164: Just Go Nuclear?

Matt and Sean revisit advances in nuclear energy and talk to Bret Kugelmass, co-founder and CEO of Last Energy, about why nuclear energy is still so expensive to build out, the fears around the technology, and what can be done to change all of that.

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 On today’s episode of Still To Be Determined, we’re gonna be talking about going nuclear. No, we’re not getting angry we’re as calm as we always are, look at our smiling faces. We can’t help it. We’re charming people. Hey everybody, as usual. I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer. I write some sci-fi, I write some stuff for kids and I’m just generally curious about technology and luckily for me, my brother is that Matt of undecided with Matt Ferrell, which takes a look at emerging technologies and its impact on our lives.

How are you doing today man?

I’m doing great. I’m a little, uh, a little tired cuz getting ready for my big trip to the UK and I’ve been shifting my sleep schedule and I am. All outta whack.

It is that impending trip to the uk. That is the reason for the structure of today’s episode. We did something similar last week where we shared a longer interview that Matt had conducted with somebody that was doing something interesting in an emerging technology, but Matt hadn’t yet worked that interview into another topic.

Video, so, yep. It was an opportunity to share that conversation. We’re gonna be doing the same thing this week, where today we’re gonna be sharing Matt’s interview with Bret Kugelmass Co-founder, and c e o of Last Energy. Before we get into that, I wanted to share some comments that might actually help lead us into that conversation that Matt had.

Mm-hmm. From previous episodes, comments where people just kept showing up and saying, Why don’t you talk about nuclear? Why don’t you talk about nuclear like this comment from all these different people. Why don’t you talk about nuclear? I’m joking. I mean comments like this from Ron Schaffer who wrote Modular Nuclear, enough of the wind and solar or this from Andrew Jackson.

Not that Andrew Jackson. A different Andrew Jackson. A different Andrew Jackson. This Andrew Jackson. Had this to say, I have to laugh at all. This activity for renewables when we have a perfectly good energy source in nuclear power plants and we’ve made incredible advancements and safety and safe storage.

In the last 30 to 40 years, the other Andrew Jackson had nothing to say about nuclear energy.

He didn’t know what it was. He didn’t

know what it was. Yes. So this is a constant refrain. Matt and I see these comments quite often. We don’t usually pull them out for conversation. It’s not because we’re avoiding nuclear as a topic, it’s just to pull out a comment that’s like, Go nuclear when our subject of conversation is, what are the developments and improvements around wind or solar or energy capture.

Like it doesn’t always help to have a comment come in at a tangent like that. Yeah, it’s so, it’s off the focus. This has never been about us avoiding a con a, a topic. This has been about trying to have conversations in which we kind of stay within certain parameters. But this conversation that Matt has with Bret Kugelmass is right on point to these comments that people have been making around what about nuclear?

And so that leads us directly into this conversation with Bret from Last Energy on the modularization of nuclear fission.

I’m being joined by Bret Kugelmass, who’s the CEO of Last Energy. They’re bringing nuclear fission to the market in a unique way that’s gonna drop costs, make it be able to roll out faster, which has been a, historically a big problem with nuclear energy.

So, Bret, welcome and uh, yeah, Matt. I was hoping Yeah, happy to be here, Matt. Thank you. Yeah. Just for full transparency, this is actually the second time we’ve had this conversation. We had a technical glitch the first time we had this call, but anyway, could you just kind of like introduce yourself and just tell us how you got.

Into nuclear in the first place. I’m curious how you got to

where you are. Yeah, no, thanks for having me, Matt. I followed a little bit of an untraditional pathway to get here. You know, I had a former background as a technologist. I did a master’s at Sanford and Robotics and an entrepreneur. Started one of the early drone technology companies.

And when I had sold that company in 2017 and I was looking around at, you know, what I wanted to do next and wanted it to be meaningful and. And you utilize my, you know, newfound skillsets and resources. I started a nonprofit in Washington DC focused on, you know, really just really trying to like look at the energy and climate challenge from a first principal’s perspective.

Mm-hmm. After a little while of spending time with climate scientists and energy policy experts discovered nuclear is just being totally misunderstood, totally under leveraged. And a lot of what I was hearing, even from industry professionals just didn’t make sense to me. Logically didn’t check out. And so that kicked us off my group on a a two year research project, essentially, where I personally conducted over 800 subject matter expert interviews through our podcast Titans of Nuclear.

And then at that point we developed the thesis and then I raised private capital through venture capitalists to spin out a company that would be last energy.

Interesting. And so what, what is it about your approach, Last Energy’s approach? Because I, it’s not like you’ve designed a crazy new nuclear fission reactor.

You’re taking a lot of what’s we already know, kind of perfecting it. What is it about what you’re doing that sets it apart from what’s been done in the past?

So when we study the market, we found that the industry had essentially bifurcated into two different directions. And this is mostly due to like the way that like government incentives are, are set up more than anything else.

So you had the incumbents that are building with proven technology at the gigawatt scale, and then you had startups. Building at all sorts of power outputs, but always with some sort of experimental technology. And, uh, yes, maybe the, like the basic reactor physics had been validated in the 1950s or sixties with some experimental setup, but had never been commercially operated and deployed, you know, for decades.

And so we saw this niche, uh, which actually made perfect sense for us to address, which was used, only proven technology only off-the-shelf components, but at the small scale. And with that, in turn, unlocked, Two of the things that were holding back the industry, one was, you know, ready to go projects available, supply chain, understood technologies so you could get through licensing and deploy faster.

Two, going at a smaller scale allowed actually for lower capital requirements, which put us in the realm of being able to privately finance this without asking for any subsidy or support. And also be able to build it in one place. We build ours in Texas and ship it to another using a very controlled, factory driven assembly line process.

And so we end up shipping ours to Europe. Right. So

basically you’re, you’re leveraging the whole, when you commercialize a product, you can build it in, in high quantities, quickly, efficiently, and you ship it out instead of doing like these bespoke. Boutique designs that are what’s done today. Right,


Yeah. That became our thesis. We are innovative in how uninnovative we are. We’re, we’re just not tackling like a physics challenge. Instead we’re tackling like a supply chain procurement and economic challenge. Right. So

even though you’re, you’re building it in like this kind of manufactured process and you can, you can scale it up obviously, I’m assuming with the, this one unit for this place, it’s four of the units for a different place.

Is it, is it basically that simple?

Exactly. So

we have a, a handful of customers now that have each. Uh, bought 10 units at a time. And so, and each of our units is 20 megawatts, so we will literally stack 10 of the, we’ll stack them like right next to each other to deliver 200 megawatts to a customer.

Mm-hmm. But we won’t build a 200 megawatt plant, you know, it’s like that old Ford expression, you know, you can have any color you want as long as it’s black. That’s how we operate too.

So, so where are these plants that are being built right now? Yeah, so we’re

building them. The first prototype that we built was outed in Brookshire, Texas, which is right outside of Houston.

And now we’re building another one in Bastrop, Texas, which is right outside of Austin. And we expect our first operational nuclear, you know, nuclear fueled units. Mm-hmm. To come online in 2025. So you’re

taking that approach to make it as streamlined as you can to help reduce the costs, but there’s another factor that layers into this, and it’s basically policy.

Yeah. It strikes me as. As an outsider looking in that there’s a lot of policy issues that really slow down the rollout of nuclear, and it doesn’t matter what country you’re talking about, this is probably everywhere, but it feels like here in the United States, it feels like there’s a lot of like roadblocks in front of you to get nuclear rolled out.

I is. Is that the case?

That is, that is definitely the case, except it, it does vary from country to country. Okay. Policy, the bureaucracy, permitting, licensing, it’s, it’s like, it’s a big problem everywhere, but some places it’s more of a problem than others. And so yeah, it, it is hard to get new infrastructure built in the US in general.

Where we operate throughout Europe, both Western and eastern Europe, especially due to the energy crisis in Europe right now, it has become a national imperative to get energy projects built quickly. And so that has actually cured, like it has actually cleared the way of a lot of bureaucracy for us that might make a project normally take eight years and it now compressed it down to just two or three.

Interesting. So, I don’t know if you could break it down this way, but what, how would you break down the costs? Because like if you’re, if you’re streamlining the costs for the production of each unit. Compared to the bebo model, does the permitting and that aspect of the policy of how you have to go through those hoops, does that add a significant amount of cost just going through that process?

Yeah, it does. And this is where we have to do some like creative, like financial engineering, right? And so what we’ve been able to do since we’ve lined so many contracts already is we’re able to actually spread out what is a big upfront licensing cost across multiple projects. Oh. Um, especially since we’re delivering literally the exact same thing every single time.

We don’t have to. Run through, you know, a 20 or 30 million exercise for each individual plant. We can hit the, you know, the copy and paste button based on the application we submitted last time. Right. What

are the three biggest concerns that you hear voiced about nuclear? Because nuclear is a very divisive issue because I, on my channel, I see it a lot.

If I talk about solar panels or wind, Somebody inevitably in the comments will write, just go nuclear. And then on the flip side, if you talk about nuclear, people are like, it’s not safe. So it’s like, I’m curious what the three biggest issues are that you say. Yeah,

so in our target markets, these don’t come up that much just because there’s already a long history of social and political support.

But I will address these questions, let’s say maybe more in the US con context. And even so like it’s not everywhere in the us. This stuff comes up in like certain areas of the US, if you know what I mean. Like where there’s more nimbyism. Yes. So you’ve got waste, safety, and public perception are the three things that you, you hear the most.

And I’ll address these each from a social and also a technical perspective if, if you’d like. Mm-hmm. Sure. Yeah, that sounds good. So from a social perspective, like, I just first wanna say outright, like, if you feel some, like, feel a certain way, like you’re entitled to feel that way. And if, like, I can’t blame you, like if your five closest friends have always told you this set of facts about technology, like even if they’re wrong, like that’s not your fault and it’s, it’s okay that you feel that way.

Um, so I just wanted to like say that outright first. Mm-hmm. But the fact is nuclear waste has never hurt a person, place, or thing in all of human history. And that is shocking to some people. Mm-hmm. But no, really, and I’m not saying radioactive material has never hurt anybody. What I’m saying is like waste that comes out of nuclear facilities.

Has no history of hurting anybody and actually isn’t that radioactive after, let’s say like 10 years and the one constituent radioisotope that we should be concerned about from a biological uptake perspective. Item 1 31 has a half life of just eight days, which means in 90 days, it’s 99.9% gone. That’s the one radioisotope that you actually need to worry about.

So yes, the critics who say nuclear waste is radioactive for millions of years, they are correct. So are you, like the carbon 14 in your body, you know, is also radioactive for, you know, hundreds of thousands of years. That’s how we do radiocarbon dating. The question is, does it pose a threat? Does it pose a hazard if it leaks into the environment, like can it go through these biological pathways to bioaccumulate?

And the answer is no. It’s just no.

Mm-hmm. What, what about the nu not the nuclear waste, but I mean this is one of the things I think people La latch onto is even though there’s. Dozens and dozens of nuclear reactors around the world that are operating safely and happen for decades. You have things like Chernobyl.

Yeah. Which is a, is a, is a one off, but it kind of, I think that’s where people’s heads tend to go of. Yeah. The sarcophagus that’s got Chernobyl kind of encapsulated for. It’s gonna be like millions of years. I think it’s like radioactive, but it’s got uranium and plutonium and all that radioactive dust inside that sarcophagus.

How are newer nuclear reactors more resistant to having something like that happen?

Yeah. So I will actually differentiate on a different access, not newness, right, but rather technology type. Okay. Because I would say that the fleet of 1960 reactors that are water-based would not be subject to those same conditions.

Okay? So the Chernobyl reactor in R B M K was a graphite based reactor, and. The reason they designed it that way, actually, like some people call it a power plant. I would call it a nuclear weapons production facility. The reason the Soviet Union chose that reactor type is because of the insitu refueling.

You could essentially create plutonium. It’s like a plutonium factory. I mean, they were trying to create bombs to blow us up at Chernobyl. Okay. Like let’s just, you know, let’s call it a military installation and not a power plant maybe. Um, and then we don’t feel so bad about it blowing up, but the Lightwater reactors, which is like.

10% of world electricity today, which is like a pretty startling number. In the case of something going wrong, they behave very differently. It’s, it’s based out of water. Water is your moderator instead of graphite. And so in the case of things getting too hot, the water boils off and the reaction dies. It doesn’t go super critical like it would in a graphite based reactor.

And so this is what we’ve seen in Three Mile Island. This is what we saw in Fukushima. You don’t have this like high kinetic energy event. You have a meltdown, sure. But a meltdown actually itself isn’t very dangerous. What you’re worried about is the transport of radionuclides into the environment. And that is not a, like a necessity of a meltdown.

A meltdown mostly is the radionuclides melt into a puddle and sit just there. And that’s why you don’t see any deaths coming out of even the worst case scenario of, of water-based reactors like, like Fukushima. Every single safety system failed and it managed to kill zero people cause zero injuries. I mean, that’s incredible.

That should like that fact alone, I discovered before I even started this company and forced me to rethink everything that I thought about hazard and dangers and safety and safety culture of the nuclear industry. I’m just gonna repeat myself there. Every single safety system failed and it still couldn’t manage to hurt a fly.

So, How do you to take that? Okay. So it’s, it’s not as dangerous as most of us think it is. Why is it essential for the future of clean energy? Like how, how do you see this playing into solar, wind, hydro? How do you see it playing into that ecosystem?

Yeah, so, and this is where I have a like maybe, well it was a bit of a unique thesis in the sector five years ago when I started, and now I think it’s like really caught on.

So I, I claim that our net zero goals simply are not enough. They’re not enough. We would still have the legacy emissions that would yield a net radiative forcing, which would continue to add heat to our environment. Even if we went net zero tomorrow, we would still have an increasing temperature problem.

So that led me to think, okay. Well, we really do need director capture or something similar, pulling CO2 from the water, right? And if we had that, we actually wouldn’t need to do everything else that we’re doing. We could just be removing CO2 at this at a greater rate than we’re pumping to the air. And we don’t need to force all industries to upgrade their infrastructure, which is never gonna happen a couple decades.

So I thought, okay, this is a great solution. It’s like direct your capture technology and then when you combine it with synthetic fuels, all of a sudden you can create this like circular carbon economy. And you know, after you hit that flywheel going, it become profitable on its own. But this all hinges on one thing, really cheap, really abundant.

Low cost, low carbon energy, and if you were to try to apply renewables into this circular carbon scheme, you would actually end up adding a net addition to carbon to the air because they cannot account for their own carbon footprint and the carbon footprint of these direct air capture systems because of.

You know, the 20 or 30 or 40 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour just as too high. But when you move to a system like nuclear where you have like four grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, all of a sudden you’re under that threshold where you can actually go net negative if you power direct air capture systems.

So that what is like the foundational reason as to if you actually care about climate and if you actually want to go net negative, like from a. Like a physics principles perspective. You absolutely need nuclear. And then on top of that, it’s like just an amazing energy source in general. And all the things that we’re like afraid of from it are wrong.

So like why not just go to the most amazing energy source that we have? Well,

there’s another aspect, like what other additional benefits can we get out of nuclear? Because one of the things I’ve been reading about a lot recently is like desalination. Like desalination and nuclear seem like the peanut butter and chocolate.


combination. I’m glad you said peanut butter and chocolate. So people are, that’s awesome. I,

yeah, no desalination. Any industrial process that uses heat, so like your normal water-based nuclear power plants can deliver heat up to 300 C. That covers most industrial processes. There’s some that need to go up to 600, 700 C and you know what? You could even use water based reactors for those two, but just run ’em a little hotter.

Like that’s also like, Possible without reinventing the basic reactor technology. So it’s a perfect solution for all industrial heat uses. Desalination is like awesome. I want it to power synthetic, you know, carbon neutral fuel production, and then energy security. We gotta talk about energy security, like you can store decades worth of fuel on.

Site like that makes you more resilient to economic shocks, to like geopolitical issues. It helps you predict your business so you can invest in your capital infrastructure for like whatever else you’re producing. Just having that predictability, even if it’s a little more expensive, predictability is worth something and it can be much, much cheaper too.

So yeah, there’s so many cool attributes

to nuclear power. So do you see nuclear as the answer or a piece of the

answer? I see it as the answer, fundamentally the answer. You’re gonna have cute little renewable projects here and there. I know it’s gonna piss a lot of people off. Sorry. Get over it. Um, and we are gonna have 300% increase in energy consumption, on power, on planet Earth powered by nuclear.

We are, chemical fuels are more appropriate. We should use them, but like the raw input to make them carbon neutral should be nuclear power. So yeah, I just see like, Nucl. I see. Nuclear is like the foundation of any futuristic society. What are your three

biggest hopes for the future of nuclear in our society if we start to implement this stuff?

Yeah, I hope. Um, so yeah, so my business Last Energy has started, you know, already producing these micro nuclear power plants. We want to come online in a couple years. We hope to demonstrate, you know, the feasibility, the cost reductions with increasing, um, volume. And then we want a bunch of people to copy us and help like rapidly decarbonize the world and lead us into the future of humanity.

I’m also curious, what about, what’s your take on fusion?

Yeah, so I think that a lot of people misunderstand fusion and fission actually, like the very attributes that they assign to fission, uh, they like, don’t realize Fusion already has those as well. So if like you’re afraid of radioactivity, I. Fusion DT Fusion produces five times as many neutrons as fission does per unit energy.

You don’t think that room’s gonna get super radioactive? You are kidding yourselves. Now, I’m not saying radioactivity is that big a deal, but if the reason that you like fusion is cuz you think it’s not radioactive, You are absolutely dead wrong. So like that’s one of like the big misunderstandings by Fusion.

That’s DT Fusion, but that’s the only one anyone’s really going after anyway. So, uh, the other thing is cost. Everyone says, oh my God, it’s like this unlimited free energy. No, no. The fuel, the DT fuel, the deteriorat trading fuel is the most expensive fuel ever. But I’ll give it to you. I’ll say, even if your fuel is free.

The CapEx on your facility, right? Because of like all of the unique things that you have to do with it, because it’s not like a standardized facility is gonna be outrageously expensive. I’ll even say your reactor. If your fusion reactor and your fuel works exactly how you want and is totally free, it is still gonna be the most expensive energy on planet Earth just because you’re deviating from the standard supply chain and borrowing a lot of capital over a long period of time.

Well, that’s true for the near term, but like if you’re fast forwarding like 50 years from now, 75 years from now, it’s like, yeah.

I would argue they, they can actually never hit the economies of scale. That’ll bring down their supply chain costs. The reason that it works for Fission is because it’s all the same components that are in a coal power plant and we’ve built, you know, hundreds of thousands of those over, you know, last 150 years.

Mm-hmm. Or, you know, all thermal power plants, I should say. Um, and so that supply chain. Like is, is you’re able to bring down your per unit cost. You’re able to amortize your R&D cost for anything, from valves to fittings, to turbines, to compressors over just such a larger base. Whereas with Fusion, everything will be custom.

And even if you built a thousand of them, it’s not the same as a hundred thousand. Right.

Anything we haven’t touched on with, like, what last Energy is doing that you’d wanna kind of call out?

Um, just like, oh man, even this last week, some of these deals haven’t been announced yet, but I don’t know when you’re publishing this, but like within a week we might announce like 30 more deals that we just closed.

Yeah. This will, this will be out in a few weeks, a few weeks from now. Oh

yeah. Yeah. Okay. So yeah, we, um, just like hit this like, like breakaway success on commercial attraction. Like even we weren’t expecting. Wow. Now we’re like thinking, how do we scale up to giga scale manufacturing like years sooner than we were, than we were anticipating.

This is a big, you’re catching me at the end of like the greatest week of my life.

So basically you just close a lot of deals. This.

This week we closed over 30 power. We sold over 30 power plants.

That’s insane. Just this week

alone. Insane. Yeah. Just this week alone. Now Grant, we, we sold up to 12 before that over the last year and then 30 this week.


insane. Well, that’s what your company is supposed to be promising is being able to roll these things out and close these deals quickly, so I know. I know. It’s very exciting. Congratulations on that. Thank you. Appreciate it. Yeah. One last question I do have for you is what piece of misinformation drives you the


Nuts. Yeah, like in this, I will lay at the hands of the nuclear industry itself. Okay. Over the course of decades, the nuclear industry decided, not like explicitly decided, but just happened through like market forces and economic incentives that they made more money selling fear of nuclear power than they did selling power plants.

And so a lot of the misinformation that people have about radiation, people have about safety, people have about waste actually comes from the people that you, you, that you’d wanna trust. You know, the nuclear experts, but that’s because all of their business models are designed to sell you solutions to safety solutions, to waste solutions to radiation, not to sell you power.

They gave up on that business model back in the seventies. And so, um, I’m trying to reeducate the nuclear industry to actually, you know, start selling power plants again and try and reeducate the rest of the world to be like, Hey, nuclear was never actually that dangerous to begin with. And so that, there’s a lot going on there.

So it sounds like

you’re basically saying like three mile island. Flip the script in the seventies on nuclear here in the US and it’s not flipped back yet.

Well, I’d say most people tribute the public perception around nuclear to Three Mile Island, but I’d say the opposite. I’d say that the reason that we even cared about Three Mile Island was because the nuclear industry had already stagnated.

They’d already dried up all their contracts, they’d already gone outta business, and they were trying to launch a new business, which was selling upgrades to existing facilities. And that’s where all of the fear came from. The nuclear industry saying, yeah, this is a big deal. Now let’s go fix it for you and, oh, pass 30 billion to do so.

Yeah, the

more I’ve looked into nuclear fission and fusion, the more frustrated I’ve got with how the US is handled. A lot of the situation, it feels like we could That’s

right. That’s a regulatory capture for you. Yeah. Yeah.

It just feels like we could have done so much better here,

but so much better.

Yeah. Jfk. JFK had a vision. I, you know, I just gave a talk at South by Southwest, which I hope to publish on our channel soon. I’ll send it to you for sure. But we went back to the history and was like, jfk, like ran on a platform of going like a hundred percent nuclear in this country because he could see what it would enable.

We need to get like back to those like visionary

days. Well, I really appreciate your time the second time for talking to me about this. It’s been a been a pleasure. Thanks for coming on.

Yeah, no, thank you. This is always so much fun. I’ll come back anytime you want. All right. Thanks.

Thank you so much to Bret for taking the time to talk to Matt about that, and thank you so much to you, the listeners, for taking the time to listen to the interview or watch it here on YouTube and for taking the time potentially right now.

I’m gonna invite you to jump into the comments. What do you think about everything that he had to share about his company’s approach to modular fission production? You can jump into the comments right here on YouTube, or you can reach out through the. Contact information and the podcast description.

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