John Kotek discusses his background in nuclear engineering with Mark Hinaman as well as the Nuclear Energy Institute, energy policy, and the future of nuclear.
[00:00:00] John Kotek: And in many cases, even more aggressive decarbonization goals. If nuclear works here, it’s gonna be a game changer in Europe. And so the more we can do to give our. Companies, the tools they need to compete and win against the state owned nuclear energy enterprises in Russia and China, the better off we’re gonna be.
[00:00:21] 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.
[00:01:30] Mark Hinaman: Okay. Welcome to another episode of the Fire de Fission podcast, where we talk about energy dense fuels and how they can better human lives. Today we’re joined by John Kotek, senior VP of Policy and Public Affairs with the Nuclear Energy Institute, or N e I, as I’m sure will refer to it during this interview.
So, John, how you doing?
[00:01:50] John Kotek: I’m very well yourself, mark.
[00:01:52] Mark Hinaman: I’m very excited to chat with you and all about any I and, um, but before we do, let’s dive into kinda. Your background. Well for the audience’s benefit, why don’t you give kind of a brief, like 30 to 62nd overview of what you do at nei just for context and then let’s talk about your background before we get
[00:02:12] John Kotek: Yeah, you bet. So as you mentioned, senior VP for policy public affairs here at the Nuclear Your Energy Institute, which the Industry Trade Association. We can talk about what that means a little bit more later. I also serve as president of something called Nuclear Matters, which is a grassroots that we can see group and.
Happy to talk about that some more too. Um, nuclear engineer by training spent most of my career in the Department of Energy and National Laboratory System, and most recently as a, federal official ran the d o e Office of Nuclear Energy the last couple years of the Obama administration.
[00:02:44] Mark Hinaman: Awesome. High level individual. You’ve had a lot of fun jobs. I’ve gotten to do some fun things. Yeah, that’s great. How’d you get started? Where was your start in industry?
[00:02:54] John Kotek: So, as I mentioned, nuclear engineer by training actually became a nuclear engineer. In large part because of the disputes over nuclear power.
In the 1980s was when I was growing up outside of Boston. And so there was a lot of a lot of talk about the Seabrook plant and. New Hampshire at Pilgrim Plant in Massachusetts. So got me interested and went off and majored in nuclear engineering and then after undergrad and went to work for the federal government.
And the more I learned about it, the more I was convinced it’s got an essential role to play in a sustainable, clean energy future. And so whether it was in DOE or the national labs working on r and d programs or later in life, As a public affairs consultant, working on more the advocacy side, I’ve just, I found myself coming back to nuclear again and again, , as something that, I just think is really important and really helps, drive me and feed my passions.
[00:03:46] Mark Hinaman: So your, time at DOE wasn’t all spent nuclear focused then. Yeah, well it
[00:03:51] John Kotek: at doe PR primarily a little bit on the cleanup and nuclear fuel side of things, but broadly speaking, things nuclear, spent time at DOE headquarters. Spent time at what was then Argon National Lab West, now partly outta our national lab.
Spent some time out at DO OE, in Idaho, in their, field office, trying to set up the Idaho National Laboratory. I’m happy to talk about that some more. And then, After having gone to the private sector for a while, came back in. The last couple years of the Obama administration and, have been with nuclear ever since.
[00:04:21] Mark Hinaman: Let’s, let’s talk about I n l. What, what kinda work were you doing there? Idaho National Lab? Well,
[00:04:25] John Kotek: so, dunno how many folks know this story, but, for years what’s now the Idaho National Laboratory actually hosted parts of two national labs. It was the Idaho National Engineering Environmental Laboratory, and several predecessor organizations.
That was sort of the bulk of the employment and activity out there, but Argon National Lab had an outpost there that, at times was a thousand plus people. When I was there, it was about 800. That’s where the experimental breeder, reactor number two. Was built and operated successfully for more than 30 years, for example.
So, a lot of activity there. As the nuclear r and d program shrunk in the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, the laboratory piece of Idaho kind of fell on hard times and. It really became more of a cleanup project than a national lab, but of course there was still some really strong capability there.
And then in the early two thousands, there was actually a decision made by DO OE that they were just gonna, clean it up and close it down. The, I N E L part of it, and that caused a guy by the name of Bill Magwood, who probably well known to at least some of your listeners, who now runs the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, but at the time, was running the office of Nuclear Energy.
He said, that doesn’t make any sense. We need a national lab focused on nuclear energy, and so I’m going to offer to take over the lab and form. What’s now the ADO National Laboratory? So we sort of split the lab part of I N E E L off merged it with what was then Argon National Lab West and created this, nuclear energy focused lead laboratory for the office of Nuclear Energy.
And indeed that, took a lot, in, the way of separating off the, well, the bigger cleanup program from the lab, ultimately forming this, lab with the Argon West piece, merging the cultures, merging the facility operations, the r d programs, et cetera. So a lot went into making it the success it has been over the last 15 plus years, and, At that time I was, at doe’s Idaho Operations office, so had a fair bit to do with overseeing the formation of the contract and the transition to the batel, the organization that took over the management of the laboratory.
And it’s gone. Frankly, far better than anybody would’ve expected at the time.
[00:06:46] Mark Hinaman: That’s incredible. I was aware that that happened. I’ve not really. Dug into the history of how or why that happened? Yeah.
[00:06:54] John Kotek: It was really Bill’s vision, a lot of leadership from the Idaho Congressional delegation. Yeah, and some really great work by Batel to turn the lab into the world leading institution is today.
[00:07:06] Mark Hinaman: I mean, can you expand on Bill’s vision a little bit more? Like how did he have this perspective and I mean, was he just a go-getter, like, I’m gonna break down walls and make stuff happen, like
[00:07:18] John Kotek: Yep, absolutely. Anybody who knows him knows he’s got a fair bit of that in him. Yeah. But I think he realized that you, the successful programs in DOE had a center of gravity.
Right? So if you look at. The weapons programs is the best example, right? But they’ve always had c Diego, Los Alamo, Lawrence Livermore as the center of Gravity. Other organizations are, other parts of the DOE system play a role there. But there’s that, there’s the real stewardship of the mission that’s embodied in those institutions.
Doe’s Office of Science, same way, people are familiar with. Oak Ridge, Argonne, there’s a lot of science focused laboratories within the DOE system. They do other things, but that’s their, main mission, their reason for being, and n the Nuclear Energy Program didn’t have that at the time.
And Bill was, visionary enough to recognize that a successful program was gonna need that. And he went off and he created it.
[00:08:10] Mark Hinaman: That’s crazy. So that, timeframe, you said nineties, early two thousands.
[00:08:13] John Kotek: Yeah, it was, the nineties was when, the r and d program really fell on hard times for, and now I’m really starting to date myself, but I’d been in DOE several years when the Clinton administration came in and, they were, dealing with, the new Republican majority, in Congress.
Shortly after President Clinton, came into power, but through that time there was a real focus on the national debt and the deficit. And the president, announced his, commitment to cutting wasteful government spending. And the one example he held up in front of Congress was nuclear energy r and d.
Yeah. And that really, was the harbinger of. Several tough years leading to the r and d program, effectively going to zero funding in 1998. Yeah. And, bill took over the office around that time and said, we need to, this is gonna be important technology for the future.
We need to restore our, nuclear energy r and d program, but also our capabilities and focusing them on the Idaho lab made a lot of sense to ’em at the time The other thing that had happened a few years prior was that of course we had the Kyoto agreement. The first agreements associated with climate change, and that started people doing the math.
And the more folks that did the math came to the realization that, boy, if we’re going to come anywhere close to meeting these goals, we’re gonna need a whole lot of carbon-free generation, including from nuclear power. Yeah.
[00:09:41] Mark Hinaman: It’s interesting hearing and reflecting on that. I remember hearing stories about people that were at the labs, and the quote that stands out in my mind is, does the country, or do the people and decision makers understand what they’re losing?
Mm-hmm. Um, and I mean, thinking about the circumstance of the time, climate wasn’t a big part of the dialogue or narrative in public discourse. Oil was 10 bucks a barrel. It seemed abundant, even though it was on globally, that K decline. Like, there wasn’t really an energy crisis like, Do we really need more nuclear energy?
Probably not. So, and there’s not that many people that work in it or there not many, people have to work in it. That’s one of the, I mean, intrinsic benefits of the technology and the fuel. And so, it’s almost like they couldn’t stand up for themselves. And so if you’re a politician looking for a punching bag that nobody’s gonna fight back with, like, yeah, that’s kind of, yeah.
[00:10:30] John Kotek: Nuclear became easy to demagogue. And of course, this wasn’t too terribly long after both the TMI of G Nobel. Accidents. And so, that was fresh in, people’s minds. And so it was, easy for the opponents to gain the upper hand, but fortunately, people like Bill, and others really stuck with it.
And, were better off for it. One of the things that happened around that time was the launch of the generation four. Initiative. Yeah. Which really was an international effort focused on figuring out, what’s the right set of technologies to form the basis of the next wave of nuclear build, not just in the US but around the world.
And, things like that. Had a, I think, a big role to play in helping to turn that tide and raise awareness of the value of nuclear energy. Gotcha.
[00:11:19] Mark Hinaman: Okay. So after you worked on that project, which just like you said, turned out to be very successful, I mean, in l’s, incredible. I’ve driven by it a couple times and it, it’s just an exciting place.
Like you Absolutely. You drive by places and it’s like energy research center, right? I mean, even building names. So I’m happy that you guys did that work and that, we have that resource as a country now. Thank you. What did you do? You mentioned pivot to the private industry.
[00:11:40] John Kotek: Yeah, so I, left do OE Idaho in, that was probably about 2006.
Went into, the consulting world and did a lot of work on I’ll say controversial land use issues. So certainly some nuclear, but. This was living in Idaho at the time. So a lot of it was wind farms, for example. Quite, quite a number. Came online in Idaho about 10 years ago. Transmission lines were a big deal.
Of course there were, always efforts to try to get, whether it was pipelines built or, other energy infrastructure. And so, Tried to use, a skillset I had developed and, the ability to explain technical topics to non-technical audiences and translate that into other sectors, even went beyond the energy business.
I found myself involved, for example, in helping to stand up the Obamacare insurance exchange in the state of Idaho. And so it, you’ve got, really got far field from my nuclear roots, but is. One of the things I got asked to work on, During that time, starting in 2010, it was something called the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which of course, was asked post Obama administration decision to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license extension to recommend a new strategy for.
The back end of the fuel cycle in the United States. And so spent a couple of years working on that.
[00:13:02] Mark Hinaman: That’s a pretty controversial project,
[00:13:04] John Kotek: right? Yeah. It was in the
[00:13:06] Mark Hinaman: mountain, but the Blue Ribbon
[00:13:07] John Kotek: Commission, the whole process and Yeah. Well there were certainly were folks who didn’t agree with the decision that the administration had made for me, the.
The decision had been made. So, being asked to come in, it wasn’t your choice, didn’t matter about it. Right? Right. So what do you, alright, so what do you do next? Well, we all know we need to do something. And so, help the commission in what I think was a really, Thorough process of understanding all of the dimensions of the issue.
And so I think we had something on the order of two dozen public hearings and commissioners went to probably a half a dozen different countries to understand how they were dealing with the back end of the fuel cycle on you visited the D DOE labs and the. Communities that host nuclear power plants and what have you, to really try to get a thorough airing of the issues, hear from as just as many different perspectives as possible.
And then, put together a set of recommendations that could stand the test of time. And I do think that given, the, current efforts by doe, for example, to pursue a consent based approach to citing new nuclear waste facilities. I, I do think the commission recommendations have proven to represent a really good path forward for the nuclear waste management program in the us.
Certainly more needs to be done just today. In fact, d we announced that they had. Made a awards for consent based sighting grants to help them, take the next step, in an approach to find a path forward for interim storage of spent fuel. But of course, we need a repository ultimately, and that’s not part of their current program planning.
And so, we need the congress and the administration to come to agreement as to what that. Path four’s gonna look like and hopefully come to agreement on a program that can be durable, right? And withstand changes in Congress and what have you.
[00:14:56] Mark Hinaman: So this is a really broad issue, but I think this is a good opportunity to dive in or try and summarize it briefly, for our listeners cuz mm-hmm I think a lot of people might not be aware of this.
So, I mean, the DOE is effectively responsible or has the liability to take on any of the spent nuclear fuel that is generated
[00:15:12] John Kotek: from commercial. Power plants in the us. Am I stating that correctly? Yeah. Yeah. So under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, that responsibility was given to doe? Yes. And in return, the industry is responsible for safe management of the fuel wallet’s onsite, which they’ve been doing for decades, and for paying into a nuclear waste fund to pay for disposal of commercial fuel.
Now, those payments were stopped almost 10 years ago because there’s no program, right. Active to develop. But
[00:15:42] Mark Hinaman: they’ve been earning interest fairly repository
[00:15:44] John Kotek: along the way. Right. Like, but well, but yeah, even without those payments over, the last nearly 10 years, the amount that was paid into the nuclear waste fund has, turned into a balance of, I think it’s 46 billion currently.
Yeah. Should be able to figure
[00:15:59] Mark Hinaman: out what to do with about
[00:16:00] John Kotek: a hundred thousand tons. That’s it’s a, yeah.
[00:16:02] Mark Hinaman: give it to me. I’ll handle all of it with about 20 million and I will pocket the rest and no one will see it ever again. I promise. Uhhuh I say that
[00:16:12] John Kotek: facetious. I yes.
[00:16:14] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Um. Well, and so the consent based sighting program you mentioned, that’s doe’s current approach, did your guys’ work help inform that or did that kind of come back?
[00:16:24] John Kotek: Yeah, I think so. And I think they certainly, when I was in do o e from 2015 to 17 we were following those recommendations as, the roadmap, for our program and, really trying to learn from what’s worked in other countries.
If you look at places like. Finland, Sweden, Canada, other nations that have made progress towards development of a repository. They’ve done so with the support, the buy-in from the host community, for example, tended to be, more of a, an open and inclusive process. And I think you, you’ll see those same sorts of attributes reflected in what DOE is trying to do.
[00:16:59] Mark Hinaman: I mean, but that’s kind of a challenge in how you define community. When I’ve reviewed this program, I think that’s one of the, Main goals of the consent based citing program is what is the community? Is it the town, is it the county, is it the state, is it the country?
[00:17:12] John Kotek: Right? Yeah. And the Blue Ribbon Commission didn’t try to define, how do you determine whether you’ve got consent?
They did point to the willingness of a host, state or tribe or local government to enter into a legally enforceable agreement, as a way you could demonstrate that. Yeah. That consent, but I think it’s gonna work different ways in different places. Even now, in Canada, for example, they’re down to their last two sites, or in communities that have both volunteered to be considered,
[00:17:42] Mark Hinaman: they both want it.
Right, right. These are jobs, this is a Right. And it’s a pretty easy job. Incredibly low
[00:17:49] John Kotek: environmental risk, like Yeah, well that’s, certainly true. Yeah. And so, even there, the two communities have different approaches. To demonstrating their consent. One is, looking more like a referendum.
One is more, the buy-in from the, community’s elected leadership. And so, consent’s gonna mean different things to different people. And I think that part of what doe’s trying to figure out is, how do you move forward in a way that can get you to a durable.
Relationship, with the affected units of Yeah. State, local, and maybe tribal government.
[00:18:23] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, that makes sense. So, well thanks for that tangent. I didn’t expect to go off on uh, we’re gonna ask, what about the waste? And so if mm-hmm. You worked on that side of it. It’s interesting to talk about, my pushback all the time is like, what?
What about it? It’s one of the biggest benefits of this technology. There’s hardly any waste and it’s super safe.
[00:18:39] John Kotek: Like Yeah. Well, and the, fact that you can store it at all after and off, you put it in a, concrete steel cask and it’s air cooled and Yeah. When as soon as you bring somebody to a Smithfield dry storage site, they sort of go, oh, that’s it.
Exactly. Right. So it, and it’s hazardous material. I mean, I don’t want to, sound cavalier or minimize it, but, it’s pretty straightforward to manage it safely, and we’ve been doing it for decades.
[00:19:03] Mark Hinaman: Exactly. Yeah. Okay. So your time at DOE then, and specifically in the nuclear energy office. Mm-hmm.
Let’s chat about that.
[00:19:10] John Kotek: Yeah. So, when I first started out, it was more in the facility. R r d facility management area. So the research reactors we had running at the time. Now when I started the OE had five large research reactors in operation. They’re now down to two, and the two that they currently have running are both more than 55 years old.
And so, One of the many priorities that we have is to see doe move forward with, the construction of a next generation research reactor. The versatile test reactor is one concept that they’ve tried to advance there. I know there’s some other ideas out there, but but we’re gonna need, some new capability to go along with some of the other.
Infrastructure that’s being built there at Idaho and other places. But my, more recent experience there, at doe, one emphasis was trying to stand up a. Integrated waste management system built on these consent based principles that I talked about. The other piece was, how do we get some of these great ideas that are coming up through the private sector or the laboratories for new nuclear energy systems actually into commercial use?
Yeah. And so. We started things like the, something called gain, the gateway for accelerated innovation in Nuclear, where we were trying to make it easier for innovators to access the capabilities resident within the D OE and National Laboratory System to help them, advance and commercialize their technologies faster.
Cuz when you think about the work that DOE has done, Really since the late forties in the nuclear energy r and d space, there’s a wealth of certainly physical facility capabilities, but data codes, just the materials themselves, the brain power at the labs, there’s a lot there that can be used to benefit these innovators.
And I think GAIN has proven to be a successful tool, in helping accelerate the pace, of innovation and commercialization. I
[00:21:09] Mark Hinaman: wholeheartedly agree. I think it’s an awesome program. I love Christine King. She’s the program director. Mm-hmm. She’s a hoot, um, and very effective at her job. And, um, I, yeah, I think you guys have done a lot for the industry.
[00:21:23] John Kotek: Yeah. So if you haven’t had Dr. Todd Allen on yet, you ought to go after him too. I don’t know if you’ve come across him yet, but he’s now the department chair for nuclear at the University of Michigan. But at the time, He was working, with an organization called Third Way, and they had helped organize a series of convenings around the country to hear from this advanced nuclear community understand what their needs were and it.
Really, we in doe took the results of that set of convenings in the report, that Todd led the preparation of and said, all right, there’s something here, right? This is actionable. Let’s go. Let’s go make this real. And we got buy-in from Secretary Moniz to. Launch gain, pull together a few billion dollars of available funds to provide vouchers to some of these innovative companies.
The idea behind the vouchers being it’s essentially, a gift certificate for national Lab time. Yeah. Right. Or capable.
[00:22:26] Mark Hinaman: And it’s not a hundred percent free. They have to contribute funds time to be able to Yeah. Gain access to it. Right. It’s
[00:22:32] John Kotek: not Absolutely. So, a lot of it that was really a partnership between.
Me and my team at Doe and Todd and the work he was leading on the outside. And so if you, get an opportunity to have him on, you’ll find him an expert. We’ll have to get an introduction from you. Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Happy to do it.
[00:22:49] Mark Hinaman: Do you have an example of the voucher program that you like or you thought was a good example of how it was successful?
[00:22:58] John Kotek: Well, for example, we had Companies that were coming in, they just wanted access to data. And so it, just, getting the data accumulated into them in a form they could actually use was something that took time, effort, and wasn’t free. Exactly. Its not free and, but, and it wasn’t something that we had built into our program plans, but understanding that it was a priority for a company that was trying to commercialize a new reactor technology.
Right. We could then say, okay, here’s a way for us to direct that resource into the people in the lab who need it to actually, to be able to pull this off and help the company. It was things like that that I found, particularly rewarding because oftentimes, the barriers to getting these folks what they needed weren’t huge.
It just took the, right attention and the right resources directed at the right place, and you can make a big difference.
[00:23:53] Mark Hinaman: So it’s almost like an allocation of funds mechanism, right? Yeah. I mean, you’re in this national lab. There’s what, 5,000 people or something crazy that works with Iowa?
[00:24:02] John Kotek: Well, just at Idaho. Yeah. If you look across the national lab system, there’s North. So
[00:24:06] Mark Hinaman: all of them are hired for a reason, have earmark projects and funds allocated. You’re paying their salaries and so, hey, can you figure out a different way to define their scope of work?
[00:24:14] John Kotek: And yeah. Now, another great thing that came out of gain was Dr. Rita Baral, who, as you may know, was the first director of gain and is now heading up. The new AP 300 program within Westinghouse, but she was somebody who had actually come from Westinghouse. Really understood what it took to be helpful to the private sector in that role. Yeah. And of course, got asked to essentially take over my old job and become assistant secretary of nuclear energy under the prior administration.
So another person who had a lot to do with getting us where we are. Frankly, another person you ought to have on the show if you haven’t already.
[00:24:54] Mark Hinaman: That’s great. Okay. So John how long were you at the d office of Nuclear Energy and then Yeah.
[00:25:00] John Kotek: What was your, the, this latest time? Just two years. Okay.
Two years. And after that, came here to N ei. Okay. Whenever, an administration ends, Yeah. As a political appointee, your job ends. Yeah. Yeah. And I was fortunate enough to find my way here to N nei, which is an organization I’d worked with for years, but had never worked for.
Um, and so
[00:25:20] Mark Hinaman: what, what is
[00:25:20] John Kotek: nei That’s a good segue then. Yeah. Okay. So, N NEI is the Nuclear Industry’s Trade Association here in the United States, which means we’re the policy and advocacy arm. For the sector. Just to paint a picture for you, we’ve got about 340 members across the nuclear energy technologies industry.
Of course, the utilities that run nuclear power plants, but also the vendors that supply them wide variety of. Service and supply companies, engineering companies, construction companies but also universities that have an interest in nuclear energy, particularly the r and d space national labs.
So wide variety of members some of which are from outside the us but who have activities here in the United States. So, I think we’ve got something like 17 countries. All told in our role is, at the end of the day, really to advocate for supportive policies or regulatory developments that are gonna enable nuclear energy to achieve its full potential here in the US and abroad.
So, that can take the form of, policy, idea formulation and, advocacy. Take the form of what we call the nuclear narrative, right? Telling the story of why nuclear energy is important to decarbonization or national security, energy security system, reliability, you name it can take the form of your regulatory engagement with the NRC or with other regulatory agencies here.
In the us. And it can also take the form of outreach to I’d say, non-traditional customers or other partners. You’re seeing a lot more interest, for example, in nuclear, for industrial decarbonization or nuclear for clean hydrogen production or to, power big data need, server farms, et cetera.
And so, we do a fair bit of that sort of our reach as well. Well, I can already
[00:27:12] Mark Hinaman: tell we need to have you come and advocate for some policy in Colorado, right. With some, some closing coal plants that that the communities are interested, they wanna explore and understand. Yeah.
[00:27:22] John Kotek: They are.
We’re actually seeing that a lot. And you, one of the many reasons why that’s such a great idea is because at a coal plant, you get a very highly skilled workforce that knows how to run a steam driven power plant. And once you get past the nuclear island in. A nuclear plant it looks a whole lot like, the generating system in a coal plant.
So, our CEO Maria Cosick, who is a nuclear engineer and who came up through the plant operations side of, the business, she says when she was running nuclear plants, when it came time for maintenance out, was just, they’d bring in people from their coal fleet. To do work on the non-nuclear side of the plant because, they know how these things work.
Well, if you’ve got that sort of a skilled workforce, staring down, the threat of a coal plant closure makes all the sense in the world to put that skill and talent to use running a new nuclear plant. Yeah.
[00:28:15] Mark Hinaman: How big is Anyi? How many people are on your team?
[00:28:17] John Kotek: We’re about a hundred. Okay. People.
[00:28:20] Mark Hinaman: And, how do you guys prioritize what the focus on.
[00:28:23] John Kotek: Largely through coordination with our members. Okay. And so understanding what their priorities are, but also, surveying the landscape. Where do we think the energy system and where do we think energy priorities are headed? You’ve also got to, see how things are headed here in DC or in state capitals around the country to understand, what the opportunity is.
Um, but by and large, in an organization like this as a trade association, first and foremost, you’re seeking to understand what are the member priorities and. Is there alignment across the sector on those? And then how do you most effectively advocate?
[00:29:02] Mark Hinaman: I guess I’ll ask the question, is there alignment or is there, sometimes diverse incentives or diverse, um, desires from different members?
Yeah, so certainly
[00:29:12] John Kotek: because you’ve got members who are also competitors in the same space, you’re gonna find yourself, with some divergence at times. But broadly speaking, People recognize that we need to advocate for policies that value nuclear energy for all it delivers. And over the last couple of decades, there’s been an under-appreciation of what nuclear brings to the, grid and to the larger economy.
People are now starting to do the math though. As more and more utilities and more and more states pledged to go carbon free, it’s forcing them to sit down and analyze how do you get there? And the more. Individuals and organizations who do that work, the more recognition there is that we need firm clean generation from nuclear to complement rising shares of wind, solar, and storage.
So it’s causing utilities to want to keep running the plants they have as long as they can and to build new ones. And it’s also causing policy makers to wanna enact policies. They’re gonna help us get to new nuclear build.
[00:30:16] Mark Hinaman: I mean, nuclear now is like more popular than it’s ever been. Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, bisi research really survey.
Right. And the 76% of Americans support nuclear. Yeah.
[00:30:26] John Kotek: Yeah. And, and we’ve seen that in the survey research that we’ve done as well. In a big part of it is the recognition of nuclear as having a crucial role in a low carbon energy system. Part of it is concerns about energy security and system reliability.
Right. People look at the Russian assault on Ukraine, and it causes them to think about energy security and the importance of reliable energy partners in a way that they haven’t had to through much of recent history, we’ve also seen policy makers, particularly at the state level, valuing the well paying long-term jobs that nuclear.
Yeah. Power plants bring to their communities. That’s why we’ve seen such tremendous support from our friends in organized labor. Who represent, a large part of the nuclear energy workforce here in the US, and who, make no secret of their interest in seeing more of these jobs created because they’re the types of jobs that can really help you, sustain a very solid, middle class lifestyle over a long period of time.
[00:31:31] Mark Hinaman: mentioned, I think 340 members for N ei. I assume that’s members of like all sizes. I mean, could Yeah, absolutely. A small energy think tank. Like, I don’t know, energy matters. Be a member of N ei or,
[00:31:43] John Kotek: well, we do have some NGOs for example, who are, part of our group, but by, sheer number, the biggest Sorts of members is actually the university community because there’s so many universities who have an interest here.
But it, it really is all
[00:31:56] Mark Hinaman: over the map. People dunno how many micro reactors exist at universities all over the country.
[00:31:59] John Kotek: Right. No, that’s true. As somebody who went to the University of Illinois and so used to get to use the trigger reactor there on campus before it was shut down. Yeah. That’s another underappreciated.
Asset that we have here, in the us and, I think we’re on the cusp of seeing more of those come into being as more and more universities focus on modernizing their research capabilities. Absolutely.
[00:32:24] Mark Hinaman: So what kind of policies do you think could be enacted or are you guys advocating for, to build nuclear faster?
[00:32:29] John Kotek: So, there’s a few things that need to happen here in the us. We do need to address the, really a question of risk sharing. Folks look at the recent experience with the Vogel and summer nuclear plants and, as we know, summer got canceled and Vogel went over, over cost and, and schedule and it took.
People recognize that, we need to find ways to ensure that those sorts of risks don’t wind up. Being born by inordinately, by rate payers or by corporations or by, by anybody solely. And so, how do you distribute those? How do you move forward in a way that learns from.
Not just, the lessons of recent experience here in the US but those really successful programs over the last couple decades and places like the uae, but also South Korea, Japan, places where they very successfully built Yeah. New nuclear and it’s some of the cheapest energy in the world.
That’s right. That’s right. And so I think, what you’re gonna see at the federal level is more of an effort to figure out how do we properly allocate those risks and benefits. To new nuclear projects. The recent announcement, for example, BYT, A O P G up in Canada and Santos and Poland, that they’re gonna partner in the development of the GE SMR design.
I think that’s the sort of. Partnership you could see increasingly coming into to being, to, enable these companies to move forward together to learn the lessons, as they each move forward with deployment, spreading the risk for new project development. Yeah, so, I think you’ll see more going on in that space at the federal level, at the state level.
Policies like the construction work in progress, policies that they had in. Georgia that would allow the utilities to actually, re retire the loans by recouping some of the money that they had invested in the construction rather than sort of, gathering that all up and then having to pay it off at the end.
that’s done a lot to. Both make the projects more financially viable and reduce the cost to the rate payers. So I think you’ll see efforts to do more of those sorts of things. I guess I’m, I’m ignorant of
[00:34:34] Mark Hinaman: that process cause that’s just like a refinancing of the,
[00:34:37] John Kotek: it’s just, allows the utilities rather than waiting until they’ve.
Turned the plan on and started generating revenue, to essentially pay off the construction loans. It allows ’em to do it as they go. Okay. So you wind up building up less interest costs. Yeah. So it winds up cost in the which, yeah,
[00:34:55] Mark Hinaman: I guess it would be peculiar that. I guess it was a requirement or that they weren’t allowed to pay for the plant until the plant was generating power with kind of their
[00:35:02] John Kotek: Yeah.
that’s the case in some instances. And so you need, that sort of policy, I think to move, forward most aggressively with new nuclear. Also at the state level, we’ve got quite a number of states that have switched from renewable portfolio standards to clean energy standards, which, much more aggressive.
Many states have a hundred percent clean energy standard. Um, We need more states to take that journey, right, and evolve from an RPS to A A C E S. Of course not every state’s gonna go in that direction, but I do think they’re an increasing number that are valuing zero carbon generation. They recognize that frankly, they’re industrial users, for example.
Are gonna need to be able to demonstrate to an increasing number of customers that they are bringing a low carbon product to market. You look at what’s happening in the eu, for example, where they’ve got a carbon price adjustment. If you’re bringing, a high life cycle carbon product to market, that’s gonna cost more, at the end of the day, you’re gonna be competitively disadvantaged.
And so even those states that don’t maybe aren’t inclined to. Enact a clean energy standard. I think they do recognize that having a lower carbon grid is gonna work in favor of their manufacturers. And we’ve heard this conversation in places like West Virginia where they’ve said, look, that’s the direction the world is headed.
We’ve gotta meet the market where it is. And that’s part of the reason you’re seeing such leadership out of the governor of Wyoming and the, leadership in West Virginia to try to figure out how do they bring nuclear energy to play. In powering their energy economy. Well, for them
[00:36:35] Mark Hinaman: it’s jobs.
They want the jobs, they want the economy.
[00:36:37] John Kotek: And not just in nuclear, but in the supply chain, but also to help decarbonize their manufacturing. You look at new core steel, for example, which is committed to building a new facility in West Virginia. They know they need low carbon power.
Yeah. To fuel that plant if they’re gonna be able to sell their steel to auto manufacturers who have pledged to decarbonize, for example. Right. So there’s a lot of industrial and. Big energy user interest in right in seeing nuclear come to the table. We’re also gonna need to see action taken to help shore up, the fuel supply.
The Russian assault on Ukraine has exposed the fact that, we do get roughly 20% of our enriched uranium fuel. From Russian suppliers and, we need to be able to move away from the Russians, but that means we’re gonna need to see investment in nuclear fuel enrichment and conversion capability here in the United States.
That’s gonna take a public-private partnership that’s gonna involve some federal funding. So, we’re continuing to advocate for that.
[00:37:36] Mark Hinaman: I support that wholeheartedly. If you wanna drop one of those in Western Colorado, I know some communities that are very
[00:37:41] John Kotek: interested in that. Okay, good, good to know.
But, those are some of the big priorities. Certainly modernizing the regulatory system is important. Certainly we’ve got outstanding nuclear safety here in the US, and the regulators played an important role in that. On the other hand, I think there’s gonna be a volume of applications for new nuclear headed their way.
It’s unlike anything they’ve ever seen. And so they’re really gonna need to make their processes more efficient if they’re gonna be able to, manage that volume, of permitting activity. So that’s a priority for us. And then of course, the used nuclear fuel, which we talked about earlier.
We know it’s something, that we can and do, manage safely and continue, to do so for decades going forward, but we should have a sustainable program that ultimately leads us to a repository. And so we’ll continue advocating for that as well.
[00:38:29] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. The biggest pushback I get from pragmatic investors is nuclear is expensive.
[00:38:35] John Kotek: Um, and you really need to get into the cost versus value conversation. I agree. Yeah. Yeah. Right. Totally agree. Yeah. There’s some folks who like to equate, kilowatt hour from nuclear to a kilowatt hour from solar and, they’re both carbon free, but that’s kinda where the comparison ends.
And certainly, a new nuclear plant is gonna cost more than an industrial or utility scale solar farm in Arizona. Right. But nuclear’s gonna deliver more too. Yeah, right. You’ve got that fuel security, you’ve got that high capacity factor. The ability to, to withstand nat, natural hazards, the 18 to 24 month operating cycles, you know this.
And the policymakers also appreciate the fact you create hundreds of well-paying jobs in a community. You’re really. Becomes the type of facility you can build a community around. Yeah. And so, I would point your readers or your listeners if they haven’t, um, checked it out yet. DOE put out something called the Pathways to Commercial Liftoff Report, and they did a series of them on different technologies, but one was focused on nuclear energy.
Really does a fine job of laying out why nuclear’s value proposition exceeds that of other clean energy technologies. It also lays out some of the challenges that we need to address in some of the ways of surmounting them. So, a good read if folks wanna learn more.
[00:39:57] Mark Hinaman: I agree. I’ve reviewed that report.
[00:39:58] John Kotek: thought it was great. Oh, good. Yeah. Okay.
[00:40:01] Mark Hinaman: How does EI think about regulatory reform? You just said expediting the mm-hmm. Approval process. I don’t, I’m not convinced that our current process actually makes these plants safer. And maybe that’s a hot take. Maybe it’s not. But like, thousands of pages of paperwork, is one thing, but actually operating plants and having designs that work and are functional is another, like, I don’t know.
How do you guys think about, this challenge?
[00:40:25] John Kotek: Well, we. Certainly think, a strong safety regulator is important. Sure. For a number of reasons. When we look at, the NRC though, we think it, kind of starts from first principles, the mission of the organization. Originally the mission in the Atomic Energy Act, certainly it’s around safety, but it’s also maximizing the public benefit from nuclear technologies.
That latter part has sort of fallen away. Over the years and I think needs to be brought back. And so, for example, when you’re looking at the environmental impacts of a proposed new nuclear facility, Well, there should be some reflection of the fact that this is actually gonna be a 60 to 80 year asset, creating enough, zero carbon generation to meet the, electricity needs of hundreds of thousands of households.
Right. That makes a big difference. So, recognizing that there’s, a piece of the NRC mission, That’s pointed at this. Ensuring the maximum public benefit of the technology, I think, is important. Then I think reasonable things like setting milestones and reasonable timelines for reviews of particular types of applications.
Yeah. Those sorts of things should be, achievable. Ensuring that the questions that are being asked by the staff are truly important to safety. Right. It’s those sorts of things that, we think can get to a more efficient and effective regulator. And that efficiency piece again, is gonna be so important because of the, what we expect to be very large wave of new applications coming in the not too distant future.
[00:42:04] Mark Hinaman: Do you think that’ll be different and the licensing process will be different for micro reactors? Or very small.
[00:42:10] John Kotek: It’s, certainly possible, when you look at the, fission product inventory in a micro reactor and you know what that should mean in terms of emergency planning zones, for example, right?
That should be different. Now we’re still waiting to see the first. Micro reactor come through that process. As you noted, we already, right? I mean, we’ve got a range or quite a number of similarly sized reactors on universities. Yeah. And we’ve shown that, those can be built and operated safely for decades.
Many of those are, 50, 60 years old. I undergraduates. Yeah. Yeah. Right. And so, there should be a pathway to, a more. Streamlined, and cost effective process. And that’s really what we’d like to say. Gotcha.
[00:42:53] Mark Hinaman: Okay. One of the questions I had written down was, I mean, you, you characterized AI as trade organization.
Mm-hmm. I assume we’re infer that that means that you guys help lobby and influence policy Is am I? Yeah.
[00:43:03] John Kotek: And so, we’ve got, a federal government affairs team here in the organization. We also do some work at the state level, although, as you’d imagine, at the state level, sort of follow the lead of the member companies that are active, in that state.
But, we’ll get engaged. Fairly regularly, particularly at the behest of state regulators who have heard a lot about nuclear wanna learn more. So, legislators state like Colorado, where there’s not a lot of industry here. Yeah. Well, even in Colorado, I understand that there has been more of a conversation.
We’ve certainly heard in interest from the western part of the state, for example. In understanding what new nuclear technology, could bring to the state, particularly as you look at shutting down fossil plants. So yeah, to the extent there’s a conversation going on and, we’re asked to provide our views, always happy to do it.
[00:43:52] Mark Hinaman: Gotcha. Um, another question I had written down was, how does NEI compare to the American Petroleum Institute? Right. I mean, that’s one of the largest trade organizations or lobby organizations in the world, like
[00:44:02] John Kotek: Yeah. But budget wise, they’re like five times bigger than we are. Yeah. Fair.
[00:44:10] Mark Hinaman: Um,
So, how do we scale your guys’ impact? I mean, yeah. If API or American Petroleum Institute’s bigger, how can n e I have a just as loud a voice or big influence?
[00:44:22] John Kotek: Well, so I mentioned at the outset that in addition to my role here at N E I, I’m also president of something called Nuclear Matters.
I would encourage folks to sign up. Doesn’t cost you anything. Yeah. And it’s a way of. Getting plugged into what’s going on in, the industry, but also in the policy space. Great way to get alerted to, for example, the need to weigh in on legislation that might be under consideration, in your state or here federally.
Also a way to, become aware of issues that where you might want to advocate, whether it’s, to your local elected representatives or. In your community newspaper or whatever other, outlet you, you choose to use to make your voice heard. But one of the things that’s changed a lot over the last decade or so is the number of folks in and adjacent to the nuclear industry who are willing to speak up.
Yeah. And express their pride at being part of the nation’s largest source of carbon free generation. And talk about nuclear Energy’s role in. Energy system, reliability, energy security, you name it. People have gotten a lot more willing to tell that nuclear story. And it’s made a big difference with policy makers, with the media and
[00:45:37] Mark Hinaman: others.
So Nuclear matters. What’s your guys’ primary interface? I mean, you’ve got the new newsletter. I’m signed up for that. I receive it. I agree. I think it’s wonderful. Fantastic. Um, but do you guys have other meetings or, how do you remember his interface? Yeah,
[00:45:50] John Kotek: it’s more of a, an online thing.
And so, getting on the mailing list is a great thing to do. Certainly through Facebook, LinkedIn, for example. Other ways to get connect as well. Sure.
[00:46:03] Mark Hinaman: Okay. Um, well, we’ve talked about a lot, John I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. So just a, a couple more questions for you.
What’s mm-hmm. In, your mind, what’s the most impactful step that we can take to building more nuclear asap? Yeah. I,
[00:46:16] John Kotek: think that at the state level, the more we see. Adoption of clean energy standards that embrace all zero emission technologies instead of just renewables. That’s gonna help create more of a market.
The more big energy end users who demand 24 7 carbon free, Weren’t satisfied with just buying, annual renewable energy certificates and sort of, sufficient to offset their annual electricity use and saying that’s good enough. Right. So companies like Google who have come out there and said, that’s not gonna get us there.
We need time matching. We need 24 7 around the clock. Clean energy. Yeah. Match to our electricity use. The more customers we see making those sorts of commitments the better off we’re gonna be in terms of, getting the technology built. at the federal level, getting some more risk allocation, risk sharing policies in place to, get us through the first few of a kind, once we get four or five of a different technology built, that should get us far enough down the learning curve that.
Deployment of the technologies can really take off, and that in turn is gonna really help with the export sector. We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about that right now, but if you can build a new nuclear system that makes financial sense here in the us. Think about it in European context where they have a very significant price on carbon, right?
And in many cases, even more aggressive decarbonization goals. If nuclear works here, it’s gonna be a game changer in Europe. And so the more we can do to give our. Companies, the tools they need to compete and win against the state owned nuclear energy enterprises in Russia and China, the better off we’re gonna be.
And so , a lot of that’s gonna come down to does our government negotiate the necessary agreements with other countries to allow our industry to export? Technologies, can we offer the types of financing packages to compete against what the Russians and the Chinese offer? So there’s a fair amount in that space as well through things like nuclear matters or by staying plugged in with the n ei website and, and our other communications folks can become aware of what the top priorities are and then really engage with policy makers and other leaders in their communities to help ensure that we’ve got support to get those policies across the finish line.
[00:48:40] Mark Hinaman: awesome. So if all of that happens and we continue this support, what’s the world look like in 10 to
[00:48:46] John Kotek: 20 years? Well, so you, look at the liftoff report that you and I have, both looked at, they talk about the potential for another 200 gigawatts of nuclear. In the US by 2050 for census scale, for your audience.
That’s roughly tripling what we have in the US right now. Yeah. If you look at the intergovernmental plant and climate change and their scenarios for decarbonization, if you pick a midpoint scenario there, they’re talking about doubling nuclear energy worldwide by 2050. That’s the sort of world I think we’re headed for because people recognize that we’ve got up.
Move forward aggressively in the near term if we’re gonna meet our decarbonization goals. And nuclear is the proven, scalable firm clean source of not just power, but process heat and, other clean energy products that we’re gonna need to get there.
[00:49:35] Mark Hinaman: Absolutely. That’s a great place to leave at John Kotek.
Really appreciate your time.
[00:49:39] John Kotek: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me, mark.