A lot of people say that they eat, sleep and breathe their passions, but there are few who would identify more with that adage than Sam Brinton, newly-minted Deputy Assistant Secretary for Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition at the Department of Energy.
“My husband is a painter, and half of the paintings in our home have something to do with nuclear waste, because all I do is talk about this issue,” Brinton told RadWaste Monitor in an exclusive video interview Thursday, in their fourth month on the job.
As the new steward of federal nuclear waste policy, Brinton, 34, who identifies as genderfluid and uses ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘theirs’ as third-person singular pronouns, is faced with a challenge that has confounded their predecessors for nearly four decades — what to do with the nearly 90,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel generated by nuclear reactors nationwide and currently stranded at those facilities.
The government has approved only one permanent geologic repository, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, which got its sole designation in a 1987 piece of legislation known by Nevada as the “Screw Nevada Bill.” However, Yucca Mountain is more or less a non-starter in today’s discussion about spent fuel storage, thanks to political maneuvering by the Silver State and a decade-long funding stop initiated in 2010 by then-president Barack Obama.
In the absence of a permanent repository, DOE has in recent months renewed its attempt to find a willing host for a federally-operated interim storage site — a facility that would house spent fuel for an unspecified amount of time until a final disposal location is made available.
The agency, based on the findings of the Obama-era 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, is pursuing a consent-based approach to interim storage that focuses on community involvement in the siting process.
That’s easier wished for than done. Leaving aside the legal obstacles to an interim storage site actually getting built, a consent-based approach demands that DOE undertake the highly subjective task of defining what “consent” means: what communities are allowed input and when the agency feels it has achieved a consensus.
Brinton, though, is raring to take on the challenge. The Kansas native has become well-known in D.C. nuclear policy circles in recent years — not just for their charismatic personality and colorful fashion sense, but also for their expertise in the field of spent nuclear fuel and their willingness to learn.
Brinton spent the last five years running government relations at aspirant nuclear-waste disposal company Deep Isolation, has a dual master of science in nuclear engineering technology and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wrote their masters thesis about used nuclear fuel storage.
Despite their qualifications, Brinton’s ascent to DOE spent fuel chief — their first government job — was by no means a walk in the park.
Since announcing in January that they’d been hired for the role, a move that they now admit was made a bit too early, Brinton received “more than a hundred death threats and more vitriol than I could have imagined,” they said in a June social media post.
It’s official. As of June 19th, I now serve my nation as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition in the Office of Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy. pic.twitter.com/zLq3Bf97X2
— Sam Brinton (@sbrinton) June 29, 2022
Brinton was also the subject of anonymous allegations in February which claimed that “prohibited personnel practices” were employed at the agency during their hiring process. The Office of Personnel Management, which received the complaint, has yet to publicly acknowledge any sort of investigation into those allegations.
Despite those trials and tribulations, Brinton said that they are excited to be on the bleeding edge of nuclear waste policy and to be the first, but not the last, face of LGBTQ+ representation in the federal government. RadWaste Monitor talked to them about those topics and more during a 20-minute interview Thursday.
RWM: So, Sam, how are you settling in at DOE?
Brinton: I’ve interned at national labs and in the federal government before, but this is my first time with an office in the Forrestal building. It’s been an adjustment. There are a lot of people who want your time and attention, on so many different topics and all at the same time.
That’s a little overwhelming, but it is really exciting that I have the resources to be able to make big decisions now. It’s both a blessing and curse. I have to learn a lot and talk to a lot of different people, but I also get to make really important decisions, like our request for information summary, or our interim storage funding opportunity announcement.
When I think of the responsibilities of DOE’s spent fuel chief, I imagine one of them is to be sort of a door-to-door salesman for interim storage — visiting communities and pitching the project to anyone who will listen. Is that a fair characterization?
It will be, yes. The really important words there are ‘will be,’ but not yet.
You have probably heard about someone called the nuclear waste negotiator. This was an individual who went out and tried to find communities who would be interested in siting a centralized interim storage facility for spent fuel. In the future, that type of role will be something that I would be doing alongside leading all of our research and development.
While centralized interim storage facilities are the main part of the policy work that we’re doing with consent-based siting right now, we still are maintaining the other half of my work, which is on research and development, disposal transportation and things like that.
There’s so much research and development also being done along with the implementation of the consent-based siting process.
Let’s talk about the concept of consent-based siting. That’s been the cornerstone of DOE’s interim storage inquiry so far, but I’m wondering, how do you define consent? Who exactly can give consent for an interim storage site?
It’s a common question: who can give consent?
We all know what consent looks like. We consent to a variety of things each and every day. Now, we are not all consenting to the siting of a centralized interim storage facility. But, we understand the premise of being respected, of having the information to make a good choice, of recognizing risks and recognizing benefits. These are all parts of a consent-based siting process that, when they come together, can be applied to nuclear waste management.
For example, consent is informed. We need to get the resources to make sure that communities know what we’re talking about, but those communities already have their own experiences that DOE should be learning from as well. So, it has to be informed on both ends. It is not just a one-size-fits-all situation.
We also have to recognize that consent-based siting has already been done, for a very long time. Everyone keeps pushing the international stories of success in consent-based siting, but we have domestic examples of consent-based siting — we just haven’t been calling it that.
While this is a new term that we’re using, since 2012, we’re actually not starting fresh, but we’re building off of precedent. One example is the Facility Siting Credo, something written decades ago at MIT that paved the way for consent-based siting.
But how does a community communicate consent? That is always going to be specific to the community. I’m a proud Kansas kid, and my small town may not have a city council, or have a mayor. There will be times where it’ll be a town hall, or a referendum, or a handshake agreement, or a legal document establishing consent-based siting. These are all opportunities for communities to demonstrate that they know what they’re getting into.
How will DOE know when it’s gotten the level of consent it needs to actually go ahead and start building an interim storage site in a community?
Again, if we all intrinsically know what consent feels like, now, the government is going to have to make sure that we can measure that consent in some way. But, that’s going to look different for each community. For some communities, it may look like signed consent-based siting agreement — an agreement negotiated between the Department of Energy and that community and signed on the dotted line. That may be one path to success.
Another path is a community saying, ‘this does not align with my goals, and I would no longer like to participate.’ That off ramp is also a success, because we are not wasting resources on unworkable solutions. That’s the best way I can describe it.
So, success for DOE doesn’t necessarily mean you find a willing host community?
Absolutely. Both are successful, because we have used the resources that Congress directed to us in the best possible way, and we have made sure that communities have built capacity, they have understood the risks and benefits and that they are meeting their community goals.
In the event that a community comes forward, then DOE actually has to build an interim storage site. What will that facility actually look like? Will it be monitored retrievable storage as outlined in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, or will it be something different?
This is a really good question. I know that I keep saying that it depends on the community, but it really does.
There’s this idea of co-development and co-design. We know what we need. We have a national need for centralized interim storage facilities, and we will have to get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will dictate what that facility will look like. But, we can co-design and co-develop portions of that facility with the community in mind.
If the community says, as an example, they would like a 10 foot brick wall put between a highway and the facility, we could consider that as co-design and development. So, the finished facility will not necessarily look like the rendering that you may see DOE using in our promotional materials. We don’t know exactly what the host community is going to want. It will generally be a centralized interim storage facility, which will likely have the concrete pads on which dry storage casks will be placed, but we do not know what other types of facilities will be needed.
The goal is going to be to get centralized interim storage facilities up and operational as fast as can be done safely and securely. We are already decades behind schedule, And the goal is to now make sure that we do it right, and not too simply.
I mentioned NWPA earlier and the legal basis for interim storage. Under current law, how far can DOE go with its interim storage inquiry? Can you find a willing host and then inform Congress that you’ve found an interim storage site?
This is a good question that we don’t have all the answers to yet. We are still trying to figure out how far we can go. At this point, we are starting the consent based setting process. Some say that we would not be able to receive a license under current law, and some say that we would not be able to start construction. We’re still having conversations on what that process will look like.
At this point, all I can say is we are starting with the consent-based siting process, and we will go as far as we can go, but we still will need congressional direction to continue.
So, you’re saying that federal law doesn’t say in certain terms how far you can go?
Exactly. There’s still ambiguity.
And what is DOE doing to resolve that ambiguity?
Along with our general counsel and a variety of others, we are looking into our options to move forward. We recognize there’s ambiguity, and we want to make sure that we are following the letter of the law while still moving forward with this process.
Let’s talk a bit about the interim storage funding opportunity DOE unveiled recently. The department is taking applications until Dec. 19. After that, what’s next?
In mid-December, the funding opportunity announcement will complete, we will then review those applications. The goal isn’t to get a million applications, or two applications. It’s not about the number, it’s about the quality. We want to make sure that we are helping to build capacity.
After we review the applications, we will send dollars out the door to communities in early 2023. That’s the goal, obviously, but who knows what will happen? At that point, communities will start their period of performance, which is 18 to 24 months.
After those 18 to 24, though, what happens?
In a short time, we will be releasing our updated consent-based siting process document. We’re very, very close to that. There are other agencies who have to review it, and they may not be as fast as we want to be. I am hoping to get this updated process out within a month or two.
The updated consent-based siting process will describe next steps after the first funding opportunity announcement, which is actually the second part of our first phase. The process will be updated as we go along over the next two years, because we want to let the communities who are engaging with us help dictate part of the process.
Assuming that it somewhat follows the path we set up, the next step would be a call for volunteers, and further funding opportunity announcements. You can expect that call is coming.
Let’s change gears here and talk about Yucca Mountain. Nevada Gov. Sisolak last week asked NRC to re-open its Yucca Mountain licensing proceedings so that he could move to shut the review down for good. Will that involve your office? Will DOE be involved if the proceedings are re-opened?
It’s a great question. Yes, it will involve my office. Because it is an active legal conversation, I don’t have much more to say, because DOE’s lawyers are reviewing it. It’s currently under review, but it does involve me. I look forward to talking with you more about it in the future.
I want to go back and talk about your role at DOE. What sort of plans do you have for engaging with the community as that door-to-door salesman for interim storage?
I think it’s really critical that the conversation move beyond what I call the same suspects. We have to recognize that everyone should be given the opportunity to consider the safe and secure management of spent nuclear fuel. It’s not only a risk, it comes with benefits. But, those benefits have to be tailored to the needs of the communities.
That’s why part of our funding opportunity announcement is all about mapping community goals, because community goals should be met while also meeting the national goal of safe and secure management of spent nuclear fuel.
I’m actually really excited. I’m a kid from Kansas, but I went to graduate school at MIT and I worked at a start-up in Berkeley. The country is my oyster, and now I get to go around and make sure that as many people as possible understand what we’re trying to do.
I also believe that this process is setting the stage for so many other big energy issues that also have siting challenges. What we learn about consent-based siting of interim storage could be widely applicable, from renewable energy siting to transmission line and infrastructure siting. Consent-based siting is only the latest iteration of this process. I am only the latest messenger for a long conversation. That makes it a lot easier to have the conversation in the first place.
I’m curious about the ‘usual suspects’ you mentioned just now. Who are they, and who are you trying to engage outside of that group?
The usual suspects in nuclear waste management are groups like industry, which has obviously had a lot of conversations around this issue. There are, of course, energy communities, who have dealt with national labs and nuclear waste management for a long time, and not necessarily always of their own volition. There are communities that have decommissioned plants, and places we have considered siting nuclear waste management facilities in the past.
Those are all communities that I will continue to have great conversations with, but they’re also the typical suspects.
I think we have to think beyond those groups if we’re ever going to have enough people who care about nuclear waste. Let me connect this to my personal life. In the LGBTQ+ equality movement, we learned really early on that we needed allyship. We needed individuals who did not look or think or talk like us to be able to help us get the same rights and responsibilities as everybody else.
The same has to be said for nuclear waste siting. We have to make sure that we are finding unlikely allies. Individuals who maybe have not thought about spent nuclear fuel and don’t know what it looks like, but they have a lot of land with nobody around. We can do capacity building and education, so that more people raise their hand when we ask for volunteers.
My goal for this process is to make the best test prep in the world. We are preparing for as many people as possible to come forward and ask to be part of the process.
I want to talk about representation. You’ve acknowledged that you may be one of the first openly gender non-binary individuals in a senior government role. What does that mean to you?
It’s been really exciting to be able to represent a community that hasn’t been well-represented. I’m a new voice at the table, an unlikely ally. But, I’ve been clear that it’s not just my identity, but also all of my academic and technical background on the subject that makes me a good candidate.
That’s part of what is really exciting to me. I get to be a first, but I won’t be the last. I’m one of the first individuals to have my gender listed as ‘X’ on my clearance. I will be one of the first individuals to use ‘Mx.’ as my honorific in all of my official correspondence.
I’m helping educate a lot of individuals about a new community. But, I know that I’m doing it from a place of privilege and from an academic place of privilege, because I know a lot of what there is to know when it comes to nuclear waste management.
There have been a lot of awful things that have been said about me, and that’s been tough. People have asked me, how in the world does it feel to be like a first in those kinds of ways? That feeling is terrifying, because you don’t have a kind of north star to guide you, and your north star becomes the confidence that you know what you’re talking about in your role.
I know you’ve been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ issues, and you’ve done work with organizations like the Trevor Project, aimed at preventing suicide among LQBTQ+ folks. Will you continue that advocacy in your role at DOE?
I won’t be working with the Trevor Project. I will still do LGBT activism on my own, in my personal time. To be very clear, I can only do so much, because I am a member of the Senior Executive Service, and we have specific regulations.
Most of my activism is now going to be my mere existence. I’ve met with so many students and I have received hundreds upon hundreds of cards and messages from trans and non binary young people who say they can’t wait to grow up to be a nuclear engineer, just like Sam.
If that’s the new stereotype for trans folks, I am totally okay with it. I am ready for us to all be nuclear engineers who change the world.
Of course, in the weeks and months leading up to your ultimate hiring, your identity became a target in the public forum. Can you tell me a bit about what that was like?
Yeah, it was difficult. The timing of these things is always difficult, and I didn’t understand government timing, to be frank. I assumed the hiring process would be short, the way it is in private industry. But it took significantly longer than that. So, lesson learned there.
There was a lot of backlash, and there were a lot of people who believed I was unqualified. Thankfully, if you look at the social media, almost 90% of the people who came forward said I was not only qualified, but significantly passionate about this topic.
It wasn’t even just the LGBT community coming to my defense and saying these things, it was the nuclear community. It was on the front page of Reddit and so many other places. People were saying, ‘this is a person who is so comfortable in their own skin, and good at their technical work, and we’re excited to see them get the role.’
It was a long process. I think the hiring process for anyone in government is long and arduous. And now, I can mentor people to let them know, based on my challenges, just how difficult it can be.
After you initially announced you had been hired by DOE, an anonymous agency employee alleged there had been improper practices used in the decision to bring you on board. Can you respond to that charge?
The allegation was never brought to me directly, and is currently sitting with the Inspector General of the Office of Personnel Management. I am excited to be able to serve, and I’m glad to say that clearly the allegation was found to not be relevant, because I am currently serving and proudly doing so.
Lastly, here’s a question that I’ve posed to myself as a nuclear waste reporter, and that I pose to you now as one of the issue’s leading stewards: why would anyone devote their entire adult life to nuclear waste?
Oh, I love the topic of nuclear waste management. I eat sleep, breathe, it, it’s my passion. My husband is a painter, and half of the paintings in our home have something to do with this issue, because all I do is talk about it.
Why? Because it is the definition of a wicked problem. It is a problem that isn’t going to be solved by a silver bullet or a perfect lightning strike. It’s going to take time and effort.
I live for a challenge. I live for the ability to be able to break down a stereotype, to show an individual my perspective, and then build a joint perspective together. That is something that the nuclear waste issue allows me to do.
There is nothing wrong with spending a career building the next nuclear reactor. Those are amazing careers, but I want to spend my career in nuclear waste management, because it is not going to be the one where people say, ‘oh, yeah, we fixed that already, right?’ Nope!
There is no one who believes that I have a simple task ahead of me. A lot of people have said, ‘you have a lot of enthusiasm for something that is so depressing.’ My response to that is that I don’t have decades of being told ‘no.’ I’m fresh-eyed in this arena, even after a decade of working on nuclear waste.
That’s the great part for me. I didn’t have this experience where politics dictated that I should choose or not choose a specific site. Instead, I come from a startup, a spectacular academic background and a passion for policy and advocacy. That gives me the opportunity to say we can solve this problem.
That hope, plus the challenge of the issue, ugh, nuclear waste all day, every day. Give me this space, anytime.