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Explaining nuclear energy to the TikTok generation, with Kaylee Cunningham

Good Clean Energy is a podcast that tackles one of the most existential questions of our time: how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Jim McNiel dives into deep conversations with experts ranging from scientists to innovators to changemakers about the challenges our current electricity systems face and updates on the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.

In this episode, McNiel is joined by Kaylee Cunningham, a first-year PhD student at MIT in nuclear engineering and a popular TikTok influencer who’s focused on communicating about the potential for nuclear power. The pair discuss Cunningham’s efforts to educate her generation about nuclear energy in a relatable, fast-paced way.

Covered in this episode

  • Small modular reactors are the future of nuclear fission, Cunningham says
  • How NRC regulations affect the nuclear industry
  • Why communicating with the next generation about science matters

Nuclear fission is having a moment. At least that’s what some TikTokers will tell you.

Nuclear energy, which hasn’t always had the best image, is having a resurgence on social media. TikTokers that run the gamut from a model-turned-nuclear-power-influencer to a PhD student are trying to get the next generation hyped about nuclear. And as newer nuclear technology — like the small modular reactor — is getting through the regulatory red tape, now could just be the time for nuclear energy to shine.

These influencers have a lot of misinformation to dispel, including that “nuclear waste isn’t green glowing goo,” as Kaylee Cunningham, a nuclear engineering PhD student at MIT, would put it. Cunningham, or “Ms. Nuclear Energy,” as she’s known on TikTok, said that most of the pushback she gets is from people worried about nuclear waste or meltdowns. And with disasters from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima, it’s not hard to see why.

But Cunningham is dedicated to making nuclear cool, and that means clearing up ambiguity about the science of it all. “I think as scientists and engineers, we have a tendency to gloss over the important details that maybe aren’t so clear to the general public.”

For Cunningham, it’s about more than just rebranding nuclear fission; it’s about helping the next generation of girls get excited about a career in nuclear.

“Being able to jump on a Zoom call with them and walk them through different nuclear engineering programs is what fires me up and inspires me to keep going.”

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jim McNiel (intro): When you think about nuclear energy, what do you think about? Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima? You think about, “Oh my God, this impending meltdown, this huge disaster.” You know, nuclear power plants have gotten a bad rap because a few of them have had some problems and people are concerned about meltdowns and so forth. But in all of the history of the United States, more people have been injured or had their health impacted by the burning of coal and gas. So there’s a resurgence of interest in clean nuclear energy, and we have a whole new generation that is talking about it.

Today we’re going to talk to Kaylee Cunningham, a PhD student at MIT in nuclear engineering, who is really, I’d say, the top TikTok influencer in talking about the potential for nuclear power. It is carbon free. It does produce a tremendous amount of electricity, and for all intent and purposes, it’s been pretty safe. So let’s break it down.

McNiel: How does a southern Florida high school girl end up studying nuclear physics at MIT?

Kaylee Cunningham: I thought it was so fascinating, especially when I was in high school, so I was a lot younger and didn’t know anything about the field, but what I did know was that nuclear sounded really scary, right? Very just spooky and frightening. But also learning that it’s something that’s used as this incredible technology that produces carbon-dioxide-free energy — it just blew my mind. Something so negative used for something so positive, and that’s kind of what drew me in.

McNiel: Well, did you get drawn in because of an interest in energy or an interest in climate or just a fascination for complex problems?

Cunningham: It started with a fascination for complex problems. When I was in high school, everything was so exciting to me. I wasn’t really sure what path I wanted to go down, but I had a lot of teachers that were very passionate about climate change and global warming, and that kind of sparked an interest. And from there, learning about nuclear energy and nuclear power plants in one of my most inspirational teachers’, Ms. Mimi’s, engineering class. She really pushed me to explore, and that’s how I ended up in the field.

McNiel: Now, you’re pretty active on social media — TikTok and Instagram and so forth. And I guess my question is, what kind of pushback do you get when you’re pro-nuclear fission?

“I think as scientists and engineers, we have a tendency to gloss over the important details that maybe aren’t so clear to the general public.”

Cunningham: So there’s a lot of pushback. I, a lot of times, get pushback regarding the waste. A lot of people are very concerned about nuclear waste, and there’s a lot of ambiguity around it. I think as scientists and engineers, we have a tendency to gloss over the important details that maybe aren’t so clear to the general public — explaining that nuclear waste isn’t green glowing goo. I have quite a few videos on my TikTok page about that; it’s a really, really big misconception. Meltdowns can be a concern for those who are maybe less educated in the area. Especially at MIT, a lot of people study risk, whether they’re in finance and business or in nuclear energy. And risk analysis is a huge component of nuclear, and understanding what kind of accidents can happen and when is a really, really important role in understanding how to mitigate those accidents. And once you get exposure to how much effort goes into this risk management and probabilistic risk assessment that we use in the field, typically the concern about the meltdown starts to fade away.

New nuclear reactor tech

McNiel: What’s your feeling about small modular reactors versus the traditional large-scale reactors? Where do you come down?

Cunningham: Small modular reactors are the future. In a recent interview with Generation Atomic, I made a stand that my hot take was that SMRs are going to take over the world. For people who maybe don’t know, small modular reactors are the same light-water reactor technology as the larger reactors we already have operating today. They’re just on a smaller scale. That smaller scale provides the opportunity to manufacture and mass produce each part that goes into constructing that nuclear reactor.

Now, the current nuclear reactors and power plants today, were all custom made. So each part being individually made because each plant is so massive, is very expensive and very time-consuming. We can get rid of all of those problems with these small modular reactors. I think of them like Legos. We can just put the pieces together, and they’re already pre-constructed and pre-made. And the way that these power plants are designed, they all incorporate passive safety systems, which include things like natural circulation as backup cooling mechanisms, so that you use convection currents to kind of push water to flow through the reactor when we start to see any sort of shutdown.

So if something like Fukushima, where your circulation cooling pumps fail, we can rely on convection currents to keep the reactor cool and we don’t see a meltdown. These kinds of preventative technologies make the reactors that much safer.

McNiel: And let’s go back and explain exactly what exactly a fission reactor is doing. Almost every nuclear energy strategy is about thermal exchange, right? So you’re basically heating up something in order to create steam and spin a turbine.

Cunningham: We’re boiling water.

McNiel: So that’s the same for SMRs versus traditional reactors. And you said light water. What about heavy water?

Cunningham: Heavy-water reactors are an interesting technology, but a little more complicated. They’re less common in the United States just because of deuterium supply and everything else that goes into that heavy water. But they’re very popular in Canada.

McNiel: They’re the majority of the reactors in Canada, because Canada did not want to make a reactor that could produce nuclear weapons-grade fuel. That was their main idea, the CANDU reactors, I think they’re called. So small modular reactors, in your vision, can be manufactured in a factory and deployed as opposed to super complex, large-scale reactors, like San Onofre or others, that have custom shielded containers and cooling towers. All that stuff is built on location, as opposed to being shipped in a container and stood up and operated.

Cunningham: Exactly.

McNiel: That comes back to the fact that you’re dealing with neutrons and you’re dealing with tritium, and you’re, you’re dealing with materials that decay the metals that they come in touch with. And then you end up with solutions where you need robots to go and do maintenance and repair the first wall and all that kinda stuff.

Regulatory red tape

McNiel: Well, how long is it gonna take for us to get SMRs online, in your opinion?

Cunningham: I’m hoping to see that by the early 2030s. NuScale finally got their regulatory license approved by the NRC. So I think NuScale is gonna be the first one to put up an SMR, and once they have one up, that’s the first one. The first one is always the hardest, getting that first customer. Nobody wants to be the first to buy a nuclear reactor, right? Same thing with the rocket ships and Elon Musk. His first customer — he didn’t have one, so he shot a Tesla into space. It’s the same kind of concept and I think if they can do something, maybe a little gimmicky to engage the general public and get people excited about nuclear, then they’re gonna take off.

McNiel: Well, you already figured that out.

Cunningham: What’s that?

McNiel: Wrapping the world with Christmas lights, I think it was, 27 times around the world?

McNiel: So SMRs, small modular reactors, are gonna be manufactured in a factory and shipped and then stood up. What needs to change in the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for this to be something that we can deploy more efficiently than traditionally?

Cunningham: We need to speed up and make more efficient the licensing process. Right now, any of these companies that want to build a new reactor design or an old reactor design, don’t get me started on Vogtle in Georgia. You know these designs—

McNiel: No, no. I wanna get you started on Vogtle. What’s wrong with Vogtle in Georgia? Tell me about it.

Cunningham: Oh boy. Well, it’s still under construction. It’s in the millions over budget and—

McNiel: Oh no, not millions. Come on.

Cunningham: Are we in billions now?

McNiel: Add another zero.

Cunningham: Yeah. I think we’re in billions over budget. It’s just, it’s ridiculous. The amount of slowdowns and I guess red tape you have to go through.

McNiel: Are you blaming the NRC for that or are you blaming the manufacturer for the issues of Vogtle?

Cunningham: Both.The licensing process is incredibly, incredibly over-conservative and it’s slow and it costs way too much money. I think each person that sits on each call gets billed somewhere in the $300 kind of range per hour, per person, per call that goes to the NRC. And when you’re trying to negotiate these contracts, sometimes you’re on calls for eight hours a day trying to figure out these licensing processes. It’s just so expensive for the utilities and, in my opinion, it’s unnecessary expenses.

McNiel: It’s interesting that we’re charging fees to apply for a nuclear plant, and we’re providing low-cost thousand-acre leases to drill oil.

Cunningham: Yeah, that blows my mind.

McNiel: It’s kind of a strange contrast.

Cunningham: There was a bill introduced in the 2018 age to congressionally force the NRC to update their regulations for new reactor designs. Those molten salt reactors, these small modular reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, TRISO fuel — all of these different designs that are so innovative and exciting, the NRC has no framework for regulating and licensing them. And they’re supposed to have that framework done by 2024/2025 timeframe, and it’s now 2023 and they’ve done nothing.

Communicating with the next generation

Cunningham: Nuclear is not weather dependent and nuclear is reliable. And at the end of the day, the climate change solution, in my opinion, is not going to be just solely nuclear power, and that’s coming from a nuclear engineer. It has to be all the different renewable resources we have, but to provide that baseload power — that baseload that provides general power for throughout the day — we need something reliable that’s gonna run consistently that we don’t need to rely on the weather for. When it comes to load-following and trying to follow electricity usage and consumption throughout the day, and meeting those increased demands at hotter points in the day, something like solar power or wind power could be incredibly useful. But I think nuclear energy needs to be providing that baseline, again, because it’s reliable.

McNiel: The thing that’s interesting is in your field, you’ve taken this initiative to go out and communicate to your generation about the promise of nuclear, and I can’t imagine the workload you’re under. I mean, you’re at MIT for Christ’s sake. You’ve gotta be under a tremendous workload, and yet you find time to put up TikTok videos and say, “Hey, nuclear’s cool!” How do you do that, and why?

“Being able to jump on a Zoom call with them and walk them through different nuclear engineering programs and walk them through college applications and enable them is what fires me up and inspires me to keep going.”

Cunningham: Oh, boy. Well, I grew up doing theater before I found engineering. I was performing on stage, I was dead-set on going to Broadway. And then my sophomore year of high school, I was taking a calculus course and one of my friends pulled me aside and said you should check out the engineering academy. And so I started to explore, and I fell in love. But I think since I’ve kind of made that transition, I’ve been looking for a way to incorporate my passion for performing or communicating into this space, this technology and engineering space, and that’s something that’s very much lacking. So it’s important to me because it lets me kind of expose that creativity that I have, that I’m wanting to use and kind of lets me use the other side of my brain instead of the math logic parts.

But at the same time, it’s so important because younger generations don’t know about nuclear technology. I didn’t learn about it until my junior year of high school, that’s going your entire life without knowing about this awesome energy source. A lot of times, like my younger cousin, she’s 14, she’ll say, “Well, why does that matter? Why should I care?” And I say, at the end of the day, how are you gonna charge your phone so you can go on TikTok? That electricity has to come from somewhere. And if we’re destroying our planet, messing with the climate. And beyond that, talk about pollution, the amount of people that have gotten lung cancer because of just constantly breathing in awful, nasty fossil fuels. So there’s just this kind of space where younger people need to hear about this. And then those of us that are maybe a little curious and a little inclined to that science and technology aspect then have somebody to look to, to say, “Oh, I didn’t know that was a career path. How can I do that?” And that’s my favorite part and what motivates me to work overtime to keep this going. Because I’ve had several tens of girls reaching out to me, like high school-aged girls — a few guys, but mostly girls — messaging me on Instagram or sending me emails, saying “Hey, I’m a junior in high school. How do I get into this?” And being able to jump on a Zoom call with them and walk them through different nuclear engineering programs and walk them through college applications and enable them is what fires me up and inspires me to keep going.

McNiel: That’s great. That’s really wonderful. And what’s the mix of positive versus negative feedback on the stuff you’re doing on the social media platforms?

Cunningham: I’d say it’s about 65 to 70% positive. But you know, there’s still that 30, 35% that’s kind of negative.

McNiel: And do you attribute most of the negative stuff just to people not being really well-informed?

Cunningham: Most of the time, and that’s where I like to step in and educate.

McNiel: I think you did one about wifi. That was Khloe talking about how wifi was—

Cunningham: Yeah. Khloe Kardashian.

McNiel: How’d that happen?

Cunningham: So I was scrolling through TikTok and, you know, I love my fair share of trashy reality TV. So I’m watching this clip of the Kardashians and Kourtney’s going on and on about, “It’s the radiation, Khloe!” And I’m like, oh my God, that is so not it, right? So then I stitched that video and I’m like, “OK, listen up. Kourtney, you can have wifi in your backyard. The radiation isn’t strong enough. There’s not enough energy.” Those kinds of things inspire me, but also make nuclear energy relevant to, again, those younger generations and people that are more interested in watching the Kardashians. I can grab their attention and pull them in just for a second to say, “Hey, that’s not the case.”

McNiel: Right. Well, and just for a second, I mean, that’s a big part of what you do, right? Your stuff is 10, 15 seconds, 20 seconds long. That’s such an alien thing for my generation. We have no idea how to communicate in 15 second bursts. So I think it’s a gift that you have.

Cunningham: Thank you. Yeah, honestly, it’s taken a lot of practice and a lot of time and dedication. I sometimes spend upwards of three hours making one 15 second clip because I’m like, “Oh my God, what do I include?”

What’s next for communicating about nuclear energy

McNiel: What do you think we still have to communicate? What do you think is really missing in terms of educating people about the opportunities for nuclear energy?

Cunningham: First off, we have a workforce issue in the nuclear industry. We don’t have enough people to fill the jobs we have for the number of people that are leaving, right? Twenty-five percent of students are graduating and coming into the nuclear industry, but it’s somewhere like 60% of the workforce that’s leaving.

McNiel: Because they’re all boomers.

Cunningham: Everybody’s retiring.

McNiel: Yeah, all the boomers are retiring and you guys have to fill in the slack.

Cunningham: Yeah, exactly. There was this kind of lull in nuclear energy over the past couple years. That lull has contributed to this massive gap of employee workforce. So educating younger students, high school students, that this is an opportunity, this is something they can study. You can be a normal everyday theater kid like myself and end up in the nuclear field.

McNiel: Kaylee, I want to applaud you for having the gumption to go after nuclear physics, which is not an easy task. And also for being a vocal proponent of the technology in your space and with your generation, because I think, as you said, so many people need to get educated that this energy problem is not gonna be solved by a bunch of windmills and solar panels.

Cunningham: Thank you for that. And it’s just difficult for, I think, a lot of people in the scientific community to come forward and put themselves out there in front of the general public, because you are opening yourself up to criticism from quite literally anyone. Especially on social media platforms, people can hide behind screens and people can be aggressive and mean. And God forbid you get one little tiny thing wrong. Or even if it’s not wrong, you just communicated it or maybe miscommunicated it in a way that people just misconstrued, then all hell breaks loose. So that is definitely a frightening obstacle. But I think if you’re careful about the way that you approach the content that you’re posting and you’re careful to review it, and you take the time to let the harsh criticisms roll off your back and develop that confidence, I think it’s absolutely worthwhile and something more scientists should be doing.

McNiel: Yeah, I think being really deep in the facts makes a big difference. It’s not opinion, it’s not editorial, it’s just basic science fact. We’ve had a number of people say things like climate change is a hoax, it’s not real, this is fiction. But the thing that I always rely upon is I don’t really need to get into a debate about who is the cause or what is the cause of global warming. When you look at carbon parts per million in 1840 at about 230 and carbon parts per million today over 400, that’s just a measure.

Cunningham: It’s just a number.

McNiel: It’s just a number. It’s a number of how much carbon’s in the atmosphere, and we know that that heats things up. So that’s kind of how I look at it. I think it’s immutable, right? Wouldn’t you say it’s immutable?

“When it comes to the internet and the age of technology and all the information we have access to at our fingertips, the hardest part is sifting through that information to try to find something credible.”

Cunningham: Yeah, it is. I think a lot can be compared to vaccinations and the COVID-19 pandemic. And not to dive into that too much, but it’s comparable in that the way we communicate from the technical side of things is so, so important because information can be misconstrued like that. And when it comes to the internet and the age of technology and all the information we have access to at our fingertips, the hardest part is sifting through that information to try to find something credible. It’s this difficult balance. Really, at the end of the day, I’m just on a mission to advocate for science communicators and help them develop their skills so that they can get to this point.

McNiel: So what’s your advice to my social media team? What should they be thinking about when they send messages out about fusion versus fission, or fusion, just in general.

Cunningham: First off, keep it simple. Everyone needs to understand it, not just the scientists. And second, keep it short. Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and shorter, which is why those 15, 20 second clips are the ones that do well.

McNiel: That’s terrifying. I don’t know what’s more terrifying: climate change or shorter attention spans.

Cunningham: I know. One of my professors was talking in one of my classes recently that he makes videos for us to watch because nobody will do the reading if he assigns it.

McNiel: Oh my God. OK, let me ask you, short attention span, fission versus fusion: What’s the difference?

Cunningham: Fission: We’re splitting atoms apart. Fusion: We’re fusing them together.

McNiel: But why?

Cunningham: Why? Because fusing them together produces massive amounts of energy, but it’s really, really hard to do. Splitting them apart is easier to do and still produces a decent amount of energy.

McNiel: Explain E = mc²

Cunningham: Energy is mass times the speed of light, so you can convert mass to light and energy is mass and is light.

McNiel: So all matter that exists can be converted into energy.

Cunningham: Precisely.

McNiel: Kaylee, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve really had a great time.

Cunningham: Thank you so much, Jim. It’s been a pleasure.

McNiel (outro): It takes time to break things down and get to the essence of the message, to be truly deliberate about what you’re trying to communicate, and it seems to me that our friend Kaylee has figured out how to bring that to a whole new level.

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