Emmet Penney, Editor in Chief of Grid Brief and Host of Nuclear Barbarians, talks to Mark Hinaman about the future of nuclear and his work in advocating for the industry.
[00:00:00] Emmet Penney: Crom’s blessing. What is Crom’s blessing for the future one. The future? Yeah. I think in the medium term, in the near term, it’s gonna be painful. I think that’s really what’s gonna happen. I think the grid crises in America are going to really hurt more vulnerable Americans and that, that’s a shame.
But I think that those of us who are arguing for this future can turn that into an opportunity to build a better future. I think it will rely on us to light the way towards something new and different from this old dead handed ideology we’ve inherited from the seventies. That’s what I think, is the future for us.
[00:00:45] Intro: Just because the facts are A, if the narrative is B and everyone believes the narrative, then B is what matters. But it’s our job in our industry to speak up proudly, soberly. And to engage people that are in energy poverty, they need us. America cannot meet this threat alone. If there is a single country.
Of course the world cannot meet it without America. That is willing to. We’re gonna need you. The next generation to finish the need scientists to design new fuels. And focus on net public benefit. We need engineers to invent new technologies. Over absurd levels of radiation. Entrepreneurs to sell those technologies.
And we will march towards this. We need workers to operate a. Assembly lines that hum with high tech, zero carbon components. We have unlimited prosperity for all of you. We need diplomats, businessmen and women, and Peace Corps volunteers to help developing nations skip past the dirty phase of development and transition to sustainable sources of energy.
In other words, we need you.
[00:01:50] Mark Hinaman: okay. Welcome to another episode of the Fire Division podcast, where we talk about energy dense fuels and how they can better human lives. I’m joined today by one of my favorite guys of all time, Emmett Penny. Emmett and I have been friends for a long time, and, I’m just stoked to talk to him. He’s interviewed me a couple times and now I gotta turn the tables.
Yeah, that’s right. How’s your day going, man?
[00:02:11] Emmet Penney: Great. Happy to be here.
[00:02:13] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Excellent. I’m excited to dive into your background and talk about some interesting topics that I’ve had on my mind and get your perspective on them. But, to, kick us off, why don’t you give Kevin an introduction of yourself, 30, 60 seconds.
Who are you? Who is Emmett Penny? If somebody’s been living. Yeah,
[00:02:31] Emmet Penney: we’re, I don’t know if I’m quite that big yet, but, yeah. So I am the editor-in-Chief of Grid Brieff, which is a daily energy newsletter. I’m a contributing editor at Compact Magazine, which is a sort of like heterodox left right publication that tries to.
Foster independent thought. I run the Nuclear Barbarians podcast and I also do a little bit of, writing there sometimes, when I have the time. And I’m trying to see if there’s anything else. I think so far that’s pretty much it. I mean, I just. Keep churning out, writing, keep doing this. I got the energy bug a few years ago when I started working for Michael Shellenberger and, stuck with it ever since.
So it’s been, just a few years now and I learned something new every day.
[00:03:19] Mark Hinaman: You’re not technical or, didn’t have a technical background prior to working on a bunch of these projects. Right.
[00:03:24] Emmet Penney: No. Yeah, I studied poetry in undergrad, and then I got my master’s at St. John College in Santa Fe, which is like a great books curriculum with an emphasis on philosophy.
[00:03:36] Mark Hinaman: Very, uncommon in my opinion. I don’t know many people that have studied that and then find themselves. Writing a newsletter, that tackles Yeah. In depth issues of the energy markets globally. Right?
[00:03:51] Emmet Penney: Yeah. It has been a steep learning curve. Let me tell you.
[00:03:54] Mark Hinaman: Now I feel like you’re smarter than me.
[00:03:56] Emmet Penney: Well, I don’t know about all that. Uh, I think I’m good at faking it right now. I’d like to get a little bit more like real expertise, but that’ll take some time.
[00:04:03] Mark Hinaman: So what, drew you to energy? what was the allure?
[00:04:07] Emmet Penney: Yeah, so it was actually, He was actually kind of like an accident, if I’m completely honest.
I had talked and become friends with Michael Shellenberger around the summer of 2017 and we stayed in touch. And he had successfully, like Nuke killed me. I was like, okay, this is sort of the way, this is what we ought to be doing. Yeah. This is what we ought to be doing energy-wise, and then, It was a few years later that he ended up hiring me in the lead up to, apocalypse Never. So I helped do some like research and editorial stuff while he was working on that book. I mean, which was a very eye-opening experience because there’s so many different domains of energy. but I almost had to sort of like be dragged, like kicking and screaming a little bit.
Like I was a philosophy guy. I was a humanities guy. I had done. A lot of thinking about political theory and political history, and I think to the detriment of understanding, energy and then like economics to a certain degree. And so it really, I had to figure out how to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
With all of that, it was sort of like I worked on that. I had the skillset, that I developed or had started to develop through it. And then after San Francisco came out, cuz I had worked on that too. It was sort of like, well, I want to keep doing the nuclear thing. I want to keep talking about energy because at that point, I had been running a podcast called Exhaust for a while, which was about like, why nothing feels possible.
And we talked about energy stuff through that. And one of the things that I realized is that it was such a powerful, explanatory tool for, not just conflicts in society, but just how we reproduce our lives every single day.
[00:05:54] Mark Hinaman: Like energy is
[00:05:55] Emmet Penney: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Energy is, and so I. Started the Nuclear Barbarians Podcast on top of what I was already doing, and then somehow ended up doing this energy newsletter.
I’d gotten approached by some friends who were looking for somebody who could reliably write like a thousand words a day. And I was that guy and which was terrifying, honestly. Like I would lose so much sleep, cuz it used to be three days a week. I would lose sleep every single night before it came out.
Sunday night, I would barely sleep. Tuesday night, I would barely sleep. And then Thursday night I would barely sleep for the first, like three months of running grid Brieff. Wow. And then like once, so, because I, didn’t know what I was doing, first of all, we hadn’t figured out what the format was.
Yeah. So I was writing like three op-eds a week on energy for maybe the first month, which was super demanding. Yeah. And so I was like, how am I gonna keep thinking of things to do? So there was that, and also I was very painfully aware of how little I knew. And it seemed like the more I did it, the less I knew.
And so I was like, what am I gonna get wrong? Am I gonna let down readers? Like everything, revolves around their trust in me and like I have gotten things wrong and issued corrections pretty much immediately. That’s fine. I’ve, that’s happened like twice so far in the past, like year and some change.
And if I’ve gotten other stuff wrong, no one’s told me. But I was really sensitive to the fact that I was walking into a domain professionally that I. Knew only a sliver of, and it was really in clean energy. So I had some sense of knowledge about, a little bit about the grid and then a little bit about nuclear, and then a little bit about renewables and then everything else.
I was basically like knife fighting in the dark with, and we did it right after tanks rolled into Ukraine. So that’s when we launched. So it was like suddenly, like, international gas markets were going crazy. There was also like all of these problems from the fall of 2021 and around the summer with the, demand resurgence after covid, and then the total.
Coupled with, everybody in your industry knows like how much money left the space during 2020 and like all of this stuff. And so I had to learn
[00:08:06] Mark Hinaman: Then people wanted oil.
[00:08:08] Emmet Penney: Yeah, exactly. And then they wanted it. And so, I had to learn all of this stuff really, really quickly, to be able to relate it, to readers, because I think it’s my job to try to, I don’t need to be an expert, but I need to be competent enough to relay it to laypeople.
Yeah. That’s how I see my job and yeah, it’s been a wild, wild journey intellectually
[00:08:33] Mark Hinaman: grid brief newsletter. You send a note five days a week now?
[00:08:37] Emmet Penney: That’s right.
[00:08:37] Mark Hinaman: It’s awesome, man.
[00:08:39] Emmet Penney: Thank you.
[00:08:39] Mark Hinaman: So, I mean, the format, right? You got two or three, like, I think of ’em as short article highlights, mm-hmm. Or you might link to article, but you have a brief synopsis about it. And then, You’ve got some talking points in there. Sometimes it’s sponsored, sometimes it’s not, and then like mm-hmm. I love Krams blessing. What is Krams blessing?
[00:08:58] Emmet Penney: So, I modeled a lot of the aesthetic on the Nuclear Barbarians podcast and sub after John Mills’ Conan, the Barbarian movie.
Because I think nuclear’s like big and powerful.
[00:09:10] Mark Hinaman: I appreciate, yeah. It’s movies like Yeah, course.
[00:09:13] Emmet Penney: I think it’s like ecstatically sort of like beautiful. It has this because there’s no dialogue and it’s very epic. It has this like transcendental quality to it, this like vitalistic aspect, and I wanted that to be related to nuclear because one of the things that I love about nuclear is that it can.
We don’t know how long it can last actually. Like we might be able to just keep refurbishing these things. So I had this idea of oh man, like old Earth, nuclear, like nuclear that has been around for like a hundred, 200 years and it’s still big and powerful. And I wanted that like Conan element to that.
And so when we were making grid brief, we were taking a look at a bunch of different newsletters. Like, what are they doing that we want to do? And I think one of them was like wall Street Bets or something like that, had their own newsletter. I can’t remember what it was. And they had a pallet cleanser at the end.
That’s what they called it. It was their pallet cleanser. And it was always like a financial meme. And I was like, that’s great. I want a pallet cleanser too. But what should it be called? And I was just like, oh, Crumb’s blessing. Like it just came to me immediately and then I was like, okay, well I need to harvest.
Photos that have, I want old timey strongman photos. I want old power plant photos. I want concept photos. Of concept photos. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I love, military r and d ads from the fifties and sixties. Those are a lot because they have just really great design elements and I wanted to sort of build up an aesthetic that.
Gestured, beyond energy and beyond sort of the things that, I value in energy to a kind of, powerful Bronny worldview around energy and industry. Yeah. And so I basically, the dirty secret is that I pretty much just set up a Pinterest account. And started like searching for the types of things I was looking for until, and I iterated it enough that it trained the algorithm to deliver nice the things that I wanted.
So I like that was a big part of it. And the thing that was really surprising about CRA’s blessing is that sometimes I don’t always use the Pinterest. Sometimes I’ll go into the Department of Energy has really great. Flicker archives. And so I’ll go through there and find wild stuff that nobody’s looked at for 20 years, or maybe longer, maybe not even since the photo was uploaded, but what I found out is that people. Resonated with that almost more than anything. They were like, love the content. It’s like useful to me, as an energy professional or investor or someone who’s just passionate about this.
But they were like, we love crumms blessing. Look for it every single day.
[00:11:46] Mark Hinaman: I think you filled this niche. And this is gonna sound so broy, but. Like at, at my core, I am ask my friends, do you know any bro? They’re like, look in the mirror, bro.
[00:11:58] Emmet Penney: Yeah, for sure.
[00:11:58] Mark Hinaman: I didn’t see, kind of more hardcore.
Element to the nuclear space, something Yeah. Exhibits strength, it just feels like a lot of the content and rhetoric in the industry is very apologetic. And, the approach that you took was the opposite of that. It was like not,
[00:12:15] Emmet Penney: oh, I decided to lean in.
[00:12:17] Mark Hinaman: Yeah.
We’re gonna pound the doors down, and so, I really appreciate that approach of, Hey, hey, we’re here to help and if you’re not here to help get out of our way.
[00:12:25] Emmet Penney: Yeah. A lot of that I learned from working from Michael, who’s very unapologetic and was like very incendiary and like a lot of the stuff he was saying around 20 18, 20 19 is now just like common knowledge.
Which is crazy. Was it was, it was not at the time, And I think, so I learned from that and that, the other thing was, I remember when I launched Nuclear Barbarians, I had an opening essay to sort of introduce it. And I remember watching this nuclear advocate, Brita Augustine in Vienna, I think get assaulted by some anti-nuclear activist, like actually assaulted, they like ripped the sign out of her hand and shoved her around and stuff like that.
And it made me so viscerally angry. And then I was just like, Why, I competitively armed wrestle. I watch a lot of m m a, like that’s the type of guy I am. And I remember Jorge Modal, he was on a run at the time in the welterweight division and he had just come back from a hiatus after some.
Bad losses and he just started knocking people out and he said that he took some time away and he asked himself, I’m gonna, people are gonna have to pardon my French, but he was watching old footage of himself and he goes, why didn’t I just knock that guy the fuck out? Why was I walking around thinking like I’m some kind of peasant?
And I was like, that’s the energy I want to bring to nuclear. I’m done apologizing to these people who don’t know anything or even less, who are totally disingenuous and who manipulate a fearful public to their own aims. I’m about. Broadcasting confidence, we’re gonna solve this, we’re gonna do it.
This is a technical problem and we’re gonna dominate. And that’s how it’s gonna be. And people have really rallied around that. I mean, I also knew exactly who would be attracted to that, and I’ve basically been right. It’s dude, my listenership on nuclear barbarians is like 96% men. I went and shacked the other day or something like that.
And that’s fine. There are other people who are way bigger than me that appeal to way more women or just a broader audience in general. Isabel Beki, who’s done a great job of cultivating this futurist aesthetic around nuclear, does a great job of that. But I also worry, Here’s one way to think about a lot of classical political philosophy problems.
They’re like, what do we do with all of these young men? Because having too many young men who are aimless and depressed is a threat to society. Like we don’t get up to good stuff when left to our own devices. Yeah, and there’s so much doism in the culture that I was like, if I can broadcast this in like a healthy psychological way without trying to transcend resentment, that’s a big thing that I’m trying to emphasize now.
Transcending resentment into confidence and power. I can bring the type of guy who would just sit in his bedroom. Worrying about like drought predictions or, the coming end of the world, like I used to. Yeah. And supply a more powerful, compelling message. So that’s a big part of how I thought about doing nuclear barbarians as well.
I wrote like this like whole document of, what do I want to be, and some of that’s changed and some of it I had to grow into. Like It was not, the whole reason I got into arm wrestling was so that I could do better comms, for nuclear actually, that’s why I did it. I’m missing confidence.
I need some sort of like martial art type thing to get me used to like trading blows. I was like, the farther you are from danger, the farther you are from success, so I need something that’s gonna let me get comfortable. Losing and teach me how to win with grace. And that was part of it too.
For me it was trying to figure out how to psychologically level up to be the type of communicator that I wanted to be in the world.
[00:16:07] Mark Hinaman: You had kind of a transformation also. Well, I mean, you said you knew a little bit about nuclear, a little bit about renewables, a little bit about the grid when you started this, but kind of over the past year.
I mean, paint some. Give us a perspective on if your mentality about energy and what is important and what matters has changed.
[00:16:32] Emmet Penney: Oh, yeah, totally. I like left the climate narrative behind. It’s not that I think it’s like a non-issue, I think it’s important, right? And I’m not a denier, it’s real.
But, one of the things that I realized a lot of it was just like dwelling in the problem and like how bad the problem could be. And I was like, well, that’s not useful. I don’t want to do that. And then, that opened me up to learning. Well also, cuz I had to, for Grid brief, I had to learn so much about O N G.
It was just like the Level Up felt crazy over one year, yeah. And luckily, one of my business partners, knows people and O N G or knows a lot himself, so I could ask him, I’d be like, what the hell is with these renewable fuel standards? They seem like bullshit.
And he’d be like, they are, lemme, lemme explain it to you. And so that was, a big part of it. What I realized is that I lost like the moral vector on energy types and started to understand them as a means to an end. And that, really aside from just the reportorial work that I do, which is really just sort of like digesting the news for people, honestly.
I don’t consider myself a journalist in my grid brief work, but it’s super Yeah. And I’m not, it serves a need.
[00:17:42] Mark Hinaman: It says that it’s excellent and awesome, and they use it. It’s okay, all right. Yeah. In some, right.
[00:17:46] Emmet Penney: Yeah. Right. Exactly. And I’m proud of that work, but, I know the difference between that and getting a scoop, that’s a different thing.
You’re right. And so what I realized that I needed to do was tell a story about what energy’s for. And that was, the big thing. Like we need this not just to live. Cuz I don’t like saying, we just need this to keep the lights on. That’s important. Right. But I think sort of the ancient Greek philosophers were kind of correct and they were like just surviving, just providing for your own needs is.
Goal one, and then after that it’s the most important things follow. So it was about creating like an ethos around energy and human potential and what I call industrial conservation, which is about maintaining these systems so that we can hand them down to future generations and they too can flourish.
Because I think right now, when we take a look at E S G, when we take a look at what’s happening with the grid, it is threatening. Our ability to harness these energies successfully so that we can live virtuous, meaningful lives. That was the big shift for me.
The reason I like nuclear is because it, first of all, it’s awesome. Second of all, it alleviated my climate fears. But then once those fears really dissipated and I had hope, it was like, well, what do we, what am I gonna do? What do we want? What do we want from all of this? What are we waiting for?
And also what’s valuable about what we’re doing now? What if I took a look at our energy systems and started from a place of gratitude? What if I didn’t think about it as this big behemoth? There are all sorts of problems in every industry, we have tort law for a reason, right?
So I’m not gonna just do like fanboy of this stuff, but what if I started from gratitude and started looking at industrial modernity as something that I inherit? And so if I inherited it, it was useful and important that someone pass it on to me. And what does that mean if I’m in the chain of history with this stuff?
So what do we do with it? Why does it matter to us? Why do we need to take care of this? And that’s a lot of the thinking I try and do now. I’m low key looking at these new EPA rules and coming up with a very, trollish, but I think true defense of our existing coal plants.
Yeah. Where I’m like, if we want to transition from cold to nuclear.
[00:20:15] Mark Hinaman: Talk us through this.
[00:20:16] Emmet Penney: Yeah. Yeah. So, the general premise is the DOE released a report about replacing Repowering coal plants with SMRs. Yep. Right. And, our mutual friend, Matt Hilly, who has written great stuff about cold and nuclear’s transition, Dr.
Chris Keefer over at Tea Couple has really hyped up Ontario’s. Extremely successful transition. Even retaining and retraining the coal workforce for nuclear, which is like this gold standard to me. It’s amazing. But I was taking a look at reports from pjm, which is a grid operator in America that covers the mid-Atlantic into the, uh, Midwest.
So it’s 13 states plus Washington DC and they put out a report in February and they were like, we’re gonna lose like 40 gigawatts in the next decade, or something like that. And we don’t know what to do like that. That’s just too fast. Right. And renewables projects, a can’t really replace them one to one, and B, have a 5% completion rate in PJ M, which I can’t imagine will change even if we get permitting reform.
Right. It’s a lot of moving parts to get that right. And then the EPA has put out these rules, which some climate activists have been really honest about, and the EPS new rules, which are about limiting emissions for coal plants. Like I haven’t gone through them like tooth and comb, but the broad strokes are, It’s going to incentivize people to shut off their coal plants because they emit too many emissions and maybe invest in renewables.
And there’s some good legal fights that’ll probably happen about whether the E P A can really do something like that to incentivize one technology over another. But the important thing is, that we’ll only exacerbate, the reports, the problems that are coming outta places like PJM and its neighbor miso with stretches from.
Minnesota bound to Louisiana, which is going through the same problem and they export between each other. So this is a huge part of, the country. And I was like, look, if we close these coal plants too soon, first of all, it’s a huge reliability threat. Second of all, that hardware is gonna go more abundant before anyone can replace that with nuclear.
And what are those communities gonna do, right? Those power plants? Sure. I think nuclear is like vastly superior to coal. I love natural gas plants. I mean, they come with their own trade-offs on the grid and that they’re just in time through pipelines or whatever. And you can have your own problems with that, but, just because it pollutes doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring value to that community, and those jobs are dignified, highly important labor.
That keep our society running. So I’m at the point now where I am like sticking my neck out and saying, no, coal is important actually, even in America, not just in the developing world.
[00:22:56] Mark Hinaman: Okay, so I’ve been talking a lot about this. What are these jobs that we talk about? The just transition all the time that coworkers, are gonna do something else with their lives Once we, our infinite wisdom shut down all the coal plants, like what would you repurpose a mine?
With and repurpose those jobs with.
[00:23:14] Emmet Penney: So the mine is a really interesting question. I actually kind of wanna talk what’s interested in the mine actually.
[00:23:18] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Cause the past you’re most like, that makes sense. Okay, yeah you drop the nuclear reactor and reutilize whatever of the switchyard tech.
And probably replace the generator and turbine, but repurpose the plant makes sense to me.
[00:23:32] Emmet Penney: Sure. Yeah. That’s like an easy sell, right? Yeah. It’s what do you do with the mine, yeah. So, I was talking with some dudes from West Virginia about this recently and, I think there are also big industrial storage opportunities in mines for places to put waste, some of it, nuclear or something like that.
And those are important jobs. They don’t employ as many people by the way. So that’s a problem. I mean, first of all, we’re not gonna get one to one. That’s not gonna happen. And acting like it is,
[00:23:56] Mark Hinaman: is a. Being very creative, but as far as one-to-one jobs, meaning like you’re not gonna keep the same jobs Yeah.
With the same purpose. You’re doing something different, fundamentally different. No. And so, then there might be a different financial profile. You’re gonna be generating different products, right?
[00:24:11] Emmet Penney: Yes. yeah. And so what you really wanna do is replace wealth opportunities.
That’s how I think about it, yeah. And like dignified work. That’s really important. So it’s like socially useful and Well, remune brings something to the community, right? So maybe there aren’t as many jobs at, a waste storage facility or something like that, but it, brings so much wealth or whatever that there’s some like comparable thing and people have the capital and ability to do other stuff.
So that’s, one of the options for that. I mean, look, my energy realist take is really Well, we just sell it to the developing world. That’s what we do with the coal mining jobs. Like they’re gonna keep building coal plants, if we think they’re not like we’re lying to ourselves. So like maybe eventually we won’t need it, but they will.
And America could be start shipping it, export, just start shipping it. Just start shipping it. And like maybe you can’t do that forever. Like I also think we should be building nuclear abroad to offset some of the massive onboarding co. Of coal. Yeah. But that’s not gonna happen. At the same you can still build a coal plant faster.
We’ve been building coal plants since What the 19th century like, we’re just gonna keep doing it, for a while. And especially places that have no power and need it are gonna keep doing it. Like I’m a huge defender of South Africa’s coal fleet. Like those people need to keep the lights on.
That is wildly important. And like electrification can’t come before reliability. Yep. If you get that twisted, oh boy, like you’re cruising for a bruising, right? That’s the problem with a lot of this energy transition or just transition stuff. So I would say that there’s sort of like two tiers of response.
Like the energy realist take isn’t gonna be a good sell for all sorts of people. And I respect and understand that. I get that people have major concerns about that. I get that they want to do other things and I get that it’s hard for them to value those jobs and I disagree with that, but, We gotta say what is mine infrastructure, what else can we use it for?
I’ve brought up the storage thing. So like you said, we can get kind of creative here and ultimately we have to figure out like, what do these communities want?
[00:26:19] Mark Hinaman: I think you already said it’s wealth, right? Like wealth, opportunity. That’s, I mean, when it comes down to it, that’s why a lot of people are there and they enjoy small towns and small communities and many of these are in rural areas with that are often beautiful and Perhaps more desirable to live or less desirable, but to live than in cities, so,
[00:26:37] Emmet Penney: yeah, and I don’t want to act like there are no problems in the coal industry. I think we’ve had some, uh, examples pretty recently about how under-invested infrastructure is there. Now I’ve really seen some coal mining companies take advantage of their workers and those communities, and so things could get tightened up around there.
My point isn’t that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and every single energy source is equal and important, but really that we have to add. More variables into how we think about the value of these jobs and energy.
[00:27:07] Mark Hinaman: So let’s, I wanna shift gears a little bit and talk about your talk that you gave in mm-hmm.
Colorado. Mm-hmm. Last when you were here. It was super good. I attended it. You’ve, released a recording of it or it’s been published. Mm-hmm. Uh, and yeah. Why don’t you give us kind of an overview and what you were trying to in, an abbreviated Yeah. Abbreviated
version. Yeah. How’s that?
[00:27:28] Emmet Penney: Yeah. So I, God, what was I trying to do? I mean, I think what I wanted changed like a million times while I was writing it. I’d wanted to attempt to synthesize my. Sort of energy thinking and my philosophical thinking and sort of, I think in energy and economics, mostly in energy, the main thing people talk about is the industrial revolution and for good reason.
And I wanted to complicate that narrative while also complicating the sort of parallel track narrative in the humanities, which is on the enlightenment. And these things happen like pretty. Similarly, like the dawn of modernity, right? If we take sort of the Renaissance and Machiavelli is a jump off point for how we start thinking about that.
And then I wanted to actually show that the industrial revolution wasn’t really a revolution. That actually it was this sort of cumulative buildup that you could see starting from around the right Renaissance at the same time. So in other words, both the changes in material reality had, uh, like Coe emergent relationship with.
Western intellectual life and how we see ourselves as people. And I wanted to suggest sort of, the major thing I was trying to suggest by doing that is that if the industrial revolution wasn’t even seen by those who were experiencing it as revolution, then maybe it wasn’t this rapid break from the life that came before it.
And so maybe if it took longer, maybe a little bit less modern. Then we might think that we are, that we have not left the past entirely behind. And then I wanted to say that there are actually problems with, some of the enlightenment thinking that reduces life to technocratic management and strictly fulfilling your physical.
Needs and that I think that there are callings to duty and virtue and responsibility beyond that the ancients got right. So if you put those two things together and then look at what’s happening to some of our industrial systems, Like the grid, like anything else we’ve talked about? I think that there is this higher calling to steward these things to create a society where people can pursue virtue and that wealth is not its own object and that we have a responsibility to maintain these systems from this more ancient perspective.
So that’s probably about as much as I can condense it cuz I like I went ham in that talk. I really went all over the place for it. It’s great. Yeah. And.
[00:30:09] Mark Hinaman: What I was most disappointed about though was, you finished it with, oh, by the way, nuclear’s the answer, right?
[00:30:15] Emmet Penney: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, well I had timed it.
Yeah. Spoiler alert. Yeah. I had timed it a few times and there was like, I’ve written on the idea of nuclear’s industrial cathedrals a few times. I think I have a piece coming out with, I still have to. Write it mostly with Praxis Society soon, sort of elaborating on the Industrial Cathedral idea a little bit more to sort of in response to both your question and Alex Peru who was in the audience, asking me very difficult questions about Nietzsche nihilism.
And if, not progress, then what? And. I was like, well, I gotta have a response to this. So what I’ve been sort of thinking is that when we look at things like Notre Dame, these projects that took thousands of people, grandfathers handed jobs off to grandsons, right? I mean, now we could have a world where we hand from grandmother to granddaughter and that’s great, but then it was, that was a male endeavor that it was more than just we’re building a house of worship.
That what is about, we are committing our resources to building something remarkable that gives people tactile, aspirational jobs to do things that they might not ever see to completion. Now we can make nuclear plants way faster, way faster, despite all the shit talking about how long it takes to build a nuclear plant, way faster than Notre Dame.
But we can maintain them. For perhaps just as long, and that when I took a look at these nuclear communities, I saw that they were really based around the plant. Not in a company town like way, but in the way that it’s built around a cathedral. All these elements of civic life seemed to emanate from the existence of that plant there.
That was really, really powerful to me, and it made me think that actually there’s this sort of like modality around living near those plants that is almost like. In all of the good ways, kind of medieval and that it’s like local in that you have, there’s room for artisan labor there because there are so many like local like unions and stuff there.
Yeah. And that life isn’t just about the plant, but that it issues forth from the wealth and energy density. Of the plant. Yeah. And that’s really what I was thinking when I ended that talk, gesturing towards what is powerful about nuclear and also that it is like, as an engineering, achievement.
Spectacular. It is excellent, right? It is to me it is the built world, Aristotelian. Or virtue of creation because of its energy density, because of its cleanliness, because of its sophistication and because of its enduring this. And those, I think, are just unbeatable as elements.
[00:33:09] Mark Hinaman: I love that idea of it being like the town center, town square cathedral church, like mm-hmm.
That, it’s the golden goose. Yeah. I saw that in my hometown, it was an oilfield town and mm-hmm. The oilfield was the golden goose. It was the wealth. Yeah. And so similar kind of culture. I liked your time reference. We build plants much faster now, than. Well, actually it takes a little bit longer now than it used to.
But it’s certainly faster. That could be fixed. That could be fixed. Yeah. It’ll be fixed. Right? Yeah. We’ll make this happen. But it’s, certainly faster than cathedrals, like mm-hmm. Mentioned. Mm-hmm. I’ve been rummaging around this idea, uh, and this is probably a lot of background for you for this question, but All of these new advanced technologies mm-hmm.
Need funding. They all need money. Yes. And in our current existing capitalist system, there’s kind of like this threshold of you gotta hit hurdle rates and you gotta make your money back as fast as possible. And people are incentivized to do that. And I mean, the value intrinsic to these technologies is huge.
Mm-hmm. But, under our current system design. I mean, we can go and build them, but it’s harder meaning like mm-hmm. How do we find people to invest hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in basically r and d that you don’t know if it’s gonna pan out for five to 10 years? Yeah. But if it does, then you know, you hit the jackpot.
Like how, do you meld or mesh these ideas? I don’t know. What’s your take on
[00:34:38] Emmet Penney: So I think that there’s sort of like three institutions, let’s say, that we could look at for this. So from the time that we could build ’em fast, now we have gotten much wealthier, not just on the whole, but we have people who are individually, Crazy wealthy in comparison, uh, to the past.
So I think when we look at things like what Bill Gates is doing with I think terror power and stuff like that, it’s clear that we have some individuals that are willing to pony up a ton of money to make this happen. So that’s one element of it, right? I think that there is a certain amount of uh, excitement amongst the very certain.
Technically savvy elements of the very wealthy for this who want to risk that capital to do it. That’s not the only ways that’s, that’s one, right. Okay. So we have that. And the second one is the old school monopoly utilities. One of the biggest struggles is how to make Baseload power plants profitable.
In our electricity spot markets, one of the things that’s true about those spot markets or outside of those spot markets is that the utilities still have the old structure and the old investment opportunities to build nuclear if it’s something that they want to do. Provided the regulatory environment is salutary to risking that capital over a period of time.
So there’s one old school utilities. I mean, people have a lot of problems with them. I get that. I’m just saying that that’s one of the places where we might go or that people might go for that. And then the third, uh, one that I would say are state entities. So the TV A is working with Canada’s Bruce power.
On some sort of SMR design. They have the ability to take these long-term r and d risks to try to figure this out, and they’re allowed to do that, right? There are fascinating critiques of the TV A from its very inception about how its ability to do that is unfair compared to its market competitors, whatever.
There’s a whole tangled history, but I think what you’re gesturing at is that it’s, we can’t really totally rely on those tight timeframes to get some of this stuff right. Especially with more experimental technology. I should add the fourth one in that I know that, uh, I think there’s project pay in the military looking for a micro reactor.
And I think that that’s important. But one of the things that always makes me hesitant is that for the last however many decades in America, there has been this just routed through the Defense Department thing to get it done. And I think that’s a, a bad habit for, uh, people in Washington to get into.
And b I think that there are sort of effects for growing that, that are a threat to our Republican government. It just, frankly, puts too much money and power. Into the military’s hands and that if we want to be governed, uh, by and for citizens and civilians, then we need to make sure that it’s not just them doing this, and all respect to those military endeavors and all respect to the Navy nukes.
Who are incredible and who will never declassify their highly successful propulsion reactive device because frankly they probably shouldn’t. So that, that’s sort of in my mind how we answered the question of how do we take these risks and who’s gonna pay for them. And I think that there will be, it’s America, like we do high risk stuff.
Right. Like that’s what we’re known for. I think it’s a sense of who we are. We have a lot of swagger. I think we’re like congenitally, overconfident. And that’s one of the reasons why we like the market in America. We like that as a solution. It’s not just that we prefer smaller things as sort of this Jeffersonian tick, right?
It’s that we like risk, like we think that there is inherent. Value in people being willing to risk something to get something, we’d like the type of like citizen in person that that makes. And so I also think that there will just be a lot of failure because of that and that that is something that advocates need to watch out for.
Because failure without emphasizing on the importance of failure as a path to progress can be demoralizing and it can look like you’re losing the comms battle. I think we can kind of see how this is already happening for. Renewables advocates as like the cost goes up and like lizard adjusts. Its levelized cost of energy calculations to show the firming chart.
The firming best. Yeah, the
best chart LA
has ever made. Right? Yeah. It’s the firming cost thing. And they don’t know how to handle that because they haven’t had to. Now, the thing for nuclear advocates, it’s sort of like on our side, is we’ve had to figure out how to talk around Supremely embarrassing, almost humiliating screw ups around Vogel and stuff like that in Georgia, right?
Like we’ve gotten our reps in and we’ve taken our lumps. So I think that , if we maintain that sort of institutional comms knowledge, cuz the industry absolutely won’t do it and I don’t think that they should. Then I think we can get through that period. So that’s, that’s my take on that.
[00:39:59] Mark Hinaman: I still find it so puzzling. And I don’t know that I quite got the answer that I wanted, but I find this points funny. Yeah, the it nuclear industry finding, uh, mess-ups, right. Or apologizing. Mm-hmm. Or mm-hmm. Or, oh, we went over budget versus if that happens in conventional energy, then.
People can complain left and right, but at the end of the day mm-hmm. The oil companies are still gonna be like, well, do you want gasoline? Yeah. Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. We do. Yeah. Please, please sell us some gasoline.
[00:40:32] Emmet Penney: So, I think there are two major differences, right? And so the first of all is that, Nuclear isn’t quite like o g, which is just necessary for industrial society to exist writ large.
Two utilities make people pay for it. And so when it goes over budget right, it makes them mad and that makes sense. Like that’s a pretty I get it. That’s fair. And then the third thing is the level of scrutiny. Like people bash on fossil fuels all the time, but like that industry is so huge and sprawling, you cannot.
Do what the environmental movement was totally and zero in on it the way they have with nuclear nuclear’s, just like one part of a larger system, o g is like everything. It’s an easier target. Yeah, yeah, exactly. So and so and so when there was mess-ups happened, they get amplified like beyond.
Anything, also, I mean, you’ve probably noticed this, uh, in your line of work, like there’s a lot people don’t know or appreciate about O N G, but there is even more people don’t know or misunderstand about nuclear whole tax facility that they just got approved for waste storage or spent fuel storage for nuclear in New Mexico like the governor.
Like straight up came out and was like, I’m worried it’s gonna leak into the soil. Like it’s a solid, it can’t do that. You know what I mean? But that’s just an acceptable thing for a high ranking politician to say and believe. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:42:03] Mark Hinaman: Fascinating. So why, all right. What’s your take on why nuclear is so hard to build?
Uh, Right. Yeah.
People give lots of explanations, but I’m curious on Emmett Penney’s. Latest,
[00:42:19] Emmet Penney: yeah, yeah. What’s the latest take? So I think there’s a guy who recently wrote like really great, paper that did a great job of demonstrating that, like the regulatory problem is like, Countervailing against the success of nuclear, and that has been historically true and continues to be true.
I know that there are some people who’ve published rebuttals to that in the decouple, CK that are like, no. Now we’ve figured out how these regulations are and we don’t wanna get rid of them. I’m not an expert, but I err on the side of, shrinking the power of the NRC rather than, habituating us, to its arcane and labyrinthine rules for nuclear.
So that’s part of it. Right is that we have, unrealistic safety standards for nuclear that don’t make any sense. And that’s burdensome on any energy industry.
[00:43:07] Mark Hinaman: How did that happen? Like why was that a thing?
[00:43:10] Emmet Penney: Yeah. So there’s a pretty deep history here in terms of like how linear, no threshold, which is like a, radiation dosage, theory came to be, I touched it a little bit in a piece I wrote for American Affairs called, who Killed Nuclear.
And I think Rod Adams has even more information on this than he’ll forget more than I’ll ever know about how this came to be. But yeah, love Rod over the course of the fifties and sixties. The fear of radiation became more publicly relevant because of the Cold War, and frankly because the American government, even if they were technically right about, how not as scary as people think some of their bomb testing was, they were incredibly callous about how they communicated that to Republic.
Like I think people also don’t understand that nuclear is like really born in secrecy, even civilian nuclear. And so the public never has a real relationship to it other than this top down. We’re doing this whether you like it or not. I’m not saying we should democratically decide everything that we do, but I think we can understand that Americans who have this paranoia around centralized systems that Europeans don’t share.
Didn’t greet that with open arms, right? It’s what makes us a non-European country is that paranoia, by the way. It’s part of what makes us American. So , there’s that, that’s happening there. And then there were some, people argue very successfully that l n t was basically like a boshed.
Set of studies around fruit flies that the guy who won the Nobel Prize for it suppressed evidence that disproved him, that he knew about right before he, won the prize. But regardless for a variety of reasons, that became the standard, because that was the, like cutting edge science on it.
Not safe at any dose, right? Is the take on that. And that became NRC policy. When the a e C, which adopted l n t by the way, before the nrc, in the 1970s. And so when the NRC gets formed later on, they alter it to as low as reasonably achievable. I mean, reasonably is and achievable are two of like most load-bearing words in the American legal code.
And so they’re really in the eye of the beholder and in the seventies and eighties that leads to a lot of plants getting torn apart, and rebuilt as they’re working on them, which leads to all sorts of overages. The other thing is, for whatever reason, we lose a lot of engineering potential. In the seventies and eighties, a lot of institutional knowledge.
A lot of other industries, this sort of gets under discussed, but the ization of Silicon Valley and the move into the digital sphere ends up recruiting a lot of the top tier engineer talent. Mm-hmm.
[00:46:09] Mark Hinaman: Machines before and now they’re making
[00:46:12] Emmet Penney: Right, right, right.
And you can see that sort of track that through trade articles in the utilities industry is like around the fifties or sixties. They’re like, we’re losing everyone to aeronautics cause we’re like trying to go in space and stuff. And then the eighties, they’re like, oh my God, we’re losing everybody to computers.
That’s so that happens there. I would also say that there is a collapse in demand growth for electricity. Yeah. Which really spurred. That stuff on. And then there’s all sorts of stuff that happens in like how the relationship between utilities and like General Electric and stuff like that and how they plan their plants and they start to do it more digitally and more speculatively over time, which means that they actually have less hands-on knowledge of what they’re building, which of course leads to overruns.
And then it’s harder to replicate it. And so then it’s harder to learn from it. And so then the costs keep going up, so, There isn’t like the magic bullet, uh, through Mile Island happens, and then the China syndrome comes out and everyone hates it. Like those are important elements.
[00:47:12] Mark Hinaman: Many people in the nuclear industry that still say that I know, well, it’s convenient and this is bad. This is why they shut us down. And it’s right. No, there was costs were ballooning before that.
[00:47:23] Emmet Penney: Yeah, exactly. They were ballooning way before that. And also, people also forget about this in the late sixties.
There were brownouts and blackouts all over the country, so they had lost their credibility as successful managers of the system right at the time that system managers were coming under direct assault by the counterculture, and a huge shift in the American zeitgeist away from Hamiltonian, centralization towards Jeffersonian.
Small is beautiful. And that was a big part of what was going on with the new left and all of that too. And nuclear gets swept up and all of that. And I don’t want to discount the cultural element. It’s important. Like Abraham Lincoln makes this great argument where he’s if you live in a Republican democracy, public opinion is king.
That doesn’t mean that it’s right, but it means that if people don’t like it, it’s never gonna happen. Even if it is right. So like job one for nuclear is okay. We still need to, make people like it. We’re working on that. If people like it, then they need to be able to make money off of it.
So then we need to, fix the electricity markets and then we need to be able to build it. Yeah.
[00:48:35] Mark Hinaman: I’d almost say like incentives drive. If people can make money off of it, then people will like it.
[00:48:40] Emmet Penney: Yeah. It’s sort of like a hard dance, right? It’s like you need to get the public to not hate it, and then you need to be able to get it people who aren’t the public to make money off of it.
Right. And so I think those are closely coupled. It’s like their neck and neck at the race. They need to have happen at once. Those are like the top two GIMs. And I think that it’s a mistake if we only focus on NRC reform. I think grid reform is a huge aspect of that because of how the electricity markets will screw over larger power plants due to heavily subsidized renewables and the way that natural gas can ramp up to catch demand, when the renewables switch out.
It’s just not a good environment for base load.
[00:49:18] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Okay. So Emmett, we’ve talked about a lot, and I feel like, you’ve answered this in several different ways, but if you had to pick one thing that could be most impactful to help us build more nuclears tomorrow, what would it be?
[00:49:29] Emmet Penney: Ooh, that’s a really good question.
Kids, kids, you gotta communicate to the kids. You gotta communicate to the kids. And not only that, And build like all of this stuff.
[00:49:41] Mark Hinaman: Well, you’re swearing on this podcast. You’re not making ential friendly.
[00:49:44] Emmet Penney: I know, I know, I know. I’m so sorry. Uh, ble me out. But not our audience. That’s it. I would say that it’s not just like kids need to know about nuclear and learn to love nuclear and do all that.
I think that’s important. That’s true. I think we could do a much better job of teaching energy to kids and that’s really important so that they value it, but also people have to want to be. When they grow up this person. Yeah. And the industry needs to solve that. Like we need to figure out how to tell upcoming generations of story about who they can become by working in energy and what they can make society be.
And that to me is an underexplored and underemphasized thing about when what we talk about, when we talk about making nuclear happen.
[00:50:35] Mark Hinaman: So, how can people communicate that?
[00:50:37] Emmet Penney: So I think what would be a really great idea is if, well, nuclear industry is highly unionized. I think, unions could do a better job of communicating what’s happened there.
I also think they just need some fucking backbone to be completely honest. Stand up for your job. You’re a hero. And kids need to hear that because they’ll wanna be like you and they should wanna be like you. And I also think the nuclear industry itself, even with all of the speculative stuff, could do an even better job of finding advocates who can appeal to the younger demographics, not just at the level of, isn’t this technology cool, but aren’t the people who make it exceptional?
Yeah. And so I would say that a great thing that’s happened is, grace Stanke, who’s Miss America, is a nuclear engineer. And I think that I’ve already seen her do some of that. So some of it’s starting to happen, and I would say more of that, please.
[00:51:35] Mark Hinaman: I love it. Okay. So last question. Uh, paint a picture for us.
What’s the future look like? Uh, oh God. Tell me, tell me in words. Krams blessing.
[00:51:46] Emmet Penney: Crom’s blessing. What is Crom’s blessing for the future one. The future? Yeah. I think in the medium term, in the near term, it’s gonna be painful. I think that’s really what’s gonna happen. I think the grid crises in America are going to really hurt more vulnerable Americans and that, that’s a shame.
But I think that those of us who are arguing for this future can turn that into an opportunity. To build a better future. I think it will rely on us to light the way towards something new and different from this old dead handed ideology we’ve inherited from the seventies. That’s what I think, is the future for us.
I think it’s gonna be a fight, and I think we have to want the fight. You have to want to win this. And you don’t just win it by beating up on your enemy. We gotta welcome everybody in who wants to be in everybody. There’re gonna be very different visions of nuclear and why it’s important and why we’re doing it or whatever.
And we just gotta welcome that and emphasize it over what our opponents have cuz they’re wrong.
[00:52:59] Mark Hinaman: Good. End. Not a better note. That that’s awesome. This has been great. Thanks so much.
[00:53:03] Emmet Penney: Hey, thanks for having me buddy.