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The Nuclear Realist

For Emmet Penney, nuclear advocacy is about doing your homework.

For the longest time, I didn’t know what I thought when someone mentioned nuclear energy. 

It seemed relegated to the realm of sci-fi, or maybe The Simpsons. I knew what Chernobyl was, and I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the 2011 Fukushima Daichi disaster (a dorm room in Chinatown, pulling an all-nighter). But still, I didn’t know what to make of it. 

I spent several years in the trenches as a climate change-obsessed prepper, and I still don’t think I thought about nuclear very much. I thought we’d sooner see carbon capture than any meaningful changes to our energy infrastructure. Plus, wasn’t nuclear energy really dangerous, anyway? Maybe that’s what I thought about it. Not a pipe dream exactly; it was just dangerous. 

Then, around 2019, I started noticing nuclear discourse appear in my digital life. A tweet here; a TikTok there. Suddenly, it started taking shape in my mind. It was no longer some ill-defined threat. Nuclear energy became something more real. 

But people like me being able to understand nuclear power doesn’t just happen. It’s thanks to people like Emmet Penney, one of the most interesting and most accessible energy writers out there. Something of a digital renaissance man, he’s an accomplished essayist, the mind behind the newsletter Grid Brief, a podcast host times two at Nuclear Barbarians and ex.haust, a contributing editor at Compact, and a recent recipient of a prestigious Emergent Ventures grant

Here’s our conversation where we discuss how he got into nuclear, whether my kids will grow extra limbs if we ever see widespread nuclear adoption, and why it feels like the nuclear scene has a punk edge.

Katherine: You are a humanities guywhat’s the story on how you got into nuclear?  

Emmet: I got into nuclear through Michael Shellenberger’s work and Leigh Phillips’s book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts. A few years after I got nukepilled I had the wonderful opportunity to help on Michael’s book Apocalypse Never which turned me into a full-blown advocate. This story has a lot of twists and turns, but that’s the most direct version of how it happened. Still, it baffles me that I’m even in this space.

Katherine: Where’d the name “Nuclear Barbarian,” the title of your nuclear energy podcast, come from?

Emmet: I don’t share, as many nuclear advocates seem to, the belief that history progresses. Yet I still believe in civic virtue and the power and necessity of big, industrial projects. So, I wanted to come up with a brand idea that had an atavistic, John Milius tinge to it. I also wanted to head off the “nukebro” insult that renewaphiles tend to hurl around. If I’m already posting memes with Arnold as Conan and calling myself the Nuclear Barbarian, what else is there to say? I’ve already said it for you. The other reason I picked it is because if you’re a nuclear advocate you’re more or less beyond the mote of the energy mainstream’s castle. So I wanted to feature that rather than fix it. 

Katherine: Please excuse the expression but, can you redpill me on nuclear energy? I have internalized so much anti-nuclear propaganda. 

Emmet: Depends on what your concerns are. Many people are worried about safety issues, but nuclear power is among the safest energy sources. It also has the lowest land footprint. If you’re really worried about climate and you think it’s a good idea to electrify everything so as to reduce emissions, then you’ll want to look at the two canonical examples of decarbonizing the electricity sector: Ontario and France. Both were accomplished with nuclear. No one’s done it with renewables. If you want to know how nuclear got such a bad name (and how it became so expensive to build in America), you can check out this piece I wrote for American Affairs. It was my attempt to write the article I wish someone could have handed me when I first started getting into all this five years ago. 

Katherine: What about nuclear waste? Will my kids grow extra limbs if I live near a reactor?

Emmet: The waste is the best part. Renewables end up clogging landfills and leaching toxic chemicals into the ground. Coal stores a lot of its waste in the air we breathe. Nuclear, on the other hand, has highly monitored waste stored in highly durable casks. Check out this photo of my friend Paris hanging out with the waste at the Paolo Verde plant in Arizona.

I think a lot of people get their idea of nuclear waste from The Simpsons, but, as my friend Madi Hilly says, the only thing The Simpsons got right about nuclear is that a man without a college degree can make enough to buy a home and support his family while working at a nuclear power plant. 

Katherine: What should freak me out the most about energy these days?

Emmet: The general hostility to energy abundance that Western elites exhibit. People think they can do whatever they want to fossil fuels or nuclear and nothing bad will happen. Or they don’t care that bad things happen because it doesn’t affect them as much. But get a load of Germany right now – they closed their nuclear plants, made themselves dependent on natural gas from Russia and now they’re firing up their coal plants to keep the lights on. So much for the all-renewables dream of their Energiewende. What we’re experiencing right now is the trailer for the feature-length suffering that’s about to play out over the next few years. Few in charge seem to have really internalized this. 

Katherine: You recently wrote about renewable energy credit scams in your newsletter, Grid Brief. It’s not the first time I’ve heard chatter about this. What’s the story there?

Emmet: So. Renewable Energy Credits are a way to say you run on clean energy from renewables without actually doing it. They’re like the indulgences for sins the Catholic Church put on the market way back when. The basic idea is that you offset your “sin” of consuming fossil fuels by purchasing some credits that go towards renewable energy projects. Does this actually happen? It’s a Barnum and Bailey world out there, so not really. It’s more like an accounting trick. 

They’re useful because if you’re, say, running a huge data storage facility you’re power hungry and most likely getting all of your juice from fossil fuel generators because fossil fuels are energy dense, reliable, and dispatchable (you can call on them when you need them). But maybe you’re in a state that has certain standards around how much clean energy you have to use. Well, you can buy some credits and say “Hey, look! I bought all these credits that cancel out all my emissions! I’m 100 percent clean now.” Unless you’re parked next to a major hydro dam or a nuclear plant that’s probably a load of bull. And part of that’s just the nature of electricity. Once electricity is created you can’t analyze it and go “Ah, yes! This is coal electricity.” It’s just watts. There’s no such thing as an electricity sommelier.

Anyway, RECs are a big scam.  

Katherine: It’s weird that energy doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the Hot Take economy given how it …well, undergirds everything. But part of me wonders if it’s because it’s just complicated to write about, and there’s a barrier of entry to really understand what you’re talking about. Is that it? Or do you think there are other reasons?

Emmet: I’d say the barrier to entry for energy discourse is inherently higher than other spheres. Anyone can watch some new Netflix show and fire off a spicy take on it – and good for them. With energy you have to put some work in over time. Lots of homework. I’m absolutely a beginner. Part of the reason I got into all this is because there’s something new to learn every single day. 

It’s also because – and this is especially true when it comes to electricity markets – there’s loads of specialized language. If some dude with a wind turbine in his profile pic tweets out “MOPRs are for utilities cucks” who the fuck is going to like or RT that? No one knows what he’s talking about outside a very small circle. Hot take economies run on the structure of jokes and jokes are structured like a 2010 American Apparel ad, not like whatever’s trending on Pornhub right now. It’s about what information is missing, not what information’s there. 

All that being said, there are still flame wars and hot take economies that play out within the energy sphere. It’s like any other online discourse, really. Just with more white papers and graphs. 

Katherine: I’ve noticed there’s something countercultural about the nuclear energy sceneit has sort of a punk vibe. But like, later, New York punk, where it also weirdly intersects with high fashion. Am I dreaming this? And if I’m not, why do you think this is?

Emmet: I’d say the main connection to high fashion comes from Isabel Boemeke, who’s both a fashion model and a nuclear advocate. She gets invited to Met Gala, etc. I’m about as far away from high fashion as you can get, I think. I dress like a heavy metal gas station. I wouldn’t describe the rest of my cohort as particularly avant garde aesthetics-wise either. I mean, I have job killer tattoos but those are basically mandatory now anyway so who cares.

As for the punk thing, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, there’s obviously something rebellious about nuclear advocacy now because it’s against the grain. I’ve tapped into that with my own stuff and that feels exciting. On the other hand, I worry for anything labeled as the “new punk.” Punk advertised itself as some kind of aesthetic revolution, but really it ended up being about running a small business. And there’s nothing wrong with running a small business! But at this point, punk is just another item for sale at the Universal Store of Discount Signs and Signifiers. 

Anyone who finds themselves doing countercultural anything – especially if you have aspirations for it to become mainstream – needs to take a look at the last half-century and think long and hard about what you want to do if you ever attain hegemony. You can’t be a rebel while you’re in charge. We’re living through that right now and everyone hates it. At some point you have to exchange being cool with being common, otherwise you’re tilting at windmills to keep up your underdog/outsider status. 

Katherine: Who’s one person everyone should be reading on any topic? Or listening to, for that matter? 

Emmet: There are so many people I could list it’s overwhelming me. So, I’ll instead give some advice that I wish someone had given me when I started exploring various domains for myself: go to the library and find out-of-print books on the topic you’re interested in. Or buy them online if you’re so inclined. Understand that what you’re curious about has probably been litigated over and over again – tear through works cited and bibliographies and figure out the genealogy of the debate to the best of your ability. Try to wade into the flow of time. 

And reread Plato’s Republic a few times a decade.

Lots more where that came from.