The Tech Entrepreneur Who Thinks He Can Reverse Climate Change With Nuclear Power

Bret Kugelmass believes nuclear energy can regain popularity if we can make it profitable

Photo: picture alliance/Getty Images

“W“We have to convince the rest of the world,” Bret Kugelmass tells an audience of engineers at the University of Michigan, “that nuclear isn’t as bad as they once thought.”

Speaking in slow, carefully enunciated sentences, he paces the stage, his hair slicked back in a swoop. We not only have to stop climate change but reverse it, he argues — and the only way to do so is by doubling down on nuclear energy. For that to work, he continues, the economics of the industry have to change, along with people’s minds. Accomplishing both is his raison d’être.

These budding engineers are intrigued about how they can help. In addition to a better future, there’s money in it for them — about $17,000 worth, for now, thanks to a competition Kugelmass is about to announce.

Since leaving the business world with a pile of cash, Kugelmass has become obsessed with pushing the idea that nuclear power — in a revamped, cheaper form — is the answer to our environmental woes. Its ultra-efficient power production, he believes, provides enough oomph to suck sufficient carbon out of the atmosphere. Nuclear isn’t exactly a popular option these days, but he sees that as a hurdle that good old-fashioned capitalism can fix. If nuclear energy can be reframed as a viable business, he believes, the planet can go back to the unwarmed way it used to be.

This idea, not a totally new one, has its supporters: Democratic candidates Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg have expressed support for nuclear for the sake of the climate, and Joe Biden is promoting the development of new nuclear technologies. Kugelmass was so taken with the idea that he founded the Energy Impact Center, a research institute that hopes to return Earth to its pre-industrial-age chemistry by fostering small, safe, low-cost, lightly regulated nuclear reactors that can power devices that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

“We have to find some way to remove the last 200 years of carbon.”

To help sell the idea, he hosts a podcast called Titans of Nuclear. The title doesn’t oversell itself: It features more than 250 interviews with experts like the director of the international Nuclear Energy Agency, the head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s advanced R&D division, the president of the European Nuclear Society, and executives from power companies, professors, and policymakers.

Whether you buy his argument or not, he’s building a reputation and a network of powerful people who could help carry forward his big idea: that making nuclear power capitalistically appealing can change climate change.

TToday, around 440 nuclear power plants provide 10% of the world’s electricity. The numbers, though, vary widely by country. France, for instance, gets three-fourths of its power from splitting atoms, while the United States relies on nuclear for only around 20% of its electricity. American reactors are generally old, and some may run longer than their initial shelf life, up to 80 years. A recent Gallup poll showed that U.S. sentiment on nuclear is pretty evenly split. Some experts believe the United States should phase nuclear out altogether. Others say that it should lean into its nuclear infrastructure and modernize; Kugelmass couldn’t agree more.

He wasn’t always into energy. He started out as a robot guy, creating a self-flying, internet-connected, picture-taking, data-delivering drone before drones were things you got your cousin for Christmas. His team grew the resulting company, called Airphrame, for five years before a nameless Fortune 500 company acquired it in 2017, for an amount that he will not disclose.

Once Kugelmass got that check, he thought he would just relax, travel. But, instead, he found himself thinking about the one big-picture problem that really mattered — climate change.

Like any good entrepreneur, he became obsessed with treating this problem as a puzzle — one he could help solve, if only he had more information, and if he could only get the rest of us to buy it.

Photo: Energy Impact Center

So, he sold his motorcycle, moved to Washington, D.C. from California, and founded the Energy Impact Center. He admits that, at the time, he didn’t know much more about global warming than anyone else. “As a good techie, nerdy entrepreneur, I read everything in Popular Science magazine and anything I saw online,” he says. Eventually he started calling up climate scientists. “What was missing from the media narrative?” he asked them. What weren’t the People getting?

These interviews led him to the idea that we can’t just cease carbon emissions: We have to take them out of the atmosphere. And we need nuclear energy to power the machines that can do so.

“We have to find some way to remove the last 200 years of carbon,” he says.

He’s far from the first person, of course, to suggest Earth invest in carbon-negative technology. Already, we have carbon sequestration, which captures emissions from, say, an oil refinery before they go into the atmosphere, and then redirects them underground, putting them in a geologic time-out. Trees do something similar, but more slowly.

But Kugelmass is convinced that we need to do more than just reach net zero emissions: He believes we need to suck out enough carbon from the atmosphere that Earth’s carbon dioxide levels return to what they were in the pre-industrial age. If we don’t, he argued in a recent USA Today op-ed, the Earth will continue to warm. “It is the extra greenhouse gases we have accumulated over the past two centuries — approximately 1 trillion tons — that ratchet up the temperature year over year and will continue to do so regardless of future emissions,” he wrote.

That kind of massive carbon dioxide siphoning will require devices that must be powered through clean energy — nuclear energy, in his eyes. Kugelmass favors “direct air capture,” which pulls carbon dioxide directly from the air and shunts it underground. “We can determine which energy sources are capable of powering negative emissions,” he says. “Nuclear energy is the only one.”

Reversing climate change through nuclear power is the Energy Impact Center’s sole focus. Titans of Nuclear is its biggest achievement to date: At the end of 2019, Kugelmass had done 1,500 interviews, 258 of which were online. The collection of intimate, sometimes esoteric conversations are described on the podcast website as “an audio encyclopedia of the greatest minds in Nuclear Energy.”

Eventually, the organization plans to give out XPrize-style money, asking students and then, with more financial incentive, companies to create commercially viable innovations to “flip the narrative” on nuclear. Someday, the center also plans to release designs for an open-source nuclear reactor that’s so cheap you can’t not use it. “We’re still short on details,” Kugelmass says.

Although he says the center’s thesis doesn’t require reactors to be small, diminution is a key part of most “new nuclear” discussions, which often focus on so-called “small modular reactors.” The Department of Energy says these devices can generate anywhere from a couple megawatts to a few hundred megawatts, as compared to the thousand or more from a typical nuclear power plant. They could be built in a factory, requiring less on-site construction time, reducing costs, and bringing nuclear to places that don’t have the infrastructure for a giant facility.

With the development of these innovations, Kugelmass believes that, by 2040, carbon emissions can be net negative. He is this optimistic because of what he believes about the risks of nuclear — skin-melting accidents, the potential to refashion material into world-melting bombs, and so on.

The problem with that concern, he says, is that “it’s not true.”

Those dangers, he believes, are just reputational, not real. The problem is PR, not physics. And Kugelmass thinks he can handle that.

HHis argument could hold more sway, if only all experts agreed it was sound.

The day after Kugelmass published his op-ed in USA Today, Jonathan Foley, a prominent climate scientist and head of the solutions-focused nonprofit Project Drawdown, tore the argument down on Twitter. Reaching net zero emissions, he says, actually would stop the planet from heating further. Foley called this idea “basic climate physics.”

Others don’t buy into the nucleus of Kugelmass’s argument: that nuclear is The Solution to climate change. Focusing on nuclear could leave other clean energy efforts — like renewable solar and wind power, which we can grow without inventing new technology — without sufficient resources.

Besides, nuclear is not the clean silver bullet Kugelmass frames it to be. Nuclear power may not emit carbon dioxide, but mining and processing uranium for nuclear emits carbon, as does manufacturing materials for power plants. It currently takes a lot of money, and a lot of time, to build nuclear plants. The waste it creates is radioactive.

“What is often omitted from discussion is all the contamination that has already taken place as a result of the nuclear industry,” says Stanford University’s Gabrielle Hecht, a professor of history and nuclear security. Creating more reactors can also create security risks, depending on how they’re built, since radioactive material can be diverted or repurposed into weapons.

Then, of course, there are the accidents — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima being the best-known among them. Gregory Jaczko, the former chairman of a U.S. government agency called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says such errors are inevitable because the powerful nuclear industry cuts corners and dodges regulation, just like businesses in every other sector. Last year, Jaczko wrote a Washington Post op-ed called “I oversaw the U.S. nuclear power industry. Now I think it should be banned.”

Paul Gunter, director of watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, stresses that most of the existing nuclear infrastructure in use is old. “As this industry continues to age and degrade, they are constantly juggling financial margins with safety margins,” he says, “and when that happens with an inherently dangerous industry you can well expect accidents.”

We fear those problems because of the health risks associated with radioactivity. By 2019, reactors had operated for around 17,000 cumulative years in 33 countries, and there have been only three major accidents. Though this number may seem low, Hecht says it exceeds most predictions. In 2016, researchers from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a paper that calculated that the nuclear power failure rate is closer to 1 in every 3,704 reactor-years — a far cry from previous predictions putting the odds closer to 1 in 200,000, or, at worst, 1 in 11,000.

We don’t actually know much about how low-level, even sub-Chernobyl doses of radiation affect our health when we’re exposed long term, so even a safer modern reactor could cause issues we have not yet foreseen.

For some of these reasons, organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists argue that investment in nuclear power should not dilute the resources for initiatives like grid modernization and renewable energy — which can already be done relatively easily and quickly.

“I think it’s abundantly clear,” says Hecht, “that any form of nuclear that might combat climate change cannot get built quickly enough.”

What we have determined is the appropriate way to change how people feel about something is to make it something people want.

NNevertheless, Kugelmass remains convinced of his synthesis of the titans’ ideas, at least in part because he believes his idea has everyone’s best interests at heart. Responding to Foley’s criticism about his op-ed, he tweeted: “let’s remember we are on the same side: ‘Team: Save the planet’.” His plan to convince everyone else involves, in part, pitching venture capitalists on how nuclear could make them a lot of money.

This last one is a promise that, historically, has gone unfulfilled. By 1972, the Atomic Energy Commission “forecast that the United States would have 1,000 power reactors by the year 2000,” wrote Peter Bradford, a board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in 2016. “Today we have 100 operating power reactors, down from a peak of 112 in 1990.”

The industry, rather than being independently competitive, has relied on billions of dollars in government subsidies. “They are projecting a future that has not played out in reality in terms of the commercial development of nuclear power,” says Gunter of Beyond Nuclear, whose Titans podcast episode is currently the only one listed with the “opposition” tag. Hecht, who has not been featured on the podcast, agrees, and sees the general push for small, modular reactors as yet another go-round in a familiar historical cycle.

“The kinds of claims that are being made about them are very similar to the claims of the 1950s and ’60s,” she says, “that nuclear was going to solve everything.”

Still Kugelmass believes it can — if the logistics and economics change, along with the minds of detractors. He knows simply giving people more information won’t shift anyone’s perspective. “What we have determined is the appropriate way to change how people feel about something is to make it something people want,” Kugelmass continues. In other words, to commodify it — like an entrepreneur would.

First on the list of products: desirable nuclear waste.

About 15 minutes into his University of Michigan talk, Kugelmass announces he’s funding a contest to sell the by-products of nuclear reactors: Students will compete to win $17,000 by coming up with the best business plans to “productize this incredible asset, and incentivize the creation of new markets.”

This idea sounds wild, but it’s not impossible. The plastic minds of these youth will surely come up with creative ideas, like perhaps selling the waste to power private spacecraft, or putting it in high-octane batteries that truly keep going and going and going. With mentorship from industry and faculty leaders, they will then pitch their ideas in pursuit of the cash prize.

The audience of engineers applauds. Most of these students didn’t live through the Cold War. They were probably kids when Fukushima happened, and know HBO’s Chernobyl better than the nuclear disaster itself. They maybe don’t know what “Atoms for Peace” means. All but one nuclear power plant in the United States was built before the majority of them were born.

Maybe, if nothing else, Kugelmass and the Energy Impact Center could make nuclear power a bigger topic of young-person conversation — where the people who have the longest to live, and so the most stake in whatever version of the future actually occurs, have something to say. Generating buzz has, after all, always been the entrepreneur’s specialty.

Freelance science writer; short-fiction lover; trail runner; dog embracer. Views here are my own.

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