#190 Ed McGinnis, CEO of Curio — Nuclear Innovation & Technology Development Company
Ed McGinnis is CEO of Curio — a nuclear innovation and technology development company. A 30-year veteran of the Department of Energy, Ed previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Nuclear Energy (Acting) and Executive Director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Bigger Than Us #190
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Host Raj Daniels 00:04
Ed, how are you doing today?
Ed McGinnis 00:44
I’m doing great, Raj, thank you very much for your time.
Host Raj Daniels 01:01
And thank you for your time, head. Before we dig into Curio, I’d like to start with a question that perhaps on its surface sounds a little lighthearted, but I believe it’s integral to our current conversation. What are your thoughts about the media’s role — and maybe a little bit more lighthearted measure, let’s add the Simpsons to the mix of how the public’s perception has been shaped regarding nuclear energy.
Ed McGinnis 01:33
The media role is hugely important for so many different reasons as part of the fabric of our society. It’s such an important means for communication and for the public to understand issues, whether they’re straightforward, or whether they’re complicated. And, of course, whether it’s humor, or whether it’s very, very serious. It’s that all comes with a package, too. It’s funny, you mentioned that the Simpsons, and that’s a classic case where it’s great to see entertainment out there.
And it’s great to see programs that are popular and that are humorous, but at the same time, some of the issues that they’re touching upon are so incredibly important, such as nuclear’s role, whether it’s dealing with the existential threat that many people see of climate change and the importance of it, playing a key role as a clean energy source. Whether it’s energy security, whether it is geostrategic — which nuclear is an absolute key element and tool in the geostrategic chessboard, if you will. And so with regards to some of the shows, yes, humor sometimes attempts to over-stereotype or play into some of the stereotypes, correct or not correct.
Certainly in some of the media and the cultural lore, nuclear has a very, very negative stereotype, but it really flies in the face of statistics. And the reality and that is nuclear energy is absolutely among the most safe energy sectors on the planet when you look at the the the overall data. And the absolute success and running tens of years, decades, with no incidents, which the vast majority of nuclear power plants, they’re unsung heroes. Rain, sleet or snow, they provide clean electricity generation, 365 days a year.
And perhaps sometimes we take it for granted. Nothing wrong with having humor, but very, very important for us to get the facts out so people understand when it touches their lives in a real serious way. Which it certainly does in the case of nuclear’s role and dealing with climate change, energy security, and geostrategic. It’s really important that we get the good accurate facts out there for the public to understand.
Host Raj Daniels 04:15
It’s interesting. You mentioned unsung heroes. As I was doing preparation for the show, I started thinking myself about my exposure to news about nuclear. And you’re right, on one end of the spectrum, we have the humor, so we have the Simpsons. And on the other end of the spectrum, we have essentially, if it bleeds, it leads. So you have Chernobyl, you have Fukushima, you have these dramatic stories about nuclear accidents.
But to your other point 40, 50 years of unsung heroes just boring working in the background. You also mentioned statistics and data. Can you share with the audience some examples regarding just how much power in the US is generated by nuclear and how safe it’s been?
Ed McGinnis 04:58
Yes. All the electricity generated in total in the United States going into homes and factories and businesses, nearly 20% of the electricity is generated from the 93 nuclear reactors that are operating in this country as we speak. And from a clean electricity generation, non-carbon emission generation perspective, it is the single largest electricity generator of clean electricity, bar none. Much larger than wind and solar, and even hydro. And so we see nuclear energy as a key climate fighting partner with the other renewables.
So, from a statistics perspective, it’s incredibly important, the unsung heroes, again. How many people realize, particularly those that are really concerned about the climate, that over 50% of the electricity we consume — and we’ve never consumed more electricity in the history of mankind. And it’s increasing substantially each year. The electric electrification of our economy, and therefore the dependence on electricity. And then what type of electricity? Is it clean electricity generation? Is it carbon emitting?
So it’s incredibly important, particularly for those who really deeply deeply care about what’s going on with our climate, what’s going on with energy security, and what’s going on with the reliability and resilience of electricity as we increase that generation. And you want to talk about unsung heroes, too.
A lot of people don’t realize that nuclear applications, radiological applications — first of all, we live. We get radiation every day from the sun; it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we live with radiation every day, just like anything in life. Too much of anything is not good. But a certain amount can be very good. Fighting cancer, for example, targeted alpha therapy. Curio, the company I represent, we have a very exciting focus, in addition to recycling what has been described as our nation’s nuclear waste, but it’s anything but nuclear waste. It is a highly valuable, largely untapped — from an energy value — clean energy resource for our country. But we are using radiological isotopes every day, to fight cancer and to save lives, even in the food irradiation business.
When I was at the United Nations meeting, I was reminded that every McDonald’s french fry is irradiated to make sure it’s safe to consume. So every day, we rely on the role of nuclear in so many different ways. Space-based, the only two manmade objects ever to reach interstellar space still sending signals back to us based on a plutonium-238 source that the Idaho National Labs in the Department of Energy provided and developed Mars rovers. So it’s one of those things getting back to getting the information out to let everybody know that public just how extensive and how integral the role of nuclear is played throughout society to help make our lives better.
Host Raj Daniels 08:34
Well, you and I both mentioned Curio, can you give an overview of Curio and your role at the organization?
Ed McGinnis 08:41
Yes, thank you very much. I’m the CEO of Curio and Curio has really three different business areas and lines of focus. First and foremost, is the focus on recycling our nation’s US nuclear fuel. That is at 75 locations and 35 states around the country essentially stranded right now, in large part due to the policy decisions going back to the 70s under Carter, where they decided to no longer allow recycling of the US nuclear fuel. And the minute they decided to not allow recycling of our nuclear fuel, it essentially made it a waste. It turned it into basically a liability and a waste.
But the nuclear fuel that is run in our reactors around the country today, all the way up to today, only consumes about 4% of the energy value. By the time it is the fuel is taken out of the reactors and put in a spent fuel pool. And without recycling, you’re literally taking fuel out in this particular fission process in our nuclear reactor at its one of its highest levels of radio toxicity of that fuel. So to not recycle it, it’s pretty much the worst of all times not to recycle it because then you have this material atone of its highest levels of radio toxicity.
And now your plan is to put it into Mother Earth? And guess what, if you don’t recycle it, and you put it in at that stage of radio toxicity and radioactivity, the material is going to remain radio toxic, and not appropriate for humans to be exposed to for 130,000 years. Wow. And we hear about 10,000 Because that was the NRC requirement for Yucca Mountain, the repository that was going to be used but politically unworkable. now, as said, by multiple administrations.
And so it when you don’t recycle it, you have such a monumental problem. It’s hard for even the public to get their head around it. But it’s no wonder that Nevada absolutely said no. And it’s no wonder that you don’t see communities raising their hands up to want to be a site for consolidated interim storage. If you’re telling them the material is going to be there at a highly radioactive level, for as far as they can imagine civilization going: 130,000 years. And when you flip it, and when you realize that if you recycle it, you’re literally eliminating that long-lived multi-thousand decade radio toxicity, and you’re consuming it.
And the only thing you will be left with with our NuCycle approach, which is Curio’s primary focus right now. We developed a new technology, it’s a unique technology, where it would be a plant the size of a football field only. And we would be able to process all of our nation’s nuclear use nuclear fuel within under 30 years. And when we recycle it, the only thing we would have left that is a high level radioactive waste is 4% of that original 100% that otherwise we’re dealing with for a Yucca Mountain or another repository. And even for that 4%, which we call fission products, we may actually be able to use that in industry today.
That 4% fission product, if we had to store until it’s safe for people to be exposed to it, it would only be 300 years. As I said, a totally different calculus. With the fission products, though, that 300 year amount of material, the 4%. We’re even hearing now from transformational battery companies and others, that say, “Hey, not so fast, Curio. Don’t think about throwing that away. We can use that as well because we’re developing batteries, where we could use the heat coming off the fission products that can last 300 years.”
And those could be batteries that could outlive — they can literally be generating electricity for 150 to 300 years. Think about that. These would be batteries, where they would outlive the users and certainly outlive the iPhone or any electronics, the micro-electronics that would be powered by a small nuclear battery of this type. So there are a lot of innovative products coming out of our process for recycling. But getting back to your point about what is Curio. Curio is focusing on recycling our nation’s US nuclear fuel, maximizing the commoditization the monetization of every atom, every isotope possible from that US nuclear fuel.
When we do that, and we turn it into a business, and a business where we’re converting it into things like clean electricity, medical fighting therapies via isotopes, space-based power sources and other things. When we’re doing that, we’re essentially relieving the taxpayer of this legacy burden that is on them now. Because right now it’s a government-led solution by the Department of Energy per law, and the amount of money that they’re spending and the amount forecasted to treat this 10,000, 130,000 Year problem is mind boggling. Literally. They’re estimating that just one of the repositories that Yucca Mountain, which would not even have been enough to store even the current amount that we have now, be about $100 billion. And that was from a 2008 estimate.
At the same time, we’re paying almost a billion dollars a year through court-assessed fines for failing, as a government, to pick up the US nuclear fuel from the utilities after having charged the utilities and the ratepayers for the repository that’s not been built. Basically we have hundreds of billions of dollars, really barreling down as as a bill to the taxpayer, if we don’t allow innovative, entrepreneurial-based, smart, efficient solutions, starting with treating this as a valuable asset and not a waste.
That’s what Curio’s overall approach is. We have a design, we have a patent filed, and the facility is the size of a football field. And the facility would process about 4000 metric tons a year. And the facility is designed to be even co-located with what the US government is attempting to do right now. And that is find a pathway for consolidated enough storage to try and at least get the use of fuel that is scattered in 75 locations around the country to a single location.
Well, the Department of Energy issued a RFI, a Request for Interest, around the country asking me if any state or local community would be interested in hosting such a consolidated interim storage site. It appears that there’s not been much of a response or interest at this time. And we’re hearing from states, many of them saying it’s because they do not want to be the site of material that’s going to be sitting there, highly radioactive, for 100,000 years plus. But if they see a combination of pairing it up with a recycling facility where that won’t be the case, and that most you’ll have 4% of that waste for 300 years and fission products. And then you have a facility that would turn the state that has the location into the largest clean nuclear fuel supplier in the country as a result of this extraction for fuel for the reactors, it’s a completely different proposition.
Host Raj Daniels 17:03
So where are you on the journey for government approval to use the spent nuclear fuel?
Ed McGinnis 17:09
Well, as you may know, right now, Congress has in law, a law that is the Nuclear Policy Act nuclear waste Policy Act that says that we have a fuel cycle that the nuclear material will not be recycled, but it will be put into a Geologic Repository once the fuel is run once through in a nuclear reactor, even though you still have 96% of the energy value. And Yucca Mountain is listed as that location. The Biden administration, even the tail end of the Trump administration and certainly the Obama administration, all have said that’s not politically workable. And that even though it’s in law, Yucca Mountain is not politically workable because of Nevada stakeholders and leadership opposing it so vigorously over the years.
So that nuclear waste policy act is going to have to be changed one rare another, even if it’s just for the Biden administration’s plans for desire to have consolidated interim storage. So for Curio, yes, we would need to see, in order for us our business line to be realized, the nuclear waste policy will need to be adjusted to allow a commercial solution to the US nuclear fuel, including taking title at a facility at this nuclear recycling facility that we call, our design is called NuCycle. And again, that’s that football Size field facility.
And so we would need to see adjustments to the the legislation, and we see strong, strong support in Congress. Strong and broad. And certainly openness to the idea that, wait a minute, we’re at a different age here. We don’t have an infinite amount of resources, we need to think about recycling. We need to think about circular economies, circular business models we don’t produce or consume in a manner where we’re out of balance with nature and where we are consuming more than is available in nature, whether it’s consuming plastics.
If you’re going to if you’re going to produce plastics, you should have a sustainable approach where it’s not just increasing over time. And we need to have the same thing for nuclear. We need to recycle, we need to think about our consumption rate, and we should not assume that we can just infinitely generate waste to stick into Mother Earth and that we should have a closed fuel cycle where we can produce the the very energy we need, and a recycling format. So that’s our business model. And we believe there’s great receptivity in Congress to recognize this used nuclear fuel, what’s called waste, as really the single largest stockpile of clean energy waiting to be tapped in our country.
Host Raj Daniels 20:25
So let’s both be optimist for a moment, let’s say that you are able to eventually source spent nuclear fuel. I’m looking at your website, you have, I think, five projects here that listed? How would you prioritize these projects?
Ed McGinnis 20:39
Are you talking about projects from products coming out of our NuCycle facility, or are you talking about our work on advanced reactors and medicine as well?
Host Raj Daniels 20:49
Ed McGinnis 20:50
So first of all, the NuCycle facility is designed with, like I said, maximizing product extraction. And as we do that, we’re literally getting a win-win, because as we do that we are, we are eliminating the highly radioactive material that’s going to last for 1000s of years. We have at least five products that we have developed now, and have done a lot of due diligence on, that will come out of this single facility, that consists, by the way, of very innovative, modular, integrated, semi-autonomous, compact units that would process this material. And we would generate at least five products. And we may have more, like I said, with transformational batteries, for example.
But the first and foremost, the first product that come out of this, would be what’s called US-6, it’s it’s enriched uranium, and it would be enriched at the level that our nuclear reactors in this country used. So we would take this used fuel that’s run through a nuclear reactor. And then, and I think a great obvious concept, you recycle it and extract the unused uranium, enriched uranium U-235. And then you re-process it as fuel to go back in the reactor. Like I said, this is a circular economy approach. Instead of just continuing to just continue to mine uranium, continue to extract more material, as if it’s infinite, we’re actually having a circular closed fuel cycle approach where we’re actually consuming what we produce and produce what we’re consuming, which is a beautiful thing, what I think we need to do. So the first product is what we call LEU, low enriched uranium, the fuel that would go that would be provided to our nation’s reactors.
Right now, people don’t realize it, but the 93 reactors that we have in our country that provides that 20% of our electricity, we rely almost 100% on foreign supplied uranium and nuclear fuel. That should be shocking to people. But that’s the reality. That’s how much our nuclear industry has deteriorated from an infrastructure perspective. Ironically, we still have the largest market in the world. And that’s one reason why foreign, mostly state-owned nuclear supply countries clamor to get in our market because we’re the largest market. And ironically, we have no domestic suppliers that are American-owned. We have one, fortunately, in New Mexico that is European-owned, and URENCO, LES, it’s called, and that’s really good. But that’s not enough.
20% of our nuclear fuel for our fleet of reactors, to this day, comes from Russia. How is that as a wake up call? But that’s where we are. So if once we start the first product line with with extracting fuel from our waste smartly, our used fuel, we this one facility will provide 40% of today’s nuclear fleet market requirements, annual. 40% from one facility. The second product line is what we call transuranic-based fuel, true fuel. And that’s where the magic happens where you’re taking these long lived radioactive isotopes and materials, and you’re actually fashioning it into fuel that can be consumed as electricity clean, and while you’re doing it, the magic of fission and decay and transmutation, you’re literally getting rid of that high level radioactive waste with the exception at 4%.
So the second business line would be this advanced transuranic base fuel that will be ready in time when there are a large class of have advanced reactors, that are in the process of entering our market today, would be able to use that fuel.
The third product line is space-based power sources and fuel sources. Most people don’t don’t realize, like I mentioned, that in the space industry, nuclear and radiological sources are very, very important. The Mars rovers being powered by radiological thermoelectric generators, plutonium-238, interstellar space with Voyager aircrafts, we’re gonna see lunar applications, kilo power and other different applications for power sources and then fission-based. So there is a growing demand and growing market that doesn’t have the supply that it needs through plutonium 238, among other things, and the US nuclear fuel is chock-full of this material, it would be through an neptunium-237 extraction from this fuel, but the end result is you’ll get plutonium 238 and efficient process.
The fourth is the medical isotopes I had mentioned. This is in combination with an advanced reactor such as one Curio is developing, which is another one of our business lines, is a molten salt reactor and longer term, we have a thorium-based molten salt reactor, and it’s ideal to pair up with NuCycle’s recycling plant to extract, develop an extract or produce an extract vital cancer-fighting isotopes for targeted or alpha therapy, for example.
And the last one is, like I said, the fifth one, is the transformational batteries that we’re looking at. So those are the key products. And overall, beyond that, nuclear recycling, that is the first and foremost priority of Curio. We have two other business lines as mentioned: one is advanced reactors, we have two designs under development like I said, one is a molten salt reactor and another one is a thorium-based molten salt reactor, and then we have the nuclear medicine and targeted alpha therapy business.
Host Raj Daniels 27:12
So when are the plans with the first SMR?
Ed McGinnis 27:15
Well, the small modular reactors are part of that class of advanced reactors — I mentioned that wave that is coming in. And there are different types of small modular reactors. There’s light water reactor, small modular reactors, light new scale, and new scale is out of Corvallis, Oregon. And led by John Hopkins and a very, very good team out there. I’ve worked with him for years. And they’re targeting to have their first small modular reactor built and operating at Idaho National Lab in the next several years, I believe it is 2028 approximately or 2029 latest that they’re hoping to have the first operation.
We also see through what’s called the Department of Energy’s Advanced Demonstration Reactor Program, ARDP: the development of non-light water reactors, some of which have small modular reactors, like X Energy’s reactor design, high temperature gas with TRISO fuels, and they are planning to have, I believe, their first one built in Washington in the tri-city area. And they’re shooting for I believe about 2028. And then you have Terrapower. That may end up being a little larger and not classed as small modular reactor or a little bit larger. And they’re planning to build their first one in about 2028 as well.
So we see a lot of movement with advanced reactors and all those reactors — and many more out there. I would say there’s easily almost two dozen more US and other advanced reactors trying to enter the market that coming decade — they’re all going to need fuel, and there are a lot of them are going to need fuel that’s not available on the market now. And this NuCycle facility will be able to provide virtually all those types of fuels.
Host Raj Daniels 29:05
It’s very interesting. Going back to the spent nuclear fuel, some of the concerns around security when you’re shipping these SNFs. What does that look like from a logistics standpoint?
Ed McGinnis 29:16
Yeah, US nuclear fuel, when it’s when it’s taken out of a spent fuel pool, and the spent fuel pool is the first place where US nuclear fuel is placed once it pulled out of the reactor core after having been run for 18 to 24 months in a typical reactor in the US.
So after, it’s pulled out of a reactor, and then it’s put into a spent nuclear fuel pool, where the water itself is, is an ideal place for it to be to ensure its safety, among other things. But at a certain time, after a number of years, they will pull that out and then put in what’s called dry cask storage. And these are very large, very reinforced, incredibly robust casks that had been regulated and licensed by the NRC and drop-tested and just every conceivable way of it being kinetically impacted, has been tested successfully.
And that is where these fuel assemblies that are pulled out of the reactor, then put in that pool, then taken out in dry-cask of storage, and they’re put in these casks. And you’ll see these casts, they stand vertically, cylindrically, on site where these nuclear reactors are. Those are the 75 locations pretty much that I’m talking about that are around the country, because they have nowhere to go right now.
But until the US government, by law, retrieves the material, or they change the law, and then they allow for an innovative approach like Curio’s approach of recycling, which is an obvious no-brainer to do in my humble opinion. But with regards to transportation, and these casks, first of all, we transport used nuclear fuel or what’s called waste, waste and spent fuel whatever you call it.
We transport that type of material around the country every day. For defense purposes, we have approximately 100 nuclear powered submarines. The fuel has to be taken and off-loaded when the subs are decommissioned, or when there’s refueling. They have to go to location in a certain part of the country. And it’s done safely and securely on rail, on trucks, and the Department of Energy’s NNSA. They do this on a regular basis. So we know how to transport use nuclear fuel safely and securely. We’ve been doing it for decades. So I have no doubt.
I’m confident that we can securely and safely transport this material once the material is consolidated and at a site such as Curio’s Nucycle facility, and safely and securely disposition and even eliminate this high level of radioactive waste that we’re trying to deal with.
Host Raj Daniels 32:17
Now, you mentioned co-locating with some of the existing facilities. How do you — so nimbyism is alive and well, What is the plan to overcome some of the nimbyism that’s out there right now?
Ed McGinnis 32:29
Well, I think it’s it’s pretty obvious and straightforward. One is make sure that we are doing things in a sensible, logical, mutually beneficial way. And what I mean by that is, I believe one of the reasons why you have the NIMBY, “not in my backyard,” is because the proposition is so difficult to swallow. The proposition of, “we would like you to consider hosting high-level radioactive waste for not only 10,000 years, because that just happens to be the NRCS license requirement for safely securing, but 130,000.” That’s a pretty difficult thing. And it’s reasonable to understand why you could have this NIMBY effect or reaction because who would want material there longer than you can maybe even conceive civilization being around, much less your kids, or your kids’ kids?
During the Department of Energy days, years ago, there was a significant multi-million dollar project funded, just to simply have our scientists come up with a form of communication that will be understood in 10,000 years, What’s the language? What’s the communication? They couldn’t even agree on that. So why are you going to expect communities to to be interested. As important as it is, and to say that this will be safe and secure, it’s a very difficult thing to ask an average person to accept, but if you apply recycling to it, where you show them that this material, only 4% will be there for 300 years, at most, a tiny fraction of it, and maybe not even that, and that the material will be eliminated on-site within 30 to 50 years.
Certainly all the waste we have in our country, they use nuclear fuel. And on top of it, this is going to be a facility that is going to be a powerhouse of clean energy, a powerhouse for isotope production for fighting cancer, a powerhouse for space-based sources of energy, and a powerhouse for generational jobs.
Our one facility is estimated to have about 3500 well-paying jobs, direct, and then about the same amount downstream. So if you go to a NIMBY community, and say, well, this is a completely different scenario we’re talking about. We’re talking about a recycling plant, where this state, once that plant is up and running, our plant would process about 4000 metric tons a year. The first product line would be about 800 metric tons of the equivalent of uranium nuclear fuel that would power reactors, that would power 40% of our nation’s reactors, where that plant would be, that state would become overnight, when that plant starts operating, the single biggest clean power supplier for electricity in our country and one of the largest in the world.
That’s a completely different proposition than saying, “Hey. would you be interested in us putting this in there indefinitely, with none of the products coming out, none of the revenue generated. And on top of that, we have a business proposed approach where whatever community would host it should receive approximately a billion dollars a year or some substantial benefit coming from the nuclear waste fund, to show serious partnership with that community.
And there’s a way to do it without depleting even the the the waste fund, as we have it today. But right now, the financing is also incredible. The NIMBY communities, not only are focused on dealing with that 10,000 year, 130,000 year problem they want nothing to do with. And then they see the financial situation where right now we’ve collected a nuclear waste fund to pay for a repository that would be in their backyard.
And that’s not even enough for half of one of these sites. Yucca Mountain that was designed and legislatively set at 70,000 metric tons-we have 80 86,000 metric tons today, adding 2000 metric tons a year. So even if Yucca Mountain, which there’s no viable path forward now, but a Yucca Mountain-type repository would not even be enough to store all of the material. And so you’re going to need at least two, maybe even three repositories. And in 2008, the Department of Energy with $100 billion dollar estimate for one of these? The amount of money being spent is is mind-boggling. And so our risk, our recycled approach is dramatically radically different. We will dramatically save the taxpayer, while at the same time being successful in business where we get a win-win-win.
Host Raj Daniels 38:05
It does sound like a much more attractive proposal. So I want to turn spotlight back on you for a moment. I’m looking at your bio here, very interesting Master of Arts, US Foreign Policy and International Relations. How did you get involved at the DOE? In international nuclear policy?
Ed McGinnis 38:20
That’s a great question, serendipity.
Host Raj Daniels 38:25
My favorite words.
Ed McGinnis 38:26
Yes. And I do a lot of mentoring. And serendipity is very important. And what you do with it when the serendipitous moments happen is really key. But I thought I was going to be an diplomatic career, or something along those lines, maybe national security. I went to American University’s grad school, School of International Service. And I could never have told you or predicted that I would be sitting here after 30 years in the Department of Energy, having worked in high-science missions my entire life with a master’s of arts and undergrad and bachelor of arts, but it’s all on-the-job training. And I guess I have enough decent aptitude to have picked up a lot. And I ended up succeeding and moving up and leading.
But I’ve always taken the approach of never ever ever trying to be someone you’re not. I revere scientists, engineers, but I also revere a diversity of knowledge and offices. And I’ve seen that firsthand. I had my serendipitous moment after I graduated from American University or was about to graduate. And in graduate school, I was trying to get a job in DC, and I felt like everybody had a job but me. All I had is my thesis to write, and I literally couldn’t land a job in the career that I wanted.
So I moved back home to New Orleans. And literally I thought my career was going to go somewhere else, in international hotel management and then one day, serendipity struck, and I’m in New Orleans, managing a hotel, and on the in the French Quarter of all places a luxury hotel on Bourbon Street, if you can believe it. And there’s a Department of Energy Conference and I greeted as the Assistant General Manager, they had a delegation, and I told him I went to grad school up in DC. He says, “What the heck you doing down here?” So well, I couldn’t land a job. And he said, “Well, that’s crazy. Give me your resume.”
And within four weeks, I’m working at headquarters at the Department of Energy. He said, “This is not the job, you’re going to be one to be on forever, but you’re going to get into a national security department, you’re going to get your security clearance, and the rest is up to you to work your magic.” And so that that was the beginning. And then the first half of my career, I worked my way into working nuclear security, nuclear non-proliferation, counter proliferation, loose nukes type work, Russia, Ukraine. Mostly Russia. And then the second half of my career was nuclear energy. Under Bush, I was asked to stand up the international part of what’s called GNAP, global nuclear energy partnership, which, ironically, is predicated on the same recycling approach that Curio, my company, is focused on now except industry-led and not government-led.
Host Raj Daniels 41:22
So now you’ve transitioned to the private sector. It’s been more on the job training. What are some of the things you’ve learned in your transition?
Ed McGinnis 41:31
Oh, I am learning so much. On the one hand, I was thinking on-the-job training would not be a significant because I’ve spent 30 years of my career, mostly in nuclear on one, whether it’s the security side of the coin, or the nuclear side of the coin. But it’s all been government, even though I’ve worked closely with industry, done a lot of advocacy, senior-level overseas around the world working closely with US nuclear companies, I can’t tell you how much of an eye opener it has been to work in the private sector.
Some of the most basic things that I thought were as basic as one plus one equals two, obvious, what I thought was obvious, intuitive, what I thought was intuitive, when it comes to my perception of how the private sector works, in particular, in nuclear and innovative sectors. And what we’re seeing that’s changing so much of our society, and that is these very innovative, disruptive startups.
We’ve seen it with SpaceX and others and, and I think we’re about to see it with nuclear. And with Curio, we actually believe nuclear, the nuclear energy sector, we want to be a part of literally what we say testify the nuclear sector. And it’s right to be testified, it’s right to be disrupted in a very, very positive way. But getting back to your your point, they’re going into private sector.
Frankly, I realized how many decisions and actions I took in government, as well-intended as they they were how, how much I actually didn’t fully appreciate from the private sector. And I’m getting that now. And now that I’m on the other side of the coin, an example is innovation. Wwhat I see now is a huge number of small capitalised, small startup companies attempting to get into the nuclear market with various, some very exciting, some hugely impactful concepts and technologies, whether it’s 3D printing over a micro reactor, whether it’s cutting edge for medical isotopes to fight and cure cancer, or whether it’s space-based, power sources, you name it, or advanced reactors, very cool, very disruptive.
But a lot of these ideas are not resonant in just the large companies that have been around for decades. In fact, what we have seen, like with SpaceX, and Tesla and others, is that these small startups can come in completely, not only contribute, but be incredibly competitive with large established companies and actually change life as we know it in so many ways in society. Like with Tesla, like with Apple, like with, frankly, Microsoft, early on with Bill Gates.
So the whole idea of government trying to make room for innovative companies and not just, for example, instinctively want to make sure that if you allocate government funds for a contract, my instinct is I want to save the taxpayer, protect the taxpayer, and take the least risks with the taxpayer dollars. That may mean that we continue to give the money to large companies.
But the problem is if, let’s say you get $4 billion from Congress, and it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to distribute it, partnering with other companies, I might say, “Well, I have a choice, spread the butter thin, or just concentrate it on two slices of bread, and then I’ll get more out of it, more guaranteed?” Well, you know, I think that’s been the approach. And that is, don’t spread the butter too thin, don’t take the $4 billion, and then out and then award like a small amount to 40 companies, take it and concentrate it, and give it to like two or four.
And then when you do that, you end up gravitating towards the big older companies, and you end up freezing out, for example, and shutting out all of these innovative companies. And part of the venture capitalists and others is going to say, “Wait a minute, why should I be going with your small, innovative company, when the government just gave a $2 billion award to this big, the big, you know, player in that sector?” So those are the types of things that I thought was intuitive, like, no, don’t spread the butter too thin. But at times, you end up unintentionally picking winners, instead of trying to just clear the road for innovation.
So if that makes sense, those are things that I’m really starting to appreciate that were in government, I thought, some actions that my colleagues and I would take, they were obvious to do. And now it’s like, no, that was not the obvious thing to do. And so I think the better we have streamlined communications between industry and government, and the better we understand the roles and try and have government do what it does best. But have industry do what it does best.
Could you imagine even if we funded NASA three times over before SpaceX came in and Elon Musk, I don’t think NASA, even if it was funded three times, would have got would have been able to do what SpaceX has done, and just completely turning on its head the space-based industry through reusable rockets. So industry as a vital role, and is vital for government, my experience, to really make that extra effort to understand what makes the US innovation sector tick, and what can incentivize them instead of actually freezing them out.
Host Raj Daniels 47:45
Absolutely makes sense. My next question is, you know, you mentioned closed-loop. You mentioned recycling a few times, I think you kicked the conversation off with Mother Earth. What’s your why? What draws you to this idea of doing well for the planet?
Ed McGinnis 48:01
Well, the environment is, when I say Mother Earth, I think I’m saying what everybody says: we care about our planet. We want something where we can live where it’s a beautiful planet, it’s healthy, and our kids and our kids’ kids can enjoy that. And I have yet to find, in either side, people that, you know, disagree with that. And so what I want to do is and part of that, my business, is whatever I wanted, whatever we do in Curio, we want it to be good for our country, and good for the planet.
Host Raj Daniels 48:34
Well, since you mentioned kids’ kids, let’s fast forward to 2030. If Forbes, Fast Company, publication of your choice were to write a headline about curial legacy, what would you like that headline to read?
Ed McGinnis 48:48
Curio realizes a mother lode of clean energy for our nation.
Host Raj Daniels 48:52
I like that. Curio realizes the mother lode of clean energy for our nation. Very succinct. Very nice. So last question. And this could be professional, and you mentioned a serendipity earlier, managing a hotel, and then 30 years later, being a CEO of a nuclear company or nuclear waste company. If you could share some advice or words of wisdom, and it could be professional or personal, with the audience, what would it be?
Ed McGinnis 49:16
That anybody can make a difference, and never sell yourself short. Always have respect for knowledge, and others. And empathy is really, really important. When you understand it when you make the effort to understand why and how people are doing things, groups, personal, professional, it helps you understand better and empowers you more. But for me words of wisdom is just, it sounds silly, but be all you can be, and don’t think you can’t be anything.
I’ve worked for people. I’ve had people that work under me, and literally I’ve told them that, listen, you could do my job. You’ve got the capabilities. You can be president. So, look at me. I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana. I remember thinking in junior high school telling someone, “Yeah, I want to be a diplomat. I’m moving to Washington.” They just started laughing. I may as well said I was going to become, the first person on Mars.
But I like this, I was never the the top of the class or anything else. Almost my entire career, I went in with a non traditional credentials. I was the one where people say, “What’s this guy doing here?” But I worked my tail off. I think I show great respect for others and how they got there. And I acted like a sponge. And I wanted to learn and I wanted to make a difference.
Host Raj Daniels 50:56
Well, I think be all that you can be is a great place to end. I appreciate your time today, your continued success with Curio, and look forward to catching up with you again soon.
Ed McGinnis 51:05
Thank you very much, Raj.
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