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

101 Asset

Nuclear Waste 101

Understand more about nuclear waste and its implications for you and your community.

About Nuclear Waste


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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

101 Asset

Nuclear Waste 101

Understand more about nuclear waste and its implications for you and your community.

About Nuclear Waste


Deep Isolation answers frequently asked questions about our technology, our process, and safety.

Deep Isolation Answers

Subscribe to Receive Our Newsletter

Episode 19


Suzie Jaworowski

Former Chief of Staff in US Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy under the Trump Administration

Millennials Could Hold Key to Success of Nuclear

In this episode, Suzie Jaworowski reflects on her experiences as the Chief of Staff in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy under the Trump Administration and gives insight into her vision of the future of nuclear technologies.

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

Suzie Jaworowski (00:10):

We’re at the stage where states are starting to say, Hey, we need this kind of technology. We can’t just retire fossil fuel plants and implement renewables. We need another base load source. 

Narrator (00:26):

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

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

Kari Hulac (01:48):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation Communications Manager. My guest today is Suzie Jaworowski, Former Chief of Staff in the US Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy under the Trump Administration. Suzie was the first woman to serve as chair of the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation, an organization dedicated to nuclear energy issues. Among her many accomplishments, she has served as Advisor to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and is an Advisor to NuScale Energy. Welcome, Suzie. Thank you so much for joining us.

Suzie Jaworowski (02:23):

Thanks Kari. It’s a pleasure.

Kari Hulac (02:26):

All right. We always like to start by asking, how did your career path lead you to work on nuclear energy issues?

Suzie Jaworowski (02:34):

Well, it certainly wasn’t something that I had planned. I am not a nuclear engineer or a scientist but I have always, throughout my career, ended up working with clients that were energy related. And it really taught me to have such a deep appreciation for what energy does in our life and culture. And we take it for granted all the time and it’s just, I always felt really privileged to work in advocacy and communications and in government affairs on energy issues, because it is so important and if our energy policy isn’t right, it can really affect so many things in our lives. It can affect the reliability of course, it can affect electricity. It can also affect the cost of the goods we buy. If the price of electricity goes up, the price of bread goes up. And so I was very fascinated by that.

Suzie Jaworowski (03:29):

And I had worked in all different kinds. I did some work for utilities and in my clients, I had some fossil fuel clients in the past. And when I got to the US Department of Energy, I asked to work in the Office of Nuclear Energy because I really admired the large scale power, zero carbon emissions and it seemed like such a mystery of how it really worked. And it was a chance for me to come in from an administrative point of view, but quickly became an advocate because it’s such amazing power that I felt is really underutilized. So that’s how I got to be working in the Office of Nuclear Energy.

Kari Hulac (04:10):

So as Chief of Staff in the US Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy work to help the US become energy independent. So this term describes a country’s dependence on foreign oil. So maybe share what you learned while navigating such a complex responsibility and share why it’s so important.

Suzie Jaworowski (04:30):

Oh, that’s a really good question. And I was so honored to be a part of that team that helped us to be energy independent. And one of the things that I learned was how strategically critical energy is for national security. You know, that, and again, is something that cannot be overstated. I was fortunate to go to Poland and work with the Poles on their plans for developing nuclear energy and it was all about getting out from under Russian gas. And, you know, we don’t think about that here. We have such… we’re blessed in the United States to have a very diverse generation depending on where you live. It may be all different kinds of things, but it gives us a lot of security and it gives us a lot of independence. And so to work with, you know, Romania, Poland, and other European countries that want to get away from relying on one source for their gas really taught me how crucial this energy source is. People’s lives depend on it, and it’s something really for countries to think about and work together to deploy. Not only is it the clean energy benefits that we’re all big fans of and so appreciative, it also gives independence to countries and then they can pursue their own freedom, which really I think is pretty awesome.

Kari Hulac (06:01):

And what role do you feel nuclear can play in that right now? And I mean, I’d imagine that would be a key part of moving forward in our energy future.

Suzie Jaworowski (06:11):

Yes. I mean, nuclear is so crucial for many reasons. Primary, I think most people think about the carbon emissions reduction goals today, but you know, you look at the taxonomy and the European Union right now, and they are including nuclear as a green energy source. That is fantastic. I think that’s a no-brainer quite honestly. I feel that, you know, we have to have realism in our energy policy and realistically Fukushima was among the largest disasters that anybody could have ever imagined. No one ended up dying as a direct result from the radiation there. We know that there were two people who drowned onsite at the plant. But the response to it was big and was, you know, you do what you do at the time with the best intentions and security in mind.

Suzie Jaworowski (07:12):

But I think some countries overcorrected by immediately shutting down all of their net nuclear assets. Japan, I have to commend them, I was at Fukushima myself. They did a very good job of taking what was, as I said, a huge disaster, brought the world in to help not only mitigate the problem, but also to learn from it. And so they have opened a museum that talks about how the accident happened, what they learned from it and how to never do it again. And so I think that that was a terrible situation. We learned a lot from it and some countries did overreact on that. Moving forward, I think we take the lessons learned. We, you know, it really is such a safe energy source compared to other energy sources. It is so much safer. You know, the mortality rate for nuclear is almost next to nothing compared with other sources and yet people are still so frightened and have a perception of being scared of nuclear. And that’s something that I think we in the industry have to do a better job of telling our story.

Kari Hulac (08:34):

I think the next question will also get to that a little bit, kind of. Because I wanted to ask you about the Office of Nuclear Energy, you were the political liaison between the Office and the Secretary of Energy and the White House. And when we get into politics, we often hear solving nuclear waste is a political issue, not a technical one. So maybe you could talk some about what were the perception issues you dealt with? What were the challenges you faced in bridging that technical and political divide over nuclear energy and nuclear waste, which is, you know, the thing that’s so scary to people as you just touched on.

Suzie Jaworowski (09:10):

Exactly. And it, you know, that is such a complex landscape to navigate. But if you cut through all of the different divides, because there’s divide between the two parties, there’s divide within each party about how we deal with spent fuel. But again, I think that we have to just be very realistic about the situation and I think the best analogy to demonstrate our fuel scenario today is that imagery of saying that all the spent fuel that we’ve used in the United States can fit on a football field. And some people say it’s 10 feet deep. Some people say it’s 10 yards deep, but basically it gives you an idea of the mass is not as large as people might think. So that’s one point to make sure that people understand it is being safely stored all around the country, even as we speak. Yucca mountain was an ideal repository for the spent fuel.

Suzie Jaworowski (10:17):

And I think it’s important for us to think in terms of moving forward in the future that that spent fuel can be reused again. There are other countries that do that, you know, there’s 96% fuel left in the fuel rods that are used. And there’s no reason that we can’t reuse that when the time is right, when the budgeting is right. But it is, again, I think education is going to be key to bringing together some unified policy and how to deal with spent fuel. When I was at DOE, we used to every month, go up on the hill and we would have these atomic wing lunch and learns where we’d bring in hot wings and have staffers and lawmakers come. And we would talk about issues like spent fuel and it was not a political environment. It was a question and answer, talk to the experts and have a conversation about the reality of the situation, that was the environment. And I think we need to do more of that to be able to make really informed decisions,

Kari Hulac (11:24):

Right. Because what will it take for the US to see that progress forward when it comes to disposing of spent fuel and moving past Yucca Mountain, which seems to be at a stalemate.

Suzie Jaworowski (11:36):

Correct, I agree. Yep.

Kari Hulac (11:38):

Besides education, what else do you think it would take to see any progress on a repository?

Suzie Jaworowski (11:47):

Well I think that the more that we are dealing with such an educated population of young people, more informed than any other generation we’ve ever had, the technology that our digital natives have grown up with allow them to learn and be educated on a vast array of topics in record speed. And so utilizing those social media outreach channels, things that are informationally based like Reddit, I think that’s a place where people who really care about issues can go to and find in depth information in a quick, digestible, easy way to learn about it. So I’d say leveraging the channels where people are reading and learning can, you know, we can’t forget about the actual newspaper and the old fashioned kinds of channels as well, but education, engagement, not fear, we can’t use propaganda. We have to be realistic about the benefits and the drawbacks because people are smart and they understand, you know, that there’s no purely perfect source of electricity. And so when you know the benefits and the challenges of each type, nuclear comes out really well and finding ways to deal with our spent fuel is a national imperative. And so being realistic about ways that it can be stored, it can be accessed again, and being able to just, you know, be honest about what the situation is, and then try to educate people and have a respectful conversation.

Kari Hulac (13:32):

And you mentioned the kind of digital native generations, and I wanted to ask, I know you worked with the Millennial Nuclear Caucus. How critical is that movement to the success of nuclear energy and how do you think they’re paying enough attention to the issue of the spent fuel, the challenges that that presents?

Suzie Jaworowski (13:54):

Yeah, I love first of all, working with the Millennial Nuclear Caucus. It was just amazing, such smart, engaged young people who really care about our country and the future of our world. It was just a great opportunity. And we went, we were invited to so many wonderful places. You know, General Atomics had us near San Diego, their headquarters out there. It’s an amazing spot, they have a Tokamak. We got to go see that. We had a NASA, former NASA astronaut come and speak to the crowd. And we were in Japan at the Japanese Institute of Technology and at the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, and so many great universities and science labs across the country. So that was just an amazing experience to engage with young people in those environments. And I think that that kind of movement is crucial.

Suzie Jaworowski (14:51):

That’s what creates the groundswell that can make a change in a real tipping point because young people educate themselves that other generations have not done as I talked about. And they’re ready to advocate, and they do not have the legacy fear of nuclear from days where people weren’t very well informed about the technology and the reality of the technology. So you know, I think today, when things, first of all, we have a totally different fleet of nuclear reactors that are ready to go. So young people do educate themselves on a lot of that technology. The advanced reactors will be a game changer and being able to support those is something that the young generation I’m finding, they are really ready to do. When I talk about SMRs, generally people are, they realize, they talk, oh, that’s that modular nuclear, right? You know, and they have some for familiarity and a much more positive impression because people have been educated on it.

Kari Hulac (16:07):

You already mentioned some of your exciting kind of international travel experiences. Tell us a little bit more about that, what you did with the International Atomic Energy Agency and as chair of the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation. What lessons did you learn about advancing nuclear around the world? You also touched on the taxonomy, I’d love to hear more about that. It’s become a little bit contentious lately. And for example, you know getting at the regulation changes, mandating a nuclear waste solution. So kinda talk about your experiences there and what you see in terms of what they’re doing today.

Suzie Jaworowski (16:47):

Yes, well I spent some time working in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency. My scope of work there was more in partnering and developing partnerships on behalf of the agency. But I have to say it was a great experience because the people that are there from all over the world, they are there to make a difference and it shows. And so that was a great experience. But it was really where the outreach in IFNEC, the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation, came together and showed that, one thing I have to say and I hope that my international colleagues will take this in the spirit that it’s intended, they were all looking to the United States to lead and the United States had not been leading. This is not a party commentary, one side or the other. For about 40 years, the United States had not been leading.

Suzie Jaworowski (17:45):

And so it was a breath of fresh air when we stood up and said yes, we want to host the IFNEC Conference in 2019 in Washington, DC. It will be partially hosted at the White House and the Secretary of Energy will be there. And showing that signal to the rest of the world, I think gave a lot of enthusiasm and hope to other countries that okay, we’re getting serious, the United States is back in the nuclear energy game globally. And that was great to see that. And so we had some wonderful opportunities. We were down in Argentina in a place called Bariloche that’s in the Patagonia region. They are deploying some SMRs. They have plans to do that now. We were there with the Women in Nuclear global conference, spent several times over at the OECD in Paris and all the countries coming together and talking about the benefits of nuclear and all of those conversations and trips, and the opportunity to meet with people and get to know  them as individuals, even though there are representatives of all these different countries, you know, our executive committee had people from Kenya and Argentina and Poland and Romania and China.

Suzie Jaworowski (19:11):

And so they’re all just people and it was a fabulous opportunity to learn from them. But what I’m finding really exciting is now looking at what’s happening in the country, in our country in terms of deploying SMRs because the reality is that we’re at the stage where states are starting to say, Hey, we need this kind of technology. We can’t just retire fossil fuel plants and implement renewables. We need another base load source. And they’re really starting to see that, I know, West Virginia, Indiana, Wyoming, several states are changing their existing legislation to incorporate SMRs specifically, if not just advanced nuclear. And we’re starting to see that tipping point. So it’s gone from conversation to deployment and it’s really happening. And so it’s an exciting time to be involved in nuclear. Industries like electric vehicles, like high speed computing, like digital currency development, require more energy than our current system can provide. If the United States wants to house these advanced future industries, we need to deploy nuclear to make sure we have a clean source to do that.

Kari Hulac (20:32):

How important is it and what conversations have you heard in the SMR community about having solutions for the waste in place? Is that a conversation that’s happening yet? What, you know, how important is that do you think to the public, to feeling more comfortable with this with the reactors being deployed?

Suzie Jaworowski (20:53):

That always comes up, you know, that’s one of the obstacles that always comes up and we have to address it face on. We just had a hearing here in Indiana. The Indiana Senate Utility Committee put forth a bill, Senate bill 271, it’s called the SMR bill. I’m glad they named it so straight forward and appropriately. And that was one of the big questions that came up was what about the spent fuel? And when there were several people here from the Nuclear Energy Institute, the US DOE, the NCSL was here. And when they told the actual story about what the reality is with spent fuel, that it’s currently being safely stored, it can be safely stored, it can be transported safely, it is not a nuclear waste dumping ground that’s gonna happen, but there are several ways that it can be stored until we need it again. And when we got finished with all these presenters testifying at the hearing, there were some changed hearts and minds in the room and people that came in initially negative on the thought of nuclear, went out and said, I don’t see why we can’t, why we wouldn’t at least give this an opportunity.

Kari Hulac (22:16):

Well, you’ve kind of hit on how challenging the communication around it can be. And if you educate, you can maybe, like you said, change some hearts and minds. Any other ways that you build the trust needed to keep the conversation advancing? 

Suzie Jaworowski (22:33):

Well I think keeping it at the forefront like we do in social media. The challenges, I think that as a community, we talk to ourselves a lot and it’s okay. At least we’re promoting ourselves. But try to get outside of our own realm of conversations. So it’s not so much an echo chamber, but more dialogue. I think that’s one thing. I think inviting young people, especially to places like the National Science Labs and hosting open houses at, you know, Deep Isolation, hosting open houses, putting their technology as simply as possible. I know at DOE we had a really brilliant young person who was responsible for all our digital communications and he had a great way of just taking these complex thoughts and putting it into very easy videos or infographics and using all those communications tools that we have at our fingers. Smart communication goes a long way. So I’d say continue having conversations. Don’t be afraid to tell our story and be open and honest about the benefits and drawbacks. And I think we’ll win more hearts and minds that way.

Kari Hulac (23:48):

What exactly is exciting you about this next generation of reactors? I know you’ve done some work with NuScale. What do you know, so what excites you about them? And then is there anything that should be done differently to ensure that they don’t face the same challenges as some legacy reactors are facing in certain parts of the world getting shut down? So you have these, you know, reactors getting shut down and then you have some hope with the next generation coming online.

Suzie Jaworowski (24:16):

Well, that’s a really good question, Kari. And I’d say there’s two things. One is the technology itself. I mean, I know that this term is not technically accurate, but I like to call them meltdown proof because they do cool in and on them themselves, they cool for an indefinite amount of time, they do not need any kind of electrical backup system, no AC or DC power, and they don’t need any human interaction. So to me, even though it may overheat, it doesn’t have a meltdown explosion kind of situation. And so I like to call it meltdown proof because in everyday vernacular, I think that that paints an accurate picture of what happens. I also think it’s really super cool that these small modular reactors can do desalination. So for island nations, that’s such a great, great opportunity that it can be paired with a microgrid and get the electric system right back up again, and running in a Puerto Rico or hurricane kind of environment.

Suzie Jaworowski (25:18):

And then perhaps one of the most interesting things is the hydrogen production that, you know, it’s a brand new product line if you will. To think about it, you can deploy electricity and also have a channel for developing another cost center, another income center rather, through the hydrogen production. So that technology I think is really, really exciting and then I have to say back on the industrial pairing, the concept of deploying SMRs, it’s expensive and it takes a long time. It might take about seven years to, from the time you say, okay, I’m ready to do it to the time that you deploy. So I think being creative about partnering existing utilities, pairing with an industry, let’s say pairing with data centers. If you have data centers that are gonna make money, they pair with existing energy sources, but have in the long term, a plan to do a cost share with deploying SMRs. That I find really interesting. And I think that ESG investors are also finding that kind of scenario very interesting. So to me, it’s just exciting that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel to deployment. This is actually coming to fruition, and we’ll do so in our lifetime.

Kari Hulac (26:48):

Finally, is there anything we didn’t hit on that you’d like to leave our listeners thinking about today?

Suzie Jaworowski (26:55):

Wow. That’s a good question. I think you asked a lot of good questions. I think just, you know, kind of back to the education issue, we have a product, if you will, that has an image problem and has incited fear in people in the past. And I think just the more we can be very honest about what the situation is and educational, I think it’ll go a long way and I’m just really excited because, most people under or 40 that when I tell them I work in nuclear, they’re excited and they wanna know more about it. So I’m excited that the young generation is so well informed and so positive about nuclear energy and just can’t wait to see what happens in the next 10 years.

Kari Hulac (27:53):

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

Suzie Jaworowski (27:56):

Thank you so much.

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Episode 18

Zion Lights

Science Communicator and Author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting and Only a Moment

In Perspective: Energy Poverty, Climate Change, and The Nuclear Challenge

In this episode, Zion Lights walks us through her journey into environmental and pro-nuclear activism and sheds light on the intersection of science advocacy and social justice in relation to climate change.

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

Zion Lights (00:10):

It’s just that we need the solutions now. So I’m trying to engage those groups now to go beyond just believing in it and actually advocating for it and also just creating a space to say, we do get to do this as climate activists. We have climate science on our side. 

Narrator (00:26):

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

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

Kari Hulac (01:48):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation Communications Manager. My guest today is Zion Lights, a British author and environmental activist. She’s the co-founder of Emergency Reactor, a new effort to raise awareness around the importance of nuclear energy and the fight against climate change. In 2020, she worked as UK director of the group Environmental Progress by Michael Shellenberger. Welcome Zion. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Zion Lights (02:18):

Thanks so much for having me on today. 

Kari Hulac (02:20):

Let’s start by you sharing your journey on the road to becoming an environmental activist. You’ve described yourself as caring deeply about the earth since you were a child and said you had eco anxiety, so maybe share what that is and why do you think you’ve always felt that way?

Zion Lights (02:39):

I was quite young when I first learned about global warming at school, which is what we called it at the time. And I did have a kind of eco anxiety. I used to have nightmares that everything was going to go under water and my parents didn’t really know what to do with me and they didn’t understand it. And actually generally then it wasn’t very well understood anyway, and people didn’t really seem concerned about it. So I started getting involved with the campaign and then trying to get my parents to recycle and going vegetarian. I was quite young you know, sort of 10, 11, and I think they just find it very annoying and they didn’t really understand what I was doing. So that was the beginning. It wasn’t until I left home at 18 for university work, sort of found a group of people who had similar concerns and we’d set up our first group. And then I, from there, I kind of got involved with a lot of different activism over the years.

Kari Hulac (03:26):

And what did you study at university? Did you follow that path for your education?

Zion Lights (03:31):

No, I actually studied English Literature. I come from an art background, but then later I went on to do a Master’s in Science Communication because I came more interested in science and that actually, that’s a big part of, you know, what we need to be talking about. And I was kind of a lucky in a way that I didn’t, you know people often ask me “are you really interested in science, are you really excited about this, why didn’t you study it?” As a kid who actually grew up in a very poor inner city area where we didn’t have very good education options and I really didn’t learn very much at school, so science was not really an option for someone of my background at that time.

Kari Hulac (04:07):

And then how did having children impact your environmentalism and lead you to write a book on green parenting? What were you hoping to convey to your readers with that book?

Zion Lights (04:16):

It’s interesting because I think a lot of people now are kind of thinking about not wanting to have children and how awful it is, how awful the world is. And you know, why would you want to bring kids into this world? And I feel like I got a lot of that of my system when I was younger and I was really worried. And then getting involved with the groups and taking action and having some gains. I know that there haven’t been enough gains over the years but things have been shifting. That’s actually made me more hopeful and more likely to bring children into the world, which I did. And what I found with that was that I had children and I wanted to do, you know, teach them about the environment and climate change and they would just know about at the time. 

Zion Lights (04:55):

My oldest daughter is 10 and there’s a lot more literature out there now for them, as you know, they’re learning about climate change at school and there’s so much now, but when I first had her, there was really nothing. And the kind of green parenting books I was reading didn’t really have a lot of useful information. So I authored the book on green parenting to help other parents like me who might want to help teach their kids about things and also live with a low carbon footprint as a family. That was, you know, kind of what everyone was talking about doing, but it’s much harder if you have children. But also I think, you know, people think what’s the point? If you have children, they’re bringing emissions into the world, but actually having three children is seen as kind of a sustainable number because we have this kind of aging population. So I don’t think it’s really about number of people anyway. I think we got a bit distracted talking about that. I think it’s about how we live and act something really.

Kari Hulac (05:52):

And so there’s, you know, obviously it’s a huge topic. The topic of environmentalists being supportive of nuclear energy as being key in the fight against climate change. So when did you first become passionate about that type of energy source? Was there a point where you were against it and you changed over, or tell us about your journey to being such a passionate supporter of clean energy?

Zion Lights (06:20):

So for the most part, most of my life, I was against it. When you join these kind of green groups, everybody’s against it and you’re all just against it. I noticed there was a difference between me and other people in some of these groups, because also for example, in the green parenting community, a lot of people were anti-vaccination and I never was. I always kind of understood the value and the need, but I was kind of different because there were things about my kids that they didn’t approve of. So I noticed quite early on, I had some different ideas and I thought maybe that’s, you know, from a very different background or immigrant, you know, a group that grew up very poor in the city of Birmingham. Maybe I have a different understanding of things and sort of then led to the energy revelation for me, which is that I was kind of against and I was writing a book on how to live with less energy.

Zion Lights (07:06):

I agree people should, we really should be less wasteful. It’s not to say that other countries shouldn’t have a lot of money and lots of energy like we have, right? We’re very energy rich. We’re very lucky, you switch the light switch on and you expect light to come on, you don’t have to have to live in darkness. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand. And I have an understanding about this because that’s what my parents came from and that’s what they left behind. It’s very hard for them to be kind in their 60s because they left all their family and all their culture behind for a country that they knew nothing about. You know, they came to Britain because there was this big industrial boom in Birmingham at the time they were lots of jobs, these factory jobs.

Zion Lights (07:45):

You know, I always had this kind of understanding of why they left this behind with their home really. It’s quite a phenomenal thing to do and to come here and not have the support networks that are really important in their communities. They did it because they wanted high energy lifestyles, right? They wanted lifestyles where, you know, people have access to things you don’t have back in a little village in the Punjab in India and billions of people around the world live like that. When you talk about poverty, it’s energy poverty really. And so, although I’ve always cared about climate change, I was also involved in lots of other groups. When I was a teenager, I was in Amnesty International. I was in War on Want. I cared about these issues as well. But what I started noticing was that there wasn’t a lot of joining up between kind of the green group and the human rights groups.

Zion Lights (08:33):

And to me, these are actually really just the same issues. And if we care about the people and planet, you know, you can’t separate people out from nature. So when I started realizing I was wrong about nuclear, you know, people, it was a friend of mine who’s an engineer sent me something about, specifically about Fukushima, which I had been assumed killed lots of people. And he sent me this research very clearly said, no one died because of a nuclear melt down, they died because of the tsunami and earthquake. It was really really big thing for me because I believed completely the wrong thing for years. I’ve told people the wrong thing and I felt bad. And I was like, oh, maybe I’m a bit like the anti-vaxxers and I have the wrong view. So I started looking into it more. 

Zion Lights (09:12):

He was very helpful and he was very good at, you know, not pushing me, but if I asked for resources then you know, it was really getting into science anyway and thinking, oh, well everyone should know these facts. But what I noticed was when I’d go to my green friends and tell them, they simply don’t want to know that. They’d say, who’s gotten to? We don’t want to know that. And I kind of went, oh no, this is different. And then I would say to them, you know, I understand about saying people here should live with us, but what about people in developing countries? This is where the real point came for me. And I became passionate about energy because their arguments are “you don’t get to develop that to have what we have because we, we mess things up.”

Zion Lights (09:52):

And I don’t agree with that. I have all these relatives in India who want what we have, right? They want lighting that works. And it’s not just about lighting. When you think about energy, we’re so used to it. We don’t think about how we only have this infrastructure and a high quality of life because we had lots of energy, which was like, Hey, we had lots of consequences and lots of fossil fuels. What if we could have gone without consequences? And wouldn’t that still be a good thing? It means you get to live longer and healthier. You live longer, you have the air quality, you know, you have access to education, you have infrastructure that allows you access to hospitals which don’t have blackouts, which are really bad blackouts. But when I started realizing that nuclear was not as dangerous as I’ve been led to believe, fossil fuel are as dangerous as I’ve always known.

Zion Lights (10:37):

I realized, Hey, we should reach out. Before we’ve been kind of tricked against this thing that could actually displace fossil fuels. Which renewables can too, but then renewables still need that baseload power which is nuclear. So I became passionate about it really because of energy poverty, because I thought, someone needs to have these opinions out there because these countries now, you know, as you’ll have seen around Cop 26 saying India is so bad, not phasing out coal. Well can we really say that to them? I understand we need to phase out coal. Then they’re going to need lots of energy so that they can develop infrastructure the way we did when we did burning vast amounts of fossil fuels. And actually they do need that, they’re really important. Literally because these other countries in the global south are going to suffer the most because of climate change. And they can have infrastructure now to protect them. They can protect themselves. They cannot do that without vast amounts of energy. And then you’ve got even environmental NGO saying, we don’t want you to have fossil fuels or nuclear, a few wind farms and solar panels isn’t enough. Like you can have them great and in some places they work really well. It’s not enough. It’s not what we had. We had vast amounts of energy. So that’s really why I’m out there and why I’m passionate about it because I care about these people.

Kari Hulac (11:55):

Well, I love how you bring your history and your family background into this. I mean, do you remember that? How old were you when you came to the UK? Or was this more your parents experiencing this?

Zion Lights (12:07):

So I was born here, but my parents took me, my parents took me to India a few times. They took me when I was very young and I have very vague memories, but they took me when I was, I think I was 19 or 20, a really good age actually, to go to this village in the middle of nowhere. And I didn’t really understand what we came from until then.You fly into the nearest airport, this is before I gave up flying, and a four hour journey to get this village. And then you get to the village and you know, you have to understand about there not being any infrastructure. There’s no Google maps, right? There’s no internet, no wifi. There’s no hot spot points for your phone. You’re completely cut off. There’s no street signs. 

Zion Lights (12:50):

We’d have to keep stopping. I mean, we didn’t drive there because the roads are crazy. So we had a driver and he’d have to keep stopping and asking people, do you know where this family with the surname. That’s how we found it, a little village in the middle of nowhere. So people ask me, what’s the village called? I can tell you it’s in the Mandi. I can’t tell you where it is on a map. These places have not been mapped. These people live with nothing, they live in absolute poverty. And then you go past these shacks and sometimes you get some footings because some people have moved out and put some money into those area. But millions of people live like this and you really get a sense of it when you’re driving through. And it’s just millions and millions of people crammed in living very low carbon lifestyles, but under duress, you know, and they don’t want to live like that. They would take the first opportunity to not have to because they live with serious consequences of illnesses and the lack of treatment and lack of healthcare and vaccinations and all of the things that we’re really privileged to have.

Zion Lights (13:42):

Then we stayed there for three weeks. It was really hard for me, you know, I’d never experienced anything like that before. I was kind of like angry with my parents. You know, why have you put me here? There’s nothing to do. I mean, all right, people spend time together and they’re rice farmers and they do that. But I mean, it’s a really, really dire way of living. And I’m not saying that, people can really… I think the green movement has this thing with idolizing poverty, or they live on the land and they have communities. I even had someone say, I have mental health issues because they live in communities. Oh, they do have mental health issues. When your baby dies when it’s a year old, you have six babies and there’s a chance that most of them won’t make it.

Zion Lights (14:25):

You have mental health issues. Sure, they do not just write blogs about it that you read about because they don’t have access. They don’t have a voice on the stage. And that’s where I realized that, wow, someone should be getting this out there. I mean, everybody thinks they know about poverty, but do we really appreciate that? 2 billion people live in a state that is energy poverty. It’s that lack of infrastructure that we built with lots of energy and development and it’s economic development. And you can do that without increasing emissions. There have been countries that have shown that you can do that. There are a set of issues that get lumped together by this movement, which just thinks living back on the land is really lovely. And no, it’s not actually, no it’s not and I love nature, but when you live somewhere like that where there’s wild snakes everywhere, and there’s no protection from them, you know, I remember just hearing awful stories about people being bitten by snakes and having horrific deaths because the nearest hospital is four hours away. 

Zion Lights (15:21):

Then if you had a car, which most of them don’t, right. They don’t have cars, even if you had access, it’s just a very unhappy existence. It’s people are just surviving basically. And if they survive the day, then they’re happy. They’re grateful. And that’s it really and they don’t just want lighting and hospitals. They want laptops and mobile phones. They want everything that we are privy to and the easy part of having a high quality of life. We have to make peace with that in the green movement, instead of saying no, no, no, no, they can’t have more. Sure, we can live with less, but we also need to have more. So that was really eyeopening and I am glad now that my parents took me even thought I remember when I left, I said, I’m never coming back here, which is really sad because we have so much family there who really love and miss us.

Zion Lights (16:11):

And I just, I think I felt guilty coming back and looking at everything that I have that they don’t have and will never have access to. That they’ll never be able to enjoy not just that now, but you know, my family, they’re rice farmers as are many people in these countries in the global south, and now they suffer the consequences of frequent drought and that’s going to become more common and they have to migrate, where are they going to go? Are they going to come here? You need options in their countries. They need solutions. One of the solutions we talk about is desalination. It’s when you take seawater and you turn it into drinking water. It works, it’s proven, it’s been used before. It requires huge amounts of energy so even the solutions they couldn’t handle at this moment because they haven’t got resources and the infrastructure we’ve got to protect us.

Zion Lights (16:58):

So all of these things are really important to talk about because for a long time, we’ve heard the opposite in the green groups. And I was one of them. I was one of those voices. So I’m kind of trying to correct my wrongs, even, you know, having been made peace with, or I have a lot of different people in this movement. Actually we’ve been saying the same thing for a long time and it hasn’t really worked right? Just saying people need to live with less for a long time hasn’t actually worked. We need to find new novel ways to use more energy. So let’s instead focus on clean energy options because it actually benefits everyone. You get cleaner air, lower emissions and there’s no harm with wanting a good quality of life.

Kari Hulac (17:40):

So take us to your founding of your new website, Emergency Reactor. I was really struck by the emergency vibe of your campaign and your social media. The point of that is to push the public, to have a serious conversation about nuclear energy and the fight against climate change. So what was the transition tipping point for you to launch that?

Zion Lights (18:07):

I think it was what I was saying, which is that I realized we were banging on about the same thing. It’s okay to think the same thing, live with less, drive less, eat less, but you know what, I do all of these things, I never learned to drive. Since 2002, I have done all of the things and it hasn’t made a difference. Let’s be honest. We now have cryptocurrency. Now that’s not something that I am involved in, but I know that uses vast amounts of energy. And I actually, if we’re honest and we look across the history of humankind, we are always good at using more energy. This is actually just something that we do, look at the advent of the internet. This is just what happens. You get a better quality of life. You use more energy, even going right back when our ancestors discovered fire and fire became the technology and they used that for many different things to help develop human life and human progress. 

Zion Lights (19:01):

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily. It’s just that we kind of need a fire 2.0 now, we need to move away from the polluting things now we realize they’re bad. And that’s where nuclear is actually, we’re lucky that we have this option because if we don’t have it, I don’t know what I would tell people to do. Saying live with less hasn’t worked even if we all did that and most people are trying to, it’s just so insignificant on actual overall emission. If you look at the data, most of them come from energy because we live high energy lifestyles. We need a lot of energy for things like, you know, hospitals and just being able to have lights on so that you can not sit in the dark in winter.

Zion Lights (19:39):

These are things that we’ve really come to take for granted I think. So yeah, the solution is really simple, which is we replace the dirty elements. So let’s look at fossil fuels for a minute. Everybody says, they know fossil fuels are bad, but when you say fossil fuels are bad to people, they’re like, yeah, okay. And they continue to, you know, all the cowl, electricity is coming from coal. They don’t really care as long as they don’t have to live near the coal fired power station. If it’s coming from somewhere, right, someone’s having to live by it. And we import coal regularly from poor countries where people have to live with the consequences of living next to coal power plant station. We will never allow one here. We will import all the time, especially when you know, it’s not windy or sunny enough and that capacity of renewables drops.

Zion Lights (20:21):

That’s usually when we have to bring in the coal. So, and that’s because we don’t have a lot of nuclear. So I say to people, well fossil fuels, even if climate change wasn’t happening, the pollution from fossil fuels kills at least 8 million people a year, its very easy to look up. There’s lots of good research on it and that’s a conservative estimate. And again, these are mostly marginalized people, these are the people breathing the dirtiest air, you know, the women and children. This is who suffer the bulk of the impacts of the climate crisis. Then we talk about climate change. That’s how bad fossil fuels are. Before we talk about the fact that people knew these products were harming us, way before we knew, way before scientists had solid research to say it and they hid that data.

Zion Lights (21:03):

And in fact, they put billions into funding climate denial, these are all real things. You can look them up. You know, this really happened. If there’s a bad guy in the room, there it is, let’s get away from that. And then you say, “nuclear”. People have all the emotional reactions they should be having to fossil fuels. And it’s really interesting to me that this happens because what did nuclear do? Okay, there’s been a few accidents and numbers of fatalities about even from solar and wind. That’s it. People in all sorts of industries, huge industries, will sometimes have accidents and there will sometimes be deaths, but very, very low numbers. This is something that I’ve been misled on, completely misled on when I looked into the numbers, you know, I was shocked. I was shocked at how misled I’d been. And then you look at the fossil fuels there, I’ve just said, millions from air pollution alone every year.

Zion Lights (21:52):

Nuclear has never been anywhere near those numbers, not even the thousands really. And so, yeah, I started trying to unpick that with people and where those fears have come from and say, all things we should be afraid of, it’s climate change. Let’s be afraid of climate change. If you want to be afraid of anything, the impacts of that are terrible, it is going to hit the global south.  It’s going to be worse for them because regions will too hot for humans to live in. I mean, this is how serious things are. Approaching it with a humorous ideology where you just sort of say, oh, well, we’re all doomed and we should just go back to living these really basic lifestyles. That is not going to help them. Actually, we have this problem as well in these green groups in the west, again, it comes from having this privilege for so long where we then say, we’re going to live in an apocalyptic nightmare, our children are going to suffer in an apocalyptic way.

Zion Lights (22:44):

3 billion people already live in that apocalyptic nightmare. It’s called poverty. We already live with that instability. Look at what happened in Syria, it was driven by frequent drought, which has already been linked to climate change. Look at what’s just happening in Afghanistan. The instability is going to hit those countries hardest that haven’t been able to develop and have the stability that we have enjoyed for a long, long time. So it’s really important. People understand that for me, it’s not specifically about nuclear. If spinach was a solution I’d be advocating for spinach. It is a scientific solution. This is what the consensus says, which is that we need renewables and nuclear to decarbonize the planet. And I’ll say it. There’s no debate after that. You might not like it. You might have been against it for a long time. That is what the scientific consensus says.

Zion Lights (23:31):

And it’s the same scientific consensus that says that climate change is human driven and needs tackling. And that’s a very scary thing. But luckily the same scientists are saying there are mitigation options for decarbonization with a combination of renewables and nuclear. And it’s the only way we’re actually going to get away from fossil fuels. And the problem that I have with this is that for years I’ve been in these groups, they say we don’t need nuclear or fossil fuels. And I’ve come to realize that all we’ve done is given fossil fuels a seat at the table pushing nuclear away. And it’s actually very easy. As I said, with nuclear you can get very scared, very quickly, all these negative pop culture references in their heads, but we should have that about fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are literally choking us and our planet and we don’t seem to have a stronger response to it. So there’s a lot that needs unpicking with that. And the reason I started doing it, A: I felt guilty because I was on the wrong side, spreading misinformation and B: someone has to do it because otherwise in 10 years, we’ll be having the same discussion about how do we get off of coal. We cannot displace coal without nuclear. That’s why I’m advocating for it.

Kari Hulac (24:34):

You’ve touched on one of my questions, a few of the points about barriers to the adoption of nuclear energy, which I think is part of your campaign. You want to see, you know, it be 50% of the energy mix. You know, you mentioned personally that you had, you know, a vision or a perception of Fukushima. And then you also just mentioned accidents. Obviously with the podcast we’re interested in the waste issues, so maybe talk about the barriers to the adoption and your personal feelings about that and what do you see in the environmental community what people are talking about in terms of why they’re against it.

Zion Lights (25:19):

I used to think the waste was this like green acidic liquid, and this – let’s be honest, this came from the Simpsons.

Kari Hulac (25:28):

Yes! Join the club. 

Zion Lights (25:31):

That is what I thought. So again, when I was kind of in my Fukushima period, looking into things going, I believed all this wrong stuff about Fukushima. Was I wrong about everything? I got to waste eventually and I had the same questions. So I do understand that people have these worries because I had them, I’ve had these beliefs and I found out that it’s not liquid. It’s solid. It doesn’t leak if you put in water, it’s a tiny amount of, kind of, solid cylinders. And what they do is they take the uranium out of the ground and it already has power in it. They use that power so that there’s less right? And then case it again in concrete, though this is a really, really simple way of putting it.

Zion Lights (26:06):

It’s actually a natural element that exists. Naturally, we take it, use it, create clean energy, which is good, and then we bury it again. And the best example for me of, in terms of safety, because I know people worry about the safety. First of all, again, no one’s ever been harmed or killed by nuclear waste. So if happened, we would know about it, but it’s never happened. And that even is true for Fukushima where the nuclear power station, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station got hit by a tsunami and an earthquake. And we stored onsite in these big concrete canisters, and they were not damaged. You know, they are in such thick concrete, you know, it’s tested so that it can withstand anything, but that actually was a real life example. Again, if people were harmed, we would have known, I mean, some people are afraid of the idea, but it’s not what happened.

Zion Lights (26:56):

And again, to look at fossil fuels where people actually are harmed by fossil fuel waste all the time. You know what we do with fossil fuel waste, we store it in our atmosphere. How bad is that? That’s how it’s stored? Right? Well, nuclear waste is actually really well stored, really well managed. You know, actually probably better of all of the industries, because I’ve read a little bit about solar panel waste, where plants can’t be recycled and they’re just left in landfills and they can be quite toxic. So they need to be recycled. I don’t know if people are looking into that. Nobody worries about that. Nobody cares. And they do contain lithium, these are toxic chemicals. So again, it’s a case of really hyper-focusing on this one aspect. It isn’t that dangerous, isn’t that bad. It’s really well managed. And you know, you can’t have anything that zero risk, there’s always a risk.

Zion Lights (27:47):

We haven’t had anything happen. I’ve given you the worst case scenario Fukushima. So I think we need to be careful about risk, nothing has zero risks. Even vaccination, we know they’re safe for most people, the occasional person might have an adverse reaction. Let’s say we have any vaccinations. Cause actually the consequences are more people will vy against whatever it is you’re vaccinating against. And a couple of people that might have an adverse reaction, it’s the same thing with nuclear energy. There will be some accident, there will. You know what? Fossil fuel accidents, oil rigs catching on fire. How many animals were impacted by that? These are huge numbers that don’t even get calculated. We tend to look at human pets and not actually what’s happening to the living planet. So it’s just so, so safe compared to the alternatives. It’s almost ridiculous.

Kari Hulac (28:36):

So how have you tried to educate the public about this issue? Obviously you have your website you know, how have you seen, what methods have you seen be successful in overcoming these types of fears?

Zion Lights (28:51):

So the thing I actually find really positive that makes me really hopeful is having the conversations is enough for most people. So there is a small minority of people that are just very anti, it’s like a fundamental, almost like a religious belief. And you won’t get through to that. And it’s quite easy to spot that group and just think maybe its not worth it here. And that’s true actually in science communication, we learn that about vaccination as well. There’s always like a small group fundamentally just delete them. But most people are on the fence, they’re in different groups and the right information will help them to change their mind. So one thing that we have been doing is this change your mind forum where l we take volunteers and a bunch of free bananas and we fill Britain with stools in public areas and we just invite people to have a conversation and we have a banner about nuclear and it’s quite challenging for people.

Zion Lights (29:40):

And I know that because I used to be the sort of person who’d be challenged. And people go up to you and say, “who’s paying you to do this? Why are you doing this?” but they’re all just ordinary people that come along. It’s a really great community of kind of science led environmentalists, which is really a growing movement, I think. And we hand out free bananas and the reason we use these bananas is because they are above average radioactive, a lot of people don’t know this cause they don’t understand about radiation. A lot of their fears of nuclear about radiation. Whereas actually everything’s naturally radioactive. There’s good conversation that opens up and most people like bananas. And then, you know, we have all the information or whatever they think the issues are. It might be waste, it might be radiation, or it might be Fukushima, it comes up a lot, or it might be something else.

Zion Lights (30:23):

Then we just give them the information and we have leaflets and they can go away and look up themselves, which actually I find people are very good at doing now, especially younger generation. They’re very savvy about fact checking. So, you know, you can say what they need to say, and then they can go in and look out themselves. And most people I found have gone, “oh, actually I agree with you. I didn’t know any of this.” So the problem is a lack of information and a huge amount of misinformation. And the reason I started doing these stools was just because I walked past one in Bristol and that’s a big city here which was near an antique store. I went over to the store and there was so much misinformation.

Zion Lights (30:57):

And most of it was using energy with weapons, which is a totally different thing. It was very fear based, it had this huge creature, the atom bomb, like pretty huge and it’s scaring people. And I went over and I said, you know, shouldn’t you be more scared about climate change. It’s actually really, really scary thing. And they get very defensive and said, no, but we don’t mean you couldn’t combat it. You could do it with renewables. And I said, well, no one, nowhere in the world has managed to do it with renewables alone. In Germany, you know it’ not for lack of trying, Germany has tried. And actually Germany’s really struggled phasing out the nuclear power plants, putting lots of money to renewables, which is good. It made them cheaper and more efficient, but had to use more coal in the meantime, that’s what happens. So there’s a good example.

Zion Lights (31:36):

And they were kind of like, “ya you know, it can be done at the places. You know, what about Paraguay, they did it? We had to clean energy for a day with renewables.” A day is great example on a sunny windy day, but what about every day? I had these conversations, but I realized I was kind of wasting my time because we weren’t going to reach any kind of agreement. I noticed a lot of passerby’s kind of stopping and listening. They gave me this idea to go out and do what they would do but with actual scientific information. I’m with a lot of scientists who do come along to this event. We did one in Bristol then we did one in London and they’re so successful. So for the London event, we brought 500 bananas, each banana is a conversation because you hand it out and they were gone like halfway through the day. We had hours left on the store and we couldn’t believe like how many people wanted to come and talk first. And there were even people where I opened the conversation by saying, what’s your opinion on nuclear energy? Did you have one? And some would sort of say anti but I don’t know why. And then we’d talk about it and they’d go, yeah. Okay. Thanks for telling me that, you know, they just didn’t realize. So actually just having the conversations is enough.

Kari Hulac (32:36):

You touched on something about the waste. That’s very true is that you know, it is in these temporary storage containers, it is safe. But they were never intended to be a permanent solution. And you know, well know, that scientists you mentioned should be, it should be deep, underground. You know, so do you feel enough is being done for governments to uphold their responsibility there, to permanently dispose of it and actually get it underground. And do you feel that if this happens more quickly, this might help overcome some of these fears about the waste and hopefully hasten its adoption as a clean energy?

Zion Lights (33:17):

Well, actually there’s an amazing new thing now, which is that they can recycle the waste. So this just happened, it started happening in lots of countries where they’ve got big programs for nuclear basically. And you can just constantly put it back into reactors and use it up as power basically. I mean, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s what we should be doing with it. That’s what we should be doing with it. I don’t know if you know, but when the Soviet nuclear weapons program was dismantled back in the early nineties, they actually reused all of that in nuclear reactors for energy in the US which I would say to people is the best use of it like that’s what we should do at a climate emergency. We need clean energy, get rid of the weapons and recycle them into clean energy.

Zion Lights (34:00):

This is great. This is a really good cheap form of energy for everyone, but there are lots of other things we could be doing. Unfortunately we hardly even get to that point of the conversation, I think that’s why it doesn’t happen in a lot of countries. If I get past waste and radiation and everything else in a conversation with someone at one of these events or at a panel or any discussion eventually I might get to you can also recycle it. You also got these SMRs coming in, you’ve got advanced tech, which is even more efficient, all of this stuff. that one’s on. Even during that, if they’re still at this really basic point where they’re saying, well, do people want this or not, and really people have to show that they want it or they want climate change. That’s what it comes down to. So that’s kind of where I’m at with trying to push people in the direction, because then they can go away and they can find out themselves about actually we can recycle this stuff and that’s what we should be doing.

Zion Lights (34:51):

And that, you know some countries do do it, you know, countries with good programs. For example, France actually sells its waste to other countries who then recycle it, reuse it. And you know, France has had, you know, over 70% of its electricity from nuclear since the seventies, because they built lots of reactors up when the rest of us were being anti nuclear which made us more dependent on coal. Say to people, imagine if we’d all done what France did, we wouldn’t facing 1.5 warming world right now. But anyway, we made that mistake, but let’s not make that mistake for the next 20 years is basically my message. We do the stalls and we do a lot of outreach, you know public speaking had a presence at COP which was really good. And again, the same thing with people coming over saying, are you promoting this? It sounds bad, I thought nuclear is bad. And they’re really shocked to see climate activists who were actually supporting it. But then they’re very quick on board when they go into the government panel on climate change.

Kari Hulac (35:48):

You had a fun way of communicating your reviews. Like you mentioned COP 26, I wanted to ask, you were wearing a wedding dress to promote the union between renewables and nuclear energy. You know, that was fun. I mean, who’s your audience? Who are you trying to reach, who do you want to most inspire to take action?

Zion Lights (36:08):

So the dress thing, it was the famous AOC dress that became that viral meme. But it said build more nuclear and it’s quite kind of a recognizable eye-catcher. You see when someone recognized what it was because they were like, oh my goodness, taking pictures, what does the message say? And someone actually came up to me and said, “you mean that ironically right?” And I was like, no, no, no, we should do that and I started saying, de-carbonize it. He was like, “no, I completely agree. I’m just shocked to see someone actually promoting it. And also it was very brave.” And I said, it seems brave, but actually more people agree than you think. It’s just that for a long time, we’ve listened to these minority kind of angry shouty voices, but a lot of people are actually on the fence or pro-nuclear.

Zion Lights (36:47):

And that’s part of getting that message out, making sure it’s talked about. Originally the idea was just to do this wedding, which is between nuclear and renewables. Nuclear was given away by scientific consensus and coal ended up and tried to stop the wedding and take renewables away, cruise him away using science. And it was just a very fun theater and you did it several times at the entrance of COP, lots of people stopping and taking pictures and asking questions. It was really good kind of public engagement, you know, exactly what I’ve done in my activism years. I don’t even know if I’d say it’s a different message. It’s still climate action. It’s just not traditionally what people think of as climate action, because nuclear’s in there. That’s more, what it is. It’s interesting because we had a couple of hours, lots of people getting there’s a whole team of us and we need to get to the same site.

Zion Lights (37:37):

So I kinda got dressed inside COP in the blue zone and I was waiting in the blue zone and you know, for people to turn up so we could get into the action and standing there, not the, I mean, I could have just actually just gone in the dress and just stood all day. Everybody’s walking in and out, all the world leaders and the journalists that just run over and we’re like, everybody looks different. Everybody’s there in suits and I’m just wearing the dress. And also then saying, what is this message? That’s actually a really good way of getting that message out and really unusual. And just standing there for 20 minutes and lots of different press and lots of people coming over. And also people were just coming over and asking, why is that the message, you know?

Zion Lights (38:16):

And that wasn’t part of the convention actually. I think really I could have just stood all day, every day and had an impact just standing there. It was more, we did theater piece kind of public engagement and we recorded it and also just show people that it’s okay to go out with this message and be creative about it. And we also marched on the climate march because again, you know, a lot of the pro-nuclear people were like, oh, we won’t be welcome. And it’s, don’t be silly. We, of course we’re welcome. The IPCC report, you know, these are world’s top scientists saying we need nuclear. But that probably needs a presence at these marches, but you can get a lot of people coming up and saying, you know, something funny, someone from Extinction Rebellion came up to me and said, “who’s funding you?”

Zion Lights (38:55):

And I said, “who’s funding you? Cause I used to be a spokesperson and I used to meet the donors. So I know, do you know?” And instantly she was like deer in the headlights. I’ve kind of earned my duties. You know, I’ve got a right to be on these watches. I’ve been doing it for a long time, but it was quite a funny encounter. It’s challenging for people, you know, it was challenging for me when my friend was talking to me about nuclear, I’d been anti for a long time. And I’m so glad and grateful that he did it. Now, I’m just sort of out in the world and there’s no way I think to do it in a non challenging way because it’s a very polarized issue. Same thing with vaccine communication, all kinds of scientific things, GMOs. And that’s just reality of communication, but doing it in a fun way is a great way to make community, make it fun. And, you know, just a human face on something that people see as this kind of Mr. Burns evil industry. Now nuclear hasn’t done anything that bad actually.

Kari Hulac (39:50):

Tell us about some of the different opinions you’ve observed in different generations. You know, being at COP 26, you know, all sorts of, from activism to the country leaders. You know, is there hope that your generation and younger will finally be able to make change happen in the climate change fight?

Zion Lights (40:11):

I think so. I think my experience has been that younger people are so worried about first of all, they’re so worried about climate change. So that’s their first worry. Whereas the newer environmentalist generation, the first word was nuclear because the group in the cold war and it was scary and they do use weapon with energy. And I’m always saying people who bring this up that actually a lot of countries have a nuclear weapons program, no energy and other countries have energy program, no weapons. I mean, Britain has both. We have the bomb already, so it’s not like we’re going to get more weapons because we’re getting more energy. Actually, we should take resources from weapons and put them into energy. So you know, there’s a lot of those fears though in the group who grew up around it. So do understand that it’s really kind of deep, you know, the C and D groups, especially in the old school VPs, people WWF also very anti and it’s a shame at COP because there’s a blue zone where we were based. And there’s a green zone, which is specifically kind of the green solutions and all the new applications that applied, got rejected which happens every year.

Zion Lights (41:11):

But, you know, that’s got to change at some point because it is part of the scientific consensus. And yeah, so we were in the blue zone and, you know, there were lots of amazing people. They stand there all day and just talk to people. A lot of people came over to us to ask us about nuclear. And I found mostly people are positive. There were a few antis, they were from that generation and they’re not going to change their mind. They did have their own antinuclear stall actually, which I surprised was allowed in COP. I suppose they had fossil fuels involved as well. So anyway, generally positive, especially positive among young members that actually, if you look at the groups, the group that I’m part of it is mostly, I mean, not to say it’s never the old generation, cause we do have a few amazing older members.

Zion Lights (41:56):

It’s mostly young people cause they care more about climate change. So when they go and research solutions and they find nuclear is there, they’re just straight away like, yeah. Okay. Why wouldn’t we want that? What I’m trying to do is sway them, we need to advocate for that really strongly because there’s a strong against it, which has had a lot of impact over the years. Whereas, you know, for renewables, they don’t really have a problem. Renewables, people love these things. It’s great. I don’t need to be out promoting them really but nuclear is the bit that’s missing. And it’s actually one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle if you want to displace fossil fuels. But yeah, there’s definitely a difference in the generation that’s coming, I’m really hopeful for them. I’m really hopeful when they become the politicians and the CEOs they’re going to make really good evidence based decisions I think.

Zion Lights (42:40):

And a lot of the decisions that are being made now that are not very science-driven are from that older generation because they’re more ideology driven. So one thing that’s happening, we sort of cope with, it’s a real kind of divide between a lot of pro-nuclear advocates and politicians and a small minority of anti-nuclear ones who are actually very, I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but Australia’s, sorry, Austria’s energy minister just said she’s going to sue the EU if they approve nuclear as a green energy source, which is ridiculous when all the evidence shows it isn’t contributing to air pollution. Does it drive catastrophic climate change? I mean, come on, you know, you’re safe living next to them anyway, but that’s what’s happening.

Zion Lights (43:30):

So that is happening with these older school politicians, but even in countries like Austria and Germany, when they polled people, a lot of people didn’t want them to shut down the reactors. And a lot of young people, especially don’t. I think, especially in Finland where they are very pro-nuclear anyway when they polled people, they find young people were like really, really super pro-nuclear because they learned about it and they understand, and the older generation still very anti, but I think that will change over time. It’s just that we need the solutions now. So I’m trying to engage those groups now to go beyond just believing in it and actually advocating for it, also just creating a space to say, we do get to do this as climate activists. We have climate science on our side. That’s all we need really.

Kari Hulac (44:15):

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to leave our listeners with today?

Zion Lights (44:20):

Only that you should get involved with Emergency Reactor. We’re really a fun group to be part of. And we’re always running lots of different campaigns that you can involved with. Just go to emergency and sign up to the mailing list. I send out what we’re doing on the list in a newsletter to every now and again. And you can follow us on social media pages which is also a good place to direct people to that have questions about nuclear. We have this great team answers questions, and always give you resources as well. So you can go away and read them. The facts are really good on that. I think get past this kind of once you said something and you believe it, and I won’t say it, but we’ll also back it up with research. And if you’re still not sure we’ve got climate scientists on board, we’ve got engineers, we’ve got people that can actually speak to you and it’s worth it. I know it seems like a lot of work. That’s kind of one to one engagement, but it’s what we did actually with Extinction Rebellion when we started talking about climate change and no one was talking about it and everybody’s talking about it. We went out and we gave talks and we taught people and got the information out there. So you can underestimate the power of your voice and get involved. 

Kari Hulac (45:21):

Thank you so much for joining us today Zion.

Zion Lights (45:24):

Thanks for having me.

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Episode 17


Stuart Haszeldine

Geologist & Environmental Scientist at the University of Edinburgh

Designing Safe and Secure Nuclear Waste Solutions in Deep Geology

In this episode, Stuart Haszeldine unravels the complexity of designing underground tunnels for the purpose of nuclear waste disposal and relates it to the processes used for carbon capture.

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

Stuart Haszeldine (0:10):

So you’ve both got to emplace the waste, stop the water from coming in, reduce the groundwater movement if any groundwater comes in, but simultaneously be able to let the gas escape from that site. So you’ve got design attributes which point in opposite directions, and that’s one of the reasons that tunnel engineering for radioactive waste is a pretty significant challenge.

Narrator (00:35):

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

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

​​Kari Hulac (01:56):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation Communications Manager. My guest today is Professor Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist and environmental scientist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Professor Haszeldine helped establish a new industry in carbon capture and storage in the UK, Europe, and worldwide thanks to groundbreaking research on energy and the environment. His current work on the net-zero economy includes examining the scaling of carbon capture and storage. When it comes to nuclear waste, he has performed geology, geochemistry, and basin modeling related to site selection and performance safety for the disposal of radioactive and toxic waste in the UK and worldwide. Welcome Professor Haszeldine. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Stuart Haszeldine (02:43):

Glad to be here, that’s great. 

​​Kari Hulac (02:46):

Okay, well, we’ll just get started. I’d read that the deep biosphere life underneath or surface has a volume of between 2 and 2.3 billion cubic kilometers, almost twice the volume of oceans. Your career has focused on exploring this subterranean world for carbon capture and storage and nuclear waste disposal. What inspired you to pursue these studies?

Stuart Haszeldine (03:08):

So my background, I’m a geologist and that’s the study of rocks. And I got into geology, of course, as many people do just by kicking around when I was younger and collecting fossils and minerals. So I developed an interest in the underground, but as you become more and more professionally involved, and you understand that geology is not just about the rocks, it’s about the spaces between the rocks and the pore space and how water fills the pore space or oil fills the pore space or gas fields pore space, and about how the underground is actually quite a mobile sort of place. It’s not static at all. It’s just changing slowly. And so that’s how I got interested in that carbon capture and storage and that’s how I got interested in radioactive waste disposal and the radioactive waste disposal came out of teaching two undergraduate students.

Stuart Haszeldine (04:02):

So I was teaching an energy course. So obviously traditionally conventionally we started off with woods and then we discovered some coal and then we discovered oil and gas and nuclear power. So then what happens after we’ve used the uranium? Where does, the smoke goes up the chimney for the other stuff and contaminate the atmosphere, what happens to the radioactive waste? And that led me to start investigating what in the UK was happening to radioactive waste. And that uncovered a whole set of stuff, which I personally didn’t know. It’s perfectly well known of course, that nuclear power in the UK came out of the militarization of understanding of nuclear fission. But I didn’t know that the UK had developed the first commercial nuclear reactor for civil electricity in the world. For example, I didn’t know that we reprocessed practically all of the fuel we’d used at that time.

Stuart Haszeldine (04:58):

And I didn’t know about the segmentation of waste in terms of very low-level waste, low level, intermediate level, and then high level and spent fuel. So all of that turned out to be a fascinating topic because there’s actually a whole bunch of geology involved there, both in the mineralogy and the chemistry of what these wastes are. And particularly in the geologic time, which you’re being asked to dispose of these wastes safely and securely into what for most people is the impossibly far future in the UK. We’ve got a million years of the regulations around this. And so thinking about the last million years, there’s been an awful lot of changes in the planet with multiple glaciations different animals and species, and hominids arising and becoming extinct. We just happened to be here now. So we’re trying to predict into the far future that when our species may or may not exist in the form, we recognize it, but we’re trying to honor the responsibility to all the other life forms and the water resources of the planet. So that’s what got me interested.

Kari Hulac (06:03):

I can understand why it’s pretty fascinating. Yeah. Well, no, it just, especially the geologic time piece. You know, we’ve, we’ve touched on that before in other interviews and it just, you can’t, it’s hard for most of us to get our brain around what that means. And so yeah, very fascinating. So your research shows there’s a possibility here to adapt oil and gas borehole technology to create more than a hundred million tons per year of CO2 storage to balance hydrocarbon production in the UK. So for those new to carbon capture and sequestration, maybe explain how it works to help with climate change.

Stuart Haszeldine (06:45):

Okay, well, the world we’re living in is experiencing really quite abnormal rates of warming of the whole world. And it’s also experiencing acidification of the oceans. They’re becoming, they’ve become 30% more acid since industrialization started. And we’re also seeing the effects, of course, in changing weather and in the melting of ice on the onshore areas. And all of those effects come together as being caused by excess emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere overwhelmingly by people, of course, and those greenhouse gases are at most topically, carbon dioxide and derived from burning fossil, coal, oil, and gas, but also nitrogen oxides and also water vapor. But carbon dioxide and methane is the ones we can easily go after. And so carbon capture and storage is trying to say, well we can carry on using fossil fuels, coal, gas, and oil, and using that fossil carbon.

Stuart Haszeldine (07:48):

But if we want to use that without damaging impact into the atmosphere, then we have to be able to use those and capture the carbon dioxide rather than just dumping that into the atmosphere as we do now. And it’s quite feasible to capture that carbon dioxide. There are numerous methods which have been operating for many decades since the 1920s. In some cases, carbon dioxide has been transported and put underground since the 1970s. So we know how to do this. And the challenge then is to attach this to industrial scale power plants, large-scale industries are using methane for heating or for driving air conditioning, cooling as an energy source, and how fast and how securely can we do that? So there are many aspects of understanding carbon capture and storage, which revolve around the safety and security of storage predicting into the future. If we put the carbon dioxide underground, the first question most ordinary citizens ask is when is it going to leak? And what happens to which my reply is we know enough about this to say, it’s not going to leak. And actually that guarantee we can give you for probably millions of years into the future. So much more than the lifespan of a tree, or much more than a lifespan of a particular industrial facility, or even within a civilization, we can be safe and secure with that. So there are overlapping features of the science and technology investigation between carbon capture and storage and the radioactive waste prediction.

Kari Hulac (09:20):

So take us from exploring carbon capture and storage to your work with radioactive waste. So how did you make that transition and what research are you finding and maybe draw that link from what you just said there.

Stuart Haszeldine (09:30):

Okay. So again out of teaching undergraduate students in the University of Edinburgh, then we’d conventionally run a field excursion around the Highlands of Scotland, which is a geologically complex mountain belt area, which is quite adequately exposed meaning you can see the rocks. There’s quite a lot of peat around, but that doesn’t get in the way, but that was one of the areas where the processes of mountain building were first understood and investigated. But as part of that one year around, it would be about 1997 or something like that or maybe even 95, then a program of drilling had been started by the Radioactive Waste Disposal Agency in the UK

Stuart Haszeldine (10:16):

I decided to see if we could go and investigate the drill site. And we went there and we looked at the core laid out to, we were given full and free access, but asking the people involved, the technical people involved in all that was quite interesting and revealing because it was clear that you had to put an awful lot of different types of geology together to understand the processes and the data and the certainty required to make predictions into the far future. You had to understand where the rocks had come from in terms of their original deposition, how those rocks have been buried, how the minerals in those rocks had changed during burial, and then how they’d been perhaps in the UK, slightly uplifted and it cracked and fractured as a consequence. And how then the water moves through those rocks at the present day takes advantage of any intrinsic permeability and flow through the matrix of the rock, but also water moves very rapidly through fractures in the rock.

Stuart Haszeldine (11:13):

And we also have to understand how old those different water layers are because in the shallow part immediately underneath the ground, there’s quite rapid water flow. And the deeper you go effectively, you’re getting older waters, which become more saline, become chemically different then it moves much more slowly, even to the extent of effectively becoming static eventually. So all those different parts became quite intriguing. So I started a student funded by a charity and we then investigated the proposed site for radioactive waste storage in the UK, which was very close to the first nuclear reactor we had in the UK. And we decided to look at the evidence with a completely fresh pair of eyes because we’re not coming from the nuclear industry. We wanted to look at this as geology and as water flow and hydrogeology. So that’s how I got into this.

Kari Hulac (12:13):

Thank you. And it’s definitely been well-known, scientists worldwide since the fifties have considered this to be the best solution for nuclear waste yet nothing has been done really to actually make this come to life. Can you kind of speak to that from a science perspective? You know, why is this the case? You know, we’ve known about this since the fifties that deep geologic disposal is a good solution yet no waste has yet been disposed of.

Stuart Haszeldine (12:45):

Well, that’s not quite true I don’t think I’m going to push back on that slightly. So, as I mentioned earlier on that radioactive waste comes in different grades of a not very bothersome to extremely toxic. And so it is absolutely true that the not very bothersome waste has been disposed of in landfills and the low-level waste is disposed of routinely in a special landfill. And those are the big volumes and tonnages of radioactive waste. So that happens in many countries worldwide. But it’s also true to say that the intermediate level waste, which is chemically toxic and also radioactively bad for us is not disposed of. And it’s also true to say that the high level of waste, which is effectively almost a radioactivity of the spent fuel, that’s not disposed of either, except in a couple places, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the United States. And there’s temporary storage in Sweden for some of their waste whilst the investigate a full-scale repository. So just to be cautious about being totally correct on that.

Stuart Haszeldine (13:54):

So you’re quite right that digging a hole and putting the waste in the ground has been, is considered the best available solution. And in some ways, it’s quite a simple solution, but as we’ll see in a while, then there’s lots of rules and regulations around that, which make that a really complicated thing to achieve in practice. And perhaps the best solution would be to recycle that material because it’s a heat-generating material, it has many nuclear radionuclides in it. It could be useful, but that’s proven to be too difficult, certainly in the UK because of the mix of elements in there and the difficulty of separating the different elements to have predictable and reliable behavior. So in some ways, we’re taking a slightly unsustainable shortcut by trying to dispose of this waste underground, but we have to dispose of it because it exists.

Stuart Haszeldine (14:43):

And because the waste is basically kept on the land surface at the moment, and that is a really unsustainable, really hazardous place to keep it. So we have to look for places underground and the reason that’s not been achieved is not for the want of trying. There’s been plenty of trying right through from the United States examples, Canadian examples, many countries in Europe have evaluated different storage sites for waste, which are all in many ways, linked around the common theme of digging a network of tunnels and putting the waste underground. But the big difficulty worldwide has been both convincing the regulators, which is effectively the national police on science and technology. Has the waste proposal proposition been made accurately enough, precisely enough, to be certain enough for a million years into the future to pass their regulation scrutiny? And secondly, the biggest problem is to convince the public about the safety and security of this waste disposal. And of course, particularly the publics who live close to, or even on top of a proposed waste disposal site. And that is really a failure of communication, I think, over many decades.

Stuart Haszeldine (16:01):

And so now it’s become more difficult that as soon as you say “radioactive waste” then most people in the public will go, no, thanks. I don’t want that anywhere near me. So we’re starting off effectively on with a negative perception, and it’s obviously much more difficult to overturn a negative perception and turn that not just into a neutrality, but then into a positive acceptance. And so that journey is being undertaken by multiple countries worldwide, and some have had more success than others. As you know, then in Finland, they’ve been digging a radioactive waste storage site, deep, underground, several hundred meters underground. And that has proceeded slowly, safely stepwise it’s taken decades literally to gain acceptance of that.

Stuart Haszeldine (16:50):

And maybe I think about another 10 years to dig this, excavate this network of tunnels, and that will start operating we hope quite soon. When I say quite soon in the next few years, quite soon is obviously an extended timescale in nuclear waste disposal. So that will be a good example worldwide, be a very visible European example in an area where people live it’s for populated area. And I think examples make a very powerful difference to the perception of the public and also to the perception of political representatives. If they can go and visit, you can stand on something, and in Britain, we say you can kick the tires of the car and believe that it’s going to work, then you’re starting to get somewhere. But it’s taken decades to make that progress, but nuclear power hasn’t gone away and it’s quite possible with the mission to produce low carbon energy into the future. Then it’s quite possible that different types of nuclear power will come back into vogue and be recognized as valuable contributors to reliable electricity generation into the future. So we need to solve the waste problem now and for future waste as well.

Kari Hulac (18:04):

You’ve examined how radioactive waste can securely be stored for geologic timescales, as you’ve touched on is necessary. Using tunnel excavation engineering to predict the performance of a nuclear waste storage site, which I imagine can help address what you just talked about with the public being concerned about the safety. How does that work? How does the science work, what did you learn through doing that tunnel excavation engineering?

Stuart Haszeldine (18:30):

Okay, so, well, we’ve really reviewed the tunnel excavation engineering. I’m not going to claim to be an expert tunneling engineer, but it’s then clearly there are several factors, numerous factors involved in doing this, but the basic premise is that if you can safely and securely engineer a tunnel, which will stay open for a period of time of many decades then you can transport the waste. The waste can be packaged, let’s say safely and securely, first of all. So it’s possible to handle that. And in some ways you can think of this as an analogy to be put on a very smart, safe, and secure forklift truck and barrels packages of this waste can be taken underground and emplaced in a horizontal network of tunnels, which are precisely engineered to know exactly where they are engineered to keep the water ground flow of groundwater out.

Stuart Haszeldine (19:32):

And the waste is emplaced in there and then packed over, packed around with a mixture of clay, the surrounding rock, which was excavated and also some element of cement and sometimes some iron and copper, and that is known as the near field in radioactive waste jargon. And that is very closely designed to maintain a chemical field to maintain usually a very alkaline pH, a pH of 11 or even more alkaline and a very low oxidation state, an oxidation state of -50 or -100, even in some cases, those chemical conditions are designed to keep the waste insoluble, so it doesn’t dissolve in any groundwater in the future. And the overpack, if you like, of the clay I talked about is usually considered to be a bentonite or swelling clay, rather like the Mickey light you sometimes use for roof installation or house installation. That clay mineral expands to a very large volume and can absorb lots of ions, chemical ions onto the surfaces of those minerals as it becomes wet and also absorbs a lot of water.

Stuart Haszeldine (20:47):

So that’s a safety pack rather like baby nappies around this waste so that if you have those baby nappies around the waste if any water gets in, the baby nappies swell and absorb the waste and also attract those metal ions and prevent them from moving around. So that’s an engineered containment, which can be very well calculated and very well predicted, but there are also some problems there because the waste can often generate gas. So we need to engineer to let the gas out. The tunneling excavation itself could generate extra fractures around the tunnels. Of course, engineers are on a constant mission to reduce that effect. And also the waste itself sometimes contains very short-lived radionuclides, which are still actively producing lots of radioactivity in the immediate term, whilst that radioactive waste is being emplaced. So you’ve both got to emplace the waste, stop the water from coming in, reduce the groundwater movement if any groundwater comes in, but simultaneously be able to let the gas escape from that site. So you’ve got design attributes which point in opposite directions, and that’s one of the reasons that tunnel engineering for radioactive waste is a pretty significant challenge.

Kari Hulac (22:08):

Now, the US Government Accountability Agency recently sent Congress a memo asking it to act swiftly to resolve the nuclear waste disposal stalemate that is here and suggested lawmakers consider deep boreholes as an option to the mined repositories. And how it, you know, what is your experience there? And have you thought about using boreholes or other options for nuclear waste?

Stuart Haszeldine (22:35):

Okay. So deep boreholes are, I guess, academically I’d described that as a really interesting option and that’s supposed to be a neutral term. And it’s interesting because boreholes can be drilled at different diameters. So in oil and gas, for example, you might drill a borehole which ends up as being something like four or six inches across by the time it gets down to 5,000 feet, but it’s quite possible in water excavations, water drilling, boreholes at shallow depths, you drill boreholes, which were maybe 50 centimeters across. So when we think of boreholes, we have to think of different diameters that are technically very possible. And then when we’re thinking about these tonnages of radioactive waste that you and I are talking about now, we’re talking about the high-level waste or the intermediate level waste, the total volumes of this waste, even though it’s very toxic, the total volumes are not large compared with all the other waste we produce from our industrial culture.

Stuart Haszeldine (23:37):

And so in the UK, the analogy is made that the total volume of waste is equivalent to about 700 London buses. And so it’s quite possible to imagine those parts side-by-side and you get some idea of the volume of it. So convert that volume then if you will, to imagining that as a cause of rock, which are maybe 50 centimeters or even two feet in diameter, and it becomes possible to think about, yeah, we could drill, you could drill volumes of rock, numbers of course like that with boreholes and convert these volumes of London buses into canisters, which you put down the boreholes. And that seems to be the insight from the deep disposal type of a proposal. And that’s interesting because we know how to drill boreholes technologically because the oil and gas industry and the water industry drill these all the time.

Stuart Haszeldine (24:33):

So we’re upscaling and adapting an existing technology rather than inventing a new one. And those can be undertaken quite quickly compared with the decades, which it’s taken to try and establish a radioactive waste repository without much success at the moment in the United States. And also those can be engineered with relatively fixed costs because you know, in a uniform rock body, for example, if you decided to drill into a granitic rock body, that’s quite a uniform sphere of rock and that uniformity produces a certainty of prediction. And so then, you know you can have confident predictions into the future about what type of rock you’re drilling into. So that’s interesting from that type of proposal, but deep drilling and large drilling also produces other types of problems, which the radioactive waste disposal in tunnels maybe doesn’t have.

Stuart Haszeldine (25:33):

And so the types of problems which come into mind with me is that we know that the radioactive waste is still radioactive when it goes down into the ground or emplaced into the tunnel. And so it produces heat from that radioactivity. In the tunnel excavations, that heat is handled by spacing out the waste canisters. So the overall heat is distributed. So there’s hardly any effect on the rock. So there’s a temperature limit of perhaps a hundred degrees centigrade maximum. So that’s been planned, that’s been understood, predicted, we know how to do that. The other type of factor with deep boreholes might be, are you inducing fractures by the drilling process? Because the rock underground is stressed, it’s under compression. And as you disturb the rock, a well-known effect is that the compression of the rock can produce cracks in the surround rocks surrounding a borehole. Will those in a deep borehole setting, will those fractures join up with existing fractures or with each other to create a flow system where groundwater can flow.

Stuart Haszeldine (26:40):

And lastly, you still have the gas problem, which I talked about earlier on just because you’re putting this waste down the borehole, doesn’t take away the possibility that gas will be produced by radiolysis of the water splitting water by radiation, or if you’ve not made that waste totally sterile, then you could have microbial reactions producing gas by fermentation processes. So there are still important technical problems to overcome. And the biggest problem to me, I think in my perspective of communicating with the public is can you retrieve this? If it doesn’t go exactly as predicted cause that’s very often a question which the public will ask and regulators will ask. And to me, that’s a pretty sensible question because you can have the trust in the developer, you can have trust in all the calculations as a developer, but you never know what’s actually going to happen until you’ve done it. Again, the first one will be the proof that it can be done properly, and monitoring that and understanding how the rocks behave will be the most important thing.

Kari Hulac (27:53):

Thank you. You were awarded the Scottish Science Prize in 1999, I believe for your work on radioactive waste. So I’m curious about the project that led to this. And how do you think governments could inspire further work to get nuclear waste innovation moving, you know, moving forward to get more innovation in the world with this problem?

Stuart Haszeldine (28:15):

Sure. Okay. Well, the Scottish Science Prize is a regional part of the UK, but we have a very, very strong science culture in Scotland. And we have more university students per population, I think than anywhere else in the world. So it’s actually very much part of our society. So I was very honored indeed to receive the Scottish Science Prize. And that was through recognition of the work, which I’d undertaken together with a Ph.D. student, Chris McEuen, on understanding and evaluating the proposed storage site from the UK government in the Northwest of England in the UK. And so we took a first principles evaluation of that site by looking at the geology, looking at the groundwater, using the information, which that radioactive waste disposal investigation had acquired through something like 20 or 30 boreholes is still one of the best evaluated subsurface sites in the world.

Stuart Haszeldine (29:20):

And we really looked at that and said, yes, we understand the proposals from the radioactive waste disposal company, but we don’t understand how much uncertainty there is in that. Because you can come up with a single value and try and predict geology and try and predict groundwater movement in the future. But we know from the real world in any other geological investigation, that there’s a range of possibilities and you don’t, you haven’t got the ability to measure all of that information properly before you start. And even once you’ve finished, for example, with an oil field, you’ll know a lot more about the oil field, you’ve produced a lot of oil, but you still don’t know everything about that underground. So we really looked at the what happens, what would happen if we have the geology arranged like this there’s enough uncertainty, we could say the geology could be slightly differently arranged underground.

Stuart Haszeldine (30:15):

The faults could be in slightly different places that connect differently. And in particular, well let’s look at the permeability, the flowability of that rock, and how the fractures connect. So there’s a range of fast flow to very, very slow flow. And there are different groundwater layers in the underground. And we put all those together in a range of geochemical models to predict the future, and especially into a range of hydrogeological models, where we tried to understand the range of possibilities of a groundwater flow at the present day. And unfortunately for the developer at the time, then we could demonstrate that there was a very, really quite large uncertainty. And some of that could make the site much more safe and secure, much better performance into the future. And that would be good, but unfortunately, some of those possibilities could make the site a crash through and fail by a very large margin, the safety criteria.

Stuart Haszeldine (31:12):

So it’s up to a developer to demonstrate the confidence in that. And the developer could not demonstrate enough confidence in that. So I was happy then this is not acting out of malice at all on our part. It’s really saying that if we take a scientific investigation of this, let’s look at the most likely, let’s look at the good, but we also have to look at the downside because if we have got this wrong, then the downside is both very expensive and dangerous and contamination can arise and we don’t want to go there. And so that’s our investigations are really the first time that approach had been undertaken in the UK. And that’s why we got awarded a science prize.

Kari Hulac (31:57):

Seems like a legitimate reason to be awarded a prize.

Stuart Haszeldine (32:01):

All right. I’ll just say well, we’ve also carried on and I’ve done a more, another more recent evaluation again with a Ph.D. research student looking this time at the same region of the UK, but trying to compare sites where we believe that there could be a very good geological arrangement for storing waste where the geology conspires and the groundwater flow conspires to make this inherently a safe and secure place. So we’ve looked at two sites onshore. One of the existing sites we looked at in the 1990s and 2000s. So we’ve got a baseline expectation of how that performs. Then we’ve looked at a site which has been identified for many decades as being a very good potential site underneath the landmass of England to the Southeast and innovatively here. This time we looked at 25 kilometers offshore underneath the sea because in this time span, we’re talking about an investigation from the 1990s up to where we are now in 2021.

Stuart Haszeldine (33:07):

Then a whole swathe of additional information has become available in the UK, from the oil and gas industry in the territory and the subsea territories around us. So it makes sense to use that information to investigate is there a safe and secure place offshore? And I knew that geologically, we know that offshore of this place in Northwest England Sellafield where all this waste is stored, offshore of there about 20 miles offshore is a lot of bedded salt layers. So by analogy with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, bedded salt layers can be extremely secure for radioactive waste disposal because they guarantee a very, very low probability indeed, if any water circulation. So we compared these three sites onshore in England, the existing traditional site if you like, and the new innovation of the offshore site, and we’ve shown that the offshore sites perform much, much better than any of the others. And I’m interested now that about two, three years after we’ve published that work and possibly from their own volition, but the Radioactive Waste Agency in the UK is now explicitly considering further sites further offshore. And so hopefully we’ve made a positive difference there. And I think our contribution to different thinking.

Kari Hulac (34:29):

This is probably an average citizen type of question, but how has the public received the work with the offshore site possibility? I think people think ocean, and I think it’s going to get into the water. How do you communicate that from a scientific perspective to explain how this works?

Stuart Haszeldine (34:50):

So that’s a challenge, which we’re now in the middle of. So I can’t tell you how that’s going to end, but I can tell you that starting off with our communication, there’s a lot of preexisting trust in communication from universities into the public in this type of endeavor and particularly universities or researchers like ourselves who’ve not been sponsored by the radioactive waste disposal industry for decades and decades. So we’re manifestly not stakeholders in a particular outcome. And I think that’s important to have that trusted messenger status. And so having maybe 10 or 15 years ago, we’ll come up with some messages to say that particular sites in this region are unsuitable for the following reasons. We’re now coming in to actually say, Hey, we’ve done some additional work and these other sites, completely different sites, may be very suitable for a different set of reasons.

Stuart Haszeldine (35:49):

And that from the thoughtful people, that gets a good hearing that. So they’re prepared to take that on board, listen to that carefully. And of course, I’m saying, this is our evidence. This is our information. You make your own minds up about what this is, but there are several positive attributes to this. And the other feature of going offshore is a very obvious one in that nobody lives there. And so we’ve found in the past that, of course, the most vehement interest, and usually ending up in the most challenging objections come from people who are most directly affected. So in any radioactive waste development, the people, there are some people who are on land, who will live above that site. And they’re very, very unnerved by the proposition of radioactive waste disposal because of this long history we’ve talked about from the 1950s onwards, as the conflation with nuclear weapons, there’s the fear of the invisible radiation.

Stuart Haszeldine (36:49):

There’s the fear of the unknown which are all understandable. But again, in Scandinavia, Sweden, and Finland, it shows that decades of dialogue can overturn that fear. But here in the UK, the people living on top have the most to lose in their perception. Other people living perhaps maybe tens of miles around could gain employment from this. So they’re perhaps more in favor of this for 100 years or 200 years worth of employment. But by going offshore, you take away the objections from the people who live directly on the top, and you keep the positivity of the people who maybe have something to gain out of that, but there’s still in the UK, a very complex planning process. And there are different points of view from the people in the surrounding zone. Like in many things people like, I think often like things to stay the same as when they moved into an area, they moved into an area or they were born and bred and brought up there. They like it just as it is, so big changes are not viewed with great popularity usually, but that’s, again, a communication problem, a challenge for the developer to come up with good enough evidence expressed in conventional language, which can be very securely understood and believed. And if that can be done, then the developer has a viable project.

Kari Hulac (38:10):

So you’ve been involved with some activities at the United Nations COP 26 climate conference. I would love to hear what role you’ve played in the event. And we’re curious, how has waste from energy technologies been considered in the COP 26 discussions if you know about that?

Stuart Haszeldine (38:27):

Okay. So I guess to take those backward. Waste from energy technologies doesn’t have a specific strand that I know of in the, it’s actually a much higher level of negotiation than that. So for example it’s taken about 24 COPs to have most people agree that there is a climate problem with carbon dioxide. So this is one of possibly even the first COP where there is no serious objection about the science from different member countries. So in a way that’s progress, but it’s 24 years of too slow. Another feature which is going on at the moment is what’s called article six about how do we trade CO2 liability between different countries? So if we store CO2 in this country here, and can we offset, can we buy a certificate of storage from this other country over here?

Stuart Haszeldine (39:24):

And so those are important discussions, but again, these are multi-year cycles of very, very technical discussion, which moves extremely slowly. So it’s not at the level of what do we do about this particular waste stream or that particular waste stream. So I did go to a nuclear power discussion last night. And the issue of waste is recognized by the multinational, you know, several different countries who are trying to undertake waste disposal. It’s still a persistent unsolved, but well-recognized problem, but they have no easy solution to take out of their pockets if you like. So that’s still a journey and a problem which confronts both the United States and many European countries. So what have I been doing in the COP then it’s really been around the issue of carbon dioxide. And so my main research over the past years, since about 2004 has been focused on trying to catch carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and from human activities and put that back underground.

Kari Hulac (40:29):

Well, I’d like to close out our conversation today, just saying and asking, is there anything we didn’t discuss that you’d just like to leave our listeners thinking about these are so many complex issues that we could talk all day. But just love to see if there’s anything else, top of mind to close out our conversation with.

Stuart Haszeldine (40:49):

So I think by borrowing some information from the way large new innovations often proceed in the energy industry. So deep disposal by boreholes is a really interesting proposition. It could unlock a lot of opportunities for storing radioactive waste, which would then solve, or at least provide a route out of a problem, which society has had for many decades because nuclear power could be very valuable in the future. But it’s a unique industry where we’re really on our third phase of nuclear reactor development without having satisfactorily cleaned up the waste from the first phase yet. So drilling deep boreholes is an important type of approach to evaluate. So my suggestion would be to effectively make a pilot test, its what’s happens with many other technologies. You have a site which you then develop to be monitored so maybe you’re going to drill a central borehole.

Stuart Haszeldine (41:47):

You maybe drill an array of boreholes around that, or install detectors around that, where you can install the waste. And then you can monitor the heating effects the water flow effects, the stress effects in the rock, and gain monitoring and scientific and engineering information from that over a period of maybe 5 or 10 years to try and understand better what the effects are, and that enables you to predict into the future. So those underground laboratories in real-time at real full scale are very valuable things. And the United States has the resource, the ability, and the size scale to undertake that type of investigation. And that can be then a very powerful way of communicating to regulators and the public that we’ve built one and Hey, look, we’ve measured everything about it and it works.

Kari Hulac (42:37):

Well. Thank you so much. I appreciate you joining us today.

Stuart Haszeldine (42:41):

Okay. It’s a pleasure.

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Episode 16


Roy Payne

Executive Director of GDFWatch

The Existential Nature of Nuclear Waste

In this episode, Roy Payne explains why he started the non-profit GDFWatch, an organization whose mission is to assist the public in having informed discussions before decisions are made for nuclear waste disposal.

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

Roy Payne (00:10):

We can’t build a greener future and look for a sustainable and environmentally sustainable future unless we clear up the mess that we’ve made in the past. Now, nobody, nobody alive now asked for this mess. Nobody wanted this mess, but it’s there. There is no magic fairy with the wand to make it disappear. And we have a choice. And so for me, it’s very important that we start taking responsibility now for the consequences of our own actions.

Narrator (00:43):

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

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

​​Kari Hulac (02:05):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolations Communication Manager. Today I’m talking to Roy Payne, Executive Director of GDFWatch, a UK based not-for-profit organization that supports geologic disposal of nuclear waste and wants to ensure that it’s done in a way that puts impacted communities and public safety at the core of all decision-making. Roy has more than 30 years of experience running campaigns on complex and often contentious issues. Most recently, he was an advisor to RWM, the UK agency responsible for the country’s nuclear waste management and to the UK government on developing the right approaches to stakeholder and community engagement for the UK geologic disposal program. Thank you so much for joining us today, Roy.

Roy Payne (02:58):

Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Kari Hulac (03:01):

All right, let’s just jump right into it. We first like to ask our interviewees, how did you end up working in the nuclear waste field? And then how did you come to lead GDFWatch?

Roy Payne (03:14):

I actually joined RWM the UK’s RWMO. Right at the point of weeks, there’d been a review of the previously failed siting experience. And I joined at a time they were rethinking the policy and it struck me at the time that previous siting policies had been linked to the local election cycle. The decision was left with local authorities, local municipal leaders, which meant that we never got anywhere because every four to five years it was an election. And bearing in mind, this process could take decades from the moment you start it to the point at which you actually get approval to start work. And so the election cycle itself is a hindrance. So how do you under a consent based process, create a democratic structure that allows the community to actually have its say, but do so over a much longer period of time, that’s sort of exempt from the electoral cycle.

Roy Payne (04:08):

So we created a thing called the community partnerships and a whole new policy was created, which is the one where we’re now implementing on working with communities. I was then tasked with then, well we’ve got the policy, how do we now communicate and engage with communities? And I’ve a lot of experience in infrastructure and government information campaigns. And so started out with the traditional approach to it all. But given that is consent based, this is a completely different beast from the normal sort of infrastructure government projects, where we’re going to build this here and then we’re going to talk to local people about what the issues are and take on board their concerns. This actually requires people consent even to have a conversation with you, if they don’t wish to have a conversation with you, there’s nothing you can do about that. So I started thinking and looking at it from what does all this look like from the community’s perspective?

Roy Payne (04:56):

And suddenly you’ve got a very different perspective because someone who’s used to working in a big corporates and government, you run a campaign and you speak to the audience was actually looking from the community’s perspective. They just have this massive army of the format of the state, the new dissector rolling over their hills. Most of these communities are rural and isolated areas. They don’t have any experience with the subject at all. And all they hear is this massive group of people with large sums of money and a great palette saying we’d like to bury nuclear waste underneath your hubs. That’s all they’re hearing. So how do you engage with them in a way that allows you to slowly start having a conversation and over time, develop trust, develop relationships, and develop understanding. And so when I started thinking about it from the community perspective, I came to realization that I probably wasn’t as interested in managing a government communications campaign as I was actually looking at it from the community perspective.

Roy Payne (05:59):

And certainly as I explored this on an international level, realized the hugely human parallels that were regardless of political structure, regardless of the culture of a country, really looking at this from a community’s perspective, from ordinary people’s perspective, was the key to unlocking how you can progress geological disposal. And hence I decided that I’d established GDFWatch primarily focused on the UK siting process, but also taken on board and trying to work with international communities as well, because I’d become convinced by this stage of the ethical, the environmental, and the intergenerational issues related to geological disposal. But it wasn’t a really a technical issue. This was very much social and cultural issue, and we needed to look at it from that perspective.

Kari Hulac (06:49):

Many of our listeners may be very new to what geological disposal even is. So could you give an overview of how a geologic disposal facility would work and why scientists have said for decades that this is the best place for nuclear waste?

Roy Payne (07:06):

Yeah, I think it’s probably worth just very quickly talking about the research and the scientific background before we get into what is geologic disposal. I suspect billions of dollars have been spent over the past three or four decades. This has been a huge collaboration of the scientific community around the world. It’s the same issues confronting every nuclear country. And to the extent that we have people buy into the scientific consensus behind climate change, there is the same, if not greater scientific consensus behind geological disposal and in analyzing what was the best way of dealing with our nuclear waste or radioactive waste. Of course, they looked at all the options. So the obvious ones are sending into space. Well, if anyone’s seen the videos and the space industry itself builds in a certain redundancy that certain rockets will not leave the launch pad or blow up shortly after take off, that’s too high a risk if you’re carrying nuclear waste on board to scatter highly radioactive materials, over a large geographic area and into the atmosphere, there’s a non-starter as an option. 

Roy Payne (08:15):

The other option was dumping in the sea, well that’s already been outlawed for best part of half a century under international law. And we’re already seeing from the Russians in the Bering sea, or having to actually pull back all the nuclear submarines they scuttled because it is an environmental threat. And with Western funding and working in cooperation with the Norwegians, the Russians are beginning to remove the nuclear waste from the sea. So if you can’t go in the sea, can’t be sent into space, land. Now you’ve got to leave it on the surface or you bury it. And I come down to there’s lots of people concerns. What happens if, well, if something happens, if there’s a rupture of a package or a human error, you have a choice that that leak of radioactivity could be straight into the air that we breathe and into the soil that we grow our food in, or it can happen a kilometer underground, a long, long way away from us.

Roy Payne (09:11):

So you’ve got to, you either react instantly to an immediate problem that’s poisoning you immediately, or you buy yourself potentially 10,000 years to sort out a solution, should there ever be a need to find a solution? So the geological disposal is rooted in very basic common sense. We have this waste, we need to dispose of it safely. The easiest, safest, and environmentally sound way is to bury it deep underground. If we look at a geological repository, there are certain standards which is that all communities agree to. It must be at least 200 meters underground. Now that’s to allow for glacier scouring of the surface, because much of this material, there’s likely to be several ice ages before it ceases to be harmful to the environment and to humans. So we need to allow for surface scouring, it can go up to about a kilometer deep, because any deeper, the heat of the earth itself would not allow the materials to go down.

Roy Payne (10:08):

So there is this sort of sweet area, but also the rock you build it in, but in different types of rock, but you’ve got to be high degree of satisfaction. There are no fractures, there’s no water coming to the surface. It’s a very particular type of geology. And that’s why identifying a proper site for a repository can be so difficult and time consuming because of the detailed geological analysis that you have to do to actually ascertain, is this a safe piece of rock in which to build a repository and bury our waste. Then the waste itself. Most people sadly around the world, and it’s not a joke, it’s not funny, but most people take their cue of what is radioactive waste from the opening shots of the Simpsons: it’s green gooey stuff. People are worried that it’s going to come percolating up through their drains and into their homes.

Roy Payne (11:01):

Now, sadly, there are real world examples of such things happening. So no, this is not irrational fear, its paged on currencies around the world, there’s similar things happening. But the waste is solidified, its packed inside a very secure steel box that you can stand beside for the next hundred years and you would not have any radioactive. They’re put in these boxes and then like Lego bricks they’re stacked on top of each other in a deep underground chamber. And then when it’s full, you just set it up and leave it alone. It’s effectively, we took uranium from the earth, we’re returning a radioactive waste uranium back to the earth in a safe space where it can basically just biodegrade. It can cease to be a threat or a risk. And by the time you’ve used the manmade engineered barriers and the natural barrier, a rock, over a hundred thousand years, there’s going to be no radioactivity impacting the environment and humans living there.

Roy Payne (12:00):

I think the other issue with keeping on the surface is can we, do we have a high degree of confidence that humans can manage this dangerous material for 10,000, 100,000 years continuously? And can they do that without ever making a mistake? Now its maybe possible to minimize those risks, but it’s very unlikely that we are going to be able to sustain this as a society. I mean, we have history only goes back 4 or 5,000 years. We’re talking timescales, which are beyond our comprehension. And therefore the safest thing to do is to dispose of it safely in a deep geological facility. And that’s what the world scientific community and world governments. What’s quite interesting here is despite the unpopularity of the proposal, politicians and governments around the world have all signed up to it. Occasionally politicians do the right thing. They don’t do something that’s unpopular without some degree of necessity. So I think there’s a lack of trust in politicians, but if they’re proposing something that seems very unpopular, then perhaps you should actually be listening to them that on occasion, politicians will promote unpopular policy because it’s the right thing to do.

Kari Hulac (13:16):

There’s a quote on the homepage of the GDFWatch website that says this issue goes to the core of who we are as a society, our morality, and our maturity. Some of what you just said, kind of leads into this, I believe. Tell us who said that. And could you explain how you see the nuclear waste disposal issues being one is at the core of who we are.

Roy Payne (13:43):

Well I came up with that particular quote cause it actually summed up what I think and feel, and it’s not just about nuclear waste. It’s really about the sort of times we’re in and the challenges that we face as a species on a very small planet. So we look at climate change, there are all sorts of issues. We’ve got an energy crisis at the moment. There are all sorts of resource issues. And we have lived in a society, particularly the west, that makes very short-term decisions. It’s driven by the next election. And so a lot of the things that we need to address, fundamental challenges that we face as a country, as a planet, as a species need long-term thinking, and we need to start planning longer term. So nuclear waste for me is potentially the most difficult subject that we have to deal with.

Roy Payne (14:35):

It’s basically, we’ve made a pile of nuclear poo and we need to actually manage that and get rid of it. We can’t build a greener future and look for an environmentally sustainable future unless we clear up the mess that we’ve made in the past. Now, nobody, nobody alive now asked for this mess. Nobody wanted this mess, but it’s there. There is no magic fairy with a wand to make it disappear. And we have a choice. And so for me, it’s very important that we start taking responsibility now for the consequences of our own actions, rather than as we tend to do as a culture, as a society, kickball manyana, manyana, we’ll just keep moving this forward. At some point, we actually have to start addressing this issue and in doing so in terms of the community engagement, the relationship between communities, local politicians, staff with government obligations, perhaps it’s a model that we can start working through that will help us address other bigger challenges that face us, because it seems to me, again, a lot of our challenges we’re facing are planetary and it can be very difficult for people when a decision is made on an international level, how that filters down. 

Roy Payne (15:55):

How local communities are impacted isn’t always explained to them. So if we can find new methods and ways of engaging with people at our local level, so they understand their contribution to a global challenge, we can also start identifying solutions to other problems as well.

Kari Hulac (16:13):

Thank you. So given your work with the UK government, what has the UK learned about geological disposal from its neighbors across Europe? Maybe could give an overview of what the other countries are doing, share some takeaways. For example, there’s the first spent fuel geologic repository, Onkalo in Finland, Sweden’s making progress. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the significance of this.

Roy Payne (16:45):

I think from a technical perspective, everybody’s learning from everybody else. And I think it’s probably one of the, the nuclear sector doesn’t get applauded very much, but I do think in terms of bringing together the best scientific and academic minds, focusing in on problems, sharing knowledge, establishing common standards, the nuclear sector in some ways is a paradigm for a world that is more connected and facing longer challenges. If you ever go to the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agencies, HQ in Vienna for me, I went there once and it just seemed like Star Trek academy. You were bringing in people from all cultures to focus in on one thing and all of them commit to doing it as safely as possible. So the nuclear sector is very good technically, a lot of knowledge is shared. Where there seems to be what I consider to be a shortfall is understanding the communities in which they’re trying to operate.

Roy Payne (17:48):

And if you look around Europe at the moment, yes, Finland is more advanced, but the Finns have a very different political culture to the UK, to Sweden, to Germany. In Finland, there’s a high degree of trust. They’re a technocracy, they trust their politicians, they trust their academics. And if the academics and politicians say, this is the right thing to do, Finns will largely trust them to do so. The Swedes have progress, but again, they’re in a Sweden, very different culture, political culture, high degree of trust at a local level. Also a sense of responsibility that the citizens, any community has to support the nation because it’s a small nation, small population. And there’s a greater sense of modularity support. You come to the UK where there’s a high degree of skepticism about politics. It is a very fractured political system, very contentious political system, much harder to get agreement and secure agreement.

Roy Payne (18:52):

And the processes, all of the countries bought into consent based, but all have taken different models. So in the UK, that was a survey of the UK geology putting together all the known information. It wasn’t too identifying where it could be built. It was to identify where it couldn’t be built. And most of the country geologically is a potential host geology for a repository. In Germany they took a slightly different approach, a much more aggressive approach in the sense of identifying areas, which were clearly better. And the Germans have gone for where is the best geology, rather than just focusing on where it couldn’t work, where is the best geology, and then starting a discussion with the communities in those areas. This is what we’re trying to do and explain it. So every country is approaching very similar within its own political.

Roy Payne (19:51):

And I think there’s more that can be learned from these experiences. I think generally speaking, the whole geological disposal in terms of sociopolitical dimensia, there’s insufficient collaboration around the world. Very often, I’ve been around the world and spoken to people from Asia, from across Europe, North America, each community feels like somehow they become the focus of their federal national government who want to come and do something terrible to them. That sends up a very strong, negative resistance, as you would expect, if anybody came in wanting to impose themselves on you, or you feel that you’re being imposed upon, you react badly. But I don’t think people fully realize, it’s only when you start talking to people, is this is a global problem. If somebody makes an error with their waste, it’s not just the locality where the waste escapes, it will get into the atmosphere.

Roy Payne (20:48):

It will travel on the weeds. There is going to be implications for all of this radioactive fallout. It doesn’t know boundaries or borders. So we all have a vested interest in managing this waste safely. And we will have a vested interest in ensuring that when it is done, we know where that’s being buried and that there’s a collective memory. I think that’s probably easier done if it’s seen as an international approach rather than as a sort of local community responsibility. And I also think more broadly we’re moving into a world, look around us now, the values of younger generations across cultures are much more aligned. The challenges that they perceive are climate change and the future of the species and radioactive waste management is part of that media. It’s not a thing on its own. And so again, if we’re looking about building a sustainable future, being more thoughtful about how we interact with the environment, one of the first things we need to do is to take responsibility for the mess that we already have here to make sure that started up.

Kari Hulac (22:02):

Do you think that younger generation will help? Will they be more willing to deal with this, even though it, as you said, has been passed onto them from decades ago? What do you feel when you speak to younger people, do you, what’s the pulse of their thoughts on this?

Roy Payne (22:20):

Generally speaking, because it’s not a subject that’s widely spoken about. It’s one of those: radioactive waste. Most subjects, when you raise something, if you don’t know something, can you meet somebody? You ask question, do you want to find out more? But when you raise this up, radioactive waste, people tend to say I don’t need to know anything about that, I don’t want to ever think about that. They don’t even want to engage in a conversation. But younger people because of the challenges they’re facing, because the culture that, that environment they’re growing up in are, I mean, yes, they resent the burdens being placed upon them and that they feel that they’ve got to take responsibility for, but there’s a much more willingness to understand this isn’t an issue that must be gripped. It is in their interests to actually grip. 

Roy Payne (23:10):

To some extent nuclear waste when it’s just stored in surface facilities is actually a negative use of taxpayers’ money. It’s inert. It just builds a box and it sits there for a hundred years until the next box is required. Whereas actually, if you’ve vetted the GDF, you create jobs, you create economic opportunities. And there is actually, it’s making a valuable contribution to the health and safety of the planet as well. So my general sort of observation of younger people is that they are a lot more responsible collectively for the future of the planet than their parents or grandparents generations are. And that they are much more prepared to engage in a discussion about this because it’s their futures which were at stake. 

Kari Hulac (24:05):

Do you think if Onkalo, assuming it’s successful, will that move things forward maybe more quickly now that finally a deep geologic repository will be actually operating, people can see that it’s safe. You know, what will it mean when that finally is a reality?

Roy Payne (24:22):

I think it, it will help because it will show that it can be done. We’ve got to bear in mind, there is actually already an operational facility in the United States, WIPP, wasn’t meant to be a long-term. WIPP has already shown its value instantly. In 2018, a package, which only weeks before had been stored on the surface, ruptured. Now the radioactive leak was contained on the ground. How’d that happen, you know, in the open air or where it was previously stored, it could have been an environmental and public health catastrophe, at least it’s 400 meters underground. They may not be able to revisit or use that part of the repository ever again, but nobody was harmed and there was no risk. There was no escape of radioactivity. So it did show the value of repository. If there is debate, if an incident does occur, much better than it cause deep underground in a closed environment, rather than on the surface where it affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil of which we grow our food.

Roy Payne (25:21):

So it will help, but I think its going to be a long process. It’s not just Onkalo. And what’s going to be interesting is looking at the number of countries that are coming behind, and it will be one of those people moving in different paces. That you have Germany, France, the UK, Canada, United States, China, Russia. These are in various stages of development. There’ll come a point where there’s 10, 20, 30 repositories being built simultaneously around the world. And we may be 20, 30 years away from that, but there will come a point where these are being built everywhere. I think as ever been so much with life, other issues, people are sort of reluctant. If they’re just one example, there’s two examples, but when there’s 20 or 30 examples, suddenly everyone’s a lot more relaxed about it, but Onkalo is important in just taking that step forward.

Kari Hulac (26:19):

Now let’s talk about the other side of the coin. Building a large deep mined repository may not be feasible for some countries, for example, countries with small nuclear waste inventories. So can you expand upon what some of their concerns are in such cases?

Roy Payne (26:39):

Yeah, I mean, the UK is a very good example. The UK has probably one of the vastest, the most diverse waste inventories of any country on earth. We were pioneers of nuclear for both civil and military purposes. So both given the volumes and the diversity of the waste, there is both fiscal and environmental sense in bearing it in one location. And we’re also an island. We got limited space to bury waste across the UK. Boreholes would litter the country, just politically unacceptable, but there are other countries and you think of countries like South Africa or the Baltic states that only have one reactor, they have a much more limited waste profile. You have other countries like Slovenia Croatia that share a facility, but each is under coverage rules. Each is obliged to build its own repository, even though there’s only one facility.

Roy Payne (27:38):

So there probably is potential scope saying actually just in terms of cost, its also the carbon footprint of building a geological repository. I don’t know, I’ve never looked at the numbers, but can only assume that drilling a borehole is a lot less carbon intensive than building a full scale repository. So for a variety of reasons, environmental, financial, as well as ethical, I can see that there may be examples where smaller waste inventories can be disposed of through built borehole drilling rather than requiring countries to go to the expense of building a very large facility to store very little waste, particularly where two countries, they have to do exactly the same facility for a shared amount of waste. And I don’t think we should also lose sight if you read a lot of African and Asian media now, the whole issue around not just radioactive waste, but waste generally. These countries may not develop civil nuclear programs, but every country now uses MRI scanners.

Roy Payne (28:44):

There are medical applications, there are industrial applications, there’s academic research, which produces very small, but nevertheless, quantities of higher activity radioactive waste. Now you’re not going to require somebody who’s got a tiny amount of radioactive waste to build a deep geological repository. Again, if we, as a community, as a society, want to have advanced mechanics, want to have advanced industries, but one of the consequences is there is some high level radioactive waste. Those countries are going to have to find solutions. And so I can see how deep boreholes would actually potentially provide a solution, cost effective and environmentally sound solution, to that issue. But while repositories tend to be, if you’ve got a large volume, it just makes sense to bury it. So the UK, France, Russia, America probably will stand in those, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a parallel.

Roy Payne (29:43):

And I think the German Green party or the only Green party I’m aware of it, support geological disposal. And there’s an issue around that because as far as I’m aware, the laws of the universe apply equally in Germany as they do in any other country. But they see both as the least worst solution. IAEA talks about the best available. Well, those are the same thing, the best available at the least worst, depending on your perspective, are exactly the same thing. And of course, we all keep open the option that if somebody comes out with even better solutions, if scientists and technology and future technology means that we can deal with waste in a different way, brilliant, that will work, but we can’t just wait and hope. We haven’t yet found a cure for the common cold. So we can’t just rely upon science or just have a faith that some others will be sold for us. We can take responsibility now, start taking actions now and find solutions which actually meet the environmental, financial, and ethical needs of every community. And some of those borehole may be the way forward. 

Kari Hulac (30:54):

I’d love to hear a little bit about your background as a community activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I know you’ve learned to build bridges of trust between opposing groups and that skills likely very helpful in what you ended up doing in your career, you know, advising governments on communicating with stakeholders and communities on waste disposal. So what advice do you give governments to help them be more effective in finding a solution?

Roy Payne (31:20):

The most key one is to listen. You know, you pull it down to basic human relationships. If you want to build a relationship with somebody, you don’t sit down and just talk about yourself the whole evening long, you do have to listen to what the other person thinks and feels. So I do worry sometimes that the nuclear sector, because it is partly academic tend to see this as a massive STEM exercise. If we just teach stupid people about the science, they will understand it, but that’s not how communities and people operate. If you look around now, the issues around vaccination and we are living in a world where there’s a lack of political trust, and there’s a lack of faith in science or people are prepared to listen to whatever homespun ideas happen to come their way. They’re willing to be brave to them.

Roy Payne (32:14):

So a question is listening to people, it is about sometimes going the extra mile, going on meandering. You’re not just going from A to B. You might have to get from A to B, you may have to go through a whole other alphabet to get to the final point, but you need to go on that journey. And even if people are raising issues, which you think are ridiculous, besides the point, they’re important to them. And if you want to take them on the journey with you, you’re going to have to go on that journey with them. And I think the other issue is trust, trust is a two way thing. And at the moment, governments, politicians, the nuclear sector, these are not high on the trust barometers of most people in most countries. There’s also a degree of lack of trust or fear in authorities or letting go too much power and engaging with the community, which to some extent you have to show a bit of trust to receive, to start building trust.

Roy Payne (33:20):

And to some extent, I think it’s probably beholding on the governments and the nuclear sectors to actually take the first steps. We’re the ones asking people to dance with us. So you have to make the first steps to actually ask somebody to dance with you. And therefore you have to show and give a little bit more rather than being defensive, concerned about how that is going to happen. And I think one of the other issues we’ll meet with people in the nuclear sector, I’ve worked in many different sectors: telecomms, broadcasting, media, sport, lots of different commercial sectors, and they will have their own profile and characteristics and ways of thinking and behaving. And I do think nuclear sector, quite rightly, there’s a mindset of risk mitigation, managing risk out and really focusing on managing risk out which is entirely the right approach when it comes to the matter of nuclear, but you can’t apply that same discipline and that same rigor when it comes to people.

Roy Payne (34:25):

People are not radionuclides, do not perform in the same way at the same conditions in all circumstances. And I think there was a need for sort of, again, government and nuclear sector to perhaps they’re going to have to get used to operating outside their comfort zone in areas where we were making judgment calls about how you relate to people, to manage people for people that you can never ever get to the level of risk assurance that you can when you’re actually designing a nuclear reactor or a nuclear waste disposal facility, simply because people don’t feel that way. So my advice to governments is really to listen, be a little bit more giving to trust your communities a little bit more and to be prepared to go on a long amble to the countryside, because rather than trying to get them to make a decision as quickly as possible.

Kari Hulac (35:25):

It’s a journey. That’s what I’m hearing, a long one. Anything I did not ask today that you’d like to close out our conversation with Roy?

Roy Payne (35:35):

I’ve worked with people who work in it, you know, from around the world. I have no doubt of the integrity, the honesty and the earnestness of all those people working radioactive waste, they are doing absolutely the best thing. That’s what we can see. Being somebody who is got the science behind you, it doesn’t mean that people will actually believe you. And to some extent the suspension of trust. So how do you build trust? Now, one of the things for me is one of the things that is not happening at the moment is unmediated connections between the communities who are likely to be impacted by this, one thing we do see for right and for wrong, for good and for bad is that people are much more willing to accept the perspective of someone who’s just like them, who doesn’t seem to have a vested interest.

Roy Payne (36:28):

And so the common human experience of potentially hosting a radioactive waste facility is the same on planet earth. And I do think there’s more that can be done just to allow the impacted communities to talk together, to meet, to share experience, to share their concerns, their fears, their worries. Science, central to science issues comes up in each country and each time you have to revalidate it. Well, the science, you know, copper corrodes in the same way, in the same conditions in Sweden, as it does in Germany, as it does in Argentina. These are the rules of the universe. There’s probably scope here, I think what more could be done by the idea of globalizing this issue rather than seeing it as a national problem, to globalize the issue. If you’re more likely to get people winning to progress discussions, if they’re talking with people who are going through the same experience themselves, a self-help group, if you like, so I think we need just be more sophisticated in the way in which we manage and engage with these communities and not to be frightened by their fears, but actually allow them to share those fears with other people so that it becomes a common understanding. And that I think you will see a lot of the worries, concerns, the barriers will start to shift if you allow people to speak to each other about these issues, rather than trying to over-manage it and see it as purely a sort of STEM and technology exercise. Now, this is a much bigger story about environment, planet, future and local empowerment. People are actually feeling they have some say over the future direction of their own community while also contributing and making a powerful contribution to the safety of the planet.

Kari Hulac (38:33):

Well, thank you so much, Roy. It’s been wonderful talking with you today and thank you for joining us.

Roy Payne (38:38):

Thank you for having me.

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Episode 15


Tom Isaacs

Co-Principal Investigator at the Nuclear Threat Initiative

How to Build a Successful Nuclear Waste Disposal Program

In this episode, Tom Isaacs gives historical insight into nuclear waste disposal barriers internationally and explains how those barriers can be overcome by using both social science and hard science.

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

Tom Isaacs (0:10):

I would say the first one is that this is a problem that’s solvable. That we know, we, the scientific and technical community know, and in fact, every country around the world who is seriously dealing with this, knows how to dispose of this waste in a way that is permanent.

Narrator (0:30): 

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

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

Kari Hulac (1:52):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolations Communication Manager. Today I’m talking to Tom Isaacs, an engineer and physicist with a great deal of experience in nuclear policy analysis. He is co-principal investigator for the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Tom works with NTIs Developing Spent Fuel Strategies Project coordinating international cooperation on issues at the back end of the fuel cycle with emphasis on spent fuel management and disposal in Pacific Rim countries. He also advises national nuclear waste programs on facility siting, communications, stakeholder engagement, and public trust and confidence. He’s worked with the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization for 15 years. And in 2012 was Lead Advisor to President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He’s a long-time Senior Executive at the Department of Energy where he led the siting process for establishing a deep geological repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Thank you so much for joining us today, Tom.

Tom Isaacs (02:57):

Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Kari Hulac (03:00):

We like to start out by asking our interviewees, how did you choose a career in nuclear waste? What first got you interested in dedicating your career to such a complicated and controversial topic?

Tom Isaacs (03:12):

Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I know the answer myself. I had started working on nuclear energy development in the Atomic Energy Commission in the old days, and then left the government of DOE what became DOE for a while and got a phone call from someone in the mid-eighties who said, there’s a new law passed and we’re going to create a nuclear waste organization and the Department of Energy and I’d really like you to come work with me. And that person’s name was Ben Rusche, a wonderful human being. And he was the first Director of what was called the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. And so the opportunity to work with Ben on this issue presented itself. And so I came back into the Department of Energy as the Director of Policy and found that the problem was really fascinating because you’re at the cutting edge of science and technology all the way through to thinking about things that are essentially almost spiritual in nature because you’re dealing with waste that is going to be potentially hazardous for as long as you can think of. And so the gamut of experiences dealing with the science, dealing with the public, dealing with the politics, dealing with how human beings should responsibly deal with this all kind of fit with my interest in these sort of multifaceted problems. So that’s kind of how I got into it. And once you get into it, it’s hard to get out of it.

Kari Hulac (04:40):

Well, that’s fascinating, especially the part about “spiritual”. I haven’t heard that term used with nuclear waste, but essentially it’s so far off into the future. You don’t even know what the planet will look like, or humans will look like or anything.

Tom Isaacs (04:54):

Exactly. Almost anything you can think of, this waste will be around after that’s gone. And that’s an interesting problem. And fortunately, I’m sure we’ll talk about this. I think there’s ways to deal with that.

Kari Hulac (05:06):

Perfect. So, since you have been in the business for 35 years, we’ll never touch on everything today. So I wanted to just ask you what are three big things that you’ve learned over that time that you think the general public should know? Like what would you just like, if you could leave three takeaways from your experience, what might they be?

Tom Isaacs (05:27):

Well, let’s see, I would say the first one is that this is a problem that’s solvable that we know, we, the scientific and technical community know, and in fact, every country around the world who is seriously dealing with this, knows how to dispose of this waste in a way that is permanent, that doesn’t require active administrative control for eons. And that will guarantee that the waste will not come back into the accessible environment during the time in which it’s hazardous. So I think that’s very important. The second thing corollary to that is when we talk about disposing of nuclear waste, we’re not talking about a nuclear dump. If you hear somebody use the word dump, they either don’t understand, or they deliberately don’t want people to understand. This is a very highly engineered facility that’s deep underground.

Tom Isaacs (06:15):

The waste is solid, there’s nothing but solid waste. There’s no liquids or gases or anything. It’s put into a very carefully designed and constructed container to isolate the waste and then put underground only in a place where it’s going to isolate the waste for geologic time periods. And so that would be my second takeaway. And the third takeaway is it’s really hard to find a way to site these facilities. That’s the key issue is developing a narrative, which probably hasn’t been done well yet, to make people understand the true nature of this problem in a way that will allow local communities, surrounding communities, regional communities in the United States, state government, which is a particularly difficult challenge, and the federal government, and the local populations that are involved; for all of them to come to a place where it’s viewed as what I call a win-win-win situation for them. And I think those are the three things I would say are the main reasons that the next generation should come in and work on this problem.

Kari Hulac (07:24):

Well, I think the next question will help tie into some of the points that you made there because as you well know, scientists worldwide have agreed for decades that the waste does belong in deep geologic disposal, yet to date spent nuclear fuel remains in temporary storage. So maybe you could talk about your perspective on that problem. What would it take for permanent disposal to finally happen?

Tom Isaacs (07:50):

Sure. So let’s talk internationally first because there’s some good news there and that’s that there are countries that have made substantial progress. I would highlight Finland and Sweden as probably being the leading countries in the world, in terms of developing and implementing a program to dispose of the spent fuel. They went through a very vigorous siting program in both of those countries. They were able to establish agreements with local communities to site a nuclear waste repository in Finland. They are in the process now, they’ve received the license and are in the process of constructing and operating a license. And that’ll be what I call the existence proof. It’ll show you that it is possible to do that. And I expect in the very near future, Finland will be operating a nuclear waste repository and disposing of spent fuel. I think just somewhat behind that will come Sweden.

Tom Isaacs (08:45):

That’s also extremely far along in this process. So there’s a lot of lessons to be learned in those countries. France as well, has a site under developments as well along and looks to be good. And the Canadians, as you mentioned, that I’ve been working with for quite some time and continue to work with have developed an approach. They call it Adaptive Phase Management, which has taken to heart many of the same recommendations that were in that Blue Ribbon Commission report that was done that I was Lead Advisor for under President Obama that proposed a roadmap forward for how the U.S. should go about disposing of spent nuclear fuel. So I think there’s some very good lessons there. The US has a particular problem. Other countries have problems too, almost all countries do. And almost all countries have to take long periods of time and have lots of changes before they’re successful.

Tom Isaacs (09:42):

But the US has states. And if the federal government could deal directly with local communities, it would be possible, I’m quite confident to site a nuclear waste repository in this country. There are communities who would be interested in, are interested and have shown interest in the past in these kinds of things. Even the elected county commission in Nye county, which is where Yucca Mountain was, was in favor of this program at that point in time. So I think you can find that, but it’ what’s often called the donut effect. The people closest to the repository site are in favor of it. They see the jobs, they see the economic benefits. They see the world-class scientists and technical people coming to the site. They see the notoriety, they see lots of positive things for their community, not all communities, but you only need one. People who are far away who are actually hosting the site with the nuclear waste now, which is mostly nuclear power plants, also are in favor of these because they want to see the waste taken off in their sites.

Tom Isaacs (10:43):

It’s the donut, that’s the problem. It’s the people in the state that you’re thinking of who are not close to the site, but in the state, who see this as potentially environmentally a concern, potentially a safety concern, they don’t see big economic benefits for them because they may be hundreds of miles away. They see possible stigma effects as a result of being the state that hosts these kinds of facilities. And so it’s at the state level that you find state elected officials, both governors and other state elected officials, as well as people in Congress, who have tended to be the ones who have resisted siting in their states mostly. And that’s the big challenge, the biggest challenge, there’s many challenges. That’s the biggest challenge I would say, is changing the narrative that people, so that people understand that for certain communities, this can be an enormous benefit to them and can help them realize the future that they would like. And we’ve seen that in places around the world, like in Olkiluoto Finland, for example, like in New Mexico, where there’s an operating repository for defense waste, where the community has been very much in favor of that and benefited from it. And I think continues to be interested in seeing the mission of that repository expanded.

Kari Hulac (12:05):

So there’s so many things to talk about here. I definitely, there’s kind of three main things that will tie off of what you just said. Well you just mentioned New Mexico so let’s touch on that. That’s the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad where certain types of defense-generated waste: clothing, tools, rags, residues are disposed of. So what can be learned from WIPP since that is in the U.S., and we have Yucca Mountain, which is on hold at the moment. So what have we learned from WIPP and how might this relate to deciding a facility for spent nuclear fuel?

Tom Isaacs (12:43):

So I think that’s a great question. I think there’s a lot to be learned from WIPP. So let me give the short, my short version of how WIPP came about, because the town that hosts the WIPP site is called Carlsbad, New Mexico. It’s fairly isolated in Southern New Mexico, and it was a largely potash mining town. And as mining happens, it goes boom and bust, it went bust at a period of time. And the economic engine for the community of Carlsbad was in serious scrapes as a result of that. Some entrepreneurial people, elected representatives and other people in that region learned that the federal government was trying to find a place to site for nuclear waste disposal and went to the government and said, we’d like to learn more about this. We’d like to see if this is something that would work for us. We’re a mining community.

Tom Isaacs (13:39):

So we’re used to putting holes in the ground. We understand that kind of thing. Would you consider us? That was the beginning of a very long and unexpected process. You know, the Canadians called their process Adapted Phase Management because you have to adapt because the length of time it takes for a program like this to be implemented is decades and things change over time. Science changes, technology changes, political views change, values change, economics change. And so you have to be willing to adapt. And so the process that went forward started with this process, and immediately there was resistance from people within the state of New Mexico. In particular, I would say from the cities far away from Carlsbad, like Albuquerque and particularly Santa Fe, the state capitol, you would go to Santa Fe and you’d see signs there with WIPP with a red circle and a line through it.

Tom Isaacs (14:36):

They didn’t want WIPP in their state. There was a long period of engagement and to their credit, the federal government understood that they needed to engage in a way that would lead to ultimate acceptance. At the state level, there was concern by the governor and other state elected officials that spent nuclear fuel would come into the state of New Mexico. There had been a pilot facility where they had done research and so forth. And so at the state level, the federal government reached an understanding with the state government that in return for allowing WIPP to go forward, no spent nuclear fuel would go into the state of New Mexico into that facility. Only defense waste. The defense waste is radioactive. It’s radioactive for very long periods of time, which is why you have to dispose of it deep underground in a repository. It’s not hot and it’s not nearly as concentrated as the spent nuclear fuel.

Tom Isaacs (15:34):

So what you wound up with what I call the win-win-win. When the local people got the facility, they got tremendous benefits from it in terms of jobs, in terms of economic support, in terms of the hopes and visions of the community being resuscitated, the state government got and promised that spent nuclear fuel would not come into that facility. And what else they got was a bypass around the city of Santa Fe. It was very interesting. If you think about it, who would have thought that this program would hinge on the federal government paying for a bypass road around the city of Santa Fe? A lot of the waste was coming from Idaho which would come through Santa Fe. And because there was no bypass, the waste would’ve come through the city. And the people were understandably saying, we don’t want this waste coming through the middle of our city.

Tom Isaacs (16:24):

So one of the agreements was that the state of New Mexico won, if you will, a bypass built around the city of Santa Fe. And of course the federal government won because they were able to establish a repository which has been operating for over a decade and disposes of this transuranic defense waste. So that’s what I mean by win-win-wins. Ironically, by the way, a lot of the development in Santa Fe over the last 10 plus years has been near that bypass around Santa Fe, even though it was built so that people could move themselves from the waste. People understand that the, I think, that the transportation is very safe, it is very safe, has been very safe. And so they’re willing to move near the bypass, even though it was built as a reason for sort of moving people away from it,

Kari Hulac (17:13):

Like an incredible amount of negotiations that must gone on like about just, you know, kind of working it out. So everyone, like you say, so everyone involved felt like their issues were addressed. I mean, that seems like a huge learning from that. It sounds incredibly adaptive, which you’ve mentioned that term a couple times, Adaptive Phase Management. So it sounds like there’s a lot to be learned there.

Tom Isaacs (17:36):

I think that’s right. I gave you my, what I call the reader’s digest version of what happened, what happened there took place over many, many years with lots of disagreements with lots of one step forward, two steps back with changes of people in positions of influence, but in this case, and this was another lesson learned, it was a small number of people who were highly motivated and highly competent and well-intentioned who wound up making a big part of the difference. The people in Carlsbad are to be applauded for having had the initiative to do this. The scientists who worked on this program, many of them from Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico did world-class science, but also understood how to engage with local communities in a way that respected them and responded to them. The federal government, to its credit, funded this program properly, was willing to do flexible things that you wouldn’t necessarily think at the beginning of a project would be important in order to make this happen. Right?

Tom Isaacs (18:46):

So I think there’s lots of lessons to be learned. And if you went to these other countries that I’ve mentioned, you would find equally interesting histories of how those facilities came about. They also had problems in the beginning. They also had resistance in the beginning and they also made adaptations in order to meet the needs and concerns of the involved citizens and of the people who would be affected by this, both at the facility, and along transportation routes, and because people are concerned legitimately about health, environment, and safety. So I think all of that is what made me get interested in this problem and stay interested in this problem. 

Kari Hulac (19:27):

So I have to now ask about Yucca Mountain, because I guess if you could have the stark opposite of Carlsbad, I don’t know if Yucca Mountain would be it in your opinion, but plans that would house the U.S. spent nuclear fuel is currently not moving forward. So what can we learn maybe by comparing the two cases, maybe you cannot compare them? I’d love to hear from you about that and what should the U.S. government do to restart its spent fuel disposal program. 

Tom Isaacs (20:00):

Yeah. So first of all, as we speak today, I would say Yucca Mountain is stopped and there there’s no prospect for restarting with the current, with the mission it had disposing of spent nuclear fuel. The Blue Ribbon Commission looked at this in great detail, obviously when it decided to come to make the recommendations. It did that. I would say the first issue with the Yucca program was that the law that was passed in 1982, almost 40 years ago and signed into law in 1983 was extremely prescriptive. It, for example, grandfathered in nine sites in six states that were to be the only candidate sites for being a geologic repository. And they were chosen strictly based on the scientific potential to isolate the waste, not on the interest or the willingness of the communities near these sites to be a host, not based on the willingness of a state government to tolerate this in their state.

Tom Isaacs (21:06):

They were picked because there had been a scientific survey and these look promising. So the way the law was set up, it was to do a kind of a beauty contest to investigate these nine sites and sequentially eliminate the sites until you ultimately had three of the best looking sites. And then you would characterize them, which meant years and years of scientific investigation, and then figure out which one looked best. And that’s the one you would pick whether or not the people nearby these sites wanted it or not. It was what some people used to call “decide, announce, defend.” You would decide something you’d tell people, and then you’d defend it against people’s concerns. And that didn’t work very well. In fact, the communities around all nine of those sites were not pleased at being put on this list without having been asked, whether they’re willing to accept that or not.

Tom Isaacs (22:06):

So I think that was a real issue. Then you had the enormous problems of politics that were associated with this at the federal level. It was not so much the Democrats versus Republicans or the House versus the Senate. It was more east versus west, in a way. Most of the nuclear waste, 80% of it in this country, spent nuclear fuel is east of the Mississippi River. Most people expected this repository to be west of the Mississippi River because that’s where a lot of the remote land was. And so that set up a problem. That problem was solved in the nuclear waste law by saying, all right, we’ll build not one but two repositories and you should build the second one. The code language was basically put it in the east if you’re going to build the second one, first one in the west.

Tom Isaacs (22:57):

So now you had this issue of building a second repository and looking for sites in relatively highly densely populated areas, which was also extremely difficult. So now we tried to follow the law. We created nine environmental assessments. Each one of those assessments was over a thousand pages long, really detailed assessments of these sites. And like the law said, and the law had dates in it and the dates were extremely ambitious, really. So it didn’t allow for a lot of discussion or negotiation. It was, you got to do this and you got to do it. And Congress did that on purpose so that the program would have momentum going forward. They didn’t want these problems to stop. And in fact, they gave the governors what was called the right of a notice of disapproval, essentially a veto in the law because they knew wherever they went, the governor was going to probably say no, but then Congress had the right to override that veto with a vote, a majority vote in both houses within 60 days.

Tom Isaacs (24:00):

So it was all set up for controversy, not for negotiation and collaboration. And what happened was the politics got so heated that in the depths of the winter, in Washington in 1987, Congress made a decision to truncate that law and said, we’re not going to look at three sites. We’re going to just pick one of the three. And they picked Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain, it has to be said, many people don’t know this, at that point in time was the most promising site based on our science. So it’s not like we were picking an inferior site. Later, we found that there were complications for Yucca Mountain, but it looked like a very promising site. It could probably still be a promising site from a scientific point of view, but people felt like that that rope, the bond that was tenuous to begin with of trust, if you will, that they were going to go through this process and at least pick sites based upon this hierarchy that had been laid out in the law so people in Nevada had been upset in against the program before this decision, they were more upset and more intensely opposed after the decision.

Tom Isaacs (25:15):

And so from a political point of view, they did everything possible to keep that program from going forward. And politics played a role in that program. And there was a Senator from Nevada, Harry Reid, who was very influential at that point in time in Nevada. And he essentially worked with the administration to stop that program. And you can argue whether it was a right decision or wrong decision, but it was the decision. And that program was stopped and has been essentially endorsed to be continued to be stopped ever since. And I don’t see any prospect anytime soon for that changing, even though, as I mentioned it, people around there, there aren’t a lot of people, I kid that Yucca Mountain is not the end of the earth, but you can see it from there. I mean, it’s really remote, but there are people in towns, you know, not too, too far away and those people are not as exercised about this cause they could see potential benefits. But the people, for example, Las Vegas or Carson City adamantly against it and for understandable reasons.

Kari Hulac (26:24):

So what’s next? What should the government do to restart its waste program in the U.S. Is there any hope moving forward?

Tom Isaacs (26:32):

I think there is hope. I think if you get in the waste business, you’d better be an optimist, but, you have to be a realist too, but if you’re not an optimist, you’re probably going to be unhappy. The Blue Ribbon Commission, which is now, you know, almost a decade old, still is the go-to document in my view, in many people’s view, for recommendations about how to restart the program. And it had eight principal recommendations. So I won’t go through all eight with you, but I will go through a few. And this commission by the way, was bi-partisan it was chaired by a prominent Republican and a prominent Democrat.

Tom Isaacs (27:05):

And they worked together extremely well and they came out with eight recommendations and the first was we should use consent-based siting. Don’t pick a site and then try to convince people they should want it. Start by looking for where communities express interest that they can benefit potentially from this. And start by asking them, would they be interested in learning about this process? Would you be interested? With no commitment on their part at all, but would you be willing to sit down and listen in and talk about this and begin a dialogue with them and learn what their interests are, what their hopes for their communities are, what the problems in their communities are, how can this program help them? So consent-based siting was probably the most important recommendation. And there’s good news that as we speak, I think the current administration and Secretary Granholm have indicated they would like to restart the program and they understand it should be done in a consent-based way.

Tom Isaacs (28:02):

Two other very important recommendations were, and this word I’m about to say was discussed greatly during the Blue Ribbon Commission, the word is prompt. We should promptly begin work on developing interim storage facility and we should promptly begin working on the development of a permanent repository. We need both of those things. We need an interim storage facility, particularly since a number of nuclear power plants in this country have shut down and the waste that’s sitting on those sites and they can’t decommission the sites until there’s a place to send the waste. And the repository program, as we’ve already discussed is going to take many decades. You can build an interim storage facility in a much shorter period of time. It’s a more straightforward facility. It has to demonstrate it will work for decades, not for millennia. And we ought to be able to do that. And that’s a siting issue as well.

Tom Isaacs (28:57):

And part of the siting issue is people who will host an interim storage facility want to know that there’s going to be a repository someday to take that waste away. So that’s why you need to do both of those things. So I would say that’s the bones of the program is that you need a program that will use consent-based siting, that will hopefully have the kind of expertise and skill set that is necessary because it’s not just scientists. It’s a variety of types of people who can appreciate and empathize and work with and negotiate through this multifaceted problem that we’ve discussed already. So I think that would be the bones. The other thing that’s really difficult that the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended, and this is I think, a really stretch goal is it should be made an independent organization dedicated to this mission alone.

Tom Isaacs (30:00)

It is that way in every other country in the world, it’s not part of a cabinet level department. It has a degree of independence, if you will. It still needs to be overseen by Congress. It still needs to have its budgets supplied. But when you have a program that is so fragile with each coming election, it makes it very difficult for people to have confidence that they can believe what you say, because you may be in charge of the program one day, an election comes along, there’s a new Congress where there’s a new administration and are they going to have the same view and are they going to be willing to carry on the program that the last administration committed to? And the answer has been no up until now in this country. And so we need to find a way to, I’ll use the word, buffer this from the day to day short-term political considerations. And unfortunately in this country, that’s really difficult.

Kari Hulac (30:58):

So let’s talk about your work with the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization, because they’re having more success. You’ve worked with them for more than a decade. What are some reasons it has been successful? And what can we in any other country learn about nuclear waste disposal from Canada?

Tom Isaacs (31:15):

My first comment would be that they have implemented a program that is very similar to many of the recommendations of our Blue Ribbon Commission. So that it literally reflects some of the work that’s gone in Canada. Canada had a nuclear waste program. When I was in the Department of Energy, I used to work closely with them, and that program was stopped cold around, I think the year 2000, perhaps, when they had an independent commission that said from a scientific and technical point of view, this program is good, but from a public safety point of view, from a public acceptance point of view, it’s not adequate.

Tom Isaacs (32:00):

And they literally stopped the program, took it out of government, created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization as an independent entity. Like we just talked about. It is funded and the board of directors is drawn largely from the waste producers so they have an incentive. It’s overseen by the Canadian government, but not with the level of hands-on detail that we find in the United States. So that would be the first thing is that you have to have a construct that allows a program like this to be successful. They immediately decided that they would go with a consent based approach to this. And so they started by asking for expressions of interest from communities to learn about this. And they had 22 communities from throughout Canada, say, we’re not committing to anything, but we’d like to learn about this. 22 communities. And I have visited most of those communities.

Tom Isaacs (32:58):

Many of them are small and very remote. It’s pretty exciting to go to some of these towns in far off places with wonderful people in them. And they did a sequential process of narrowing 22, and they did it by looking both at the scientific promise of the sites near these communities to isolate the waste. And by looking at the soft science part of this, the willingness, the degree to which this program can help these communities help themselves, to can provide these communities with this kind of resource. So many of them, by the way, were ex mining communities or forestry communities, which experience again, this boom and bust cycle. And in a lot of cases, some of these communities felt like their future didn’t look very good, and the young people were moving away and they wanted to revitalize those towns. And so over a period of time looking at both the hard science and the soft science and engaging with these communities in a very extensive way, they narrowed down the sites because ultimately they need one.

Tom Isaacs (34:03):

And so they have gone through this process and they are now down to two sites that are the final candidate sites. One is in a place called South Bruce near where a lot of the nuclear power plants are. And another one is a town called Ignace, which is a relatively small town farther west than Ontario. That was another provision they said, because the nuclear waste was almost all in the province of Ontario they would put preference on siting in the province of Ontario from an equity point of view. Fairness mattered a lot, it matters a lot to the Canadians. And I think that that’s another lesson learned to really walk the talk of being fair in all respects and they actually had a fairness round table, a group of experts, if you say, in this kind of issue to provide advice to them on how to think about being fair.

Tom Isaacs (35:00):

So they called it an ethics round table. But it was really about being fair and there’s no guarantee as we sit here today, that there’s going to be a repository of either of these two sites, because neither of them had yet agreed to host the site. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization has said they would like to pick a final site by 2023 so that’s not very far off. And they’re going through negotiations now and scientific investigations now, and looking at all the factors that will have to be put in play. And the one additional factor that’s very important in Canada is relations with the indigenous population. It’s very hard to find any place in Canada where indigenous people don’t have a history and rights.

Tom Isaacs (35:49):

And it is the case in both of these locations and Canadians when we talk about fairness, they take that very, very seriously and have really been about as cutting edge in terms of trying to understand and have the relationships with these indigenous organizations and individuals as they possibly can. So that will also play a large role in the site selection process. So I would say that those are probably the lessons learned, these programs often are run by scientists and technical people and science. You know, when you run a project, you think about cost, schedule, and content. You wanna, you know, go fast and you want to spend the least amount of money, and you want to get the project built. And in this case, I often tell people, my advice is go slow to go fast. And what I mean by that is you have to take the time and be willing and actually care about these other aspects of affecting people’s lives in a sincere way if you’re going to get their trust and cooperation. And that’s you mentioned earlier my background, I spent a lot of time thinking about public trust and confidence and how to achieve it, because I think that’s essential and it’s something that’s been very difficult and probably more difficult with passing time in this country, as we’ve seen.

Kari Hulac (37:23):

Just a couple of questions left here today. Tell us about your work on the Nuclear Threat Initiative. That’s, DC-based correct?

Tom Isaacs (37:33):

Right. The Nuclear Threat Initiative now called NTI is an NGO based in Washington DC. And it has worked on a number of nuclear related and other security related issues over time. And the project that we have brings together nuclear waste organizations largely around from the Pacific rim who have interest in common in dealing with nuclear waste. So we’re talking about countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, the United States. China has been part of it at times. We’ve brought in people from international organizations like the IAEA in Vienna, and the NEA and Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris. And we also invited other countries that are interested as well. And the idea is to come together and say, so what’s on your mind? What problems do you have that we could collaborate on and might benefit from each other? When I was in the government, I managed the international program among my responsibilities for a decade.

Tom Isaacs (38:38):

And I found that some of our biggest allies and colleagues were people doing the same thing that we were, only in another country, and we can learn from each other as a result of that. And so we come together and discuss issues. And as you might expect, based on this conversation, they tend to fall into two camps. Can we agree to work on things that will help all of us on the science and technology side? And there, what we’ve done is we’ve agreed to collaborate on underground research labs because many countries build laboratories underground first in order to study the characterization. And so that’s an ongoing program and very successful. We bring together scientists, technical people and program managers, and the other one is on what we call siting. The difficult part of how do we learn to work together to get best practices along some of the lines I’ve tried to share with you and share those among the various countries, so that we can all do our job better and have better prospects for success.

Kari Hulac (39:40):

Are there any countries there to watch, like any hints you can give us of anyone who’s kind of maybe moving forward well? Or a couple of those countries, you know, ones that we should keep an eye on? I know you’ve already mentioned Finland and Sweden, but anyone from that working group?

Tom Isaacs (40:00):

Okay. So they have had many of the same experiences we have in particularly in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, they have very sophisticated, advanced, scientific and technical programs, but those are small densely populated countries with significant parts of them inaccessible for a repository. So they really don’t, the places where you could build a repository, usually have people, lots of people around them. So they have a big siting issue and we talked about that. The Australians don’t have commercial nuclear power, but they do have waste, intermediate level waste that they have to dispose of. And they’re looking at a technique, and this is something that should be of interest to Deep Isolation. They are looking at the boreholes, which is an alternative to a repository for disposing of waste. And so the Australians are beginning a pretty serious focused effort on looking for both the technique and the place to dispose of their low and immediate level waste. So I would say it’ll be very interesting to see how that program unfolds over the coming next years. The Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, for example, I think are still early in the siting part of this like we are at this point after all of this work and the Chinese just announced that they’re working on an underground research lab in the Gobi desert. So they’re beginning to get involved with this problem as well. And it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

Kari Hulac (41:36):

Great. Well, it sounds like you have a really fascinating job. I can see why you’ve done it all these years. It must never get old. Thank you for joining us today.

Tom Isaacs (41:48):

It’s been a pleasure. I’ve enjoyed it. And if I were to leave one comment, I would say that the program needs continual infusion of new blood. And if there are people out there watching this who find this problem interesting, I think it’s a marvelous, frustrating, but marvelous job to bring together all elements of both society and you as an individual in order to be successful, I would encourage you to do that.

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Episode 14


Talia Martin

Tribal/DOE Program Director of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Tribal Department of Energy

How Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in Idaho Navigates Nuclear Waste Issues

In this episode, Talia Martin explains the role she holds as a Tribal/DOE Program Director and the past and current relationship between the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and the U.S Department of Energy from a nuclear waste lens.

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

Talia Martin (0:10): 

What’s another interesting part of this is that private federal partnership where you had advanced reactors and a cooperative agreement between DOE and that private company. So where do the tribes fit in has always been a question that is not entirely been answered by DOE nor by the company. 

Narrator (0:37): 

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

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

Kari Hulac (01:58):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation’s Communications Manager. Today I’m talking with Talia Martin, Director of the Tribal Department of Energy for the Shoshone Bannock tribes located on the Fort Hall reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho near the Idaho National Laboratory. The Tribal Department of Energy’s mission is to monitor DOE activities to ensure they are protective of the tribe’s natural, cultural, and human health. The Tribal Department of Energy promotes the responsible management of tribal energy resources in a manner that is self-sustainable, economically feasible, as well as biologically and culturally sensitive for the Shoshone Bannock tribes. Welcome, Talia. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Talia Martin (02:44):

Thank you. It’s good to be here. And when I say here, I mean, virtually since I’m still in Fort Hall.

Kari Hulac (02:50):

That’s all right, are you up in Fort Hall right now? 

Talia Martin (02:53):

Yes, I’m actually at our Tribal DOE offices amongst the tribal business buildings.

Kari Hulac (03:00):

Great. Great. All right, well, let’s just get started here. Just first of all tell me about yourself and how you became interested in nuclear issues through the work that you do with the tribe.

Talia Martin (03:12):

Sure. Well, currently I’m the Tribal DOE Director for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and we operate as more of a liaison between the tribes and the Department of Energy, which is the office of Idaho operations is who we mainly work with. But before that, and so I’ve been here six years, but before that, I was as an environmental scientist. I’ve worked with tribes for about 10 to 11 years, and I worked for the Environmental Waste Management program for the tribes, which dealt with different types of environmental issues completely different than what I do here now, working with the DOE and nuclear energy issues. 

Kari Hulac (03:53):

Before we get more into the nuclear issues, I would love to hear some of the history of the reservation and the culture of the tribes to help our listeners better understand the community at large and feel free to describe challenges that their tribes have faced.

Talia Martin (04:08):

Sure. So you mentioned that we’re from Fort Hall, Idaho. So this is the Fort Hall Indian reservation. We’re in Southeastern Idaho. It’s somewhat of a desert compared to Northern Idaho where people like to just speak about. Nonetheless, we have about 6,000 tribal members here, a pretty thriving economy in this area with gaming, agriculture and we were established initially by the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868. And we adopted, the tribe adopted a constitution about 1934. So our governmental structure and all of that are different. Something that if you’re working with different tribes that’s probably one of the key things you should understand is the governmental structure for us. The governing body is the Fort Hall Business Council and is comprised of seven members. Well, six members and one chairman. We have elections every two years, the terms by every two years.

Talia Martin (05:09):

So that’s the leadership AKA my bosses. But you know, they’re elected representatives of the people, and as a tribal member as well, I need to be involved in that, those elections. So we own about 98%, the tribes owned by 98% of the tribal land. We also have contaminated environmental health issues that we deal with. 

So as far as the challenges with environmental issues that the Fort Hall reservation deals with, one of them being the Eastern Michaud Flats superfund site. That has to deal with phosphorus processing from some of the private industry. Additionally, we have the game mine where they mine phosphate ore since, oh gosh, I think the forties, and maybe even before that. And the game mine site is actually within the boundaries of the reservation and that’s actually on the national priorities list. But that’s about the south to us. But when you go to the north of us and our ancestral lands, you have the Idaho National Laboratory and Department of Energy reservation, and that’s about 50 miles, a little less than 50 miles north of our boundary. 

Kari Hulac (06:24):

Yes, I’ve definitely wanted to ask about the relationship with the Lab. So this is a great segue here, you know, what is your relationship with the Lab and how do you feel – has it been responsive to tribal input and concerns? What are some of the issues that you deal with being in that location?

Talia Martin (06:43):

Right. You know, I think it’s best to understand some of the history between the tribes and DOE, the Labs. So when I say the tribes, I mean the Shoshone-Bannock tribes. The Idaho National Laboratory sits on ancestral lands and so I mentioned earlier that the tribe is actually composed of two tribes: Shoshone and Bannock, and we’re descendants of both tribes put on one reservation. But the ancestral lands, there’s evidence that our ancestors had used it as a transportation quarter, has also used it in other ways, you know, whether it’s ceremonial. They inhabited those areas at different times of the season. So it has ancestral value, significant ancestral value to the tribes. Of course now we’re one tribe, Shoshone-Bannock tribe, so not a lot of people know that, but some of the culturally significant sites that are on there are ceremonial. 

Talia Martin (07:54):

Some are to do with the landscape there, like the view, the caves, there’s a lot of volcanic activity in that area. So there are some caves that were in use by some of our ancestors. There’s also hunting and gathering areas that the tribes had been able to use prior to the INL placing their site there. So there’s quite a bit of use that the tribes had used it for prior. And so we have inherent rights to the ancestral lands where INL sits. So I’m kind of fast-forwarding to the future here around 1992 or close to the nineties and a little prior before that the tribes said have seen shipments coming on the interstate, which the interstate goes right through the reservation. And a lot of these shipments had to do with spent nuclear fuel, transuranic.

Talia Martin (08:57):

There’s also a railroad that goes through our reservation, and those are actually transuranic shipments from the Department of Defense from nuclear waste or spent fuel from submarines that use nuclear reactors. So a lot of that was being shipped through our reservation to the INL site, without any type of agreement, input, any type of tribal involvement during that time because the tribes are a sovereign nation, self-governing. There was a responsibility for the Department of Energy as well as DOD to confirm and work with the tribes because they’re going directly through the tribal lands, but also due to ancestral lands that they committed and obligated to be protective of. So that 1992 tribe had put a Fort Hall police department, they parked a vehicle there on the railroad and block transuranic shipments, which forced DOD and DOE to work with the tribes and come to some type of agreement.

Talia Martin (10:09):

And out of that came a working agreement around 1982 and there was a series of agreements from there that just, you know, continued to renew. They provided funding so that the tribes could work with DOE and DOE could provide personnel to make sure that they’re monitoring any DOD activities. Hence, this is where tribal DOE came out of. And the main objective was to monitor cultural resources that were on the INL site, environmental resources, natural and cultural. So we’ve had a working agreement for over 25 years with DOE and they’ve helped the tribes to manage and to be involved, you know with DOE in anything they might be doing as far as cultural resources management, environment management. But the primary focus of the tribe’s work with the DOE is on making sure they’re protecting the Snake River Plain aquifer, which is, you know, the sole source aquifer in this region. One downside to that is the tribes don’t have any regulatory oversight like the state does. Idaho Department of Environmental Quality – they regulate environmental regulations, and we’re able to work with IDEQ and DOE to make sure that the information that they’re collecting and providing is true and kind of give us assurances and confirmation that we’re receiving information, the right information. 

Kari Hulac (11:49):

So you touched on transportation being a large issue, obviously, that sounded like a struggle that you overcame. Are there other nuclear waste issues that you’re working on, or would you say transportation is the main piece that you have to monitor and work with?

Talia Martin (12:08):

Yeah, I would say that transportation is one of the major issues, you know, shipments going to WIPP, spent nuclear fuel shipments coming to INL for research. But also we do a lot of environment monitoring specifically in this office. And we have technicians that work with USGS to provide groundwater monitoring or staff to work with USGS to provide groundwater monitoring. We also have technicians that will work with cultural resources when they’re on the site, they do a lot of cultural resource survey if there’s land that will be disturbed by any type of construction or cleanup activities. We have cultural resources staff from the tribes that will work with Battelle Energy Alliance with contractors from INL that actually operate the INL site. They’ll work with them doing surveying and making sure there aren’t artifacts or anything that is relevant to the tribes, that they’re protected. And they follow the cultural resources management procedure that is in alignment with what the tribes have put input into.

Kari Hulac (13:24):

So would you say overall that you’ve seen progress? Do you feel optimistic for that relationship?

Talia Martin (13:31):

You know, gosh, I honestly, I’m relatively new for six years, but we do see some cycling of the same patterns and work. The tribes are always enforcing and trying to maintain consultation between DOE and the tribes and, you know, with DOE’s some internal rehab where we’re re-educating some of the staff to ensure that they are updating and getting input from our Fort Hall Business Council and, you know, our governing body. But we really rely on the trust responsibility of the Department of Energy and make sure that the consultation is meaningful and timely. And sometimes we’re not always seeing it, except when it has to do with the regulatory drivers, such as NEPA, which is the National Environmental Protection Act. When there’s public commenting going on, there’s usually, they’re very good at maintaining that checklist. Making sure that they’re following the schedule and getting the input as far as concerns being addressed.

Talia Martin (14:40):

I think it really depends on case by case, especially if there’s a regulatory driver, then the state is very much involved in and they’ll take our concerns. You know, it’s kind of, it’s an interesting place we would find ourselves in when, you know, they take our concern and information, and it’s well-documented. And it’s not always the type of consultation that we expect. We, again, want it to be a meaningful two-way dialogue, then addressing concerns. And sometimes you get that, sometimes you don’t, and we’ve seen some progress and sometimes we do take a couple steps backwards. But that working agreement has done pretty good as far as making sure there’s communication. Can there be improvement? Absolutely. You know, on both sides and no matter who we’re talking about, whether it’s our tribal staff and making sure we’re maintaining the presence on the site. The DOE, making sure that their tribal liaisons are informing and updating, and notifying our governing body to make sure they’re addressing those concerns. So we’re always enforcing consultation and I really do see some improvement and need for improvement as well. 

Kari Hulac (16:06):

So the nuclear waste disposal situation is at an impasse right now in the US as you well know Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The situation there, do you have thoughts about the primary reasons for this? Is there a vision that you’d like to see happen for moving past that and finding a solution?

Talia Martin (16:27):

This is an interesting question because you can get the typical response about the political issues that the geological repository has brought up, the legal challenges, the licensing activities, and from tribal perspective, you know, you see some social barriers from the communities themselves. And so what’s interesting is in 2015, when I first came on consent-based siting was a major approach they were using, and considering at least to help drive an approval for a geological repository. It went away with the next administration, and then when we went full circle to consent-based siting again, and it’s worked for some areas like you know, up in Canada, I think there are some areas where it’s actually worse even with the indigenous population. But there’s still questions. You know, this is a great approach, but there’s still questions from the Indian tribes that are actually affected by the location of the proposed geological repositories.

Talia Martin (17:40):

Another interesting part of this is we’re still generating nuclear waste. Commercial reactors are still operating. And to this day on the Idaho National Laboratory site, we have siting nuclear reactors for the advanced reactor mission. And we, one of our major concerns is the fact that the nuclear waste or the spent fuel that will be generated has no place to go, no home. You know, once after the cooling process of course, it goes into wet storage and has to be stored somewhere else, or I guess you call it disposal of the waste. So right now we’re seeing interim storage, which was something that was predicted decades ago by many, many proponents and opponents of the nuclear waste issue. So we’re seeing interim storage at the sites of the reactor sites and from the advanced reactors we’re hearing of – there’s definitely a huge push for interim storage at other areas where there are tribes within those places.

Talia Martin (19:02):

You’re still gonna have to have that engagement with these tribes in some way. What’s another interesting part of this is that private federal partnership where you had advanced reactors and a cooperative agreement between DOE and that private company. So where do the tribes fit in? It has always been a question that is not entirely been answered by DOE nor by the company. And we’re starting to see some of their licensee applications go through where we don’t consider that they’ve done a thorough job of cultural resource and environmental impacts that can occur. And so we’ve had a late tribal input. So we’re still open to this discussion and we’d like to be, all tribes would like to be engaged upon if we see any type of federal actions or activities that could impact tribal interests.

Kari Hulac (20:13):

And I know this is a huge challenge for many Native American reservations across the US. Those lands are often near these types of sites or are often targeted for disposal. We do feel if the consent-based siting process is properly followed that, you know, are tribes that you’re aware of open to hosting disposal or storage sites? 

Talia Martin (20:42):

Some of our tribal working groups, you know, we play around with that same question and challenge if their tribes open to this. And, you know, we have different representatives on these working groups because there’s so many viewpoints that are valid, you know, in their area of interest and their locations and that the DOE sites they work with. So like generally speaking tribes have been involved in this discussion and nobody has closed their doors to being involved at least in the discussion of consent-based siting process, because that process is still up in the air on how that is going to involve Indian tribes and we’re still asking that question. There has been some history as far as tribes were involved in the monitoring, retrieval, storage, but there was some pushback from the state itself. So, you know, if you reverse that and state is actually the ones that consent to it, you know, where are Indian tribes? Were they allowed to voice their opinion and have their concerns addressed adequately is a question. So are we open to these questions, to the process? We have been in the past. So I think it’s really up in the air. You know, it’s kind of open-ended right now.

Kari Hulac (22:15):

How have you approached your role in a way that’s helped you be successful interacting with such a wide group of stakeholders? 

Talia Martin (22:23):

One of the biggest strengths I think in working with federal agencies and state and the tribes is being able to be involved in relationship building as well as maintaining communication is vital. And again, we talk about two way dialogue and enforcing it and sometimes the tribes, they feel that they’re being spoken to rather than listening as well. And so at this level, we really have to work at the staff and technical level. We really have to work on our communication skills to make sure that everybody is heard in the room and our tribes issues and concerns are addressed as well. 

Kari Hulac (23:04):

Anything I didn’t ask so far that you’d like our listeners to take away from our conversation?

Talia Martin (23:10):

You know, you did kind of allude to it. We talked a little bit about STGWG and I’m not doing any type of shameless plug, but I, you know, this group is it’s been around a long time and they’ve had a lot of great accomplishments and instrumental in working with the Office of Legacy Management, in helping to advocate for the formation of the long-term stewardship working group. And that’s because one of their two priorities is long-term stewardship of the cleanup sites. Once the work is done, clean-up has occurred, remediation, these sites will go into long-term monitoring to ensure that they remain protected. One thing you might hear from tribes is the reservation, the people, they’re not going anywhere, we’re connected to the land, and even after the DOE leaves and the other federal agencies that might’ve been there and they leave, we’re going to continue to be there.

Kari Hulac (24:12):

I think touching back, just to kind of follow up on a question I asked earlier I mean, does the tribes that you work with have a wish for what happens to the waste, or you don’t take an opinion on that at this point, or, you know, you’re just kind of managing the tribal interests, like for example, the transportation going through, You have kind of a perfect world, like a wish you’d like for a final resolution? 

Talia Martin (24:44):

Right. Well, at the Idaho National Laboratory, there are two different offices there, which is NE, Nuclear Energy, and then Environmental Management, and the tribes understand that they’re always going to have a research mission there, and that’s important to them. And sometimes we will have shipments that go through the reservation that have to do with nuclear materials or spent fuel that they’re researching on. We’ve had, we like to stay involved in those conversations, you know, because it continues to go through the reservation on transportation corridor. As far as the cleanup mission goes, the state of Idaho, the tribes, we’ve all agreed on one thing: that you don’t want there to be perpetual waste up here is something you hear often. And so ideally we would like the waste, the by-products and materials from the waste to be shipped out. You know, there’s a lot of other types of waste that have come from other sites like Rocky Flats, Three Mile Island that are being stored here. And so we continuously say we want that out. And that would, of course, be the ideal world.

Kari Hulac (26:05):

And when you say out, do you have a destination in mind?

Talia Martin (26:10):

We don’t have to have a destination. You know, we don’t wish upon waste to be involuntarily put on someone else, but we definitely don’t want it on our ancestral lands, on our tribal lands. I mean, this is part of our preservation of our culture and in our practices or traditions. So we’re constantly working hard, our cultural resources staff work very hard to protect those resources, whether it’s as special as on INL site or in sister lands, you know, in Montana and Colorado area where we’re constantly working to protect and preserve our culture. 

Kari Hulac (26:54):

Thank you. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Talia, really appreciate it.

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Episode 13


Kent Cole

CEO of NAC International

NAC’s Role in Nuclear Waste Disposal

In this episode, Kent Cole reflects on his career in nuclear, how NAC came to be a leader in nuclear waste storage, and how vital nuclear waste disposal is to the industry's success.

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

Kent Cole (0:10):

Safety is always top of mind in the nuclear industry, and we work really hard to embed essential traits like compliance and a questioning attitude into NAC’s culture.

Narrator (0:26): 

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

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

Elizabeth Muller (01:48):

Well, hello, Kent. It’s really great to have you here today. My name is Elizabeth Muller. I’m the CEO of Deep Isolation and Kent Cole is the CEO and President of NAC International. I should also add that Kent and NAC were the lead investor in Deep Isolation’s Series A last year in 2020. So we’re really happy to have you here today Kent.

Kent Cole (02:12):

Thanks, Liz. It’s really great to be with you today.

Elizabeth Muller (02:16):

And maybe you could just start by giving us a little bit information on your background. How did you get interested in nuclear and how did you end up as CEO of NAC International?

Kent Cole (02:26):

Well first I studied nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University, and I actually began working on co-op assignments at the South Texas Project in the spring of my sophomore year. And that experience and advice from some engineers that I worked with there led me to change my major to get into mechanical engineering, but after graduating from A&M the nuclear industry came calling and I joined General Electric’s nuclear energy business. And I worked there for 16 years in a variety of engineering, project management and business management assignments. And the key to me in each of the assignments was to dive in and learn as much as I could. Try to exceed the expectations of my managers and my coworkers, and then build on those experiences as I moved to my next assignment. Joining NAC in 2003 presented me with some new learnings. First, it was focused on the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle. I got to dive into storage, transportation, and disposal, parts of the business that I was not involved in at General Electric. And it also put me in a small company environment, which was also refreshing and challenging as well. And I eventually became CEO in 2006.

Elizabeth Muller (03:58):

Thank you for that Kent. NAC is really known as a leader in nuclear waste storage and transportation and consulting services. What are the biggest issues that you think are top of mind for the nuclear industry and for NAC international today?

Kent Cole (04:17):

Safety is always top of mind in the nuclear industry, and we work really hard to embed essential traits like compliance and a questioning attitude into NACs culture. I think another is really focusing on integrating the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Right now in many countries, including the US, there’s not a comprehensive plan or program to integrate the nearer-term needs for safe, secure spent fuel storage with the longer-term needs for safe, secure disposal. There are clear opportunities for a more efficient system solution. However, in the US the DOE is responsible for disposal but is hamstrung by politics. Nuclear power plant owners are responsible for near and interim-term storage and are doing so safely, but without definition of the disposal system and package requirements. So they are optimizing for the near-term and immediate-term needs. There’s a real opportunity here.

Elizabeth Muller (05:37):

So what do you think is needed? What would be helpful with that? What could help with nuclear waste disposal issues?

Kent Cole (05:48):

Yeah, well, I think disposal is absolutely vital to the industry and our obligation to the next generation is to be good stewards of the environment and to be responsible for the safe disposal of the waste that we generate. If that’s your perspective, and it should be, then waste disposal solutions are essential to new nuclear power initiatives, including new small modular reactors. Sure. There are some technical challenges for disposal, but the solutions are there. The key is to flip the political imperative from avoidance or kicking the can down the road to addressing the issues with a determined commitment. Some have advocated for moving the responsibility outside of the federal government to private industry or a fed corp, and these structural fixes need action.

Elizabeth Muller (06:52):

Hmm. That’s a powerful statement you just made Kent about what’s needed for nuclear waste disposal. I’d love to just go into the safety issue a little bit more. You touched on the safety culture and how important that is for the work you do. How do you develop that safety culture and how do you convey it to the public who is concerned about safety?

Kent Cole (07:20):

First, I think the public should understand that the nuclear industry is highly regulated by a very rigorous and independent regulator. They’re just plain tough. Second, the regulations are demanding. They require proving that our designs will work under very extreme and even hypothetical accident conditions. Third, all of our designs and all of their supporting evaluations and analysis are subject to detailed review by the regulator. And fourth, the regulators frequently inspect our work at our premises and our adherence to the regulations and to our own operating procedures. Finally, with a focus at NAC, we train our team on the regulations and procedures and we promote and enforce rigorous compliance. We foster a questioning attitude and we promote everyone’s right to raise concerns.

Elizabeth Muller (08:26):

For our audience members. NAC is working with us, with Deep Isolation on the supply of canisters for our disposal solutions. Can you tell our audience a bit about why that is so important?

Kent Cole (08:40):

The disposal canisters are really the most central element of the disposal solution. They contain the waste and isolate it from the environment. They will be loaded above ground, either in a hot cell or a pool, and they may need to be stored and, or transported prior to disposal. So they’re vital, they’re touched in all elements of the operation. We have the necessary processes, background technology, technical resources, and innovative spirit to help the isolation advance its deep wormhole disposal solutions. 

Elizabeth Muller (09:23):

Yeah, thank you. That innovative spirit, I think, is so important when we’re trying to do something that nobody has ever successfully done before. What do you see as the biggest challenge regarding the canister design and manufacturing development?

Kent Cole (09:39):

The biggest learnings for us actually have been getting up to speed on the remarkable advancements in directional drilling technology that now make Deep Isolation’s innovative solution a reality. The process we follow to design a canister for disposal is pretty similar to the one we use to design a canister for storage and transportation. Once we define the requirements of what the canister has to do and how it has to perform, our skill design and engineering teams will use their experience and expertise to create a design that meets those requirements. What is new in this case is the technology that will be used to deliver the canister to its destination. Instead of a crane or a heavy haul vehicle traveling a hundred yards, we now have an advanced tooling system placing the canister up to one mile underground. It’s been a really interesting experience for our team learning about new equipment that we will interface with.

Elizabeth Muller (10:51):

And what do you think is the future of nuclear waste disposal?

Kent Cole (10:54):

It looks to me a little bit like this, and this is kind of more of a vision of how I want to see it, but I think I’m looking for clear and applicable regulatory requirements and frameworks. You know, well Liz, is that we’re dealing with a lot of legacy requirements that in some cases don’t make a lot of sense, for instance, a a drill hole or a borehole solution. I’m looking for a single entity in each country that has the responsibility and is driving an efficient and integrated management system. That’s well-funded and free of political meddling. I’m looking for local communities that support the facilities and consented in hosting them that trust and communicate frequently with the operators or sponsors. And most of all, I’m looking forward to actually moving forward and accomplishing the mission of safe and secure disposal. Deep isolation is I believe a very, very significant part of that future.

Elizabeth Muller (12:09):

So do you think the nuclear industry is where it should be when it comes to innovating new solutions for disposing of nuclear waste? And where would you like to see the industry 5, 10, 20 years from now?

Kent Cole (12:25):

Innovation is essential. In business, if you don’t innovate, you will lose your customers and lose your business. There are unique challenges with managing innovation, of course, particularly in the nuclear industry. First, decision-makers, in general, are really conservative. Many of them view change as risk. And so innovations must be very well demonstrated and proven. Second, it takes a significant amount of time and expense to get innovations reviewed and approved by skeptical regulators. So there can be a significant lag in time from the the concept of the innovation to implementation. As noted earlier, there needs to be integration between nearer term storage and longer term disposal solutions. To get started, one needs to begin with the end in mind and specify and design a robust disposal package that can be integrated efficiently into nearer-term storage and transportation solutions. To do this, modern regulations for disposal that are inclusive of a broad range of solutions is a near-term imperative. We recognize the benefits of disposal at such depth that assure isolation of the waste over the very significant time horizons when they can be a threat and the associated beneficial reduction in performance requirements that this enables for engineered safety features. We also love that the drilling and in placement techniques are well-proven and have been successfully practiced daily around the world. 

Elizabeth Muller (14:25):

I will just say thank you so much for participating in this podcast. And where can listeners go for more information?

Kent Cole (14:32):

We can always go to our website 

Elizabeth Muller (14:40):

All right, well, thank you so much. It was a pleasure having you.

Kent Cole (14:43):

Thank you Liz. 

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Episode 12


Melanie Snyder

Nuclear Waste Program Manager of the Western Interstate Energy Board

Keeping Nuclear Waste Transportation Safe

In this episode, Melanie Snyder breaks down the complexities of nuclear waste transportation in the United States and offers some insights on improving stakeholders trust regarding transportation.

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

Melanie Snyder (0:10):

The concern that really comes up most often is just about the safety of it. And I feel like there’s a disconnect between the people who are concerned about safety and scientists and the federal government who typically move these things. And there’s just not always a very good dialogue between these different groups. And I think that’s where the concerns arise.

Narrator (0:38): 

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

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

Kari Hulac (01:59):

Hello. I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation’s Communication Manager. Today, I’m talking to Melanie Snyder, Program Manager for Nuclear Waste Transportation and Disposition for WIEB, the Western Interstate Energy Board. The board’s radioactive waste committee works with the US Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and others to develop a safe and publicly acceptable system for transporting spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste under Section 180c of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Welcome, Melanie. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Melanie Snyder (02:46):

Hi Kari. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Kari Hulac (02:40):

So let’s start out with a very basic question because I’m guessing that most people don’t know how nuclear waste is transported. Could you walk us through the basics of the process such as common transportation modes, safety precautions, and perhaps you could give an example of how a typical shipment would get to its final destination?

Melanie Snyder (03:00):

Sure. I’m happy to do that. So when you’re thinking about transporting anything, you want to start with some really basic considerations. So what are the physical characteristics of what it is you’re going to be transporting? Where is it located and where do you want it to go? And that’s the same for nuclear waste as it is for anything. Nuclear waste of course has some unique physical characteristics in that it is highly radioactive. So that’s one of the characteristics that you need to take into account when you’re thinking about what you’re going to move. As far as the transportation modes, it really can move, you know, by plane, by a barge by rail or by truck. Those last two by truck and by rail are the most common way of moving them, but you could move it really any way that could be done safely.

Melanie Snyder (03:53):

And like I said, the location is going to be really, really important when you’re thinking about what mode you’re going to want to use. But again, we have to return to the physical characteristics. There’s a couple of different types of nuclear waste that will be moved or that are being moved. There’s spent nuclear fuel, there’s what’s called transuranic waste and there’s, what’s referred to as high-level radioactive waste or maybe tank waste kind of, depending on which definitional framework you are operating in at the time. So when you’re talking about spent nuclear fuel, the physical characteristics of it are that it is very long, sometimes 12 feet long, and it’s heavy because it has to be shielded. So when you’re thinking about transporting it, most of the time, people think that they’re going to move it by rail because the size of it creates difficulties.

Melanie Snyder (04:51):

When you are thinking about moving it by truck, if you think about trying to go around tight corners and things like that, the rail environment allows you a lot more flexibility to be able to move those kinds of packages. When you’re talking about transuranic waste, that’s a special designation that really only exists regulatorily in the United States. Transuranic just refers to elements on the periodic table that are higher than uranium, but in the United States, that’s a special designation that was created to refer to a specific kind of defense waste. So there’s a regulatory definition about, you know, how many curies you can have in that. And the waste tends to be a lot of just contaminated equipment that was used, you know, in the nation’s nuclear weapons programs. So, you know, gowns and gloves and things like that. So when you’re thinking about that kind of stuff it’s not huge, you know, you’re not as concerned about the size of it and going around corners and things like that.

Melanie Snyder (05:52):

So what they typically do is package it in a drum and move it by truck. So that is the typical mode for something like that. You’re talking about high-level radioactive waste or tank waste that is a whole other beast entirely. And what you, or what the Department of Energy and what scientists have considered needs to be done for that is a lot more processing to make it safe for transport and disposal. So depending on which tank waste you’re talking about, you’ll probably have to vitrify it, which means turn it into a glass, but then it would probably still go in a similar type drum, like what we were talking about for the transuranic waste and it would probably still move by truck. And you’re talking about the difference between rail and truck transport. Obviously, the physical characteristics are a really key part of that, but you also have to think about what you can do as far as routing and where the waste is located. So if you want to move something by rail, you know, you need to have rail infrastructure available. So is that going to be feasible? What, what kind of infrastructure improvements might you have to think about if you really do want to move it by rail. Trucks afford you more flexibility because there’s a lot more roads than there are railroads. So that might also play into consideration. 

Kari Hulac (07:17):

So let’s say today I have a shipment of spent nuclear fuel that needs to go somewhere, you know, is that a process where there are a million steps, it seems like it would be a bit complicated. Maybe just kind of give a little color about, you know, the process that has to happen for that to be successful.

Melanie Snyder (07:36):

So think about spent nuclear fuel. Obviously, it’s highly radioactive and you’re not really going to want to get close to it. So there’s logistical considerations that get played into when you’re thinking about how you’re going to transport it. So it’s not as if you can get in there and touch it or get close to it. So you do need to have remote operating procedures for packaging. So that’s a key thing in transportation is the package. You have to put the waste into something else in order to transport it. And the packages are not only to protect from radioactivity, it’s also to protect the stuff inside from the vigors of transportation, I guess you would call it. So it is complicated. You have to take the spent nuclear fuel from where it is and put it into a transportation overpack, and then get that overpack onto the rail car.

Melanie Snyder (08:40):

So we’re just going to be talking about rail here since that’s typically what we’ll be using for the spent nuclear fuel. And then that those are the physical considerations that go into the moving of the spent nuclear fuel. You are also probably going to have inspections. So you need to coordinate with whatever entities are going to be doing those inspections. There’s going to be security involved. So you have to have security accompany you along the route, and, and you’re going to have to know where it’s going. So you’re going to have to have a route that’s been planned out. So there’s a high level of coordination and planning that has to go into it, even aside from just the straight physical considerations of transport.

Kari Hulac (09:25):

So I was reading that there have been more than 3000 spent nuclear fuel shipments in the U.S. and about 24,000 worldwide over several decades, how much spent fuel and other waste is currently being moved in the U.S., and to where and how is this expected to change if it is going to change in the coming years?

Melanie Snyder (09:47):

So as far as spent fuel, there’ve been some unique programs in the U.S. where spent fuel has moved. One, in particular, that’s been ongoing for at least since the fifties is the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. And the spent fuel that they move from the nation’s submarines and aircraft carriers, and that is a highly successful and highly regimented program that the Navy runs. And so I would say probably less than 20 shipments a year of spent fuel. And of course, it depends on when they have to refuel and what’s going on with the fleet and everything like that. And that fuel all moves to the Idaho National Laboratory under basically top-secret or whatever privacy designation those shipments operate under, but it still is a program that requires a high degree of coordination. The Navy works really well with stakeholders to make sure that people are, you know, prepared for those kinds of shipments.

Melanie Snyder (10:48):

So that’s, that’s one small example of a spent nuclear fuel transportation program that is ongoing, and that continues to this day. And there’ve been some small shipments of spent fuel depending on typically the Department of Energy has different programs. So sometimes they have to move fuel around depending on what reactors they are running and what facilities they have available to store that kind of spent fuel. Those are really sort of one-off shipments and they still require coordination and all the necessary security and everything like that. But it’s not a great example of large-scale transportation.

Melanie Snyder (11:27):

When you’re thinking about commercial spent nuclear fuel, that started the nation’s power plants of which there are about a hundred in the nation scattered all around. You think about bringing them all to one consolidated location, whether that be interim storage, whether that be deep geologic disposal, that’s a much larger scale transportation program than what has been conducted in this nation before. So when you ask about how that might change in the future, if such a facility were to become available, then it would be a much larger scale spent nuclear field transportation program that would be contemplated.

Kari Hulac (12:05):

Maybe talk a little bit more now about what the Western Energy Board Committee is working on right now, and maybe tie that into some of what we’ve been talking about. Some of the examples that you’ve been talking about.

Melanie Snyder (12:17):

Sure. So the Western Interstate Energy Board or WIEB High-Level Radioactive Waste Committee is a group of Western state representatives who have been engaged on this issue since the 1980s. So since the time of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which was really when the prospect of this large-scale spent nuclear fuel transportation program seemed imminent. And certainly, there were a lot of steps that needed to occur before transportation could occur such as actually building the repository. But when the state saw that this could occur at some point in the future, they saw a need to come together to engage with the Department of Energy and with other entities on this large-scale transportation program. So the High-Level Radioactive Waste Committee has been engaged since the 1980s on this, and it’s taken various forms as the program has shifted. When it seemed when the program was much more active, you know, they were directly engaging with DOE as far as offering comments on different plans and things like that. And that’s still something that we do to this day. It’s just at a reduced scale since the program really isn’t moving right now. So we still stay engaged with DOE you know, we’ve developed some policy papers to kind of consolidate our historical views about, you know, the best way to conduct this, this transportation.

Kari Hulac (13:50):

So now that, so we’re talking about Yucca Mountain, right? So now that, that is uncertain. Are you planning, is it interim storage that you like moving to interim storage or, you know, what are you, where are you seeing? Is it kind of all on hold right now? Or are you seeing transportation anywhere? Are you planning for transportation anywhere?

Melanie Snyder (14:13):

The interim storage situation is an interesting one. So, you know, for so long, the States and the tribes were really engaged with the Department of Energy. And it’s always been this expectation. The federal government is going to move it and like, those were all the relationships. And that was where all the focus was. And the interim storage prospects kind of challenges those established ideas and those established relationships, because they are looking at moving it without the federal government’s participation, which really does change the environment a little bit. And there’s still expectations that the States have, or the Western States have for being involved in the transportation planning, but there’s not the same environment where the private entities feel like they have a responsibility to engage with the Western States. So, you know, the High-Level Radioactive Waste Committee has invited some of the representatives from the companies that are looking to open these interim storage facilities to our meetings.

Melanie Snyder (15:19):

You know, there’s some, some relationship building there and some information sharing, but as far as the connections and the historical engagement, it’s really not there. So certainly it’s still very important to the Western States. I mean, it’s still the same transportation and it’s still the same stakeholders. It’s still the same people who would be affected. So our interest has not diminished at all, but the environment is a lot different and the expectations are different. And it’s sometimes challenging to handle that kind of pivot, especially when you get the impression from the private entities that they may not be as interested as engaging. That they will meet the regulatory requirements. And that, that is, the metes and bounds of what they feel like they need to do as far as the transportation planning is concerned.

Kari Hulac (16:15):

Right. That, and that kind of raises one of my questions. You know, there has never been a radiological release due to an accident, but the transportation of the materials, understandably, a very sensitive topic for many people. So what are some concerns you hear from the public and how does your organization work with communities that are on transportation routes to make sure everyone feels prepared and trained and safe?

Melanie Snyder (16:45):

Concern that really comes up most often is just about the safety of it. And I feel like there’s a disconnect between the people who are concerned about safety and scientists and the federal government who does typically move these things. And there’s just not always a very good dialogue between these different groups. And I think that’s where the concerns arise. And certainly, you know, radioactivity is this unique thing that you can’t see. And even if scientists feel it’s very well understood, I think it is pretty well understood at this point. And it behaves in pretty predictable ways. It still is frightening to think about these materials moving through your communities when you don’t have a good sense of, well, when you actually, when you don’t trust, when you don’t trust the scientists and when you don’t trust the federal government, and there’s a legacy of national security interests covering up, or keeping secret a lot of the details of the nuclear weapons programs and things like that.

Melanie Snyder (18:00):

There’s things like Rocky Flats that have bred distrust. So certainly between the public and the federal government, when you’re talking about issues surrounding nuclear power, there’s a lack of trust there that merely understanding how radiation works is not going to breach. There needs to be relationship building. And I think the federal government has gotten a lot better at it over the years. They still sometimes operate under the auspices of national security and, you know, sometimes that’s justified and to do that. But it certainly doesn’t build trust. And then when you’re thinking about people’s relationship with science, there’s a different kind of disconnect there where scientists can sometimes be dismissive of the concerns of people that they don’t think are as well informed as they are. 

Melanie Snyder (18:50):

So the message that the industry tends to share is that we can do it safely, we have done it safely, shut up. And that’s not effective. It’s just not effective. And I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. People’s fears are justified, nuclear things can be destructive. And so we just have to continue to engage with people and continue to keep those open dialogues open and be as open and transparent as possible to help allay those fears. As far as how we work with stakeholders, we work with state representatives who are often in their public health agencies or in transportation. And these are the people who are connected to their constituents. Something that we often hear in our transportation meetings is that the most trusted public official is the fire chief. And if you have talked with the fire chief, he knows where the shipments are coming from, he knows how safe they are, he knows his people are trained, he can relay that information to everyone in his community, and they’re much less likely to be afraid of what’s going on because they feel like someone they trust trusts these shipments. And so our engagement really hopefully trickles down all the way to that level.

Kari Hulac (20:10):

That’s so interesting. I, you know, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is I’ve heard that it can take years to plan the routes and train emergency responders. So I mean, maybe explain a little bit about that process. Might make people at least understand how they could feel safer, even though it is like you say, legitimately scary for people in those communities because also it’s tricky. I know I’m understanding. I think you said earlier, it’s, it’s, there’s a security issue. So the routes are not public for good reason, correct.

Melanie Snyder (20:43):

Well, it depends on what routes you’re talking about. And so it is considered security sensitive information when you’re moving, spent nuclear fuel. The funny thing about that is there’s not that many routes that are available when you are looking at the rail environment. So it’s sort of an open secret in some ways, but yes, and not, there are designated individuals who are privy to that route information and not everyone gets to know. As far as preparing people along the routes, there is a lot that goes into that. There are radiological trainings. So, you know, teaching people along the routes, how to detect radiation and how to deal with it which requires equipment. And if you want to be training someone effectively, you should probably be using the same equipment. So there needs to be coordination as far as what the equipment you’re using.

Melanie Snyder (21:35):

There’s often training exercises that takes people through the motions of what this response would look like. So they feel like they are prepared to do this and there’s turnover. So you have to keep doing these things over and over again. You can’t just, you know, check the box that says they’re prepared because we went out there two years ago and showed, you know, a subset of the responders, how to use this equipment and how to respond to a radiological emergency people, move and things change. So you have to consistently keep up with the program. And that’s something that I hear from my state representatives quite a bit is the difficulties of keeping people trained because of the turnover and the scheduling and all the pieces that go into that. So not only do you have to keep it up, but you have to look all along the route to make sure that you are prepared everywhere, and that’s going to be easier in some areas than others. I mean, there’s challenges when you are moving through population centers, but when you are moving through population centers, you’re much more likely to have people be trained for other reasons. When you are in the more rural areas, you know, further out West, quite frankly, where populations are spread out, you’re going to be more challenged to be working with smaller departments and things like that who probably don’t have access to the same equipment. And don’t, haven’t had the same kinds of opportunities for training.

Kari Hulac (22:58):

Well, I was thinking about asking the question about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which I would imagine is more rural. And I imagine that’s in your 11 state territory, is that correct? 

Melanie Snyder (23:10):

It is indeed. 

Kari Hulac (23:11):

Yeah. So maybe explain some of the issues that have come up for that plant. For those who don’t know, it’s a mined repository that takes certain types of defense waste.

Melanie Snyder (23:21):

That transuranic waste that I was talking about earlier. That’s where that goes. Yes. Yeah. And those issues that I was just discussing, I was honestly drawing on the WIPP example because WEIB actually just assumed management of the WIPP Transportation Technical Advisory Group. So I have been so much more engaged in working with that group. And it really has opened my eyes to some of these strategic and operational difficulties. And it just requires that you stay on top of things. But certainly, like I said, keeping people trained along the routes is a, is a constant challenge for the States finding funding for supporting those activities. You know, and it’s not just the emergency responders that need to be trained. Medical personnel at hospitals also need to be trained so that there’s a continuity of care. If there is an incident where people can, you know, receive care at the site and then be transported to a hospital and still receive the requisite care and, you know, radiological issues are unique. So the, all the staff needs to be apprised of the unique characteristics of that and, and trained on the equipment as well. So there’s a high degree of coordination and planning that needs to go into all of this. And certainly the WIPP example is a wonderful example of just how much needs to go into this planning.

Kari Hulac (24:50):

And now you’ve worked with, I mentioned a couple of times you’ve worked with a lot of different States in the U.S. do you have ever have challenges in getting them to agree? And what have you learned about working with such a diverse group of stakeholders?

Melanie Snyder (25:03):

I feel very fortunate that the state representatives that I work with tend to agree about what the requisite pieces of a successful transportation program are. And a lot of times their experience with the WIPP transportation program will lead them to the same kind of conclusions for spent nuclear fuel transportation programs. So, the WIPP transportation program really was supposed to be, I mean, obviously its own entity, but also a model for how a spent nuclear fuel transportation program would operate. So a lot of the state representatives that I work with because they are so closely involved in the WIPP transportation program, really just take those precepts and put it into our policy papers and our policy considerations for spent nuclear fuel.

Melanie Snyder (25:57):

And a benefit of working with state representatives and people who are sort of a step below elected officials is that they don’t usually have to bring the political aspects into it. That will change depending on what it is we’re talking about, but it’s also advantageous to only focus on transportation. If we decided that we wanted to try and get involved in the siting space of where a repository would be, that would be a much more complex issue that would probably lead to disagreements between the States, because they have different ideas about what they would like to get out of their States. And sometimes they’re targeted for disposal or storage. So that creates some conflicts there.

Kari Hulac (26:43):

That makes sense. What about the funding piece of how all this is pulled together? Does federal funding impact the work that you’re doing? Any concerns about that or how does that process work?

Melanie Snyder (26:59):

It absolutely does. So we have been fortunate at WEIB to receive funding from the Department of Energy to allow us to, you know, run the High Level Radioactive Waste Committee, but it hasn’t always been the case as I, I have heard that sometimes funding was not available. So activities really did have to ramp down. I think the federal government is pretty good about acknowledging the value of these kinds of stakeholder relations, especially when you’re talking about something as high profile as spent nuclear fuel, and when it provides them a bridge to the people who are most concerned. And certainly it’s not just the public. I mean, think about an elected official in state government who doesn’t engage on this issue and suddenly the profile of it is raised for whatever reason, who are they going to go to, to ask about the safety of these shipments and to, you know, relay information to their constituents and then take a position on it.

Melanie Snyder (27:57):

Hopefully they’re going to go to people who are in their state agencies, and hopefully those people are going to say, you know, I’ve been engaged on this issue for a certain amount of time. You know, I am comfortable with this program. I am familiar with it. So there’s value on both sides, as far as engaging with the public and engaging with elected officials for the Department of Energy to, and the federal government to maintain these, these stakeholder relationships is kind of what they refer to them as. There are strings attached, of course. So we were talking about interim storage because that’s not a Department of Energy program. We are not allowed to use their funding to engage on that issue if they were brought into that transportation program that would change. But as it stands, now we have to use another funding source to be able to support that kind of engagement and not every entity has access to that kind of funding. So WEIB fortunately does have a little bit of funding available to support those kinds of activities, but that is not always the case. And you do have to keep an eye on where your funding sources are coming from and what they are designed to allow you to do.

Kari Hulac (29:15):

Southern California Edison, a utility that’s decommissioning a nuclear power plant known as SONGS just released a strategic plan for relocating it spent nuclear fuel along with a transportation plan. So I imagine you’re know, I know this just came out. You took a quick look at it. Could you share your initial impressions? Does this report align with your process? Maybe just share a little bit about your initial thoughts about that.

Melanie Snyder (29:41):

I did look at the stakeholder engagement piece and the transportation plan, and then the general transportation recommendations contained in the shorter documents and no surprise that it looks like Southern California Edison has done a very thoughtful job about thinking about these issues. So the stakeholder engagement piece in the transportation plan acknowledged the success of the WIPP transportation stakeholder engagement process, and also talked about how the Navy has successfully engaged with stakeholders. So those are certainly model programs that a spent nuclear fuel stakeholder engagement process could be modeled after. So certainly appreciate that they have seen that and recognize the success of those programs. And I also appreciate the transportation readiness pieces. So making sure that onsite infrastructure is maintained or at least that that is a part of the decommissioning process that they’re thinking about how that future transportation will occur.

Melanie Snyder (30:44):

And honestly, one thing I really, really appreciate about Southern California Edison is their inspection program and how they are really ahead of the game, as far as the inspection and repair of their storage canisters, which will have an impact on the eventual transportation. So mostly right now, the activities are focused on extended storage, you know, making sure there’s no cracks and if there are cracks, they know where they are and they know how to repair them, but certainly for transportation, that’s going to be equally as important. And so I think that, that program will serve them very well in the future once they are considering transportation.

Kari Hulac (31:27):

Great. Thank you. So I know this is such a complex issue and I am sure we couldn’t cover it all in just the short podcast, but is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?

Melanie Snyder (31:41):

I guess what I would say is that spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste can certainly be transported safely. Just requires a high degree of coordination and planning. And if you put the time in, there’s no reason why you can not do it safely.

Kari Hulac (31:57):

Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you.

Melanie Snyder (32:00):

Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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