’s really, you know, you have access to all the best information at the National Labs, DOE you know, through them, advanced reactor developers, how do we get that information out into the public domain so that, you know, that can be used to make really clear-eye decisions.

Tay Stevenson (09:03):

Right? And then more recently in the last couple of years, we have been working directly with advanced reactor developers doing on-the-ground stakeholder engagement market, and a lot of market analysis, some policy analysis that kind of blends into it. And so day-to-day is really just, again, frankly, trying to figure out how do we deploy advanced reactors? How do we get carbon out of the air? How do we make sure that everyone’s on the same page? And so, I know that’s kind of a dodge of an answer, but that’s the best I can do.

Kari Hulac (09:30):

So you’re working a lot with policy makers, you’re discussing the benefits of nuclear energy with them. Policy is certainly not an easy area to be in, especially for nuclear. So, are there maybe some anecdotal challenges or, and or your favorite wins, that you might want to point to?

Tay Stevenson (09:50):

Yeah, so I, you know, I’ll link this back to the sort of the fear-based decision making. And I think, you know, it’s interesting in politics right now, there’s a lot of, I mean, it’s not just nuclear. Like if we, if we kind of pull back a little bit and see ourselves within the greater context, like there’s a lot of fear that’s driving politics right now, whether, you know, and whether it’s you’re afraid of being canceled or you’re afraid of literally being hung, like, I mean, it’s, it’s all across this sort of stretch political spectrum. And you know what you kind of get a consistent sense of when you talk to your friends, like, you know, you’re just talking to regular people, which fortunately we get to do a lot, is that people just wanna have a conversation. They wanna feel heard, they wanna feel informed.

Tay Stevenson (10:35):

They don’t wanna feel like they’re running from something. They want to feel like they can plan their next day and make sure that they can get to their kid’s thing or, you know, do whatever they want to do without having, you know, (have) the feeling that the sky is falling on them. And with nuclear, that’s really hard, right? Because I mean, you think just culturally speaking, like if there’s a topic that is completely, I mean taboo, like you cannot talk about it, it is radioactive, right? You know, like, and you know, if, if you’re considering doing something that is just so beyond the pale, just something you, you like, it’s the absolute last resort. It’s like the ‘nuclear’ option. Our, our culture is baked into this notion that nuclear is on the extreme, and it’s something that it, you know, is sort of considered through a radical lens.

Tay Stevenson (11:21):

And when you, when you boil it down and you start to, you know, you have a little bit of a sense of humor about it, first of all, and then second of all, you break it down into some concrete information. That’s where I think like my big, my favorite policy wins kind of come from those small moments where you see like someone flip from, like being afraid of a topic to like having questions about it. And that’s a really pure moment. And I think like when you get enough of those strung together and when I say enough, like we, we operate on a philosophy that’s come to us from the ground, that there are essentially 16 people in any state or region or community that are making decisions, you know, and they’re not obvious. Like it’s just kind of, there’s no list on Google that you can find, but it’s sure enough, you know, you ask them and they know who the other 15 people are, right?

Tay Stevenson (12:09):

And they all know it’s those 16 people. And when you, when you talk to those 16 people and they all start asking questions about nuclear, that’s where you see things like you know, and certainly not taking credit for any of these primarily, but like, you look at what happened in the state of Washington a few years ago where, you know, you had this, you know, progressive climate bill or the Clean Energy Transition Act that, you know, it was not nuclear exclusive, right? Nuclear was an option. And all of a sudden Washington became a very interesting state for nuclear. And then Wyoming has this kind of interesting bill that we wrote about in the GAIN report. And suddenly Bill Gates has an idea and he wants to go and deploy in Wyoming. And Wyoming is an interesting state now. And then, you know, just this year we, we saw Alaska pass a bill that, you know, is gonna allow microreactors to kind of have a more standard path to, to federal licensing, just like it would in any other state.

Tay Stevenson (13:03):

I mean, in here, my home state of Minnesota, we didn’t get anything passed yet, but for the first time ever, a (Democrat-Farmer-Labor) Legislature introduced a pro-nuclear bill like that to me. You know … when you have Democrats in a state where, I mean, you talk to people, again, nuclear aside, the Prairie Island controversy and dry casks, which we can talk about later on at some point here. I mean, that was, that is acknowledged as the bloodiest worst, most divisive political battle in our state’s entire political history. And to, you know, to see progress where we’re looking at, you know, not just, you know, nuclear bad or good, but climate change, that’s, those are the little conversations that we’re trying to be involved in. And whether it’s, you know, on behalf of a, a company, you know, trying to promote, you know, primarily, you know, and that’s where we can do a little bit more advocacy work. But frankly, the, the bulk of the work we do is on that informing side of things, right? We’re, we’re trying to connect people to resources so they can, you know, be empowered to answer their own questions and make good decisions. And sometimes that means it’s not nuclear, sometimes it means it’s nuclear here, and a little bit of wind, a little bit of solar, a little bit of storage. But, you know, that’s the flexibility we’re looking for.

Kari Hulac (14:17):

You mentioned having a favorite moment where you see someone’s mind change and, after having so many conversations, do you have something you like to share with them or with a person in that situation, that you feel helps them maybe make that switch?

Tay Stevenson (14:35):

I definitely have some like greatest hits that I go back to. Like, you know, you have enough conversations with people and like, you know, even going back further, you know, before Envoy Public Labs, you know, the year we were doing Generation Atomic, I mean, we were doing straight up door knocking, like we were going around just talking to like people in their bath robes, however they wanted to answer the door, and just like, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this nuclear plant that’s down the road that’s closing down.’ And like, you, you have no idea what those conversations, you know, what’s gonna be the hook in or out. Like, you know, they might wanna be talking about like, you know, the playground equipment, then you link that to their kids going to the schools and  the plant cost is, you know, 40 or to 80% of the, the school budget.

Tay Stevenson (15:16):

I think after doing a decade of advocacy training, my best advocacy training is like stop trying to be an advocate. We, I think, we’ve got enough advocates. Like really what people need is just like people to be people and have like good information and just like be willing to facilitate a conversation, which means being able to listen, you know, like actually hear input and then like respond as a human. So, like when you hear things like, I’m scared about this or that, you know, you don’t just necessarily attack, Well, here’s why you shouldn’t be afraid. Like ask a question about it. Like, okay, well where did you get that fear from? Like, you, you know, then they’re like, Well, I watched the Chernobyl movie and you’re like, I did too. It was really good. And then you can start talking about negative reactor coefficients because, you know, it was a scene in Chernobyl and like they know what that is, and that then you can talk about physics and people, and people suddenly are on kind of the in group and not on the out group. And that’s, that’s like, again, it’s not an anecdote, but it’s like, it’s, it’s <laugh>, it’s, it should be obvious. Like if you’re honest and treat people with respect, like you’re gonna have a good conversation. You might, you know, be able to share some reasonable information.

Kari Hulac (16:28):

So tell me a little bit more about you, you say Gen A, just for those who don’t know, people under age 24, for that door knocking. Anything else that surprised you about these conversations? What was that like? Thousands, You’ve talked to thousands of people, right?

Tay Stevenson (16:44):

<Laugh>. Oh, yeah. I mean, and you know, granted it’s, you know, people in Northern Ohio and that, you know, nothing, they’re great people. They’re about like the people around these parts. But, you know, it’s a limited sample size. But certainly, I think what was interesting is you know, we thought we could get, like we were going on untargeted doors, which means, I mean, we, we had no demographic data. It’s not like, you know, again, traditional campaigns where it’s like, you know who you want to talk to, you persuade, which that’s a whole other can of worms. But, you know, our point was like, hey, these are all community members, and this is a chance to inform anybody about this. And like, we don’t really care if whether they’re registered to vote or not, or you know, what, race, gender, age, any of the typical delineators, we just cared if they lived in the community and had an opinion on nuclear and we were willing to talk to anybody.

Tay Stevenson (17:32):

And so we just knock on doors and we thought on blind doors we could get 40 per, like, after an open conversation where, you know, again, we’re not doing the standard, like here’s the bullets and like, you know, <laugh>, do you agree strongly, You know, another, it was just like literally we would just talk to people, people we showed, you know, three kind of options of like, here’s like how much it supports the schools here, much jobs, and here’s how much it helps the environment. And it was like just a, you know, kind of choose your own adventure. You know, here’s, here are a few different options to start, or you can choose your own beyond these. And what we found was it wasn’t that we could convert 40% of people, We got 60% of people to say they supported nuclear if we just talked to them about it.

Tay Stevenson (18:15):

And you know, what was interesting is like, again, you think about like messaging and right, and like around that time, so this is like 2017, like one of the big messaging vogues at the time was like, nuclear, we need to get the message, the message out that nuclear is clean energy, Right? I, you know, I think we’ve done good job on that, but I think, you know, still working on it. What was interesting though is what we were finding is that if you supported nuclear, because you were an environmentalist, you were a third as likely to take action, which was, in our case, literally writing a physical postcard and mailing it to a legislator, right? You were a third less likely than if you supported nuclear because of an economic reason. And so, like, that was also one of the first times I think in my career that I realized we saw something that the rest of the industry wasn’t seen.

Tay Stevenson (19:10):

And we knew it was real and, and had not just the data, but we had the, the experience, the anecdotes to back it up. And that’s where we started getting, I, you know, and I in particular started getting very bold about our calls, about the importance of state level engagement. And in 2018 we sounded really crazy when we were talking about how important it was gonna be to engage the state policy, that it was going to be a funnel, a gate, an absolute hurdle to deployment, still is crazy in 2019, still is crazy in 2020. And then we had a pandemic, and then suddenly the pandemic clears up and all, and we have a lot of state level engagement that is very, very necessary, and it fits very much with sort of the tipping point that we’re seeing. And that’s, again, not uncoincidental.

Kari Hulac (19:57):

So how often in all these conversations, whether the door knocking or state level policy makers is the topic of nuclear waste coming up in your conversations?

Tay Stevenson (20:07):

The time. All the time. Yeah. I mean, and that like, and that gets again, back to the fear piece, right? And, and that’s, I, I think it’s going to be the central challenge of the nuclear industry, however you define it, and supporters of nuclear people who consider themselves nuclear advocates or, or you know, who believe that nuclear’s important to climate change. It, it is. If we don’t have an answer for nuclear waste, and I’ll, I wanna clarify what I mean by that, but if we don’t have an answer for nuclear waste within the next three, four years, all of these deployment predictions about late decade, you know, deployments are not gonna happen. And I mean, there are good reasons for that, but I mean, without going into like a bunch of detail and that folks don’t, you know, probably don’t care about it, it really is just something as simple as, you know, I have been to communities where, you know, I have had to say, Hey, we’re looking at your community as a place to put a new advanced nuclear reactor.

Tay Stevenson (21:09):

And again, every one of those conversations, they want to know what about the waste. They’re not asking just because they’re afraid, you know, or they think something is bad, they happened, They, they’re asking because there is a sense of responsibility that I think is very noble and correct. And, and so if we can’t meet the communities at that, we should, we don’t, we don’t have a right to deploy these, right? And, and that’s where again, working with, you know, like Deep Isolation and a number of other companies, another, a number of other concepts, this isn’t a technical problem. This is a policy problem, which is to say it’s a social problem. And, and that’s where I think we’ve done a very poor job of engaging society in that problem, you know? And because of that, people are very fearful of it. They’re very removed from it.

Tay Stevenson (21:56):

And so there’s a lot of ground to make up in, in terms of just bringing people into that conversation in an honest way so that within the next few years, again, we’re not gonna have an actual solution. There’s not gonna be a hole in the ground or a gate open or, or a cement pad laid out. That is not gonna happen. And that’s what, not what people expect, but people want a reasonable pathway forward that they can trust. And I think that that’s something that we can accomplish if we involve, you know, involve everybody, involve the people.

Kari Hulac (22:27):

Are there some questions that people commonly have, you know, beyond what about the waste that you have to educate them about? Or what are some other questions that you, that you’ve run into?

Tay Stevenson (22:37):

Yep. So like sticking on the waste piece and this is something that I’m developing as a theory. I don’t know how you would publish something like this, but  I really think that people, the, the comparison I would make is this: I would imagine that a lot of people have access to this scenario. You are, or you know, you’re either one of two people in this scenario. You’re either person who knows a lot about football, or you’re a person who doesn’t know a lot about football, and you’ve either been the, one of the, you know, few of people who did know about football or the person who does know about football in a group dynamic. And it’s a lot like the person who doesn’t know about football, who’s just like, what are all these things?

Tay Stevenson (23:23):

And they want to participate and they say, ‘What about them Cowboys?’ Right? Standard, standard comedic trope. A lot of people know it. I think that when people, a lot of people ask, ‘What about the waste?’ It’s a lot like asking, ‘What about dem Cowboys? It’s not that they’re actually concerned about the waste. That they have some sort of like scientific reason or like some moral objection. Like inherently they may know that like there’s a lot of bad things that have happened along the back end of the fuel cycle historically for, you know, particularly if you’re talking about the military aspects of things, right? But they’re not asking as a challenge. They’re asking because they want to sit at the table and talk about the subject. And like, it’s culturally OK to ask it what is frankly kind of an abrasive question. Like, you know, you don’t, when someone talks, wind projects, no one stands up there and boldly says, ‘What about the waste?’

Tay Stevenson (24:19):

Right? I mean, when we talk about coal projects, we don’t necessarily even say, ‘What about the waste?’ right? Only in nuclear is it okay to just like go right for the throat. You know? And like, I think we should like take a step back and notice that and, and, and maybe there’s something deeper going on. Again, having had a few of these conversations, one of my theories is that it’s not really a challenge, it is really more of a question of like, ‘How do I get into this conversation?’ And when I treat it that way, like in like a good, a good <laugh> good question or a good answer is a question back of, well what about the waste? Like what do you care about? Let’s talk about that. Let’s have a, an adult conversation. I have facts. And not only that, I have a lot of friends who are way smarter than I am who would be happy to answer in your questions. And then eventually, like within 30 seconds, you’re talking about Simpsons and you know, nineties and whether NSYNC was better than Backstreet Boys and you’ve developed a rapport and then we can talk about what you really care about, which is how are we gonna change climate? You know, how are we gonna, you know, combat climate change and where does nuclear maybe fit in that?

Kari Hulac (25:24):

And how did your own awareness grow kind of your process when it came to, you know, knowing that the waste issue needed to be

Tay Stevenson (25:32):

Solved? So there are two people I have to credit with this metaphor. The first is my good friend Chris, who’s a teacher in Minnesota, who showed me the Simpsons clip. To use the reference again, were Homer because he is Homer is standing ankle deep in a tar pit and then proceeds to say, ‘This is no problem. I’ll just get my legs out with my arms and sticks his arms in and then says, this is a problem. I’ll just struggle way out my way out with my face.’ And then sticks his face hit and is like within 10 seconds submerged in tar. The other person is I got a credit is (Dr.) Mark Nutt at Pacific Northwest National Lab, who has said on many occasions publicly that he dipped my ankle in the tar. And so and really what the, the question he asked me that I could not give him an answer to, particularly after, again, we were, do we have been doing and do, do work for GAIN, you know, the Gateway for Accelerated Nuclear, if I haven’t sign posted the acronym, there it’s DOE initiative and we’re looking at barriers to advanced nuclear advanced commercial deployment, right?

Tay Stevenson (26:42):

Waste is one of those, like what the waste solution is, is absolutely a barrier. And (Nutt) said, ‘How are you gonna deploy an advanced reactor if you don’t have a waste solution?’ I didn’t have an answer for him. And so now we’ve gotta figure out, you know, again, and when I, you know, to bring it back to what I mean by a solution, at least in the next 10 years, you know, five, 10 years is something that, you know, as a community, we as a nation can trust as a viable and a viable pathway. Something that can and will be done that people have, can have faith in.

Kari Hulac (27:16):

So how you’ve talked a lot about your work with advanced nuclear and some encouraging developments in states who are looking at reactors. How optimistic are you about the future of reactors being deployed in the U.S.?

Tay Stevenson (27:31):

The Ben Franklin line comes to mind, you know, where he comes out after they’ve, they’ve, you know, written the Constitution and a woman asks him, you know, ‘Mr. Franklin, you know, what manner of, you know, government have you bequeathed us? And he says, A Republic, ma’am, if you can keep it,’ right, And like, I mean to say we’re at a tipping point, it’s like, you know, <laugh>, which tipping point. You know, there, there are a number of things that are coming together right now that look very much like we’re in the middle of something of an inflection point for nuclear. That we’re, we’re really, you know, we really are tipping into something bigger. I, I have a habit of it. It like nuclear is a really interesting industry because there are many people who are so alive who are like my parents’ age, who have been in the industry since essentially its commercial inception.

Tay Stevenson (28:22):

Like people who were in their 20s in the 1960s or like in their 80s. Now they’re still around and very active parts of the community. And so I’d sit down and talk with them and ask them, you know, what their perspective looks like, cuz I’ve been in it for like five seconds compared to them. And one of the, one of the people I really respect and trust, told me one time that this by his account, this is the fourth wave he’s seen on nuclear. And you know, of course me being me, I asked him, you know, is it possible, you know, to the sense of eternal optimism, right? Is this one different, right? Like, can this one be, is it possible that this one could be the one? And you know, kind of paraphrasing a little bit. And I, and it it dovetails well with, again, another bet that Sam and I made against the industry five years ago when we started (Envoy Public Labs) four years ago.

Tay Stevenson (29:11):

You know, it’s this idea that fear of climate change is now beginning to trump fear of nuclear and that people are being, you know, almost forced to have to, you know, to take a clear-eye view of nuclear. Now, I don’t think that that’s the best way that we want to back people into the topic again, which is why we’re trying to run, as you know, far and as fast as possible to, you know, to present a good face and get that information out on a little more friendly terms. But that to me is, I think where we’re at right now. And, you know, for I’m, I’ve had to start to correct myself because, you know, since I started, we’ve been talking about like this moment is coming, and there’s very clear evidence that this moment is here, and it has frankly been happening for about a year and a half now.

Tay Stevenson (29:56):

And so, you know, looking ahead at 2023, you know, you know, first of all it’s very clear just within the nuclear context, we had like, you know, 10 states last, last session that proposed different definitions for advanced reactor. It’s clearly on their radar in a way that it tangibly has not been in previous years, right? There was like one state that had a definition and that was Wyoming and they just had to change theirs because their definition didn’t fit the project that was going to be. So again, there’s a problem here that we need to start to address, but if we zoom all the way back and you look at, first of all again, there’s undeniable momentum just on climate change and it becoming a cultural tipping point, then you see policy moving around that you see specifically within that energy policy starting to tip.

Tay Stevenson (30:45):

And then what I, what I try to remind people about is like there are again just structural things, right? The fact that it’s 2022 now, and you know, again, everyone’s focused on the federal midterms, but a lot, a vast majority of the states, like I think I can think of three of them that are out of sync with this, but like vast, vast majority of the states have even year election cycles. So just like the federal Congress is being elected, a lot of the state legislators are being elected. And when I say a lot, all of them are, because in 2020 we had a Census, which means that every state just had to not only redistrict on the federal level, they had to redistrict their legislative districts, which means that every legislator at the state and  at the state level is now up for election on top of that, just generally speaking, even because of this biennial cycle that happens with legislatures typically, and not on coincidentally because it’s right after an election, as opposed to right before it, the odd years tend to be a little bit longer, a little bit more policy oriented.

Tay Stevenson (31:50):

And so, you have these sort of cultural currents that are, that are happening well, you know, with climate change and energy and nuclear energy specifically. And then you have this very, you know, sort of once- a-decade structural thing that is happening that you know will just, will progress as the calendar progresses, right? And that’s where again, we’re kind of calling out and trying to muster, you know, as much as we can good information into the planning cycles because we’re seeing that these states are making not just once-a-decade energy decisions and we’ll be making them, you know, very likely in this next session and then kind of tailing out into the middle of the decade. But really those set, those plans are looking at 2050. So we’re talking about 30-year plans and once-in-a generation plans. And so if new what, you know, the extent to which nuclear will be involved in those plans will depend on how much we socialize this information and get it in there.

Tay Stevenson (32:50):

And again, make sure that policy makers, and not just the policy makers, the utilities who are writing their integrated resource plans, the NGOs who are commenting on the regulation, those, those (integrated resource plans) as I just mentioned and the policy that’s all up to folks who have nuclear information at their disposal and can give it to those type of people. And that’s gotta happen at not just the federal level, it’s gotta happen at the state and the local level as well. So, to bring it all the way around, you know, how optimistic am I, I don’t know, we have the facts on our side, it just depends on whether we can get ’em out.

Kari Hulac (33:24):

Just any other thoughts you’d like our listeners to leave with today? Anything I didn’t ask that kind of is burning in your mind to share?

Tay Stevenson (33:33):

I guess the one thing that I probably haven’t stressed enough, and I don’t, you know, we just haven’t talked about nuclear waste that often, which is not uncommon with me. Like it’s one of the things we do is we don’t typically lead with it. Not cuz we’re afraid of it. We just, we like to let people bring that topic up. And so I guess my, my advice so to speak, as someone who’s had to talk about nuclear waste and frankly has had the opportunity, I mean that not in a cheesy way, like I, I’ve gotten some incredible opportunities to meet, I mean, meet with people who are making very serious and important decisions and I, I get to be a person in those rooms talking with them and, and you and you know, we’re basically developing trust with them to, to make good decisions.

Tay Stevenson (34:19):

And that’s, that’s an important thing that I don’t take for granted. And in those moments, it’s, it is really important to know that like there are good technical solutions out there, right? And I said earlier, like, and I, you know, you hear it all the time at again, nuclear conferences you hear nuclear, you know, nuclear’s, nuclear’s not a problem. It’s a policy problem, right? And for a number of years until I met Mark (Nutt), I I kind of bought that answer and didn’t realize, oh, he was talking about me, I gotta go solve this. Like the policy people are gonna have to solve this. So, you know, for those people who are drawn to the back end of the fuel cycle for whatever reason you know, whether it is just, you know, you’re, you’re an engineer who this is what you do, or you have a, you know, you’re an engineer who’s does something different and is curious about it, there’s plenty of those.

Tay Stevenson (35:09):

Or again, you’re someone like me who’s, you know, no practical degrees whatsoever, but you know, I can write a pretty good paper and I can, you know, talk to people, a useful skill that doesn’t matter how you come to it. There, there is an opportunity right now to talk to people about nuclear waste and folks, again, that, and if we’re talking about fear-based questions, fear-based problems, waste is probably the heart of that, right? And it’s, it’s the one where I guess my message is, it’s the thing you should be least afraid of. It’s, it’s well understood and there’s, there’s so much opportunity to just alleviate fear by again, whether it’s having a sense of humor about it, you know, talking about, again, growing up during the Simpsons and, and like whatever access you have, but like, when you can humanize the problem and put a human face to it and like, you know, again, not treat it so seriously. I know it’s serious, I know it’s a serious issue, but like, I mean, it’s also kind of funny, like it’s nuclear waste. Like it’s such a big problem that you have to be able to laugh at it a little bit.

Kari Hulac (36:15):

Well, and what I’ve observed in the industry itself, and you can, I’d love to know your opinion if you’ve observed this as well, is that industry itself doesn’t talk a lot about it.

Tay Stevenson (36:25):

Talk about dry casks is a really brilliant industry solution to a very dumb government problem,

Kari Hulac (36:32):

But is that hurting the ultimate solution down the road? Like if, are we so, you know, set in that messaging that people then aren’t motivated to make a more permanent solution?

Tay Stevenson (36:47):

I think certainly there’s no way to solve a problem without talking about it. I mean, I think, you know, for, if we want to get really deep about this, I know this, you know, the, the Deep Isolation podcast, like, we wanna get really deep, I mean, this is what separates us. I mean, this is what makes us humans is our ability to communicate, right? And, and think long term, right? Think, think about the future, talk, talking, you know, multimodal ways like that is what makes us deeply human, right. And yes, this is a huge problem, right? It is a thing that it is a, as some have described it, a new fire, right? That our generation will have to bear and bear responsibly.

Kari Hulac (37:27):

Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been great to hear what you’ve learned and look forward to seeing what you accomplished next.

Tay Stevenson (37:35):

Thank you.

Narrator (37:38):

We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at

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Ethan Bates, Director of Systems Engineering for Deep Isolation will participate as a panel member in the plenary session, “Cool New Reactors Coming to You Soon! But what about the Waste?” at the International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Conference (IHLRWM). This conference is an embedded topic at the ANS Winter Meeting and Technology Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, November 13-17, 2022. The plenary session will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 8 a.m. MST.

Berkeley — Steve Nesbit, an expert in policy relating to nuclear power, has joined Deep Isolation as a Utilities Advisor.

Nesbit is the founder of LMNT Consulting Company and joins Deep Isolation as a consultant after a 40-year career in the nuclear power industry.  Nesbit’s career included 37 years at Duke Energy, where he most recently served for nine years as Director of Nuclear Policy.  Prior to that he was Spent Fuel Manager for the company and was heavily involved in nuclear industry technical and policy initiatives related to used fuel management.  Nesbit also worked on several DOE projects including the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository and the Centralized Interim Storage Facility Project.

Steve Nesbit Heashot
Steve Nesbit has joined Deep Isolation as a Utilities Advisor.

“It’s exciting to have yet another respected nuclear industry veteran join our team,” said Deep Isolation CEO Liz Muller. “His knowledge of how industry and government come together to address spent fuel management will play a critical role in progressing nuclear waste disposal.”

Nesbit received Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Virginia. As a registered professional engineer in North Carolina, Nesbit was an adjunct faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he taught nuclear engineering. Nesbit was ANS President from June 2021 to June 2022.

“It is essential that our country makes progress toward disposal of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste,” said Nesbit.  “I very much look forward to being part of the Deep Isolation team, which has done excellent work and is bringing much-needed innovative approaches to this area.”

After just four years as a public-facing company, Deep Isolation’s milestones include: contracts with a dozen countries across three continents, 18 patents and 90 notices of invention; a subsidiary in Europe; the acquisition of Freestone Environmental Services in the U.S.; and recently, two multi-million awards from the U.S. Government.

About Deep Isolation 

Deep Isolation is a leading global innovator in nuclear waste storage and disposal solutions. Driven by a passion for environmental stewardship and scientific ingenuity, the company’s patented solution of advanced nuclear technologies enables global delivery through its partnerships with industry leaders as well as flexible IP licensing options.

Press Contacts

Zann Aeck

Deep Isolation, Inc.
2001 Addison St, Ste. 300
Berkeley, CA 94704

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Blog by Jessica Chow, September 28, 2022

Empowering the Next Generation of Nuclear Professionals

By Jessica Chow

The rapid growth of nuclear start-ups in the past two decades indicates the changing nuclear industry: an industry in need of innovation. This industry needs fresh perspectives from professionals excited to engage with nuclear technology, especially in the face of the global challenge of climate change. 

The nuclear start-up life was the topic of a panel I joined recently at the Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp (NIB) in Madison, Wisconsin. Also participating were Tyler Bernstein of Zeno Power Systems, Alexia Mercier of OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, and Andy Morales of FireHydrant. We delved into the intersection of nuclear technology, innovation, and team building in the start-up space. Most of the questions we received from the Bootcamp attendees focused on how to not only succeed in the nuclear start-up space but thrive. Let’s discuss that. 

What does success look like in the nuclear industry? Success looks like the further deployment of nuclear energy technology to fight climate change, continued use of nuclear material for medical purposes, and future innovation in the nuclear industry.

So how do we get there and what changes to how we approach nuclear innovation will be needed to find this success? Based on the NIB panel discussion, it seems that young professionals believe new reactor designs are key to the future success of nuclear energy. It does make sense that young industry professionals who may be unfamiliar with the complex history of nuclear power would focus on the technical aspects of nuclear. But forgoing the industry’s history misses a key opportunity for growth: to find success in the nuclear industry, especially with innovation, we need to learn from the industry’s past, especially as it pertains to its engagement with the public. 

Success for the next generation of nuclear professionals must:

Listen. Learn. Adapt. 

We can pull a great example of this from my co-panelist, Tyler Bernstein of Zeno Power Systems who said, “Something I believe we’ve done well as we’ve grown our team is balancing bringing onboard team members with decades of experience with industry newcomers — who are frequently non-nuclear engineers. We’ve seen this combination work well as those who have more experience can impart wisdom on how things have been in the past, while industry newcomers bring fresh and creative ideas to the table. In fact, our founding team is comprised wholly of newcomers to the nuclear industry; I believe a good part of our success to date is a result of my co-founders and I coming together with new perspectives on old problems.”

Recruiting a diverse team is part of creating a culture where different stakeholders are listened to in a constructive and meaningful way. A diverse team provides an organization with the ability to approach conversations from different perspectives. Many of the attendees at NIB are in the process of starting their own nuclear startups. To empower their success, we must also empower young professionals to build teams diverse in expertise, backgrounds, age, and race. 

There is so much work to be done to prepare young professionals for the complex nuclear industry, but by questioning the traditions of the nuclear industry of the past, we can learn and change to find success in the future. 

A final thank you is deserved by the organizers of the 2022 Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp, especially River Bennett of Nuclear Innovation Alliance, the panel’s moderator for the panel. It is programs such as NIB that provide much-needed resources to the young generation of the nuclear inclusive clean energy future. 

Related posts

*Africa Deserves a Say in Its Clean Energy Future

Meet Monica Mwanje, Advocating for a More Inclusive Nuclear Workforce

Berkeley —The lack of a viable spent fuel disposal solution remains an obstacle to the increasing global interest in nuclear power that guarantees energy security and helps enable a net zero world. Deep Isolation, a leading innovator in nuclear waste disposal solutions, is today kicking off an opportunity for investors to participate in the only scalable long-term solution for nuclear waste.

Deep Isolation’s advanced disposal technology brings a promising option to break through the nuclear waste disposal stalemate, enabling a more certain future for nuclear energy developers seeking to capitalize on this ESG opportunity.

With much of Europe and the world increasingly viewing nuclear as necessary for addressing both energy security and climate change, the market is primed for significant expansion.  This expansion is highlighted with the International Energy Agency forecasting that the world’s nuclear capacity will more than double between 2020 and 2050 – most of that growth front-loaded.  Investor interest is following, with Clean Tech, ESG, and Climate investors all increasingly leaning into advanced reactors, fusion, and ancillary services.

One of the most significant enablers for the expanded use of nuclear power is nuclear waste disposal. The U.S. is now investing heavily in nuclear back end, and starting January 1, 2023, all new nuclear power developers across the European Union will be required under the Complementary Climate Delegated Act to establish operational plans for a spent fuel disposal solution to meet Europe’s climate change aspirations. 

“Deep Isolation is solving the ‘what about the waste?’ problem. Their solution is elegant, effective, distributed, and exactly what nuclear energy communities need,” said Valerie Gardner, Managing Partner of Nucleation Capital. “Happily, we expect it to be available at the right price and the right time to help enable the growth of next-generation nuclear.”

To date, Deep Isolation has raised $24 million, including a $21 million Series A raise in 2020 led by nuclear industry leader NAC International, Inc. The company’s deep borehole solution provides a new path forward for accessing the $667 billion addressable global nuclear waste disposal market. 

“Deep Isolation is well-positioned to deliver significant returns on investment in timeframes that are aligned with VC requirements,” said Deep Isolation CEO and co-founder Liz Muller. “Nuclear has become not only a smart investment but a crucial one. In Europe, policymakers have now set a deadline for new nuclear investments to start disposing their spent fuel by 2050 or earlier – and Deep Isolation offers the only timely, scalable, safe, cost-effective option for most countries to meet that deadline. Similar concerns about energy security and climate change are driving demand for our solution globally.”

The company encourages interested parties to submit investment inquiries by September 23. It will be running a competitive process that will kick off on September 26. Please visit to learn more and schedule an introductory meeting.

About Deep Isolation 

Deep Isolation is a leading global innovator in nuclear waste storage and disposal solutions. Driven by a passion for environmental stewardship and scientific ingenuity, the company’s patented solution of advanced nuclear technologies enables global delivery through its partnerships with industry leaders as well as flexible IP licensing options.

Press Contacts

Zann Aeck — Deep Isolation

Deep Isolation, Inc.
2001 Addison St, Ste. 300
Berkeley, CA 94704

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Episode 20


Princess Mthombeni

Stakeholder Liaison Officer at The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation

Africa Deserves a Say in Its Clean Energy Future

In this episode, Princess Mthombeni explains how she entered the South African nuclear industry as an outsider and has been working to educate the African public on how the issues of climate change, nuclear energy, and quality of life intersect.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Princess Mthombeni (0:00):

South Africa, is Africa, and we need to implement energy solutions that are socially, environmentally, and economically acceptable.

Narrator (00:25):

Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company.

Jessica Chow (01:19):

Hello, I’m Jessica Chow, Deep Isolation, Technical Marketing Analyst, and a nuclear engineer. My guest today is Princess Mthombeni, a nuclear communication specialist from South Africa and winner of the 2021 Women in Nuclear Global Global Excellence Award. Her career has focused on addressing the socioeconomic issues of the African continent through promoting the peaceful use of nuclear science and technology. Welcome, Princess. Thank you so much for joining us.

Princess Mthombeni (01:50):

Hi Jessica. Thank you for inviting me. I’m happy to be here and hi to your viewers.

Jessica Chow (01:58):

Great, thanks. So we always like to start by asking, how did your career path lead you to work on and support nuclear energy?

Princess Mthombeni (02:09):

Well my journey in the nuclear industry is a bit interesting and it’s interesting in such that it’s not something that I planned. I landed in the nuclear by mistake and by mistake because I received a call from the recruitment agency to say, you have an interview in this company which you need to go to tomorrow. Then I went to this organization and I found myself in the village. Then as I got into the village and I was told that it’s a nuclear industry and something that really I have never heard of before, but as soon as I arrived, I started working there. I realized that basically there’s a lot that people do not know and still need to be educated on. And one of them is nuclear technology. So I said to myself, you know what, I will show that the responsibility of taking nuclear to the people, because I realize that since I don’t know about it, I mean, chances are 80% of the country doesn’t know anything about nuclear technology. So yeah, I decided that I am not only going to focus on developing my career but also maybe making an impact, you know do something so that I create awareness of nuclear technology in South Africa and in the African continent at large. So that’s how I became a nuclear communication specialist and also a lifelong nuclear technology advocate.

Jessica Chow (03:52):

So South Africa is the only African country with a nuclear power plant near Cape Town. Can you tell us why having this clean source of power is important for South Africa or why it’s the only African country with its own nuclear power plant?

Princess Mthombeni (04:10):

Yes, it is the only African country with a commissioned nuclear power plant, but soon it’ll not just be the only country in Africa because Egypt is about to start the construction of the nuclear power plant. The, I think it’s a 4,000-megawatt nuclear power plant that Egypt is about to build, which is a major development in the African continent that deserves to be celebrated. And why having this technology is important in South Africa, you know just like many developed nations, South Africa was able to industrialize through coal. So they built many coal power plants, which are now aging, you know by 2030, not by 20 post 2030 South Africa will be decommissioning about 20 to 24 gigawatt of coal power plants and coal is the base load electricity. It offers the baseload, electricity, and nuclear in South Africa and coal offers the most total electricity in South Africa, with nuclear just being 5%.

Princess Mthombeni (05:23):

So when these age when these coal fleets are being decommissioned and they need to be replaced by something else and not only any technology, but the, any, any power source, but the power source that is able to offer the base load and, and stabilize the grid. So I think that it’s, it’s important that we start as a country. We start looking into the, you know, the solution to the aging coal fleet of which really they have been offering a lot for the country. And also it’s important because currently nuclear offers the cheapest electricity in the country. It’s per kWh cheaper than coal. So those are things that people need to know that nuclear is when nuclear is also cheap in terms of per kWh, unlike other sources. And especially those sources that are, are not baseload, which is available only or are controlled by the weather.

Princess Mthombeni (06:32):

So it’s important that as South Africa, we also look into the challenges that we are facing as a country.  South Africa faces the load shedding challenge, the power cuts which are mainly due to those aging coal power plants. So if we were to actually solve the load shedding in South Africa would need to build or introduce more power sources into the grid. And specifically, the power source that is able to offer baseload electricity. And in this case, it’s only nuclear because, in South Africa, we do not have hydropower. We have water scarcity problems. So we will not be able to actually build more hydropower plants, which are also valuable to you know mitigating or helping contribute to reaching the net zero carbon emission. So, yeah, I think that nuclear is important because right now it offers the cheapest electricity, per kWh in South Africa. And also that it’ll be able to replace those aging coal fleets.

Jessica Chow (07:45):

Right. Right. So what are the challenges that the nuclear industry faces in South Africa, as well as Africa as a whole, as it relates to politics, economic development, and social issues?

Princess Mthombeni (08:03):

The main challenge is the lack of knowledge that persists around nuclear technology in the industry. Not only in South Africa, but globally, but I think that in South Africa and Africa, it’s worse, you know I’d like to say the quote by former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, who said: “the enemies of people are those who keep them in ignorance”. So yeah, I feel that people get away with, you know, implementing the solutions that are not socially acceptable because they know that no one will hold them to account because people really, do not have knowledge of this. Hence I took the responsibility to educate people because I believe that when you educate people and give them enough information so that they are able to debate from a, you know, an informed perspective and hold the leaders accountable and be part of the conversations when it comes to energy solutions.

Princess Mthombeni (09:16):

So, yeah. I think that the challenge is mainly the lack of knowledge, but another challenge that we have, which basically has been perpetuated by those who are against nuclear, the anti-nuclear lobby groups, they have spread the information that nuclear is expensive, building nuclear power plants is expensive and have done a lot in influencing policies in terms of, you know, least costly that they use. So, yeah, it’s that to say, South Africa and Africa, African countries cannot be able to afford to build nuclear power plants because they are expensive which I also find very unfair because that means now people are dictating as to what energy sources that as an African continent, we should be able to implement, regardless of whether those energy solutions that they are bringing on the table will be able to solve our problem.

Princess Mthombeni (10:27):

And the most problem that I usually speak about is the challenge of industrialization. We as the African continent and as South Africa, need to industrialize, I think being comfortable to be called underdeveloped nations, should come to an end. We should come up with solutions that will also put us in the, you know, up there to say, we have managed to develop as a country. So really, I think it’s unfair to dictate in the African continents or African nations as to which energy solutions they should be implementing. And also I find it very strange that those who are benefiting from, you know, from selling these renewables, you know solar panels and wind turbines, they have actually managed to convince African nations that and made Africa the canvas area for their renewables solutions of which also I find it very concerning to say, it’s fine.

Princess Mthombeni (11:39):

Why can’t we implement the energy solutions according to our, you know, social and economic challenges as nations? And that is to come up with an energy mix that actually includes all of that and including nuclear, because I believe that if we want to talk industrialization, if we to talk job creation, we will need to actually, yeah, industrialize as a country, we would need a baseload electricity source. And that we can only get that from nuclear hydropower and you know, gas. But we also need to keep in mind that gas is not available. Gas infrastructure is not really available in African countries. Yes. Countries such as Mozambique, do have gas, but it’s not fully harnessed. And in order to get that gas to reach other African countries, you need to build a lot of infrastructures, which really is currently insufficient. So, yeah, that’s just my take to say, as South Africa, as Africa, we need, we need to implement energy solutions that are socially, environmentally, and economically acceptable.

Jessica Chow (13:05):

Great. So as you just said, that one of the misconceptions about nuclear is that it’s really expensive. So as someone whose career focuses on communicating about such a challenging and difficult topic, what have you learned are the other most common misconceptions people have about nuclear and how do you try to overcome those in the community?

Princess Mthombeni (13:31):

I think one of the famous ones is that nuclear power plants are not safe and they base this on historic events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima incidents. So, yeah, it’s also, again, it’s people trying to push their own, you know, personal agenda. But how we try to overcome such challenges is that we try to communicate, especially on the safety aspect of it. I mean, we know that technology evolves, all the technologies evolve and that includes nuclear is not immune to evolving. So if we are saying that the technology evolves and we are going to still, you know, defer to the historic events that happened way back without even considering what is, you know, the technology innovations that are currently being implemented. 

So and also nuclear is nuclear power plants are, you know, highly regulated by, you know, local regulators over and which are overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). So in terms of safety, nuclear plants, or nuclear power plants are highly regulated chances of, you know, nuclear, you know, radioactive material escaping, or being taken out of the nuclear power plants are very slim based on the security, the high tech security that is there in the nuclear power plants. So those are things that we try to communicate. And also we face an issue of you know, waste nuclear, radioactive waste is dangerous. And in our communication really it’s, I don’t even think that when it comes to waste, we should be making such a huge goal.

Princess Mthombeni (15:33):

And considering that I have never heard that nuclear waste killed anyone anywhere, anywhere else in the world. But then we also, you know, try to communicate that how we, you know, how the nuclear waste is disposed of in different countries, including in South Africa which is done in the Northern Cape. So those are things that we try to take to the public to say, yeah, yes, we have nuclear waste is radioactive, but there are means that are being done in order to make sure that you know, people and the environment are not exposed to that radiation.

Jessica Chow (16:15):

So South Africa is currently temporarily storing its spent nuclear fuel. Can you update us on what the country’s planning to do for permanent disposal or long-term disposal?

Princess Mthombeni (16:30):

So yes. Yeah, in South Africa, we have a low-level waste disposal area, which is called Vaalputs in the Northern Cape one of the provinces in South Africa. But what has happened recently is that the government the cabinet has approved the central, the interim centralized storage facility, which will be built actually away from Koeberg and they will store it for a long time, they will store the spent fuel in the, and I think that that’s one of the things that it should or the innovations that we should be proud of as a country that at least for now, for a long time, we are going to have this solution for the spent fuel. Well, and I always say the nice part about science is that scientists are always hungry to come up with research and solutions and long-term solutions, or even permanent solutions. So with regards to nuclear waste, the permanent solution, I believe that it’ll be found and that will it’ll happen soon.

Jessica Chow (17:51):

So do you think finding a permanent solution for South Africa’s spent fuel would help lead to an expansion of nuclear power usage in South Africa, or even Africa as a continent as a whole?

Princess Mthombeni (18:10):

Well, that would be great to find a permanent solution, but it’s not the only hindrance or the main hindrance when it comes to nuclear development in South Africa and Africa, as I mentioned earlier the challenge is the issue of cost. They have really, I think that the anti-nuclear lobby groups have moved away from, you know, focusing on nuclear waste, but they’re now focusing on the cost of nuclear to better block the development of nuclear. So, yeah, it would be great to find a solution by it’s really not the hindrance when it comes to the development of nuclear in, in South Africa and in the African continent.

Jessica Chow (18:54):

So to help educate the public about nuclear energy in conjunction with the work that you already do for the South African government, you founded a nuclear energy series on YouTube called Africa for Nuclear under the theme, nuclear energy, and nexus of life. So what prompted or inspired you to launch the series? How do you see this form of energy as a nexus of life?

Princess Mthombeni (19:21):

Well having joined the nuclear industry, I was lucky to be part of the international network of nuclear professionals across the world and being part of them. I learned how other professionals are doing it in their own countries. And then I said to myself, I mean, Africa cannot be left behind. And then that’s really when I started the idea of Africa for Nuclear, it remained an idea until I was forced to implement it because I happened to be part of this course, which was a training course for women. It says that women in communication science or, yeah, something like that, it was offered by ANSTO and IAEA, I was part of it. And then we were tasked to go back to our countries and develop and implement this, you know, big awareness campaign so that I implement it in our country.

Princess Mthombeni (20:26):

So Africa4Nuclear idea now had to come to life. Then I implemented or I developed a conceptualized it, and then I together with my colleagues and we tried to actually, yeah, come up with nice scripts and, and all that. But why I’m saying there is a nexus of life it’s because it is exactly that nuclear is the nexus of life. We see that through many applications that are available and that are using, that are used in different sectors, such as the food and agricultural sector, and medicine. I mean, we save lives using nuclear medicine, also in the non-destructive non-testing, oh, non-detective testing, they call it that. And then we also water resources, you know, the application of water desalination. So those are all applications that are available in the nuclear industry. And that shows that really this nuclear technology is in our life.

Princess Mthombeni (21:30):

There’s one application or innovation that has been current, that has in recently, you know found actually it’s, it’s called the Rhisotope Project. They, you know, using nuclear technology or nuclear application, we will be able to save rhinos from being poached. That’s just amazing. And I think anyone should be, you know, should look, should, should look out for the developments of that innovation in South Africa and in Africa as a whole. So yeah, that’s basically why I’m saying nuclear is the nexus of life, because all these applications that you find nuclear applications, they prove to us that really this nuclear is what we live in every day.

Jessica Chow (22:23):

So the average annual temperature in South Africa is predicted to increase by 4.4 degrees Celsius by 2100 if emissions aren’t reduced. So how is global warming affecting the country currently, and are public concerns about the environment leading to more discussions about deploying more clean energy, nuclear, or other sources?

Princess Mthombeni (22:51):

Well, Jessica, you know, climate change is already a measurable reality posing significant economical, environmental, and you know, social risks and challenges, not only in South Africa but in the whole world globally. And South Africa also like other nations has, you know, the task of balancing the acceleration of economic growth and transformation. And they should do so in a manner that is environmentally acceptable so that they are able to contribute to helping the world in reaching net zero carbon emission, carbon emissions by 2050. And water has been retired. You know, the primary medium through which the effects of climate change are being felt is South Africa. And that’s according to the department of water report in 2013, and they are saying the increases in climate variability and impacting both water availability and water quality through changes in rainfall patterns and more intense storms.

Princess Mthombeni (24:12):

So I think I will speak from the energy perspective, the industry, which I’m, you know, clued up about what South Africa has done in terms of addressing the issues of climate change. In 2019, they created what is called the integrated resource plan, which is a, you know, an energy master plan for the country, and that IRP in short, we call it, IRP south African IRP actually calls for a balanced energy mix that includes nuclear, renewables and gas, and others. And so more and more renewables are being introduced to the grid. And as I mentioned earlier the coal fleet is aging, and it’ll be decommissioned post-2030. And the plans are to actually replace those coal power plants with either nuclear, gas, or renewable. So we’ll see.

Jessica Chow (25:30):

Perfect. Is there anything else, you’d like to tell our viewers today about your work that you’ve been doing or any new initiatives you’re starting?

Princess Mthombeni (25:43):

I’d like to invite them to come and follow us on social media at Africa4Nuclear. We are on TikTok on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. And I can assure you that we are planning nice things. We are planning exciting things going forward as after pro-nuclear, we will be introducing television. We’ll be introducing outreach programs in the whole of our African continent will be introducing CSI, corporate social investment programs. So, yeah, lots and lots of exciting stuff is going to happen, and I’m inviting them to come and be part of this journey and be part of the conversations as well, because we do need nuclear professionals to be able to, you know, respond on our behalf.

Jessica Chow (26:22):

Well, thank you so much Princess for joining us today.

Princess Mthombeni (26:26):

Thank you so much, Jessica, for inviting me and I wish you all the best for what you are doing, it’s really an amazing initiative that you guys are involved in.

Narrator (26:39):

We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at

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Liz Muller’s portion begins at 22:40. Elizabeth Muller is CEO and co-founder of Deep Isolation, who talks about her background as an environmentalist and explains why she wanted to “solve” the issue of nuclear waste disposal so that the future growth of nuclear is not held back by negative public perception of the issue. She explains the company’s deep borehole repository system and sets out likely timescales, which means there could be a disposal site up and running within the next five to ten years.

Atomic Insights, August 9, 2022

The Power Hungry Podcast: Elizabeth Muller

Elizabeth Muller is the CEO of Deep Isolation, a Berkeley-based company that seeks to resolve America’s nuclear waste challenge by using technology borrowed from the oil and gas business. In this episode, she explains why the waste issue must be solved before the nuclear sector can have a full renaissance, why Deep Isolation must have success overseas before it succeeds here, the advantages of using boreholes instead of a mined repository (think Yucca Mountain), and why, when it comes to nuclear, “the world has shifted over the past six months.”

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