Co-Founder of the Good Energy Collective
Combating the Climate Crisis: Advanced Nuclear Energy Policy
In this episode, Jessica Lovering explains why she co-founded the Good Energy Collective and how she hopes it will impact advanced nuclear policy in the United States.
Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.
Jessica Lovering (0:11):
We’re not asking for anything special just for nuclear to be valued for the carbon free electricity that it provides the way that renewables are.
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.
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Kari Hulac (1:39):
Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation’s Communication Manager. Today I’m talking to one of the founders of Good Energy Collective. The Good Energy Collective is a policy research organization that says it’s building the progressive case for nuclear energy as an essential part of the broader climate change agenda. Jessica Lovering has a doctorate in engineering and public policy and has expertise in advanced nuclear technologies and nuclear innovation policy. Welcome Jessica. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Jessica Lovering (2:12):
Yeah. Wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kari Hulac (2:15):
Great. Great. So you recently co-founded the Good Energy Collective in August of 2020, so fairly recently. What led you to create a nuclear policy organization?
Jessica Lovering (2:27):
We were really motivated by this movement we were seeing around big climate legislation, particularly things like the Green New Deal, and that they were coming from a new source, really these young, progressive climate groups. A lot of new groups popping up with a lot of energy and activism and just this feeling of momentum that, that things were changing. And you know, they were getting politicians to start thinking more seriously about climate change. And we were really excited about that, but we were noticing that nuclear was really missing from that conversation. And we wanted to see, you know, why that was and, and, and is there a way to get nuclear in there? And one of the challenges is that progressives have been historically not very supportive of nuclear. But with these younger groups you know, they don’t have a lot of the, the baggage and the perceptions that are sort of biased against nuclear. So we saw an opening there, but it really needed to come from a group that had sort of genuine groundings in progressives. So, you know, personally me and my co-founder Suzy and our board chair, Rachel Slaybaugh, agree with progressive values and consider ourselves progressive. So we wanted to start a new organization that could really do sort of the research around policies that would actually get nuclear to align with this progressive climate agenda.
Kari Hulac (4:05):
So talk a little bit about your goals for what the organization could do. Kind of following up on what you just said on researching policies and, and finding solutions to move forward.
Jessica Lovering (4:16):
Yeah, so we really want to see advanced nuclear in particular move forward you know, get some, some demonstrations and some commercial reactors built and, and to do that, that’s the goal, but to do that, we really need to get nuclear integrated into this climate policy agenda. So rather than have, you know, separate nuclear policies or nuclear legislation, that’s just supporting nuclear, it really needs to be integrated to get that broader support for sort of these big investments. And we have all these exciting innovations in advanced nuclear, you know, over 60 companies in the U.S, working to commercialize designs. And there really is a lot of policy work that needs to be done. Answering questions around, you know, how they’ll be built, how they’ll be financed, where does the fuel come from? What happens to the waste?
Jessica Lovering (5:08):
And so we wanted to start a new organization and kind of help flesh out that policy agenda. And then the other thing that is unique about our organization is we’re really focused on bringing in social science into nuclear policy. You know, there’s wonderful work being done on the technical side at the Department of Energy. There’s all this funding for R&D that’s led to some amazing technological innovations, but we need a lot of innovations on the social science side about business models, of financing models you know, how to get, do community engagement in a different way. What can, you know, the literature studies that have been done tell us about risk perception and things like that. So we’re coming at it from, from a few different angles but that sort of our main drive.
Kari Hulac (5:58):
And what inspired you personally, Jessica, to be an advocate for nuclear energy? Do you count yourself among that younger, progressive group that has a little less baggage around the, anything with the word nuclear in it?
Jessica Lovering (6:14):
Well, I, I can’t really remember being anti-nuclear ever myself, but I definitely came from a more of a, I don’t know, hippie environmental background. I was living in Colorado when I first got interested in nuclear. I was studying for a master’s degree in environmental studies and environmental policy. And you know, I was really interested in renewables. I was, you know, gardening and making my own yogurt and these sorts of things that just sort of go with that lifestyle. And I got interested in energy because of climate change and some classes around, you know, what it really takes to decarbonize. And studying more on the energy side, I did this exercise in one class where we were all assigned a country and we had to make a plan of how they would fully decarbonize, I think 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.
Jessica Lovering (7:12):
And I had Poland and it was so hard to do because they have so much coal. And even if you do it with nuclear, it’s still really hard, but if you do it with wind and solar, it’s just crazy. And that’s what originally got me interested in nuclear. And then I spent the rest of my master’s degree kind of, you know, doing term papers and assignments on nuclear, wherever I could. And then sort of built up that sort of the, I was like the nuclear person in my program where everyone else was very renewables focused. So, yeah, and then I got hired by the Breakthrough Institute to really flesh out their nuclear policy program.
Kari Hulac (7:53):
So advanced nuclear is described as more efficient, safer, and more flexible in terms of how it’s deployed. It looks way different than the nuclear that my generation grew up with. So what are you most excited about regarding this new technology?
Jessica Lovering (8:07):
I think there’s a lot of things wrapped up in there, but the, the thing I’m most excited about is factory fabrication and whether the whole reactor is factory fabricated or, you know, major components. I think that’s a big game changer in terms of costs, and there’s a lot of reasons that advanced reactors are able to be more modularly produced than the past reactors. So for one, they tend to be much smaller in capacity, but also these advanced designs, you know, these different coolants, different fuels allow the reactor to be much simpler from an engineering perspective. You know, they don’t have as many redundant safety systems. They rely more on physics for their safety and that makes it easier to manufacture a commercial product. So I think that’s the most exciting thing because for me, or for what I see the biggest obstacle for nuclear is really the cost and the time to build. So factory fabrication could really help with that.
Kari Hulac (9:11):
Right, so that was kind of going to be my next question is, you know, people claim that they’re too expensive and too unproven to make a meaningful impact in the fight against climate change. So it sounds like from what you’ve described as your studies, you know, back in Colorado and what you see are, you know, are the benefits of the technology you feel like it could combat those concerns about it or, or kind of counterbalance the objections.
Jessica Lovering (9:37):
Yeah. I mean, nuclear definitely is expensive, but it also provides a lot of value that’s hard to get from other energy sources. And so it’s just important to remember that, you know, solar started out like 300 times more expensive than it is today. And it was good smart policy and investment from the government that brought that cost down and that’s what’s needed for a nuclear, you know, we’re not asking for anything special. Just for nuclear to be valued for the carbon free electricity that it provides the way that renewables are. And you know, nuclear has a lot of unique challenges, but I don’t think it’s impossible to make it you know, cheap and fast.
Kari Hulac (10:16):
Speak to some of those challenges a little bit more whether, you know, in the U.S. or abroad and then maybe what, what you’re recommending to mitigate some of those.
Jessica Lovering (10:26):
Yeah. So it’s just hard to build big things. In particular in the U S and Western Europe, actually all of Europe. So large construction projects, large infrastructure projects you know, not just nuclear, but lots of different things in the U.S. are much more expensive than they are in other countries, take much longer, a lot more delays and, and going over budget. And this is really seen quite dramatically in the recent nuclear builds, particularly the plant in Georgia and the one in South Carolina that was canceled. And these plans are huge. You know, they take a lot of bespoke components or at least these first ones are sort of first of a kind. So that’s really challenging and also estimating costs for the first reactors. You know, nuclear gets a lot of flack for always being more expensive and it’s not that the projects get more expensive, it’s that we didn’t have good projections of what they were going to cost at the start. And so I think for technologies that are much simpler, it might be a little easier to contain the costs. And also if you’re doing more of the fabrication in a factory rather than onsite and you remove a lot of the, the human element to that construction process, that could reduce costs a lot.
Kari Hulac (11:59):
Great. Thank you. So you very briefly mentioned waste as a concern, and obviously that’s one of our focuses at our company. And many people oppose nuclear energy due to their fears about the waste, because it hasn’t been solved yet. It hasn’t been permanently disposed of yet. And I understand one of your objectives is to see the U.S. update the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to reflect a need for multiple pathways for storage and spent fuel management and ultimate disposition. So could, could you share a little bit more about that?
Jessica Lovering (12:30):
Something that I mentioned around, you know, we’ve had a lot of innovation in reactors and we definitely need to see more innovation, you know, like what Deep Isolation is doing around the waste, but also the whole fuel cycle really. And we’re just starting to see that coming, but there needs to be more of a sort of objective or mission from, from the Department of Energy or from the nuclear industry of what they need. But I think right now, since we don’t, we don’t have a solution for nuclear waste. We don’t know what we’re doing with it. I think more options, the better, more diversity of options and not just thinking about, okay, we moved these dry casks to a different place but different ways that we can utilize spent fuel. I think, you know, just for me personally, I think it’s such a waste that all that energy is still in there.
Jessica Lovering (13:25):
If there was a better way to use it, ways to recycle it you know, there’s a lot of challenges on, on reprocessing as well, but it seems to me like, you know, it would be so great if we could utilize it. That being said, of course, no matter what we do, even if advanced reactors, you know, use fuel more efficiently or use spent fuel in some capacity, we’re still going to have something leftover. Even if it’s a smaller amount, even if it’s less long lived or it’s shorter lived, so we still need a place to put it and we still need innovations around how we place it and where we put it. And that’s really both a technical problem and a social problem, getting you know, the social license to put waste in places. So it’s a really thorny problem. But I think there needs to be sort of leadership on it and I’m kind of hopeful that we can maybe make progress in the next administration.
Kari Hulac (14:23):
Speaking of leadership the Good Energy Collective released a policy report, “Our Progressive Policy Agenda for Advanced Nuclear Energy”. I took a look at that. Can you summarize your goals for putting the report out and maybe share some of the recommendations that you’re hopeful about or that are kind of close to your heart?
Jessica Lovering (14:42):
Yeah, we have, it’s a very broad agenda. We have recommendations for you know, the executive branch of the government, for Congress, and for industry. But it’s really all towards getting nuclear deployed as a means to help reduce emissions. But in a way that’s very responsible and gets true social license from the communities that are hosting these facilities. And so some of the early things we asked for and, and some of them, you know, we’ve, we’ve seen little bits of, but establishing a climate office in the White House, sort of prioritizing climate from the executive branch. We’ve already seen really good exciting stuff there. On the legislative side, you know, we’d love to see a really big increase in funding for the Office of Nuclear Energy and particularly for more sort of mission oriented R&D.
Jessica Lovering (15:40):
So bringing the cost down for nuclear is a big one. But the big thing we want to see from, from Congress and from bills is this thing I mentioned earlier of integrating nuclear into climate bills. So we’ve had a lot of really exciting legislation passed in the last five years around advanced nuclear, but it’s been very nuclear specific. So seeing a broader climate package maybe with some, some compromises between renewables and nuclear and efficiency and electric vehicles and all that going into one thing I think would be really powerful. For the social license side, you know, that’s, that’s tricky, but we’d love to see some, some funding from the government to do pilot programs on more community focused processes for siting these advanced reactors. So more, so more investment going into, you know, not just, okay, how do we fund the construction of the first demonstrations, but how do we fund genuine engagement process early with these potential host communities to really get them to buy into the project to be really supportive.
Jessica Lovering (16:55):
Some of the things that we’ve asked of the nuclear industry are really to, to work with climate groups and try to build bridges you know, don’t, don’t be harping on renewables. Talk more about how nuclear can work with renewables to decarbonize and just be supportive of renewable policies. You can see that in sort of how the industry, you know, releases press statements on potential legislation. It’s a small thing, but it can make a big difference in sort of showing that like we’re all in this together. And also you know, the thing policy-wise, nuclear has a lot of legacy issues you know, from the weapons complex from uranium mining and you know, sometimes there’s this feeling of like, wow, that was a long time ago, that was weapons.
Jessica Lovering (17:46):
That was, you know, not having a civilian nuclear industry, but I think from whether it comes from the Department of Energy or from legislation, we would really love to see accelerated cleanup of a lot of these sites, more investment in mitigation of harms from these legacy sites. More consideration of, of where uranium is mined. There’s a, you know, a push right now to get more domestic uranium production. But we have to be very careful about how that’s done. And so more of a sort of acknowledgement of these injustices of the past, but actual policy to help alleviate them faster and accelerate those, those cleanups and, and other sort of remediations.
Kari Hulac (18:38):
So just recently the U.S. Department of Energy announced 30 million in funding for one of its new advanced reactor demonstration programs. And I guess it’s expected to contribute more than 600 million in the coming years. What are your reactions to this and what do you think it means?
Jessica Lovering (18:56):
I’m really excited about it, particularly the diversity of projects they’ve been funding. It’s not just, okay, we’re all going all in on this one design. They’re really trying to build out this kind of diverse ecosystem of potential reactors and, you know, there’s very different designs. So I think that’s, that’s what I’m excited about. It’s gonna probably take, you know, more money to get these actually demonstrated, but it definitely signals to the private sector that this is an exciting space that’s moving forward. And so hopefully this will bring in a lot more private investment to get some of these projects built.
Kari Hulac (19:35):
So finally, looking forward, I know you gave a keynote speech for the American Nuclear Society titled “What’s In Store for Nuclear in a Biden Administration”. And here we are with one. So, can you give some examples of how the changes made by the new administration might impact advanced nuclear reactor companies and the landscape in general that you’ve been working on with your Good Energy Collective?
Jessica Lovering (19:59):
Yeah, so, so we’ve seen some really positive signs in what the Biden campaign had been pushing around their climate plan. And now seeing, you know, what the, the transition and, and what President Elect Biden has done since he was elected is also really promising. So just some of the things that he’s done already are, you know, appoint people to high-level positions in the White House that are focused on climate. Those were some of the first announcements that were made. So that’s really signaling where his priorities were going to be. Now, obviously there’s this big crisis of coronavirus and the economic downturn that’s been associated with that, but he’s really tying recovery to climate in a very, you know, novel way of saying, you know, we can do green recovery, build back better.
Jessica Lovering (20:55):
So I think there’s going to be some sort of push to have you know stimulus or recovery that’s tied to environmental goals and that’s, that’s really exciting. You know, there’s a lot of jobs in nuclear, so that could be something very promising in some sort of package, but on his climate plan side, there’s a couple of really positive things. So one is that you know, right when Biden won the primary you know, his main competitor in the end was Bernie Sanders who’s, who’s quite anti-nuclear historically, but they, Biden and Sanders did this series of unity task forces to kind of bridge the different factions within the democratic party. And their recommendations on climate change were really interesting because they actually mentioned advanced nuclear several times. And just to have something with, you know, Sanders, AOC’s name on it, that talks about needing advanced nuclear, it was very exciting.
Jessica Lovering (21:51):
And they have some in Biden’s climate plan. He has some language around SMRs and specific things like he wants to make an ARPA for climate. So an “ARPA-C” and one of the first suggestions that he has for what that could do would be a program to reduce the cost of SMRs by 50%. So that’s like a very clear target that, you know, has really been lacking in sort of the federal government’s response or policy on nuclear so far. So those are some very positive hints that not just that Biden is taking climate seriously, but that he understands that it’s really about building things you know, building a lot of renewables, building a lot of nuclear, building a lot of transmission lines. And so that, that focus on, on infrastructure and jobs with respect to climate, I think is really positive. And it is going to get a lot broader of a coalition to come together around potential legislation.
Kari Hulac (22:55):
Well, great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today and best of luck too, with your work.
Jessica Lovering (23:01):
Thank you. Have a great day.
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