Former Chief of Staff in US Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy under the Trump Administration
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.
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 deepisolation.com/podcasts.
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.