Energy. It’s a hot topic! Learn leadership lessons, employer-to-employee communication tips, and an inspirational life story from David Amerine, a nuclear engineer, author, and a well-known leader and consultant in the nuclear industry.
Drawing from decades of experience, David discusses leadership insights, the effects of public policy on the energy industry, his thoughts regarding the future of nuclear energy in America, and the heartbreaking personal challenges he faced as he lost his wife, Cindy, to ALS. He also discusses his new book, “Push It To Move It.”
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Linda J. Hansen: Today, I have a special friend with me, David Amerine. You may not know David Amerine. To those outside the nuclear industry, he might not be known. He's not a name that is flashed across TV screens or on everyone's iPad or iPhone, but I will tell you that, he's had an incredible impact to all our lives because of what he's done in his career. So, I first got to know David through some work I was doing for a nonprofit, eGeneration Foundation, that promotes the development and commercialization of Molten Salt Reactor technologies, and basically helping to create a better pathway for nuclear energy production, and research and development. But through that interaction, I got to know David and his wife, Cindy, wonderful, wonderful woman who I really counted as a friend and unfortunately, we lost Cindy recently to ALS.
So, along with David's commitment to the nuclear energy industry, he's had an incredible impact and involvement with the ALS society which we'll talk about a little bit. But, I just can't have a conversation with David without also mentioning his beautiful wife Cindy, who we all miss. But, for those of you who suffer from ALS or have a loved one with ALS, you may want to reach out to him at some point. She's got a beautiful song. We'll put some information on that in the show notes.
So, we thank you for joining again and I'll go into the further introduction. Well known in the nuclear industry, David is not only a nationally recognized expert, but he is an Ohio resident and cares deeply about the future of Ohio and the nation. We're speaking today at Catawba Island Club. I've had another interview here with a friend of David's, Jim Stouffer. Through his vast array of experiences, he continues to make an impact, through consulting, writing and speaking. A graduate at the United States Naval Academy, David served in the nuclear submarine force before entering the civilian nuclear industry. His professional career started as an operator, and he rose to executive positions for several companies. I'll let him tell you about those because it's pretty exciting. So, he served as a member of new leadership teams, or was the leader in charge to lead the recovery of eight different nuclear power plants or nuclear projects, that found themselves in some degree of management or operational difficulties.
I'll let him explain those facilities as well because I probably won't pronounce them all properly. But encouraged by colleagues to share his wealth of experience in a book, he is just finishing the second edition of his well-known book, "Push It to Move It", and we'll make sure to have information on how you can order a copy of "Push It to Move It" as well. So, with that lengthy introduction, I'd like to welcome David Amerine to our podcast.
David Amerine: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Linda: Thank you. So, could you share a little bit more about your career and where you've served, and what your experiences have been?
David: Sure. As you said, I went to the United States Naval Academy and graduated with the engineering degree you get there, but also a major in math and nuclear physics. And that led me naturally into the Navy's nuclear program and submarines in particular, which in turn, led to when I got out of the Navy, a career in the nuclear industry. And as you mentioned, I started as an operator, but over a 40-year career, I rose to the rank of executive in a number of positions with companies, but I sort of ended up as a troubleshooter, which you also mentioned. I was brought in eight different times as a member of the new leadership team or the new leader for the recovery of different nuclear plants or projects that found themselves in some form of extremity. So, I got to manage a lot of people. For example, I was the executive vice president at the Savannah River Site. At one time, we employed 25,000 people, so it's like managing a small city.
Linda: Exactly. That's amazing.
David: So, I learned a lot about leadership, mostly by successes and also some failures, and try to make sure I didn't ever make the same mistake twice.
Linda: That's everyone's goal, right?
David: Right. So, the main thing with being a leader is, you got to understand that you first need to serve the people that you're leading. What I did, my philosophy was always to surround myself with people who are smarter than me, and then to facilitate them.
Linda: That must be quite a task. I mean, you are a nuclear engineer, right?
David: Well, it's important that you have really good people and then you facilitate their job, and you support them. I also found out that to be a leader, you have to be present, you have to be out in the work space. The goal really should be not to find people doing anything wrong, but to find people doing things right. And then, to let them know that and let them know that you appreciate that.
So, that was kind of my management philosophy. I developed a lot of different ways of communicating sort of in groups of four. For example, I always let my teams or my organizations or my companies that I manage, know what my life priorities are, which are God, family, health, and then work in that order. And that helps you keep things in perspective. I also told people what the attributes I look for.
Number one, I appreciate people who work hard, and people that don't waste time at work and that are aggressive. They'll take charge of things and are thorough. That is, they want to understand their job or their assignment, not just in its narrow confines, but how it interfaces with other jobs. And probably, one of the most important things is to have a perspective. And by that, I mean, the easiest way to express that is to have a sense of humor.
In fact, I took over one troubled project and when I had all the employees grouped together, I told them, "If you don't have a sense of humor, get one." We can't afford to take ourselves, our work too seriously, even though the work in many cases is very important.
Linda: Very, very important.
David: I was brought in as President of Nuclear Fuel Services, which is the sole provider for the nuclear fuel for all of our Navy's submarines and aircraft carriers, and it had been shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for operational and management difficulties. We only have as a country and this is intentional about a six-month backlog in fuel. So, it was very important to restore stakeholder confidence, and the stakeholders included not only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but also the Department of Energy, and most importantly, Naval Reactors. That's the part of the Navy that runs all these nuclear vessels that we have. And also, the employees, they were also important stakeholders, and they had kind of lost confidence in themselves. And so, it was important for them to gain confidence in me, as the new leader. I did that by, a lot of visibility in the workplace, a lot of communicating, which by the way is probably the toughest part of our jobs, but sometimes it's also the toughest part of our relationships.
Linda: Right, communication.
David: And the most important ingredient in that, is to develop the skill of what I call active listening and that is engage the person and give them feedback but let them know that you're listening. And it’s the old Stephen Covey rule, "Seek first to understand, before seeking to be understood." And that's a good thumb rule to go by. You'll learn a lot more with your mouth closed and your ears open than in the reverse.
Linda: Right. I've heard it said, "God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason." Right. That's great, and I can attest to your positive attitude and the way that you affirm people in their things. You've done it in my life, but I've seen you do it with others, too. So that's really a credit and a great example. And you know that with Prosperity 101, I'm trying to help employers educate employees about the public policy issues that affect their jobs. And the energy sector is so highly regulated, and it is so dependent, I should say, on the ability to create energy within the regulatory confines, and people's jobs hang in the balance a lot, whether there's good policy or bad policy, or what happens in one state versus another state. How did you meet that challenge of communicating about policy to your employees?
David: Well, the first thing you have to understand in light of what you just said, it is a highly regulated industry, particularly the nuclear part of it. But, to understand whether it's the Department of Energy as the overseer and customer or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the overseer, that those folks really are interested in everyone being a success. They're not the adversary.
They can be a teammate, and that's what I've tried to do is embrace them. And maybe it gets back a little bit to the Godfather principle of you know, "Stay close to your enemies," but I didn't view them as enemies. I viewed them as colleagues, and I had to get that point across to the entire workforce. So, the approach that I always took with a regulator and with a client, were all the cards on the table face up all the time. Sometimes, that's a little tough but in-
Linda: Especially in politics.
David: Yeah, especially. But in the long run, I found that it works best.
Linda: Yes, that's great. When we talk about how policy affects job creation or job security, I should say, we look at when people go to the voting booth. And while Prosperity 101 does not at all tell people how to vote, and we don't encourage employers to do that, we want this to be nonpartisan and educational. But, as you and I have discussed, we know that many people go to the voting booth, and unwittingly vote themselves out of a job in a sense, because they may be not looking at the policies that a person promotes and how it affects their job. So, when you think about our Constitution or the regulatory arena in which nuclear energy plays, how did you communicate to people about maybe the people who were supportive or non-supportive of the industry, and what were your best ways to communicate with that?
David: We have to be very careful. Particularly, about half my career was spent in the Department of Energy nuclear complex, and the other half was in the commercial nuclear. But in both of them, particularly in the former, you have to realize that you have to stay neutral with regard to the politics. So, you talked about the voting booth. The thing we always did was, encourage people to vote, including giving them time off to register if they hadn't done that and time off to get to the voting booths, and understanding that sometimes that meant they had to come to work late or leave work early. But we wanted people that vote.
Linda: That's fantastic. We encourage employers to do that, just encourage people to vote.
David: Right. But other than that, we really needed to stay somewhat neutral with regard to trying to influence employees to vote one way or the other.
Linda: Right. So, you just educated on a policy.
David: But, we did encourage them to understand the positions that different people were taking, and how that might have an impact on their industry or in their jobs.
Linda: Right, right. And like even now we're in Ohio, and we think about Davis Bessie here, and the fight for Davis Bessie to stay in business, or we look at what's happening at Nassau Plum Brook, all these things. And in a lot of it, whether things rise or fall or industries rise or fall, I mean, it depends on the policy. It depends on the people that make the decisions in the state and national capitals. And so, when you think about how to communicate that with employees, I know you said you had to remain nonpartisan, but what were your best practices to help them understand the policies that affected their jobs?
David: Well, the main thing is, to talk not only to employees but the public in general, to inform them on the different legislation and their position, by extension that some politicians might take on that. And also, to talk to the politicians themselves, so they understand what's at risk. Obviously, I spent my entire career in the nuclear industry, and I have a devotion to nuclear energy. And quite frankly, I really think it has so many attributes that serve and can serve men, and most of the rest of the world is going nuclear. The United States, right now, even though we have just a little bit less than 20% of our power produced by nuclear, we haven't made the investments to move to what's called Generation Four Reactors. We really need to do that because nuclear basically is, it is absolutely environmentally benign. It's extremely reliable with what's called a capacity factor, which is basically a measurement of how long a plant is online at full capacity. And over the life of the plant, it's economically one of the best deals as well.
Linda: One of the best, right. Environmentally clean, it's amazing.
David: Well, people are worried about-- Sometimes the two things that people think about it, number one is, it's dangerous. And number two, what do you do with nuclear waste? Well, first of all, the plants that we have today are incredibly safe, and the ones that are on the drawing boards are even safer. They're what's called inherently safe, which means if there's some sort of an upset condition, it doesn't require operator or equipment action, at least within the first three or four days, which gives you plenty of time to respond to whatever might have happened. There's never been a member of the public in any way in the United States affected negatively by nuclear power. No one's been dangerous and put in danger by that. There's not really any other industry that generates electricity that can actually say that other than the nuclear industry.
Linda: Our work together with eGeneration Foundation and helping to promote the development of Small Modular Reactors, the Gen Four Reactors and in particular Molten Salt Reactors is an example of what I say policy gone amuck, because it's a perfect example of regulations that are a square peg in a round hole. Because Molten Salt Reactors were invented, tested and proven at Oakridge labs in Tennessee, so it's a US invented reactor.
The program was tabled back in the Cold War years because it didn't promote or didn't produce weapons-grade nuclear. And then after that information was declassified, scientists began to wake up and say, "Wow, this is an exciting technology." Well, because our nuclear regulatory environment was centered around the light water reactors, there was not really a regulatory path to build these small modular reactors.
Now, other countries and some adversarial countries have taken our technology and want to use it militarily and in other ways. So, I say, we should be the leader in that. We should not be letting other countries do that. But again, that's why we work together with this organization, to try to help educate people and change that regulatory environment. So, the safe reactors that you mentioned, these small reactors that are basically in so many ways walk away safe, in so many ways, and they create no carbon for-- there's no carbon emissions, they're clean environmentally. They're safe. Molten Salt Reactors also create the medical isotopes, Molybdenum 99 that we need so much with cancer diagnosis and treatment, and other health things. So, to me, it always seemed overused phrase, "A no brainer." But, sometimes we know that when we're trying to impact policy and the government no brainers it's doesn't make any difference. You just try to change that environment.
But as I look at that, if that policy would change, if that regulatory environment could change, not only would we have an amazing source of power that can be transported, it can be built on an assembly line, it could bring jobs to regions that are untold. And it could create power for impoverished areas like hurricane-stricken islands sort of thing.
So, as I look at this and we work at changing this regulatory environment, going back to helping the workforce understand the nuclear energy workforce, the people, that 25,000 people who worked under you at that one facility, helping them understand the importance of changing those regulatory environments, educating people about it, but also then, making sure that they support the people who can create those jobs. So, how do you address that?
David: What's missing in our country today is a national resolve. In 1974, and you're much too young to remember, but that's when we had energy-
Linda: Actually not.
David: Energy shortages, and there were actually gas lines.
Linda: Oh, I remember the gas lines.
David: And for the first time, everyone realized you couldn't take energy for granted.
David: And we needed a national strategy or coherent, cogent, consistent energy policy. And here we are some 50 years later, and we still do not have that as a country. Now back in the 50s, France had the resolve to say, "We don't have any source of power to produce electricity. We can only burn so much peat moss, but we don't want to be dependent on other countries by importing oil."
And today, they are over 80%, I think somewhere around 85% of their electrical energy comes from nuclear, because they had to resolve and the foresight to do that. Unfortunately, we haven't done that in this country. And as you mentioned a few minutes ago, in the nuclear arena, we've become very light water reactor centric, not only as our regulator like that but also our politicians, the utility industry. So, there hasn't been the initiative, the resolve, the foresight, to develop among other things, a licensing path for those kinds of technologies that you mentioned. Linda: Right, and it would create such economic prosperity for so many regions of the country as we could build these reactors on assembly lines. It would put a lot of quiet manufacturing facilities back into life. But not only that, the ability that it could provide for baseload power is incredible. I mean, just as I've learned so much about the nuclear industry, and especially Small Modular Reactors, and these Gen Four Reactors, to me, I think we can't do it fast enough. But you did mention how becoming energy independent or becoming a leader in energy, I would say, that we have in this administration that we're filming this in 2019. And in this administration, we have become much more energy independent as a nation, and we have begun to export energy at a higher rate than we used to. And so, I do think that there's a renewed interest in nuclear as well, and with the Department of Energy more recently, I've seen and correct me if I'm wrong, but I've seen a renewed interest in Small Modular Reactors and beginning to promote that so people can get educated. But to me, it's not enough, it's not fast enough. Of course, I never think government moves fast enough in some positive ways. It seems like they can move fast in negative ways, but I never think the wheels of government move fast enough. But as we talk about the policy and regulatory reform issues for the nuclear industry, do you have any closing comments that you'd like to recommend, not only to our current administration, and to the powers that be in Washington, D.C. and at all state capitals that talk about nuclear energy? And also, what would you say to educate the public about nuclear energy?
David: Well unfortunately, the nuclear industry as a whole is sort of taking the attitude of a lot of sleeping dog lie. And so, the only information the public's had, for the most part, has been from the adversaries of nuclear energy. But today, there's a lot of movement about preserving our environment, and for power that is you mentioned a few minutes ago is carbon-free. Any discussion like that, that does not include nuclear, in my opinion, is completely disingenuous.
Linda: I agree.
David: It is the only reliable broad phrase totally environmentally benign source of electrical energy. We would just not be able to provide the kind of energy we need on-demand 24/7 from solar and wind. And so, the only place you can really turn is to nuclear. So, what we need in my opinion is a national resolve. We need leadership to understand as most of the rest of the world does, as you mentioned.
Linda: Right. They come to steal our technology, too. They steal our intellectual property to create a nuclear energy boom in their own country.
David: Well, all other countries with a notable exception of Germany, and it has totally backfired on them are turning to nuclear, and it's right there for mankind. There's no question that we're depleting our natural resources of petroleum and natural gas and coal, and there's no way to get that back. There are many things, from fertilizers to medicines, to plastics that those sources provide, besides burning it to make energy, and also an incredible amount of waste.
The only one that will be available to provide power for over thousands of years is nuclear. We have that kind of fuel and technology available right now. We just need to implement it. We need to get government and private industry and education, and everyone informing the public that this is a very safe form of power. And you mentioned waste, is the good news, so little waste is produced. And we know exactly what to do with that waste.
The plant that I was the Program Manager for, the defense quarries process facility at the Savannah River Site has been a mobilizing highly radioactive waste in Borosilicate glass since 1997. It's not a problem. If we produced all the electricity from nuclear for the entire United States, and then reprocess that fuel to regain the 95% that wasn't used because you have to take the sub-assemblies out when they're only 5% depleted, it would feel a football field 10 feet high for the entire country. We know exactly what to do with that because we've been doing it since 1997. It's not a problem. It's the good news.
Linda: Right. It's the good news and we just need to help promote policies and regulatory environment that lets this happen. You mentioned a small amount of waste. Sometimes we can use a small amount of energy. I know, Thorium is an element that can be used to create energy, and a Thorium the size of your hand, a ball in your hand could fuel your lifetime. We just so often in government, we need to somewhat get government out of the way, so industry and science can advance. Of course, the nuclear energy industry, and other energy industry, they need to be regulated, of course, for the public safety, but having appropriate regulations that fit the need and can advance with advancing science is really important. So, with that, I'd like to close if we can, and I want to thank you so much, for not only your time here today, but your service to this important industry. You've served our country in a variety of ways through your career, and I just want to tell you, thank you so much. So, if people want to get in touch with you, and they want to hear about your wife's, your late wife's song regarding ALS, or if they'd like to order a copy of your book, how would they do it?
David: Well, you can order a copy of my book by going to Amazon. The new edition of the book is coming out October 16th.
David: They can listen to the song that my wife wrote, which has become the national anthem for the ALS Association by going to YouTube and searching ALS Odyssey. And I don’t know why I am compelled to spell it, O-D-Y-S-S-E-Y anthem.
David: And before even get to anthem, the song will come up, and the video was made by our two adult daughters. It goes very well with the music. Watch it all the way to the end.
Linda: It is beautiful. I will attest.
David: Even after the music and the lyrics, which my wife wrote, scroll down the right-hand side, and then she collaborated with a couple from Ireland. And the wife, Mary Jo Reagan is a vocalist with not only an incredibly beautiful voice but a bit of an Irish lilt to it as well. And then her husband and my wife collaborated on the melody.
Linda: That's beautiful.
David: And then, at the very end, there's a photograph of my wife when she danced for the Charleston modern ballet company.
Linda: Right. Yes. It's beautiful. So, I really recommend people go to that. And then again, to get your second edition of your book, "Push It to Move It", people can go to Amazon, so you can look for it there. And David, I want to tell you, thank you so much for giving us your time.
David: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Linda: Thank you for your service to our country and to this important industry, and for sharing your expertise with us.
Copyright 2020, Prosperity 101 LLC.