In this episode, I interviewed Bret Kugelmass, the Managing Director of the Energy Impact Center. Out of all of the people I’ve met so far in my journey, Bret is the closet to my spirit animal - recovering technology entrepreneur looking to work on something more purposeful, concerned about climate change, deep dive into climate brought him to nuclear, more than 1200 discussions and 170 podcast episodes in nuclear to better understand it and get to know everyone, and now doing impactful work with the Energy Impact Center. Bret put out some pretty bold, controversial viewpoints. I left the episode with mixed feelings. On the one hand, what if he is wrong? What kind of damage would it do if he succeeded in getting everyone to focus in this way, and it was misguided? But even worse, what if he is right? What if the only thing that can get us out of this pickle is nuclear, and we are otherwise spinning wheels and wasting valuable time? You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and provide suggestions for future guests or topics you'd like to see covered on the show.
In this episode, I interviewed Bret Kugelmass, the Managing Director of the Energy Impact Center.
We covered a number of topics, including Bret’s background and what led him to focus so passionately on nuclear, his atypical entry point and tremendously successful podcast, the work he is doing at Energy Impact Center, and his ultimate vision for what Energy Impact Center can become and the mark he wants to leave on the world.
Out of all of the people I’ve met so far in my journey, Bret is the closet to my spirit animal - recovering technology entrepreneur looking to work on something more purposeful, concerned about climate change, deep dive into climate brought him to nuclear, and had many discussions and started a podcast on his quest to enter this new field without a historical background in it.
Bret put out some pretty bold, controversial viewpoints. Definitely thought provoking, and whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing, a worthwhile listen, for sure.
I would love to hear your thoughts after listening to the episode.
His bio here:
Bret Kugelmass is an American technology entrepreneur who's turned his focus to climate and energy advocacy. One the early pioneers in commercializing drones (Airphrame - acq. 2017) for environmental surveys and emergency response he's experienced first-hand market growth within complex technical, regulatory, and public opinion framework.
He received his Masters in robotics from Stanford and his earlier work includes designing a lunar rover controller for NASA, a concept electric car for Panasonic, and automating solar manufacturing processes for Nanosolar.
Motivated by the climate crises he moved to DC to set up a research initiative (Energy Impact Center) focused on exploring nuclear power and its role in deep decarbonization. He also hosts a podcast (Titans of Nuclear) where he’s conducted hundreds of audio interviews with experts throughout the nuclear sector communicating to a tech savvy and environmentally concerned audience the unique complexities and benefits of the technology.
In this episode, Bret and I discuss:
I hope you enjoy the show!
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and provide suggestions for future guests or topics you'd like to see covered on the show.
Links for topics discussed in this episode:
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests, to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change, and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone. Jason here. Today's guest is Bret Kugelmass, managing director at the Energy Impact Center and host of the Titans of Nuclear podcast. Like me, Bret was a technology entrepreneur. He sold his company, was concerned about climate change, was longing to work on an important problem for the world, and found himself doing a deep dive into climate change, which led to a deep dive into nuclear, which has now led to 1,200 discussions, and about 170 published interviews with experts in nuclear on the Titans of Nuclear podcast. Bret was a super interesting guest, because he's very knowledgeable, very well connected, and has a unique perspective from all the discussions that he had. He's also got a pretty controversial view of the world.
Jason Jacobs: In this episode, we covered a number of topics, including Bret's journey, and what's led him to the point he's on now, his current world view, and how that's evolved over the discussions that he's had, what brought him to the benefits of nuclear technology and believing that it is the only option that will solve this climate change problem in the timelines that we need to, and also went through point-by-point of all the common objections to nuclear, and Bret's rebuttals. I enjoyed this episode, and learned a lot. I hope you do, as well. Without further ado, Bret, welcome to the show.
Bret Kugelmass: Jason Jacobs, thanks for having me, on your program this time.
Jason Jacobs: Come on, Bret. Don't be weird. This is just two normal guys, having a normal discussion.
Bret Kugelmass: Fine, I've never done a podcast before. We'll see how it goes.
Jason Jacobs: Bret, I keep wanting to call him Bret Kugelson, Kugelman. I swear, I just can't ... I've said your name 500 times, in the last few months, as we've gotten to know each other, and I don't think I've once gotten it right. But Bret Kugelmass.
Bret Kugelmass: There you go. You got it right.
Jason Jacobs: This interview is a bit like the student interviewing the master, because your Titans of Nuclear podcast was actually one of the things that inspired me on the path. Actually on a deeper level, your climate motivation, which led you to your Titans of Nuclear podcast is just very ... it's eerily similar to the path that I'm on, maybe six months or a year behind you.
Bret Kugelmass: When I make introductions to you to people, I send them another follow-up email, being like, "Jason's my spirit animal. He's the person out there that I think I relate to the most, on this climate journey that I'm on." So, it's appropriately titled, your podcast name, Climate Journey.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, and I think part of that is really comforting, in that I do feel like I'm not as alone. Then part of it is really scary, because you're a fucking animal. It's like, "Man, if this is who I see in myself, then I've got problems."
Bret Kugelmass: I think it helps that I ... when I moved out here to get this started, like I don't have a family, I moved out by myself. It was easy for me to just go balls to the wall crazy, doing as many episodes as I could nonstop, traveling the world. Now it's been two years. We're at over 170 episodes.
Jason Jacobs: Two years, 170 episodes.
Bret Kugelmass: It's been pretty crazy.
Jason Jacobs: I'm just thinking. I committed to two episodes a week, so that's a 104 a year. Oh, you know what that means? That means in two years, we're going to have over 200. So you're weak.
Bret Kugelmass: All right, I got to pick up the pace. I got to pick up the pace.
Jason Jacobs: Take me back, Bret. You're full-on in nuclear now, but how did you get here?
Bret Kugelmass: I mean, similar to your story, after I sold off my tech company, I was looking around, trying to figure out, what's the best way to spend my time, my resources? What would feel fulfilling to work on? The answer to that just constantly kept to mind, by some prodding from friends who remind me that, this is all I talk at cocktail parties, for the last 10 years.
Jason Jacobs: What was all you talked about?
Bret Kugelmass: Climate change.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. Where did that come from? Was there some specific moment that was a turning point for you, this awakening? Or was it gradual?
Bret Kugelmass: I don't know. I think everyone has something that they naturally gravitate towards. It doesn't matter what it is, but I think they key is understanding that thing about yourself, and then building the rest of your life around it, in order to work on that thing, that thing that drives you. I don't think it's so much like, "How did I find climate change?" It was just that climate change was the thing, and how did I decide to build my life around it?
Jason Jacobs: How did you decide to build your life around it? So you were in between companies, you were wandering in the wilderness, if you will, you had climate change on your mind. What then? Is this out there in a bunch of places, or is it breaking news?
Bret Kugelmass: I don't know. We'll see how it comes out. Clearly, I take meetings with people, and I walk through my story and even on my podcast, little bits and pieces of it probably come out. But we'll see what new gets revealed this time.
Jason Jacobs: You did the one interview where you flipped it around on types of nuclear, but I feel like your thing is, it's more businesslike than my thing. So if there's one goal I have, it's to get some new stuff out of you over the course of this discussion. You're walking in the woods, you got climate change on your mind, then what?
Bret Kugelmass: Okay, so here's something new for you. When I went to grad school, I took a class called Design Thinking, as part of my major. I got a Master's in mechanical engineering, and ME310, it's Design Thinking. The class is really about framing the problem correctly. Once you frame the problem correctly, you can develop whatever skill set you need, whether ... I mean, in the case of this class, if you need to learn how to solder together a circuit board, you can figure that out. But the real key is to understand, do you need to build that circuit board to begin with? What is the problem that you're trying to solve?
Bret Kugelmass: Upon from reflecting the last five years of running a business, and upon the fundamentals of the subject that I learned, design thinking, I tried to apply the same thing to climate change. I said, "Okay, let's just take a step back. Let's not focus on the media narrative. Let's just try to identify, what is the problem?" Everything has come from framing the problem. So what is climate change? To me, climate change, it's going to be untold human and environmental damage, over the course of some period of time.
Bret Kugelmass: The first thing that we have to do is figure out, what period of time is that going to be? What kind of damage was there going to be? What even causes climate change? To some people, it's actually not even so clear. A lot of people think it's emissions, it's CO2 emissions that you put into the air every year. No. That's not what causes climate change. What causes climate change is the CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that have already been in the air. That's what's capturing the heat.
Jason Jacobs: How are you learning this stuff along the way? Were you reading books?
Bret Kugelmass: Interviewing. Interviewing people. Before there was a podcast on nuclear only, I was just meeting with climate scientists, Kerry Emanuel from MIT.
Jason Jacobs: I didn't even know this part. Your story's even more similar to my story than I thought.
Bret Kugelmass: I wasn't thinking about the podcast, at that point. I was just trying to meet with climate scientists.
Jason Jacobs: You were just meeting them to learn.
Bret Kugelmass: Just meeting them to learn. The two things that jumped out to me, was first, that the consequences that are the most serious, at least in my mind, were going to be drought. Then, some people pushed back, it's like, "Oh, okay. There's precipitation and then there's moisture in the soil, so drought just doesn't really cover ..." Okay. Whatever. Changes to precipitation that affect people's ability to produce food, let's call it drought from here on out, that is going to cause hundreds of millions of people to either starve to death or be displaced, which then leads to civil conflict. That's the issue. That's not happening in 2100, when we're going to have the sea level rise or this that, or that many feet. No. That's going to start happening in the next few decades. It's already started happening. People attribute Syria to that. A lot of the migrant crisis, even on our southern border from Central America, they attribute to precipitation variability. It's just going to get worse and worse and worse. We're looking at a world in which, just in a couple decades, we're going to see hundreds of millions of people displaced due to drought.
Jason Jacobs: That's what you were learning about as you were making the rounds?
Bret Kugelmass: Yes. The first problem definition that I set was that okay, this is something that needs to be totally reversed in just a couple decades, not something that we need to slow down by 2100. That was the first part of the problem, what is it that we're even doing here?
Bret Kugelmass: Then the other part of the problem, which was what I was saying, like I cannot hammer home on this enough, it is not new emissions that cause climate change. It is the greenhouse gases in the air. Yes, new emissions change the rate at which we accumulate heat, that rate is called radiative forcing. But even if you were to zero out all global emissions, in every single sector, whether it be industry, transportation, electricity, agriculture, heat, all of them combined, if you were to zero it out, we would still have accelerating, runaway, out of control climate change at actually not that different a rate than we have today.
Jason Jacobs: Wait. I just want to understand. There's the ppm, or parts per million that are already in the air, but you're saying, if you zeroed out all new emissions, that the parts per million would continue to climb?
Bret Kugelmass: Parts per million would still be in the air. The heat that that parts per million trap would continue to climb. So, the temperature's going to keep rising, even if you level out the ppm.
Jason Jacobs: The heat will continue to rise, based on the current ppm that's in the air?
Bret Kugelmass: The heat capture. The temperature, the average temperature, year over year, will continue to rise, even if you zero out all new emissions.
Jason Jacobs: Would that also happen if we weren't in the 400s for ppm, and we were back at the levels that we were pre-industrial?
Bret Kugelmass: Yes. We have been heating since about 1750.
Jason Jacobs: Would the planet just continue to get hotter, regardless of where the ppm is?
Bret Kugelmass: That's right. What the ppm does is, it determines the rate at which it gets hotter. Here's a good analogy. Let's say that you're driving somewhere, but you're driving in the wrong direction. If you're driving in the wrong direction at one mile per hour, not that big a deal. At some point, you can figure out how to turn around, and you haven't lost that much ground. Once we hit that 400 ppm mark, we were traveling in the wrong direction at 60 miles an hour. If we don't add another ppm to the air, that means no new emissions, period, if all humans disappeared, all human activity disappeared tomorrow, you would still be driving the wrong direction at 60 miles an hour, because of the ppm we've already added to the air.
Jason Jacobs: I guess there are things that could slow that, but is there anything that could ever reverse that?
Bret Kugelmass: Yeah, well, what you could do ... listen, there's geoengineering stuff people talk about. I'm going to put that aside, for now.
Jason Jacobs: That's not really reversing it, it's just masking it.
Bret Kugelmass: That's right. It's just masking it, and it still might-
Jason Jacobs: It's like anxiety medication versus meditation.
Bret Kugelmass: If I've defined the problem as drought or precipitation pattern changes, it might even make the problem worse. So, we're going to put aside geoengineering, just for a second. The only other thing that we can do is get the greenhouse gases out of the air, and get them somewhere else, probably back into the ground, or into building materials.
Jason Jacobs: So, pulling carbon out, either sequestering it, converting it into valuable products, et cetera.
Bret Kugelmass: That's right. That is the only way that we can reduce the rate at which we accumulate heat, other than geoengineering.
Jason Jacobs: But to do that, at least from the novice reading that I've done, there'd be a big land use problem and a big economics problem, in terms of it's just so prohibitively expensive, especially to do it at that scale, and who's going to pay for it?
Bret Kugelmass: Okay, your line of thinking is exactly my line of thinking. That is the next question. So we're solving a problem here. We're trying to solve climate change. So we started by correctly defining the problem, and now we're working towards solutions. What we're doing is, we're saying, "How do you pull that much CO2 out of the air in a way that is economically rational, in a way that makes sense, given the resource constraints of the globe?"
Jason Jacobs: Just to pause for a minute, but when people used to say, if we were more aggressive at getting on this stuff back when we first started knowing about it, decades ago, that emissions reduction would have been enough.
Bret Kugelmass: Back to my car analogy, by 1990, we were 30 miles per hour, heading in the wrong direction. So now we're 60 miles per hour, heading in the wrong direction. But either way, we were going to still keep heading in the wrong direction at 30 miles an hour, even if we addressed this in the '90s.
Jason Jacobs: Even without the Industrial Revolution?
Bret Kugelmass: The Industrial Revolution is back when we started going to one mile an hour, two miles an hour the wrong direction. Then it's the Industrial Revolution, plus a hundred years of cumulative emissions that has us going at 30, 40, 50, 60 miles per hour, in the wrong direction.
Jason Jacobs: So, it would have been happening anyways, but just so incredibly slow that it would have been statistically insignificant?
Bret Kugelmass: It might have been even better. Listen, there's nothing actually wrong with climate change. Maybe we, as an advanced human species, we should be thinking about changing the climate to best suit humans and the environment. The question is the rate of change. If we change things so fast that the seven billion people living on this planet cannot adapt, in terms of their food infrastructure, in terms of the way they live, in terms of the cultural effects that it's going to have when you move people from one area to another that they don't own, that they don't belong, that's what's going to cause total and utter chaos and devastation.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, got it. So, global warming is caused by the CO2 that's already been emitted. So you're on your journey. You pieced that together.
Bret Kugelmass: Put that together. Then, I said, "Okay, what's next?" Now, it's about what causes this problem to begin with, and what is it going to take to reverse this problem. You could either pull all the CO2 out of the air, using some sort of machines, or you could do it biologically, perhaps. Those are essentially the two paths to getting CO2 out of the air. The problem with doing it from a machine based perspective, giant fans that suck the CO2 out of the air, sort it, rip apart the Cs, rip apart the carbon and the oxygen, then do something with those, that takes energy. What's causing all of this is energy. If you're going to do it the machine route, you need an energy source that's carbon free, that's scalable to global levels of consumption, cheap, because you still have to give energy to all the people on planet Earth.
Jason Jacobs: So, is reducing emissions still important?
Bret Kugelmass: I would argue that current emissions ... Well, let's look at it this way. Current emissions are what, net 20 gigatons of CO2 per year? What's already in the air is 1,000 gigatons of CO2? So it's about two percent of the problem. Are they important? If you can solve the 1,000 gigatons that's already in the air, I would say, no, you do not have to worry about reducing new emissions. You don't have to worry about the 20 gigatons that we add every year, if you have a solution to remove the 1,000 gigatons of CO2. A lot of people don't like to hear that, by the way. That is extremely controversial. People think that that alienates people, feels that they can't do anything. It alienates entire industries, that are the advocates of dealing with climate change.
Jason Jacobs: And, it gives people permission to keep doing whatever it is that they're doing.
Bret Kugelmass: There might not be anything wrong about that. If you produce, let's say, 20 tons of garbage a year, although garbage is a bad thing, but if we have a mechanism in society to collect all that garbage and turn it into valuable products, including landfill that builds up the Boston Harbor, that was all built with landfill, right, is it a bad thing that you created 20 tons of garbage a year? No, you helped build Boston. It is very emotional that we associate waste with bad things, but it's not necessarily true. It matters how you manage that waste. It matters how you deal with that. Other than climate change, there's nothing wrong with putting CO2 in the air.
Jason Jacobs: I just want to recap. So, your first aha on this journey was that the existing carbon in the air is the majority of the problem, and the new emissions are on top of that, but a small percentage of the overall problem. The second aha was that given that, cracking carbon removal at scale is the most important thing to solve. Is that right?
Bret Kugelmass: It would say that's the second and third aha. The first aha was how fast we need to do this, that this needs to be done within 20 or 30 years. This is not something that can wait until the second half of the century, because of the devastation that it is going to cause to people.
Jason Jacobs: But this being, getting the carbon in the air under control?
Bret Kugelmass: If we have a solution to deal with carbon in the air, we do not need to worry about new emissions.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so we got to get the carbon in the air under control. New emissions are small, percentage wise, relative to the carbon in the air that already exists, if you look at numerators and denominators. Therefore, finding a solution to getting carbon out of the air at massive scale is the thing that, if cracked, would be far more impactful than anything else that we could do.
Bret Kugelmass: It's the only thing that matters. If you ask yourself the question ... Okay, people probably pitch you startup ideas, right?
Jason Jacobs: Sometimes. I try to avoid it now, if it's not climate focused.
Bret Kugelmass: Right. People pitch me ideas all the time, too. One of my first gut checks on them is, "What does the world look like, if you got everything that you're asking for right now? If I gave you a couple million bucks, if you built out that product, does that actually get you what you think you want?" You have to define what you want. The answer, with respect to climate change, is if you were to get rid of all emissions, globally, worldwide, across every single sector, would that get you what you want? Nobody's thinking like that. But no, it wouldn't. You would still have runaway, out of control climate change, that practically has the same effect.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, that is a different viewpoint than many experts.
Bret Kugelmass: Yeah, because many experts are ... they come from a position where that answer doesn't suit their current, day-to-day work. That answer means they should probably be fired or quit what they're doing. Most people rationalize around that.
Jason Jacobs: This is good. We have a very contrasting viewpoint that we're starting down the path of, on the pod. By putting it out there, we're going to get feedback and pressure test it. So I like it. Keep going.
Bret Kugelmass: Okay, so there's two ways to get global levels of carbon out of there, the thousand gigatons of CO2 out of the air. You could do it biologically, or you could do it with giant energy consuming machines. Biologically, it's like maybe we could genetically engineer some tree to grow 100 times as fast, or genetically engineer lily pads to cover the oceans and then specifically design them to sink after they've absorbed a ton of carbon and drop to the bottom of the ocean. Maybe. But there's nothing that I've seen in genetic engineering that is that advanced yet. If it takes decades and decades to come along, that's too late.
Bret Kugelmass: But when it comes to the mechanical version of sucking carbon out of the air, now all you have to do to figure out if this is possible is look at non-carbon based energy systems. So this is what I did in October of 2017. I ran my own analysis of all of the various energy systems out there. I didn't have any horse in the race. I worked at a solar company, early on in my career. But that was a long time ago. So I just ran my own analysis of all the various energy sources. Sure enough, nuclear energy, which I had my own preconceived notions about, it was orders of magnitude better than any other energy source, orders of magnitude, at being able to provide energy with its lowest inherent carbon footprint itself.
Bret Kugelmass: Because every energy source has a carbon footprint. If you're creating carbon at a rate faster than you're able to use that energy to suck it out of the air, then it doesn't work. That is the case with all intermittent energy sources, aka, renewables. But nuclear has such a low carbon footprint, and produces so much energy for that carbon footprint, that you could use that energy to both account for its own carbon footprint, and remove the thousand gigatons of CO2 from the air. It's the only energy source that the math works out like that.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, because I've heard you say carbon negative energy, when you talk about nuclear. I never understood what you meant.
Bret Kugelmass: Yeah, so carbon negative energy. Let me add another piece of spice to the recipe. The only way that I think that this can economically work out, because people and governments are making rational choices to pollute, because energy is what gives us prosperity. Using energy, we have brought billions of people out of poverty. We have created trillions upon trillions upon trillions of dollars of wealth and prosperity, of buildings, of medicine. All of modern society is based on energy. So one could actually argue that climate change is worth the prosperity that cheap energy brings. Okay, so keep that in the back of your head, also.
Jason Jacobs: Weighing against what you were talking about, the displacement of people-
Bret Kugelmass: Hundreds of millions of people.
Jason Jacobs: ... famine-
Bret Kugelmass: Yeah, and so even weighing against that.
Jason Jacobs: ... disease.
Bret Kugelmass: Even weighing against that. Energy brings-
Jason Jacobs: Species extinction.
Bret Kugelmass: Yeah. That's what's crazy. That's why governments rationally decide to secure the cheapest energy for their people, above all else, including in India, where they're smogging millions of their own people to death. They're rationally making their decision to bring a billion people out of poverty, and choke to death two million of their own people.
Jason Jacobs: How many interviews were you in out of the 170, when you started? Where are we in that?
Bret Kugelmass: We're still before zero. Now, I've just run the numbers, and decided that nuclear energy was the only way that we could pull a thousand gigatons of CO2 out of the air.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. So you were in discussions, but not in interviews yet.
Bret Kugelmass: But I mean, this is me just doing some math, reading some books. Obviously there's more to the story, as you always find when you talk to people. So then, I went out to discover what that more to the story was. I moved to D.C. I set up the Energy Impact Center, essentially to understand nuclear energy better.
Jason Jacobs: Let me ask you a question I know the answer to, but our listeners don't, that I think is relevant. How did you pick D.C.?
Bret Kugelmass: Okay. This is an interesting one. As part of trying to map out what nuclear energy even was, I went online. I just Googled nuclear energy conferences. I found every nuclear energy conference in the last 20 years. I then created a spreadsheet with every company of anyone who had ever shown up to one of those conferences. I then built a little mapping interface. My last business was mapping with drones, so that was fun and easy for me to do. I built a little mapping interface. Then, I plotted those. I think it was like 1,500 companies that had shown up to nuclear conferences in the last 20 years. The concentration was mostly on the East Coast, and I figured ... and then a lot those conferences happened to show up in D.C., too. So I figured I would have access to the most people, in the most efficient manner, if I set up in D.C.
Jason Jacobs: And you just came here all by your lonesome?
Bret Kugelmass: Came here by myself, didn't know anybody.
Jason Jacobs: When was that?
Bret Kugelmass: 2017, it was the end of 2017.
Jason Jacobs: To do what, in your mind at that time? What were you coming here to do?
Bret Kugelmass: While I was making this process, I also broke out all of these people into categories. Were they technologists? Are they economists?
Jason Jacobs: Nuclear people, you mean.
Bret Kugelmass: Nuclear people.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah.
Bret Kugelmass: Technology, economists. Are they part of the industrial supply chain? Now, I had this just incredible list of people and expertise. My goal was to talk to every single category of expertise and talk to at least 10 people in each.
Jason Jacobs: When you discovered that we needed a carbon negative energy source, and you discovered that nuclear could be that energy source, and that got you really excited, there's a lot of well-known criticism of nuclear out there, on the safety side, on the proliferation side, on the waste side, on the cost side, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Were you well versed on those concerns at that time? Or did you then dig into pressure test that nuclear had the whole package, and not just the zero carbon energy? The unintended consequences and these other things, were those on your mind at that time?
Bret Kugelmass: I went in assuming those were all problems that could be solved with some elegant engineering solution. As a good mechanical engineer, I was like, "Yeah." I had my preconceived notions about waste, radiation, safety. I was like, "Okay, fine."
Jason Jacobs: Uninformed yet, but your hypothesis was that if you did the work, you would find that it was solvable?
Bret Kugelmass: That's right.
Jason Jacobs: And that was back in 2017?
Bret Kugelmass: Well, it was back in 2017 that I started this. It took me three months to even get my first five people to talk to me, in the nuclear energy space. It's a very secretive, closed-off group. They feel like they've been constantly attacked, for decades. It took a long time for me to gain the trust of the community.
Jason Jacobs: But you're such a likable guy.
Bret Kugelmass: It's just a face.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So, you could be zero carbon energy, had these concerns, were confident that there were answers if you went and did the work, moved to D.C. to start the process of doing that work. Is that what I'm hearing?
Bret Kugelmass: That's right.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, and then what?
Bret Kugelmass: Then, within the first few months, all of these preconceived notions, the waste, the safety, the radiation, the weapons, one by one, I found that these were myths. All of these preconceived notions were dispelled. The waste has never hurt a single person, place or thing, in all of human history. How is it possible that something that's so dangerous that it needs to be protected for millions of years, if it's never hurt anyone, ever? Then, when I started interviewing experts on waste, I was like, "Can you paint the picture of how someone could be hurt by waste, to me?" Their answers were ridiculous. Most of the answers were, "Well, if we forgot about it, a thousand years from now, whatever case it was in might be eroded. Little flecks of dust might come off. Someone might be walking by in this advanced civilization that just forgot about the waste. A fleck of it might get into their lungs, and they would have a 0.02 percent increased chance of getting cancer." That's the best you can do for waste? Are you kidding me?
Jason Jacobs: But isn't this stuff just sitting in temporary caskets, right now, at these facilities?
Bret Kugelmass: So what. What hazard does it pose, is the question. This table, this table does pose a hazard. You could trip. You could fall. You could hit your head on it. And people do. People die due to table [crosstalk 00:24:55]-
Jason Jacobs: Is that a threat?
Bret Kugelmass: You better watch what you say. Maybe it will be. Everything imposes a risk. It turns out that nuclear poses less of a risk than this table right here, because there's so much less of it. And it's three million times the energy density of coal. What that means is, for the same heat produced, there's three million times less stuff that comes out the other end. There's so little of it.
Jason Jacobs: For the people that would then respond and say, "What about Yucca Mountain?"
Bret Kugelmass: What about Yucca Mountain?
Jason Jacobs: "We tried to find a longterm home, and we couldn't get it to happen politically, and we have all this stuff sitting in caskets and there's nothing we do, and it's got to find a home. We're just going to what? Dig a hole and hope it never comes up. It's super toxic and terrible."
Bret Kugelmass: It's based on a faulty thesis. I'm noticing the clothes that you're wearing here. You got some red socks. You got some nice jeans. What's that, raw denim? You got a nice shirt on. Okay, so all of these things were made with dyes. That meant gallons and gallons, just for the clothes you're wearing now, of toxic chemicals, which last infinity long, okay, not millions of years, infinity long, were just dumped into the environment, at rates a million-fold what nuclear would do.
Bret Kugelmass: So not only is it not hazardous on its own, but everything else that we dismiss as, "Oh, we'll just throw it in a landfill ..." What if I were to ask you, "What do we do about the clothes waste?" If I were to say, "You cannot wear any clothes, society cannot have clothes, until we figure out how to deal with the toxic waste that lasts infinity long from every person's clothes on this planet," you would look at me like I'm ridiculous.
Jason Jacobs: I would. My kids would say, "Yay, we get to be nudies." But I would think it's ridiculous.
Bret Kugelmass: After I learned about how little a hazard nuclear waste created, that's how I felt. I felt that anyone who asked that question, it was a ridiculous question. Now I know, it still needs to be dealt with. Listen, if we're going to deal with this thing on a society-wide basis, we need to have better answers. We need to find better ways to communicate with people about these issues, that people have a very emotional response to. I acknowledge that. But here, you and me, and to your audience listening, that's what I learned about nuclear waste, and how dangerous it was.
Jason Jacobs: "But what about weaponizing it, because if it gets into the wrong hands, and how we going to police that?"
Bret Kugelmass: Okay, so weapons comes next. Let's talk about weapons. Ironically, the one thing that can prevent something from becoming a nuclear bomb is the fuel staying in the reactor. Because what happens is, your Plutonium-239 bomb is a U-238 atom, Uranium-238, with an extra neutron on it. When they make plutonium weapons, they've got to build special reactors that can add on that extra neutron. Here's the crazy thing, though. The normal commercial nuclear reactor, it is designed in a way so it captures another neutron, and creates a Plutonium-240. You can't make a bomb with Plutonium-240. And you can't separate Plutonium-240 from Plutonium-239. So, the one thing that makes it so it is impossible to create a plutonium bomb is a nuclear reactor.
Bret Kugelmass: But that's really in there in the weeds. We're talking about neutrons now. We're talking about different reactor types. We're talking about things that are figured, probably leads to a hundred more questions. I asked the hundred more questions. But that was the next myth that was dispelled for me, that nuclear reactors could be made to use nuclear weapons.
Jason Jacobs: I mean, I'm no expert, but if you ask experts in this area, they would say, "Well, sure there's proliferation, but," and then they would give you some, "Well, if it's regulated properly, and the pros outweigh the risk," and things like that. But they acknowledge that there's some risk. But, you're saying that it's impossible.
Bret Kugelmass: So who-
Jason Jacobs: Where's the disconnect?
Bret Kugelmass: Who are you talking to? Who is saying that there's a risk? Why don't you check their credentials. Why don't you see what industry that they're in. Are they in the industry that creates nuclear power plants? Or are they in the industry that they get paid to protect people from nuclear weapons? Who are you talking to? I mean, you're telling me that there are people out there who are telling you that there is a risk from nuclear reactors. I say, check their credentials.
Jason Jacobs: So I did. So-
Bret Kugelmass: How far am I into this journey? I don't come from the nuclear industry. I'm not here to defend the nuclear industry. I'm here to learn from every nuclear expert that I can get my hands on. We've done 170 podcast episodes, but we've talked to 1,200 people in the last two years, 1,200. So yeah, I've been questioning people's credentials.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so we talked about waste, we talked about proliferation. What about safety, catastrophic meltdown, things like that, like not in my backyard? Specifically, and I don't know if it's case-by-case or what, but you hear about Three Mile Island, you hear about Chernobyl. You talk to people who maybe grew up near the nuclear plant in Los Angeles. I haven't done all the work to dig into all these different things, but the feel that feel this way, feel strongly, which would give me pause in terms of getting behind something like this, until I went and did all that work. I guess you came in fresh, but you're further than I am. What ground did you cover that ... and where did you come out on this stuff?
Bret Kugelmass: Okay, so now you want to know about safety. But you touched upon a couple things there. You're like, "What about those people?" I'm like, "What about those people?" When it comes to solving climate change, do I really care what some elite people in Massachusetts or California think, what emotional tie they have, because their parents grew up in an era where the environmentalists were all anti-nuclear, or maybe they grew up in that era, where that's what it meant to be an environmentalist, was to be anti-nuclear?
Jason Jacobs: So that's why? It's based on misinformation and outdated or irrational fears? Have things changed, and if so, what?
Bret Kugelmass: It's based on misinformation and totally rational fears, totally rational fears. Why do we feel this way? Why would anyone feel so innately that nuclear power plants are so dangerous? It's because we go to these incredible lengths to add extra safety systems in order to bolster them. We put a four foot thick concrete dome to protect it from an airplane crash. That tells me, as just a natural citizen who should be afraid of something, it means that if an airplane crashed into that, it would hurt more people than if an airplane crashed into a skyscraper. Otherwise, we would put four foot thick concrete domes around every skyscraper. Rationally, people decide that they should be afraid of what is inside of a nuclear power plant.
Bret Kugelmass: What do we know from the facts? We know at Fukushima, where we had three light water reactor meltdowns, we'll put Chernobyl to the side for a second, because that wasn't a commercial reactor, that was a nuclear weapons production facility, but the power plants that we have all across America, were the Fukushima style reactors, a light water reactor. What happened when three of them melted down? How many people got hurt? Zero. Do you need to know anything more than that to make a decision to counter what you rationally feel? It's hard to counter what you rationally feel. But do you need to know anything more than that, that three total, catastrophic, as the word you used, meltdowns of a light water reactor, didn't end up hurting a single person? What more do you need to the answer of the safety question.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, well I think the good thing is, by putting this story out there, when people hear this, then I think I'll hear some of the counterarguments and other side of the story. I'm not suggesting that anything you're saying is misinformation, but you've gone and done the work. One of the reasons I have this podcast is because I haven't done the work. I'm in the process of doing my work, but the podcast is a way to not only do the work, but show the work, so that the listeners don't just hear the conclusion, where I come out the other side, which is what I'm getting from you now. Which makes sense, because I'm asking you what you think, and you're telling me what you think. But 1,200 discussions went into informing what you think, right? So I'm trying to show my work.
Bret Kugelmass: By the way, I didn't start speaking with this conviction until I was at conversation 865, literally. I took some time to reflect, and I shut down the podcast for two months, after doing it for a year. This was October of 2018. I took it down for two months, didn't record any new episodes, and just spent time reflecting. Because, I wouldn't say these things out loud, even after 865 conversations, a year of trying to brush up on this. Because, it was just so counter to the narrative that's out there. I felt embarrassed saying it out loud. It's only up until this point that I reflect on it until I started understanding why it is the way it is, why the industry speaks in a certain way, why people feel a certain way. I used to say it was irrational that people felt that way. Until I realized it was rational that people were afraid of nuclear, I didn't start dismissing these concerns around proliferation, waste and safety.
Jason Jacobs: Let me try a couple more on for size. Another one is, "Nuclear's never going to be cost competitive, and by the time it is, we're not going to need it anyways, because renewables are going to carry the day."
Bret Kugelmass: That's the problem to solve. That is the problem to solve. Cost was the one issue. I mean, I came up with a list. So we talked about safety, proliferation, waste. There's a half a dozen other. Public perception, I mean, you could categorize all the problems-
Jason Jacobs: I got one more after this. But cover this one. But then, I do have one more.
Bret Kugelmass: The only one that was left was cost.
Jason Jacobs: I got one other one, but let's talk about cost.
Bret Kugelmass: Yeah, a new nuclear plant costs about 10 times as much, let's say a gigawatt scale plant, to build, as a coal plant, and your cost, on a levelized cost of electricity basis, is about twice as much as coal, at the end of the day. How is that possible? That is essentially what the remainder of our conversations have been trying to figure out. It's been trying to meet with experts from all of these different perspectives, to answer now that one question. What is it that is driving cost in nuclear energy?
Jason Jacobs: What's your sense of that from the discussion, so far?
Bret Kugelmass: We could do a 10 hour podcast on that. I've started giving lectures on it. I've now been invited out to a half dozen universities around the country, and around the world, to speak at conferences on ... climate conferences and nuclear conferences, because-
Jason Jacobs: A little humble bragging. You just slipped that in there.
Bret Kugelmass: Well-
Jason Jacobs: I'm just joking.
Bret Kugelmass: So what I want to do-
Jason Jacobs: That's like my thing. I call people out the humble-
Bret Kugelmass: No, please do. I know, I've been listening to your previous podcasts. I love it. But what I've been trying to do is answer that question as thoroughly as possible. So I put up this lecture series online, so people can listen to the very, very in-depth analysis of what is driving cost in nuclear energy. This conversation isn't enough.
Jason Jacobs: Where can people find that?
Bret Kugelmass: If you go to YouTube, and you type in ... Oh boy, this is going to be tough. Bret Kugelmass Lectures-
Jason Jacobs: Kugel thing, that's, yeah.
Bret Kugelmass: ... or you type in Titans of Nuclear, you can find our channel, Titans of Nuclear, or you type in my name B-R-E-T, that's just one T, K-U-G-E-L-M-A-S-S, then type in lecture, and you'll see my lecture series.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so you've been out lecturing, and what have you been saying?
Bret Kugelmass: We've walked through many of the drivers of cost in nuclear energy. I hate to try to just simplify it in five or 10 minutes right here, but if I can narrow it down to a couple of things, just to give you a bit of an appetite, outdated radiation standards and poor construction management. Those have been the two things that are making nuclear energy cost 10 times as much as it should cost.
Jason Jacobs: I guess on the outdated radiation management, how do we get out of that, given that it's ... I mean, that's all regulated heavily by the NRC?
Bret Kugelmass: Yeah. Not by the NRC. So the NRC is actually out there trying to do a good job. They're mandated by Congress to protect the public. They are following the radiation standards set to them by the radiation standards bodies, the ones who set this. They are using bad data, because the radiation standards bodies are misreporting what the dangers of radiation are, by a factor of 10,000. Ten thousand, they're off by a factor of 10,000.
Jason Jacobs: Why is that?
Bret Kugelmass: Historically, very early on, when we didn't even know about ... When did Watson and Crick do their thing? I don't know, 70 years ago or something. Who knows. We've only known about DNA for some period of time. We've only known about DNA for about the same amount of times as we've been able to use nuclear energy productively. Pretty early on, when there was a lot of misconceptions about how cancer was formed and what happens to the genes under radiation, some of the popular radiation people at the time, some of the popular geneticists at the time, said, "Hey, this is a real, real problem." And they drew this linear comparison, a graph that showed the effects of radiation to human health, and they drew it as a line, linearly, all the way down to zero, and said, "No matter how little radiation you get, it's going to have an increased effect on you having cancer."
Bret Kugelmass: That has since been disproven by every medical radiation study that's ever been conducted. But using that standard, this linear no threshold model has persisted. And since how radiation affects biology is extremely complex, because biology is extremely complex, they have never updated that model. Because there's so much infighting amongst the medical radiation standards setting community, that they can't come to agreement on any other model to follow, so they just stick with the bad one that they started with 50 years ago. That's permeated into other industries. I mean, think of how much it costs to undergo certain types of radiation treatment. Okay, can we just talk about radiation, for a second?
Jason Jacobs: Sure.
Bret Kugelmass: Radiation has only ever killed or caused cancer to few people. It has saved almost a billion lives, through medical radiation imaging. Radiation was used to kill off skin cancers in the 1930s or 1940s or something. Extremely early on, radiation has been saving lives. Yet, radiation treatment in medicine, and also energy, since this is where I'm coming to, is far, far, far more expensive than it could be, than it should be, because of these overbearing radiation standards that were set by these medical bodies.
Jason Jacobs: Then, what about on that last point, the construction costs. Where does that come from? How do we get out of it?
Bret Kugelmass: Listen, this has just been one frigging disaster after another. If you look through the history of nuclear power plants being built, you can even pinpoint individuals who just made terrible, terrible construction management decisions throughout history. Then the industry as a whole has just not made great decisions, either. Part of it is because the incentives were in the right place.
Jason Jacobs: Are you talking about domestically or everywhere?
Bret Kugelmass: That is a hard question to answer. There are some examples of when it was done very well, both domestically and other places, as well. But there've been examples where it's been done terribly, virtually everywhere, also.
Jason Jacobs: So, is the answer just to work with more competent EPCs or-
Bret Kugelmass: Part of the problem is, the incentives aren't in place for the EPCs to deliver the cheapest product. You know the Bay Bridge, that connects San Francisco and Oakland? How much over budget and over schedule is that? We're talking billions of dollars. And the California high speed rail? How much over budget was that? It's because the incentives are not in place for these EPCs to drive down cost. The incentives, the way the contracts are set up, are for them to drive up costs, through what are called change orders, as much as possible. That's how they increase their top line.
Jason Jacobs: So, how do we get out of that?
Bret Kugelmass: I think you can do it contractually. I think you can set up contracts where all the incentives are in the right place, and then if you have extremely motivated and competent construction managers in place, I think you can work through these issues. Listen, this isn't the answer that people want to hear. Everyone wants to hear you have to have a new reactor, it's got to be molten salt or it's got to be fusion or it's got to be something new. Everyone wants to hear a sexy, new moonshot thing is going to save us. I'm going around, and I'm saying, "You just need more competent project management."
Jason Jacobs: I'm glad that I met you when you're no holdback Bret. I feel like no holdback Bret is funner than holdback Bret. That's just a general statement. But keep going.
Bret Kugelmass: Let's go out for a few beers after this, and you'll really see no holdback Bret.
Jason Jacobs: I'm scared. Yeah. But my last question though, or the last objection, then I have another topic to dig into, but the last objection that we didn't cover is the politically palatable one, like, "Hey, look, I agree with you. Nuclear should proliferate. But, it's never going to happen. It's not in the cards. The public has spoken."
Bret Kugelmass: When was the last time that you voted on a wastewater treatment plant in your jurisdiction?
Jason Jacobs: I can't remember.
Bret Kugelmass: I'm sorry. In America, do we have a referendum process on infrastructure? Is that what you were implying? When does the public have a vote about infrastructure? Sometimes, sometimes some states do this. But most things get [inaudible 00:41:05] built. We don't go to the public and seek for permission prior. Whatever is cheapest usually gets built, or whatever is the most powerful lobbying organization can carve our rules to create some sort of competitive advantage. That's what gets built. This idea that the public votes on nuclear is ridiculous. Yes, in some cases, in some geographies, the public has created a lot of trouble. Environmental groups have created a lot of trouble, and have delayed construction, which drove up costs, which put plants economically into the unfeasible range. But there is never a, "Let's vote and just stop construction on this thing." And then, there's so many places in America that love nuclear. Just because the rich elite, in California and Massachusetts don't have a fuzzy feeling about nuclear, you don't know the rest of the country, and you don't know the rest of the world.
Jason Jacobs: And actually, one more I thought of, which is, can nuclear ever be cost competitive without a price on carbon?
Bret Kugelmass: It should be. If proper construction management were applied and the radiation standards were reset, I'm arguing that on it's own, inherently, without a price on carbon, nuclear would be so cheap that building a new one, you'd be able to compete with just the marginal cost of running fossil infrastructure. I don't think you need a tax on carbon. You just need to build cheap nuclear.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so Mr. Podcaster, you've done, what did you say? You said-
Speaker 3: A hundred and seventy.
Bret Kugelmass: A hundred and seventy episodes, 1,200 conversations.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, 170 episodes and 1,200 conversations. Here are your key takeaways. What do you do with all that information? Now you've got it. Now you know. So what are you doing?
Bret Kugelmass: I started this organization, the Energy Impact Center, essentially as a research institute, to figure this stuff out. Now, we're entering phase two of our operations, where we are trying to do something about it. One of the things that we're doing is, we're hosting prize competitions, where we encourage people to design nuclear reactors based on better construction management principles. Not sexy, but that's why we need to create a prize, to make it sexy. So this is one of a few initiatives that we're doing. We're also still furthering our research on drought modeling, and how that affects population movement. We're continuing to grow, and continuing to build all of the efforts, to put all the pieces in place, where people feel the urgency and move towards nuclear, and move towards nuclear that's cheap.
Jason Jacobs: If you look forward three years, five years, 10 years, even 50 years, and you're looking in the mirror, looking back on your life, what piece of this puzzle do you hope is the one that you made your mark on?
Bret Kugelmass: So now you're asking the question I always like to, in my podcast on ... I'm wondering if ... How much time are we at? Oh that means we're coming up on an hour. Boy, you've learned from me, huh?
Bret Kugelmass: What I want to do is, I want to usher in an entire new era in nuclear innovation. That's what our organization is aiming towards right now. We are trying to make it so there can be hundreds of new nuclear companies out there, that are acting in a way to reduce costs in nuclear. Not to make it safer, not to have a new type of reactor core, just to reduce costs. That is the ecosystem that we are trying to develop. So, if those hundred new companies come around in the next five years, and I'm partially responsible for that, I feel like I'll have done my piece to save the planet from climate change.
Jason Jacobs: Uh-huh (affirmative). So just taking what's there and making it economical.
Bret Kugelmass: That's right.
Jason Jacobs: For the listeners out there, I guess there's two vectors I want to ask some closing questions, on their behalf. One is, you've put out some bold and controversial viewpoints. For the listeners that say, "Well, gosh, if that were true, that would completely change my thinking, but I haven't done that work," is there a more efficient way for them to get up to speed than doing 1,200 discussions and 170 episodes? If so, where would you point them.
Bret Kugelmass: Unlike a lot of the other people who advocate for work towards climate change, I don't think the average person needs to do anything. I don't think we need taxes. I don't think we need subsidies. I think that what we need to do is create an industry that creates cheap nuclear. If your listeners aren't entrepreneurs or aren't engineers or aren't financiers, I don't care what they think. But if they are, that's the community I'm speaking to. The first thing that you can do to start getting up to speed is listen to the 170 episodes where I go into depth on every single aspect of nuclear energy.
Jason Jacobs: But if they're concerned about climate change and our carbon problem, if you're them, it's nuclear all the way?
Bret Kugelmass: If you're not going to do it biologically, there is no other way, according to the laws of physics, that you can remove the thousand gigatons of CO2 from the air, except nuclear energy.
Jason Jacobs: The last question, which I ask every guest, is just, now put aside people and skill sets and just look at money. If you had a big pot of money, lets say $100 billion, and you could allocate it towards anything to move the needle in the most impactful way to help with our climate change problem, where would it go?
Bret Kugelmass: I said, "Keep your money. Change the radiation standards."
Jason Jacobs: I like it. I don't know where I come out on all that, but that's some serious food for thought, and it's very different than any guest we've had before.
Bret Kugelmass: Awesome.
Jason Jacobs: Anything I didn't ask, or any parting words for our listeners?
Bret Kugelmass: No, this has been fun. I've definitely enjoyed the relationship that I've built with you over this time. I love listening to your podcasts, and I can't wait to see what you do next.
Jason Jacobs: Well, thanks. You too, Bret. So Bret Kugelmass, thank you for coming on the show.
Bret Kugelmass: See you later.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co. Note, that is dot co, not dot com. Someday, we'll get the dot com, but right now, dot co. You can also find me on Twitter at @jjacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode, or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. Before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend, or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.