Nuclear power: A women-led, progressive group takes a new approach

Nuclear power has long been a divisive issue in the environmental community. The enormous momentum of anti-nuclear sentiment from the ’70s and ’80s has clashed in recent years with a new wave of advocates who claim that deep decarbonization — eliminating the greenhouse gases that drive climate change — requires the assistance of nuclear power.

The embrace of nuclear in climate and progressive circles has been hampered by two factors. First, nuclear has traditionally been a huge and highly hierarchical industry, peddling enormous plants that cost billions of dollars and produce dangerous waste, with a history of special pleading and corruption — not the kind of industry progressives naturally lean toward.

Second, nuclear advocates have traditionally been, well, men. And not just any men, but the kind of men highly prone to mansplaining why they are rational and you are an over-emotional hysteric. (“Nuclear bros,” in the online argot.) There is a cohort of nuclear advocates who seem to have chosen the issue mainly as a pretext for bashing environmentalists. Insofar as they’ve attempted outreach to climate advocates, the nuclear bros have met limited success.

Power lines pass over Goldsboro, Pennsylvania, as steam rises out of the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

This has caused quite a bit of angst among the small but growing number of progressives who have turned to nuclear advocacy out of progressivism — out of a concern over climate change and its impacts on the most vulnerable.

Those activists see opportunities in the new generation of nuclear plants, which are smaller, cheaper, and safer than their predecessors, more congruent with the general movement toward distributed energy, microgrids, and community ownership.

But they have struggled to change the tenor of the conversation because they are scattered and lack institutional backing.

Now they are launching a group of their own: the Good Energy Collective, which will develop and advance progressive nuclear policy.

Four of the five board members are women, as are the co-founders: Suzy Hobbs Baker (currently creative director at University of Michigan’s Fastest Path to Zero initiative) and Jessica Lovering (currently a doctoral student in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University).

I called Baker and Lovering on July 15 to chat about the new group, the values that distinguish it from other groups in the nuclear space, and the prospects for advanced nuclear plants to play a role in the climate fight.

Suzy Hobbs Baker (l) and Jessica Lovering (r).
Suzy Hobbs Baker (left) and Jessica Lovering (right).

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts

How did this organization come about?

Suzy Hobbs Baker

We saw a gap in the ecosystem — there was no place to do progressive nuclear policy. It just didn’t exist. And nobody was trying to build it.

David Roberts

What do you mean by progressive nuclear policy, as distinct from what other NGOs are doing?

Suzy Hobbs Baker

There are a bunch of policy shops in DC that do great nuclear work. Most of it has been focused on R&D. Under the auspices of innovation, there’s been a huge emphasis on a fundamentally technical issue: We have to figure out how to design and build reactors again.

Jessica Lovering

There are lots of moderates working on [nuclear], and lots of bipartisan efforts.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

Right. But just at the moment the climate movement was taking off, it became clear there wasn’t a progressive [nuclear] contingent, figuring out how to join forces with and work within the climate movement.

David Roberts

So you decided to make one.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

Yeah! We took stock: Who are the progressives in the nuclear sphere? Oh, there’s like five of us. So it wasn’t that hard to get everybody on the phone and ask, “Do you want to do this?”

David Roberts

Is there no progressive nuclear work going on in bigger environmental or climate groups?

Jessica Lovering

There’s nothing nuclear going on. Some of these orgs, they will acknowledge that nuclear needs to be part of the mix. There’s been some consensus around keeping existing plants open. And that’s great — that’s way different than it was five or 10 years ago. But no one’s really working on the policy.

You can see this in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations on climate. They mentioned advanced nuclear, which is amazing, but it’s kind of like … “and also, advanced nuclear needs to be in there.”

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to actually make that a reality. That’s what we want to focus on.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

It’s different from a lot of the larger orgs, who might have a “nuclear person” who tracks the issue. There aren’t places in the environmental space that have deep expertise on nuclear.

Jessica Lovering

Another thing that’s different — and really couches us in the progressive movement and not in the energy think tank space — is that we are focused on community-level engagement. We want to develop tools and processes to help communities figure out what they want for their low-carbon energy future.

And we want a process where they can decide they don’t want nuclear. That’s fine. We’re not going around trying to sell advanced nuclear. We want equitable processes that people feel are fair and transparent so they can make their own choices.

I think that fits much better with the environmental-justice agenda inside these climate platforms, more so than the R&D/technology side, which a lot of other think tanks are focusing on. R&D still needs a lot of work, and we’re going to be plugged into that, but our focus is going to be more on social science.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

While a lot of think tanks are thinking about deployment, we’re thinking about the other side of the equation, which is adoption. There are folks in DC and private companies trying to figure out how to get the technologies out, and simultaneously there are communities across the nation trying to figure out how to reach their climate goals. We want to transition to working with more focus on the communities.

An artist’s rendering of a community-level clean energy park, with advanced nuclear, wind, and solar.
An artist’s rendering of a community-level clean energy park with advanced nuclear, wind, and solar.
Third Way, via Flickr

David Roberts

The nuclear space is notoriously dominated by a certain kind of male voice — left-brained, not particularly emotionally intelligent — and it has often posed a communications challenge for the industry. It’s notable that you’re a female-led organization, but is that tone something you think consciously about changing?

Jessica Lovering

I gave a talk on this topic in November at the [International Atomic Energy Agency conference], about risk perception around nuclear. It’s a talk the nuclear industry asks for all the time: Why do people think nuclear is so risky? And how do we fix that with, I don’t know, better PR?

The talk I gave, which made a lot of people uncomfortable, was about a phenomenon called the white male effect. It’s not unique to nuclear. Across a whole bunch of risks — car crashes, alcoholism, all sorts of things — white males rate things as much less risky than everyone else, even males of color.

A lot of studies look into the drivers of this, but one thing that really struck us is an explanation that comes down to differences in worldview. White males tend to be more hierarchical and individualistic in their worldview, on average, whereas women and people of color tend to be a more communitarian and egalitarian.

One thing that is unique about nuclear, the way it’s been done in the past, the way the industry has been run, is that it has been very hierarchical, very top-down, very arguments-from-authority. And even fancy new nuclear technologies that are safer and cheaper don’t fundamentally change that aspect.

You can’t fix that with better communications. You can’t fix that with a slogan. You need to change how the industry runs.

Can you make nuclear appeal more to communitarians and egalitarians? I think you can, but it’s going to look very different. And that’s where we, who have strong progressive values, consider ourselves part of the left. We need to change the industry from the ground up.

So that comes back to your question about a women-led organization. There have been a lot of efforts in the past to find women who work in nuclear and prop them up as a spokesperson. “Okay, we have a woman talking about nuclear, this is going to change people’s minds.” It doesn’t, because it’s still the same industry and the same business model.

It’s because we have progressive ideals that it tends to be women leading this effort. We don’t just want policies that appeal more to women and progressives, we want to build up a younger generation of diverse leadership that allows people to live their values while working in nuclear, helping to build the case for nuclear in the broader climate change agenda — but really empower them, not just as props.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

It’s not an exaggeration to say that we had to build the organization we needed to move forward in our own careers. In order to move forward into leadership and have a healthy work environment, a new third space — we’re going to have to build it.

David Roberts

Where do you want to focus your policy work?

Suzy Hobbs Baker

We’ve seen this huge shift, with the growth of renewable energy sources in the last 15 years, of much more participatory decision-making in communities around the question of energy. We see where this is going. And a lot of the developers of these new [nuclear] technologies see where it’s going.

But it’s one thing to say we’re committed to a community-based approach, and a whole other thing to build the policy agenda and the infrastructure.

Jessica Lovering

There’s a big movement toward community ownership and community lead on energy projects, with distributed generation and microgrids, and there’s an assumption that nuclear can’t be a part of that because of the scale. But moving toward much smaller nuclear and factory-fabricated nuclear opens up those markets.

The industry just has no idea how to do that, how to approach small towns to see if they’re interested in nuclear. They’re used to dealing with big investor-owned utilities. So we need to develop those processes. How do you do have a community-ownership model or municipality model [for nuclear]? That’s really exciting to me.

David Roberts

Are these new plants ready?

Jessica Lovering

Almost.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

This year, the Department of Energy, mandated by Congress, stood up a new program called the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. They have the slightly bananas mandate to construct two [advanced nuclear] demonstrations in the next seven years, and then support a whole host of other demonstrations over the next five to 10 years. There are folks preparing sites for potential demonstration units.

This is a big piece of my research at Michigan: how we demonstrate best practices for community engagement at the demonstration phase with these new reactors so that it’s baked into the way that everybody’s doing business. We’ve been thinking a lot about the lack of institutions, the lack of training and professionals to help make this happen.

Jessica Lovering

It’s no longer paper reactors that’ll be ready in 20 years. Nuscale submitted their license application two years ago. Oklo submitted in December. Oklo is only 1.5 megawatts for the off-grid market, so they’re hoping to get licensed in two years. They can start planning their supply chains and their first build in the meantime. They could start construction in the early 2020s.

Oklo plant
An artist’s rendering of an Oklo power plant.
Oklo

We need to get the rest of the supporting infrastructure ready to go before then — not on the construction/engineering side, but in terms of community engagement and everything that goes along with it.

David Roberts

Is there a short way to explain the different kinds of advanced nuclear?

Jessica Lovering

When we say advanced nuclear, there are two big categories.

There are small modular reactors, which are water-cooled like traditional nuclear but manufactured a more standardized way and much smaller. That’s a more gradual improvement.

The other big category is non-light-water reactors that don’t use water as a coolant. There are salt-cooled, called molten-salt reactors; there are gas-cooled, often referred to as high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (the gas is usually helium or CO2); and there are fast reactors, usually metal-cooled with sodium or lead. Those are less common, but there are some groups working on them. They can be really tiny.

David Roberts

Which are the ones that might actually be built soon?

Jessica Lovering

Nuscale is a small-modular light-water reactor of 50 megawatts, and Oklo is a micro-reactor, a sodium-cooled fast reactor — very different than what we operate today, and also very small. The whole power plant fits in about two shipping containers. It’s 1.5 megawatts, which is less than a standard wind turbine today.

David Roberts

Are the new designs meltdown-proof?

Jessica Lovering

Nuscale is water-cooled, more similar to traditional nuclear. It has a lot of passive safety features, but I wouldn’t say it’s meltdown-proof. For the other ones, the salt- or sodium-cooled plants, they really are meltdown-proof. You could never get temperatures hot enough to melt the fuels. And the fuels are much more heat resistant.

David Roberts

I’m sure communities also ask about the waste.

Jessica Lovering

The fuel and the waste are dependent on which reactor you’re looking at, but all of them use fuel more efficiently, so they make less waste.

With Oklo, the fuel stays in the reactor for up to 20 years. They don’t have a lot of material in there, you’re not doing a lot of refueling, and the waste isn’t handled on-site. The whole reactor is sent back to a central facility. It’s like getting a battery — you’re getting the reactor shipped to you with the fuel inside, and you send it back with the fuel inside. That’s nice for a lot of communities that don’t want to deal with handling or storing waste.

Some advanced nuclear designs also use recycled fuel. You can recycle or reprocess existing nuclear waste to turn it into fuel, which is great because it’s already available. France recycles all their fuel; they use all their fuel twice, whereas in the US, we use our fuel once.

Other than that, we still need to come up with a solution for what to do with spent nuclear fuel. France stores their waste in pods underground.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

Beautiful, super-high-tech facilities where they store high-level nuclear waste. You can go visit. They’re just these big canisters, and you put them in a big room. It’s a lot less scary than it seems.

Spent fuel from nuclear reactors at a nuclear waste reprocessing plant in Beaumont-Hague in northwestern France.
A storage pool of spent fuel from nuclear reactors at French multinational energy group Areva’s nuclear waste reprocessing plant in Beaumont-Hague, in northwestern France on December 16, 2015.
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Jessica Lovering

Another story of American exceptionalism is that we’ve just never gotten our shit together on nuclear waste. It’s not a technological issue, it’s a political issue.

Suzy Hobbs Baker

One of the policy areas we’re interested in revisiting is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which has not succeeded in any way, at all. We’re going to have to come up with better policy solutions to help unstick these issues. You can’t ask a bunch of communities to stand up new reactors and have no solution for where waste is going. At this point, it’s not a winning proposition.

David Roberts

Where do we store the waste now?

Jessica Lovering

Right now, we just store it on the power plant sites, in dry casks. It’s fine. But the communities did not agree to be storing that waste there. That’s a big issue. They may have been okay with hosting a nuclear power plant, but the plan was always for the Department of Energy to take that waste and put it somewhere. It’s just sitting on these 67 sites around the country.

David Roberts

What are your hopes for progressive nuclear policy?

Suzy Hobbs Baker

It feels to us like the door is open for advanced nuclear to get on board with the climate movement and to grapple seriously with issues of social and environmental justice, because [nuclear has], second to fossil fuels, one of the worst histories with those issues. In contrast to the savior complex a lot of the sector has, I think we have an enormous amount to learn by joining forces with the broader climate movement.

Currently, there isn’t a deep knowledge of nuclear technology and nuclear issues among progressives. I think we can bring value to the space. We really do want to solve climate change and to do so in a way that supports communities. Ultimately, it’s a commitment to do the work.

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