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Nuclear Power, Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Memes
Mark Nelson is the Managing Director of Radiant Energy Group, which advises governments, nonprofits and industry about nuclear energy. He is also an incredible storyteller who has the ability to reframe and rectify the misleading narratives that have permeated the nuclear discourse.
Ahead of the release of our Infinite Loops episode with Mark (dropping tomorrow, 26 January), here’s a research primer we prepared on Mark prior to the interview.
Key interviews and publications
Narratives, Memes & Storytelling
Nuclear Power vs Nuclear Weapons
The Degrowth Agenda
Building and Construction
Theme 1: Narratives, Memes & Storytelling
The nuclear industry has a confidence problem after decades of poor communication around nuclear energy.
We need to build better narratives around nuclear. Food isn’t just fuel – it’s feasts, family dinners, etc. Power sources can be just as emotional. We need to build an emotional story around them.
Mark rejects that there is the rational/irrational self. Rational for who? Over what time period? Considering what known or unknown possibilities? “In order to venture into the murky unknown, the fog of future war, the decision to do that is fundamentally an emotional one or even an aesthetic one.”
“I think that possibly one of the downsides of the way we've managed large complicated systems like electricity is we've removed emotions from just the areas where they might have been excellent downside protection against unusual or unexpected events.”
“The way I put it is this, there's Chernobyl the molecules and Chernobyl the memes. The molecules killed several dozen people, the memes, millions and counting.”
“I think within nuclear itself, I want much more attention to beauty and to imagination and creativity in telling and showing the story of nuclear energy. If that is even just internal rituals, so when refueling is done at a nuclear plant there should be feasts. Feast on, again, a religious scale. There should be feast days dedicated to the return of a reactor to regular operation. When all the high pressure hard hours are done, there needs to be an actual celebration that, depending on the interest or the ambitions of the nuclear plant and their host community, should become regionally, nationally, or even internationally famous as a once every 18 years harvest.”
“The equivalent of a harvest festival, where people, maybe a lot of people are going to get really drunk, but you don't have to have too much alcohol. A lot of nuclear workers are not heavy drinkers, so maybe that doesn't fit. But where there's a celebration of return to operation of this great energy combine, this great energy harvester. I think that would be a great step forward for the nuclear energy.”
Can Mark steelman the case against nuclear power?
Can Mark think of any positive cultural portrayals of nuclear power (the anti-Simpsons)? If not, why?
How can we spread more positive nuclear power memes? Is this a top-down or a bottom-up process?
What comes first? Governmental adoption of nuclear power, or widespread public support for nuclear power? The two strike me as co-dependent, but if we’re thinking of the most effective way to cause change which of these should we be focusing on?
How material a factor in the failure of nuclear to take off is storytelling versus economic incentives? How can we more effectively incentivise support for nuclear power?
Does telling a better story about nuclear require us to tell a worse one about solar and wind?
What are the frontiers of nuclear power? What are the big developments of the future?
Theme 2: Nuclear Power vs Nuclear Weapons
There is a global pattern of nuclear weapon and nuclear energy development being worked on simultaneously by countries, at least initially.
Many countries, if they reach the point that they feel safe enough to drop their weapons program, also turn against nuclear energy.
The extent to which countries see nuclear weapons as the same as nuclear power is historically contingent. In Germany they are seen as the same thing – they lost WW2 – they have had nuclear weapons aimed at them.
The boomer generation was primed to think that all nuclear energy was nuclear weapons, all of that was the same as colonialism and war. Peace = no nuclear.
The perceived link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is a major narrative problem for the movement.
In Mark’s opinion what impact, if any, would widescale nuclear power adoption have on nuclear power proliferation?
What’s the most effective way to break the perceived link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons? Is it, basically, a marketing problem? An educational one? Something else?
Can Mark explain to our audience how the physics and the technology behind nuclear power and nuclear weapons differ? How analogous are these processes?
How easy is it for nuclear weapon capabilities to be repurposed for nuclear power, and vice versa?
Theme 3: The Degrowth Agenda
The anti-nuclear movement is often linked to the de-growth movement, which assumes that humans themselves are the disease so any form of energy production is dangerous and should be stopped.
In trying to combat this the nuclear industry is fighting the wrong battle. It doesn’t understand that the opposition doesn’t want safer / more regulated plants etc, and it doesn’t want solutions – it wants nuclear to be completely off the map as an option. It is existential.
The reason that the nuclear sceptic Amory Lovins gained some traction as a critic of nuclear was that he isn’t ant-capitalist or anti-growth. He, therefore, has a unique perspective that appears more credible although it was wrong on basic points.
There is a trend of people who are sceptical and resistant to nuclear energy out of a fear of offending people / being immoral. They have an image of nuclear horror in their head and struggle to get past it.
“If I'm choosing a team, if I am tasked with decarbonizing and I'm choosing a team of people to work with, I'll take, any day, I'll take somebody who thinks it's a scam but believes in abundance, over somebody who thinks that global warming and climate change are totally happening, but doesn't believe in abundance. Why? Because you can't build the systems necessary with somebody who doesn't believe in abundance. You just can't get them to understand the necessity of sacrificing to build today, to provide in large amounts for tomorrow.”
What is the most effective way to respond to opposition which wants to destroy rather than change you? When the stakes are existential how should the industry respond? Is agreeing to e.g. stricter regulation, more safety checks etc a form of death by a 1000 cuts?
Is it possible to make a degrowther case for nuclear power? Or is widespread nuclear power adoption prima facie a case for a growth agenda?
The degrowth agenda, on the whole, although very popular among a vocal selection of society, has largely not captured policymakers (if anything, policymakers are one of the main targets of the degrowth movement). So why is this a threat to nuclear? Does focusing on the opposition provided by the degrowth movement risk missing the wood from the trees?
Is the abundance agenda utopian?
Theme 4: Nuclear Waste
Nuclear waste is a mental proxy for nuclear weapons for people. But nuclear waste is completely different. There is no fast failure of nuclear waste. There is no way to spread failure.
Focusing on nuclear waste is a way to shut down a plant without banning the plant – if you stop the legal ability to move fuel through the reactor then, by stopping the ability to do something with the waste you can effectively shut down the plant.
We should not make decisions on nuclear waste until we aren’t scared of it.
Can Mark give our listeners an overview of the ways we can store nuclear waste and what the risks and opportunities are?
What are some of the positive use cases of nuclear waste?
Theme 5: Building & Construction
Our society cannot build any more. We have lost our ability for big building projects. We have lost the ability to do large infrastructure projects.
Ancient Egypt “proves that you can do marvelous things based on nothing but renewable energy.” But after it stopped making the pyramids it “never again moved even the tiniest fraction of that amount of stone in the rest of the 2,500 years of the pharaonic civilization. They built those pyramids further in time from Cleopatra and the end of the pharaonic system, compared to where we are today. What happened that turned their attention away? Was there a collapse? Did they just lose the technology to build in such extraordinary fashion? Did they lose their engineering?”
“The question that we're about to have answered for us over the next few years is, can we take this century, maybe 130-year long contiguous experiment of the grid, can we maintain it? Can we keep it up? Can we expand it? We don't know for sure, because it was the product of an almost continuous series of successful construction efforts. Property rights arranged in such a way that you could build out the grid, that you could make sure you had enough power plants, that you arranged for enough fuel, that you arranged for enough customers and load growth and things like that. A lot of the ways that we made electricity work were intentionally changed, broken if you will, about 20, 25, 30 years ago. We are now coming to the conclusion where we broke down the traditional way of building enough power plants, intentionally, and a new way of doing it correctly has not emerged.”
“Nuclear reactors can take 10 years to construct. People who want to build a reactor want it today so they can then show off and use. “the closer you get to the responsibility of making a decision for which you will feel massive downside, personally, the more conservative you get about changes here and there, innovations”
One of the main issues with nuclear is the investment decisions required to build a plant. Upfront costs are high, and they take a long time to build.
What is the main reason why we have lost our ability for big infrastructure projects? Is it a regulatory reason, a psychological tendency, misaligned incentives? Something else? To find a solution we need to identify the root of the problem.
What impact will rising interest rates have on the nuclear power industry? As construction and financing costs rise will this disincentivise decision-makers from building new plants?
How can we build nuclear power plants more quickly?
What is the relationship between nuclear energy and ESG?
Theme 6: Energy Crisis
We are in a continuous winter crisis. It’s going to happen year on year unless something changes.
The decision-makers are incompetent: “Of course, they're going to only give the little parts at a time needed by the leaders to do what they wanted to do anyway. There's an entire ecosystem of incompetency in the leadership and incompetency in the degree and salary technical staff. They've all got to go. They've all just got to go. Sooner the better, but we'll see what happens this winter.”
The UK is in the worst position. It is reliant on natural gas and wind. Wind can stop for weeks at a time. Natural gas storage is about three days for the country. The balance comes from imported electricity.
“If we can make it through the horrors and readjust our sense of how brutal modern life should be, we may make a brighter, less brutal 2030s.”
“I think that almost everybody who has invested in renewables needs to take a massive haircut because it turns out that those aren't, although they are the correct thing on average in some ways during an energy crisis of fuels, the process by which they were constructed eliminated the correct decision-making. You see?”
A nuclear renaissance is coming. This is driven by concerns over climate change and clean energy, and the end of the natural gas boom in connection with the Ukraine war.
One apparent trend that has emerged over the past year is a material divergence between Europe and the US living standards, as the Ukraine war has exposed the various flaws in European energy policy. What has the US got right about energy policy?
With dynamic, decisive and robust decision-making, how quickly can we solve the energy crisis? Do we have to wait 10 years until more power plants have been built?
How important is a strong state to the development of energy policy? Would Mark prefer for the state to take a hands-on or a hands-off role? To what extent can we trust the market to sort this out?