Let’s Go Nuclear Pt. 2

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In this episode, we continue our discussion around nuclear energy with Matt Crozat, Senior Director of Business Policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute. We’ll discuss the fears surrounding nuclear power, why “The Simpsons” may not be your best source for information on nuclear power, and what the future of nuclear power on large and small scales looks like.

Announcer: Welcome to “Not Your Father’s Data Center Podcast.” Brought to you by Compass Data Centers. We build for what’s next. Now here’s your host, Raymond Hawkins.

Raymond: Matt, as you think about strategy and policy and you think about the image of your industry, if a person or a voice that you guys have the most struggle with, if they were on the podcast with us today, what challenge would they be throwing at you or what different perspective would they offer? And just help me think about it from that perspective. One I could think of is, “What do we do with the waste, the byproduct? You know, we’re not throwing carbon in the atmosphere but we are producing nuclear waste.” That might be one. If that’s not the one, if there’s another one, but could you talk about it from that perspective, the folks that stay up at night worrying about your industry?

Matt: Well, I think that we already touched on part of it which was the safety and the fear and uncertainty that comes with these technologies that, you know, often, many people think of them as a black box. They don’t know much about them and therefore, they fill that uncertainty with the bits that they do get, be it either news of alarming events or popular culture that…removed from the actual truth like “The Simpsons,” for example, and I love “The Simpsons.” But it turns out “The Simpsons” might not be a great guide to understanding technology. But…

Raymond: Truer words have never been spoken.

Matt: But there are, I think, a lot maybe. And going back to things like, you know, Spider-Man and the radioactive spider. And so there are these elements in there that have been associated with fear and of concern. Safety operations has been a key part of what we need to do to create a better appreciation of. But also, I think you mentioned we use nuclear fuel. And we have this, one of those is a big problem with how to safely store nuclear waste and that’s been a constant challenge in part of the overriding understanding of the issue of nuclear is this kind of seemingly insurmountable problem. And that’s where, I think, from where I sit and my perspective, when I went to Department of Energy and I said I was trying to figure out how we can have a system with hundreds of nuclear reactors more than I have, I was trying to think of, well, how could you imagine creating a system that would do a better job of managing this, the used nuclear fuel?

And what really stands out to me is the extent to which this is more of a political challenge than a technological one. So, the first thing to appreciate on the nuclear fuel is that it is solid. Unlike “The Simpsons” where they have green vats, it’s not green, it’s black. But it is still these long rods of ceramic and then kinda like a plate but heavier. And in metal tubes inside of either a very large swimming pool or once they’ve cooled it off enough, you can then stick them into steel and concrete-lined containers that you can stick in a parking lot at the plant waiting to be removed. And part of the challenge, the politics is back in the 1980s, shortly after Three Mile Island, the Congress passed a law that said, “The federal government will be in charge of the long-term management of used fuel. And we’ll come pick up from these nuclear sites starting in the late 1990s.” That didn’t happen. As they tried to find a location, there was a great deal of political pushback because, you know, those people in the state of Nevada, which was the selected site, felt that they were being unfairly singled out and treated without a say in the process, and they fought it.

And so, what’s happened is over the last 30 some-odd years, the nuclear plant operators have been paying a fee to the federal government to manage this used fuel in the long-term. And the federal government hasn’t been able to execute its side of the bargain. Which means that right now, I have used fuel stored at all of my nuclear power plants and safely there. It hasn’t harmed anybody. It shouldn’t be there, it’s kind of annoying, we don’t like it. But that’s more because we had a deal and we kinda like to see that fall through on… If I took all of that used fuel and moved it to a football field, it would stack up to less than 10 yards high. From the point of view of the volume of material, it is small relative to the political challenge we’ve created around it.

On top of that, I mentioned the fees that have been collected. The federal government also has over $40 billion sitting on the books to go take care of this problem. So, we have resources, we have it safely managed, but we do need a political process that can get past the challenges that we’ve created to find a more workable solution going forward, and that’s where NEI is trying to find the way to work with Congress, in particular, and the administration to see what that path forward can look like to get to the point where we have a working system instead of one where people are at loggerheads over political battles that hopefully we can get past before long.

Raymond: So, Matt, how many facilities in the fleet today here in the U.S.?

Matt: Right now, we have 95 nuclear reactors at 57 sites, 29 states.

Raymond: Ninety-five reactors, 57 sites, and how many states?

Matt: Twenty-nine different states. And those are the ones that are operating right now.

Raymond: So these 57 sites are storing all of the waste today because we’re in this limbo between moving it to the federal facility. And between all 57 of those sites, the total waste wouldn’t stack higher than 10 yards deep on a football field?

Matt: That’s correct.

Raymond: That’s a good visual.

Matt: There are a number of sites that have closed over the years for different reasons. And this is a different frustration, too, which is I have some plants that the plant itself is gone, I removed it, I restored the entire property except the one little pad of fuel that is there. So I have more than 57 sites with used fuel, but the vast majority is at the ones that are operating plants. But, so we’re hopefully trying to find an opportunity to, you know, create a system that can at least begin the process of moving this fuel perhaps to, you know, interim sites that can provide a consolidated place to store it for a while, just to begin getting out of the rut that we’re in and the challenges that we’ve been having of trying to stand this system up and see the kind of progress that other countries have managed to work out. You know, we see places being built for long-term storage in countries in Europe. France has a system to recycle a lot of their fuel that has always gained interest. And so, there are other countries that have demonstrated their path forward here, but we need to get our political system in a better place to help us move forward and that’s what we’re working towards.

Raymond: Now, I don’t wanna pick on any particular state, but I think of something like the vastness of Alaska. Isn’t there a corner up in the inside of the Arctic circle that we could just…I mean, a football field’s just not that big. Isn’t there…and is it really a “Not in my backyard”? Because it seems to me with the vastness of our nation that we ought to have, if we want to store it, we ought to have a couple places that it would be fine to store it or if we wanna recycle it that we could figure that out. Is it really just a political football, Matt?

Matt: That’s the real problem. I mean, there are probably all kinds of different places you could imagine citing some facilities. I think that the key, though, is rather than saying, “Aha, we wanna put it where you are,” instead, have a conversation that allows more cooperation and partnership as opposed to making people feel like something is being imposed on them they didn’t have a say in.

Raymond: I gotcha.

Matt: So, I think as we begin to, I think, hopefully evolve the conversation, it’s one that’s less about forcing something upon somebody and instead trying to find a more… partnership that will allow us to move past the conflict that we’ve had.

Raymond: I gotcha. Okay, so fuel storage is one that your critics would cite, and fear, really, around safety. Do you mind taking two minutes, let’s go back to the safety one? What’s the safety record look like? Right, I remember as a kid, you know, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in ’79. What does the safety record in the U.S. look like from a nuclear industry perspective?

Matt: I mean, the safety record in the U.S. has been really exemplary, especially in the last 40 years. You know, we have different metrics that I think aren’t particularly easy for outsiders to appreciate. But the reason we have this safety record is we also have a strong, independent government regulator. And so we have an entire branch of the U.S. government called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose job it is to oversee and set the rules to ensure that these plants are being operated safely and that facilities are complying with these rules. And this is an independent agency that has a typically capable workforce that knows the technology and has a great deal of experience with it, and it provides a very strong force to ensure that these plants are being safely operated.

We’ve seen incidents in other parts of the world that have given some concern like in the 1990s, there is Chernobyl, which had a very different Soviet stamp on how to approach these things. The incident in Fukushima, I think, showed that the relationship between the companies and those doing the regulation needs to have some independence, but also that you can, you know, think about absolute worst-case scenarios and then beyond that as well. And, you know, we’ve got examples in the U.S. that have, we’ve approached some of that, too. But, you know, it is noteworthy that worker safety record at the nuclear plants is really exemplary, you don’t see anything like, with the worst fears that the critics would have you believe. And it really extends to, really, things that sound trivial, they’re not at all nuclear. For example, every meeting that we have with our company, we open with a safety moment where somebody tries to have anything safety-related that should be front of mind. Things like making sure someone’s holding a ladder if you’re going up to clean leaves out of your gutter, like those kinds of reminders are a constant part of the culture of how the U.S. fleet has been trained to operate and that has really had an effect of, not just in terms of worrying about radiation or that, but even simple things like making sure you don’t trip on power cords and hurt yourself on a fall. I mean, it really does kind of permeate all the way through how the industry approaches these issues.

Raymond: Matt, in the data center business, we build data centers, we’re in the data center development business, and we track lost work hours. That one, we’ve reduced that number and it’s so tiny that we now actually track what we call “near misses.” So, not that anyone has actually lost any work time, but that it was a near miss so we can learn lessons from those. Are there similar metrics in safety in the…because it sounds to me like you’re talking about, “Hey, Raymond,” it sounded very similar, “Hey, Raymond, we don’t have issues nuclear-related, we have issues with cords and ladders,” which sounds very much like my business, right? We have managed to cut the fatality or lost work hour rate so little that we track near misses. What’s an analogous metric in your industry for that?

Matt: You know, I don’t know that I have an analogous one of near misses. We might, I mean, to be clear. That gets closer to plant operations which is kind of less my day-to-day expertise. But what I will point out is, much like what you’re saying, the philosophy of “You manage what you measure” is an important part of how we think about this. And part of what the…I mentioned earlier the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations. Part of what they do is measure a lot of these kinds of operations, so we do have the data. I don’t necessarily have that because a lot of that tends to be proprietary, but it does speak to the same kind of culture and philosophy that we wanna see throughout the industry.

Raymond: Gotcha. You mentioned, as we talked briefly about the safety, you mentioned both Fukushima and Chernobyl. When I think about the fear related to your industry, some of that, I think, is fueled, forgive the pun, based on some of the really tragic stories. Could you give us three or four minutes of what happened in Chernobyl, what took place, lives lost, so sort of the history of that, the lessons learned, and then how that might compare to a U.S. design and a U.S. response to a tragedy.

Matt: Sure. One of the things that I think that really drives a lot of the thinking is the HBO miniseries that won lots of awards last year. And I think that brought a lot of attention to both the things that were a key part of the event but also some things that might have ventured into the dramatization as opposed to the documentation of the event. So, what I’ll…

Raymond: Wait a minute, Matt, I wanna make sure I understand. You mean to tell me movie makers might have sensationalized what happened?

Matt: No, I…

Raymond: Hard to imagine. No, no, all good.

Matt: It is. And I’m not even trying to be difficult to the guy who produced it. I mean, he said as much, that from his point of view, the lesson of Chernobyl wasn’t about nuclear power, it was about a culture of suppressing criticism that was endemic in the Soviet state. And that’s where I think a lot of it came down to. So, you know, there’s two things that really stand out. The first is the design of reactor that the Soviets were using there is something that would not have been acceptable anywhere else in the world, outside of the Soviet bloc. You know, it was known to have a certain problem that if it lost coolant, then it was going to have its nuclear reactions speed up, which is the exact opposite of what you want to have happen.

And sure enough, at the Chernobyl incident, the miniseries does a very good job of showing, you had operators who are running an experiment where they turned off water and things went badly and they couldn’t catch up, leading to an explosion. That design is something that, itself, no one in the rest of Europe or any other part of the world and the United States ever would have had.

The second part, too, is, for reasons that they’re still perplexing, every reactor in the United States is in a containment building. So, even if there is a release from the reactor core itself, it’s not going anywhere, there’s a building right there to trap it, and that’s what happened at Three Mile Island. That’s why nothing, there were no health effects. The Soviets, these reactors didn’t have a containment building. So, one thing that went badly and you had an explosion, you had a lot of radioactive material that was spread out into the nearby area. And so from a design point of view, it was a huge difference and one that was well understood before that event even. But the second thing that really mattered and what the miniseries gets at a little bit, I think more than a little bit, was the response from the Soviet authorities was one of, largely, denial. And rather than taking some pretty basic precautions that would have minimized the impact, they instead attempted to pretend that there was no event for a while and tried to hide it.

Raymond: Right.

Matt: And that was just a pretty remarkably difficult thing to think about even in hindsight. Which is, you know, this is, by far, the worst nuclear accident we’ve seen. The total number of deaths experienced from the Chernobyl were 28 workers at the facility died and the best estimate was about 15 cases of thyroid cancer that led to death. So, even in the worst incident of all, in the history of the technology, the death count probably is less than people would have expected, but it really did try to, it created a better appreciation of needing to work to change the institutions. And so, I mentioned how in the U.S., the response was to create an institute, we did something similar after Chernobyl with a world association trying to create a similar kind of feedback to hold each other accountable, which is difficult across countries, but with the recognition that the issue isn’t so much, “Well, how many people died?” It’s like, “No, this is not acceptable. We’re not going to just move on from this, we’re going to try to reform and understand what happened and then make sure that the culture of safety is better and integrated in the operation of these facilities.”

Raymond: So at Chernobyl, the design was bad. No containment building, nothing like what we would see in other developed countries. The reaction was bad, meaning the way the safety and security protocols were bad. And then, I also think it’s helpful to remember, Chernobyl happened in ’86. The Berlin Wall came down in, what, ’89? The Soviet Union collapsed in, what, ’91? So, this was still in an era when the Soviet Union controlled all the news and controlled all the messaging and controlled the way things were perceived because the way the party and the way the country was to be viewed was managed tremendously, and I think that contributed to the problem as well.

Matt: Well, I think that’s certainly true. And, you know, I think part of why I make a big deal about having an independent regulator is, in the United States, there is no opportunity, no one even tried it, to hide it. But there is this understanding that you always have somebody there whose job it is to check on you and be the one that is sounding the alarm. Denial isn’t an opportunity for you. And that’s, I think, an important institutional correction.

Raymond: And although, in perspective, the loss of life was relatively small, we don’t wanna be cavalier about the loss of any souls, but the thought being that even in the worst tragedy in a nuclear incident, the loss of life was not what might be perceived based on the news or at least the reaction to it. And here in the U.S., loss of life in a nuclear accident, that’s not even a thing. It’s never happened, has it?

Matt: Not, I can’t think of any single case from radioactivity that, that… No.

Raymond: Yeah, yeah.

Matt: But, you know, one thing I did wanna say is that, you know, what we have seen in, not just since Chernobyl, but just in the context of realizing that there’s a role for nuclear energy going forward as we think about reducing carbon emissions, we’ve seen a lot of new technology development being advanced today. And that’s something that I think is really interesting because it is building in these lessons learned from the outset. So, rather than trying to retrofit a facility to take on a new lesson, it’s like, “Well, if I know all of these things, bringing all of the experiences from things I’ve learned over the way, can I design a better reactor from scratch?” And we’ve seen a generation of very young scientists and technology developers, often inspired by the Silicon Valley kind of startup model to bring new fuels, new materials, new configurations to try to create a broader range of technologies that aren’t just in terms of very large nuclear power plants, but also smaller, but all built with all of these safety ideas in mind and from scratch. And that’s been one of the really exciting parts of being part of this industry in the last few years is seeing so many new companies and developers and the kind of support we’re getting for it. This is one of the few areas where we’ve seen consistent bipartisan support in Congress for, well, frankly, anything. But the recognition that there is a real opportunity to develop and demonstrate new nuclear reactor designs is something we’ve seen a great deal of enthusiasm for and at some of the highest funding levels for research and development that we’ve ever seen in new technology. And I think that’s a real opportunity that as we look forward, building the next generation to encompass everything we’ve learned along the way is a real opportunity and it can really expand how we can think of using the technology, both in terms of the markets that field these but also in terms of the size and scale and flexibility in how we operate them.

Raymond: So, Matt, I just wanna know with all these investments and openness in Congress to look at new uses for nuclear, how long will it be till I have a DeLorean that’s powered by nuclear power?

Matt: So, I think the DeLorean might not have made it long enough themselves.

Raymond: Darn it. Okay, all right.

Matt: So, we have designs that are currently being evaluated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And they might have approval as soon as this year to confirm that the design is going to be safe. We also see a whole range of, in some cases, very small units like instead of the 1,000-megawatt units I have now, maybe a single digits of megawatts that can provide remote operations and almost like a nuclear battery.

Raymond: Wow.

Matt: The military has taken a great deal of interest in how they can use nuclear technology to provide power even in forward operations. So, rather than seeing the need for long lines of diesel trucks to run generators that they’re [inaudible] target for that and, instead, “Can I use these technologies to eliminate that risk and provide better safety for the forces?” And so you are seeing these new ideas really come around to, “Well, what are the possibilities that I can think about nuclear beyond the large-scale, gigawatt-size plants?” And those are coming to the fore pretty quickly.

Raymond: How small can we get? I think of plants that are in remote parts of the planet, not powering a big U.S. power grid but in maybe even a third-world country. How small a power plant can we get today? I certainly think about the ones that were on the ships that, when I spent time in the Marine Corps, they’re probably much smaller than that today? How little can we get, Matt?

Matt: Oh, I mean, I know there were designs for as little as one or two megawatts. You know, one of the things that I think isn’t often appreciated is there are actually a bunch of small nuclear reactors all around the country. They tend to be at universities, they’re test reactors, and for the most part, they don’t produce electricity, but they run at the hundreds of kilowatts at times. And so, we do have these kind of sprinkling of small units all around. So we know how to make them small. I think just trying to find that right balance between making them small and making them efficient, which then gets back to the issue from earlier of, you know… And that’s where trying to match the right market need with the technology is going on now.

We’ve seen a lot of interest in places like Alaska and Northern Canada where power supplies are very expensive because I’m trucking in diesel again, I mean, for instance. And so, those can sometimes support very small units. Remote islands, islands in general. So, there are need spots where you can see a real opportunity for a power production that is carbon-free, runs 24/7, doesn’t need constant refueling. Those are emerging. I think we’re still a few years off from seeing anything concrete develop, deployed, I mean, but those plans are being developed now and I think it speaks to the recognition that as we think about sustainability in the longer-term, it’s more than just about replacing one technology with another, it’s how it fits in each of these communities and each of these markets. And what are the tools that we can bring to bear and how do we combine them to make an efficient system?

Raymond: So, you talk about an island deployment. Instead of building all the infrastructure to produce your traditional power plant, you would just put a nuclear facility there and then someone’s coming and replacing the fuel every year, year and a half just we would here? Is that where you’re headed now?

Matt: I think on some of these designs, you can set them up so you don’t need to refuel them for a decade or so.

Raymond: Oh, my goodness. Okay. Well, I’m not in the business of buying an island anytime soon but I will put this in my hip pocket as I…hopefully things go good in the data center business.

Matt: But as I think about the things in the data center business, one thing that does come to mind is how the data centers themselves think about matching their load with trying to offset the emissions that come with electricity use. And this is where I do think there’s an opportunity going forward for an evolution in how the conversation’s taking place. Google, for example, a couple years ago had a report that looked at for all of the renewable energy credits that they purchased to offset every megawatt-hour that they used, they recognized that depending on where they were geographically, they might be running the data center at a time when the only thing available was fossil fuels. And that meant they still had a carbon footprint even though they had bought a renewable energy credit to offset emissions. And that’s, you know, led to, I think, a thinking about is there a way to think about evolving this renewable energy credit system to not just offset a megawatt-hour with a wind production in one spot or a solar a different time of day, but trying to do a more close matching of where the energy’s being used and where the clean energy’s being generated.

And I think that, you know, there’s an opportunity to evolve the renewable energy infrastructure to better match the challenges that we’re going to face in meeting some of these really ambitious climate goals these companies have set forward. And to that end, I think there’s a chance to have a conversation about looking beyond just the wind and solar regs to evolving the possibility of thinking about time of day and is there a role for nuclear to play as part of that kind of a conversation that can think about a more comprehensive product that matches the load use and the clean energy needs. And I think there’s a conversation that your audience can certainly be a part of and help to bring forward.

Raymond: Yeah, Matt, there’s no question. Our biggest customers are very focused on sustainability, very focused on… I mean, you hear their CEOs talk about being carbon neutral or even carbon negative, and the notion that the grid has got carbon-emitting electrons on it and non-carbon-emitting electrons on it, and the carbon credits are nice, but it’s the idea of having electrons that don’t produce, don’t emit any carbon is a better answer and there’s clearly a role for nuclear to play in that.

Well, Matt, this has been great. We’ve enjoyed the hour with you, and if there’s any parting thoughts you’d like to give the data center industry, I think the notion that non-carbon-emitting electrons is a great one to end on, but would love any other thoughts from you. And we just thank you for the time.

Matt: No, I think that as we continue to see the economy evolve and embrace the role of data and digitization, I think that making sure the energy system is evolving along with it to meet the goals that we’re talking about here. And this isn’t just a nuclear question, this isn’t just a wind question or a solar question, it’s how would we find the right tools to bring them all together at the same time. And I think those that are leading this, the economic evolution, can also help lead the energy evolution as well. So, I look forward to working with you and the folks you work with.

Raymond: Matt, we really appreciate your time, we appreciate the work that you do at the Nuclear Energy Institute, and I help in…bring electrons into data centers so we can do all the things that the technology revolution is doing for our country and for our planet. Thank you so much for joining us today, Matt.

Matt: My pleasure. Thank you, Raymond.

Raymond: Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this edition of “Not Your Father’s Data Center.” I’ll ask that you please join us again next time for our very informal chat around the businesses, the people, and the technology driving the data industry today. If you have any questions or comments about this episode or if you’d like to make suggestions about future topics, we’d love to discuss it. You can email me at rhawkins@compassdatacenters.com or you can reach me on our Twitter feed @compassdcs. That’s @compassdcs. Thank you again for listening to “Not Your Father’s Data Center,” brought to you by Compass Data Centers.