Earth Day 2021: Fashion waste is out of control. Could nuclear power help?
When I first received Rickey Ruff’s email, I was flummoxed. “We are deploying Micro Nuclear Reactors at clothing factories around the world to displace oil, coal, and gas, bringing fashion production to net-zero carbon emissions,” his pitch read.
That’s right, a man named Rickey Ruff wants to outfit every single one of the what he describes as more than 8,000 fashion suppliers worldwide — chemical manufacturers, dye houses, garment factories — with their own personal, miniature nuclear reactor. (According to the Open Apparel Registry, there are more than 55,000 known fashion suppliers worldwide.)
On its face, this seems like a terrible idea. Every week there seems to be another deadly fire, flood, or collapse in a garment factory (or a building illegally housing one). Myanmar’s garment factories are currently being smashed and set on fire by citizens rebelling against the military coup. If garment factories can’t even keep their boilers from exploding, why would we trust them with a nuclear reactor?
Also: Most of the factories I’ve worked with still had AOL and Hotmail emails. Good luck with a mini nuclear reactor
— Peter Nguyen (@theessentialman) March 23, 2021
I wasn’t alone in this assessment. “If you can’t solve a problem, make it bigger, right?” says Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director at the advocacy group Stand.earth.
These micronuclear reactors aren’t even here yet. Several startups and companies are promising they’ll have an operational microreactor by the end of this decade, and the Pentagon has asked two companies to submit designs for what they’re calling portable nuclear power plants, which could be quickly installed at remote army locations. That’s not necessarily a recommendation. The Army has a very recent history of spending billions of its seemingly limitless budget on technology that it’s never actually used.
But after the president of Apparel Impact Institute (AII), Lewis Perkins, had a laugh with me, he got serious. “The concept is certainly in the ballpark of where we need to be,” he says. “Without disruptive innovation, the industry is not going to meet their science-based targets by 2030.”
The thing is, the fashion industry does far more toxic and dangerous things every single day than run a small nuclear reactor. I couldn’t get Ruff’s idea out of my head, as strange as it seemed at first. So yeah, I’ll bite. What is “micronuclear?” Who is Rickey Ruff? And is this idea … feasible?
Pollute now, apologize later
The fashion industry is well aware that it needs to overhaul its operations. It’s estimated to be responsible for around 5 percent of global carbon emissions, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which includes Reformation, H&M, Zara, Patagonia, Levi’s, Walmart, and Boohoo, has set for its members a target of 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030.
Exactly how they will achieve this is remarkably fuzzy. While fashion brands have made a big deal about purchasing wind power for their corporate headquarters and swapping lightbulbs in their stores, upward of 90 percent of total emissions for most brands and retailers come from so-called Scope 3 emissions, and roughly 80 percent of these emissions come from the supply chain where apparel and footwear are made, according to a soon-to-be-published report co-authored by AII, which identifies and scales decarbonization projects in the fashion industry, and World Resources Institute (WRI).
Almost all fashion suppliers are located in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and Turkey, which are powered by coal, and research by Stand.earth shows a dramatic increase in the number of new coal power plants planned in these countries. Renewable energy is getting cheaper all the time, but it has some serious limitations, one being space. Arvind Limited, a large Indian textile manufacturer, has covered all its available roof space with solar panels. At 16.2 megawatts, it’s the largest industrial solar plant in India, yet maxes out at only 14 percent of Arvind’s electricity needs.
Textile fabrication and coloration are particularly energy and emissions-intensive. Dye houses and laundries need thermal energy to run their boilers. “You have to burn something in order to get the water temperature hot enough to do its job,” says Perkins. “Solar will not do it. Geothermal will not do it.” That “something” is usually cheap, abundant coal or, when it’s available, natural gas, which is only slightly better. “The alternative sometimes is to burn forests,” Perkins says.
Biomass, or plant-based agricultural waste, could be one solution, and Perkins says AII is looking into running a pilot in Vietnam using rice husks. But according to Abhishek Bansal, head of sustainability at Arvind, a boiler can only incorporate up to 30 percent biomass. It’s also not emissions-free, just low-emissions compared to coal. Plus, as an agricultural product, it’s only seasonally available, and there are concerns that there could be unintended consequences, similar to what biofuel did to global food prices. Arvind is also trying new waterless indigo dying technology for some of its denim. If that could be applied to all of its textiles, that could potentially reduce boiler use by half. Potentially.
There’s now solar thermal energy coming to market that could boil water, but it’s expensive. “To get rid of coal at our facility, we have to look at the order of magnitude of a $100 million investment,” Bansal says. (For context, Arvind’s reported annual revenue in March 2020 was about $900 million.)
So, is there any brand that will hit its emissions reduction target? “It’s really hard to tell, because you don’t see too many companies clearly disclose how they’re doing against their targets,” says Michael Sadowski, a fashion and climate research consultant to WRI. “If I had to guess, I would say no one is on track for Scope 3 targets. And, you know, because these brands have so many suppliers … yeah.” He sighs. “It’s not easy to decarbonize.”
The call to greatness
The website for Global Nuclear Concepts, as Ruff’s venture is called, has an epic video of him on the top of a mountain gazing into the distance. It also solicits financial contributions to the cause, which he markets as carbon offsets. But it’s short on details.
So I emailed him back and asked for an interview. He called in from Colorado, where he grew up and where he’s been remotely working during the pandemic. He wore a collared sweatshirt with a stylized Ruff embroidered on the chest for our interview.
Ruff is unlike anyone else I’ve met in the sustainable fashion space. A former football player, he calls himself an industrialist, and cites Barack Obama and Google’s Sergey Brin as his inspirations, plus Gilded Age titans JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
But he also is very much in love with fashion. “I started in fashion as a 7-year-old kid with a sewing machine,” he says. “I was very sure since I was born almost that I was going to be in this industry. I feel uniquely called to work in it and advance it.”
While getting an undergraduate degree in fashion design and merchandising from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, he spent his senior year in Hong Kong, where he met a Ralph Lauren employee who told him to apply to intern in New York. “I just remember sitting in the room during orientation. It’s myself and about 50 or 60 other interns, and I just want this more than anyone in this room. Honestly, I imagine that’s what love at first sight feels like, where this passion just erupted inside of me.” Within a month, he was offered a paid position.
Seven years later, he had worked his way up to leading a team to launch new manufacturing software across the company. He’s rhapsodic about his time at Ralph Lauren, but decided to take a couple years to get his MBA in international management in Switzerland.
It was there that he did a case study on nuclear energy and fell in love with its possibilities. He has a personal connection as well; his mother worked for Cold War Patriots, helping connect former uranium miners and nuclear weapons workers with health care and cash compensation from the government. Surprisingly, her experience led her to support her son’s mission, because, he says, she saw firsthand the safety strides the industry made after the 1970s.
Ruff is also different from typical sustainability advocates who are calling for a stop to the growth mindset of the fashion industry. “I think that’s where past efforts with sustainability have failed, because they’re asking people to do less and be less and have less,” he says. “I’m not trying to use less. I’m just trying to make more.”
Ruff sees nuclear power as the leapfrog technology that will allow developing countries to grow their entire economies with clean energy. When he heard about modular nuclear reactors, factory-built plants that can fit on the back of an 18-wheeler and be assembled on-site, like Legos, the idea clicked into place.
“A huge plant was sort of a long-range goal and out of the question at the moment,” Ruff says. “But if we look at the energy needs to run a factory, that’s something that a micronuclear reactor could absolutely facilitate.”
In that, he is correct. While a traditional nuclear power plant produces 1,000 megawatts, these micronuclear reactors could provide anywhere from 1 to 300 MW of energy. A typical fashion industrial park would require a 5 MW to 100 MW power plant, according to An Zhou, AII’s senior technical director.
Some of these modular reactors are fueled with nuclear waste, another appealing aspect to the eco crowd. And they’re safe! At least one of the startups, X-Energy, uses technology that has been declared by researchers as meltdown-proof. That is, you could not have a Chernobyl or Fukushima if you tried, so you can situate it right next to whatever you’re trying to power: a remote community in Alaska that has been flying in diesel, an island whose power grid was wiped out by a natural disaster, or, Ruff is hoping, a large factory or industrial park.
(That description not sexy enough? I encourage you to go learn more about modular nuclear reactors from model and recently turned nuclear influencer Isabelle Boemeke. It’s a soothing ASMR video, enjoy.)
Ruff says he’s been in conversation with micronuclear companies and factories in China, Vietnam, and South Korea that are interested in the technology. But he’s not a full-time startup founder … yet. He’s currently the senior global manager of global brand processing operations for Adidas and will hopefully be moving to Shanghai this spring for the role. He says Adidas is cool with his side hustle as long as he doesn’t leverage their name. Which to be clear, he didn’t. It’s just right there at the top of his LinkedIn page when you look him up, as I did.
“The thing is, I am seriously, unashamedly promoting the use of nuclear power. I really believe in it as an environmental tool,” he says. “And I know that it can be divisive.”
Okay, but would this wild idea work?
“It’s a good idea,” Watson says. He sees microreactors as a neat solution for the problem of onsite thermal energy for boilers. “That’s where I think these plants will come into their own.”
And, shocker, nuclear energy is actually quite safe. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about nuclear, about how dangerous it is,” says David Watson, a nuclear safety engineer from the UK who advocates for nuclear energy via his magazine, Generation Atomic. “When you start delving into the statistics around safety of nuclear, people are always very surprised.”
For example, 30 people died immediately from Chernobyl, and estimates of people who died later due to cancer caused by the accident range from 4,000 to 60,000. (It’s hard to connect cancer to any one cause.) Air pollution from fossil fuels, like the kind that comes from dye houses burning coal for their boilers, currently kills 7 million people a year worldwide. “Fossil fuels going right kills more people than when nuclear goes wrong,” Watson says.
The question of nuclear waste is somewhat unresolved, mainly because it needs to be safely stored for thousands of years. But, what we have of it is minuscule and not leaking into the environment like, say, toxic wastewater from dye houses. “People think there’s a waste problem, but fossil fuels are the waste problem,” Watson says. “It all goes out of the chimney. That reactor doesn’t release any waste in an environment. It’s all completely controlled. It’s the only industry that does that.”
Plus, Watson says that with these modular nuclear reactors being buried underground, security is a low concern. “If you want to make a weapon, there’s a much easier way of doing it just by taking fuel from a mine and enriching it yourself.”
Still, that doesn’t mean we can give out mini nuclear plants to factories like Oprah giving goodies to her audience. “If this was going to happen in the fashion industry, I would expect to see it in Europe or the United States,” Watson says. “It’s not that Bangladesh couldn’t have it, because Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India are all building nuclear plants. And at that level, they have the human resources and the technical capability to do it. But in terms of like putting it into a small-ish factory in the outskirts of a city, they’re probably not there yet.”
As you may have noticed, nuclear power is politically untenable in many countries right now, including Germany and Italy. In others, like the United States, it’s a delicate conversation that the Biden administration is currently navigating. “If we’re talking China, it’s definitely possible. They’re building like 50 nuclear plants right now,” Watson says. “I think it’s something that could work in the long run. I certainly believe this kind of technology will eventually be everywhere.”
The voices in the environmental movement advocating for nuclear energy have been growing louder. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advocates for nuclear energy as a crucial strategy for staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and documents leaked in late March show that advisers to the EU say it qualifies as sustainable energy.
So, micronuclear is safe, it’s politically feasible in China, the world’s largest manufacturer of fashion, and it would be a tidy fix to fashion’s most troublesome climate impacts. What’s the catch?
A luxury energy product
Now we get to a more mundane consideration: cost.
Watson says the only price he’s seen for this new technology is for the startup Oklo’s demo microreactor, which in renderings looks like the kind of futuristic A-frame mountain lodge you would rent on Airbnb. It will generate 1.5 MW — equivalent to one wind turbine — and cost $10 million to build and $3 million a year to run.
That is a lot of money. It’s the kind of money that only, say, the Defense Department for a highly militarized world power would consider spending on power. “The price will need to come down by orders of magnitude,” Ruff admits. “But it’s coming down with all the competition in the market,” he adds.
Everyone else I talked to agrees that the fashion industry is too miserly to invest not only in this technology, but most clean technology. Brands shop around to factories for the lowest price, and then they shop around to countries, moving from the US to Mexico to China to Bangladesh and now Ethiopia. “If these garment companies really cared that much about their emissions, they’d have the factories in their own country,” Watson points out.
Factories are faced with the prospect of investing in a solar array with a payback of 15 years, and seeing their main customer switch to another factory with cheaper prices not long after. Why on earth would they throw down $10 million for a microreactor? “Factories are pretty antiquated places,” Sadowski says. “Like, I wouldn’t start by deploying micronuclear; I would start by actually closing the windows.”
(A few large brands like Levi’s and H&M are doing just that by funding efficiency assessments of factories through AII and their own programs. But they are in the minority.)
“We have other things that show they can scale, they’re available now — a mixture of renewable energy, with solar, wind in some places, geothermal, etc,” Cook says. “And if you can combine that with storage that’s beating fossil fuels, let’s do that. Because it’s ready to go.”
Cook thinks brands should provide financing to factories for renewable upgrades, or follow the tech industry’s lead and commit to large renewable energy projects that can feed an entire industrial park.
“Electronics is signing world-record deals for wind in South Asia and in Taiwan,” he says. “Because they made commitments — Apple, Google, Facebook — utilities are now shifting their investments, they’re dumping coal like crazy, they’re starting to stop building gas plants, and investing in the renewables their customers want.”
We have yet to see the same commitments from H&M, Zara, Walmart, and Nike. Just strongly worded letters to Cambodia and Vietnam telling them to stop building coal plants. Pretty please.
Despite all the promises the fashion industry has made, it hasn’t engaged with the issue of its climate impact with any real seriousness. And now Rickey Ruff is calling their bluff with a technology that could do it if there were enough willpower and funding.
“I’ve been working in the private sector for 20 years,” says Sadowski, who most recently was on Nike’s sustainable innovation team. “I thought the private sector had to do it, because the government wasn’t going to do it. But I don’t see how we get there without government intervention. Without the right regulatory signal, there’s only so much a company’s gonna do; it just doesn’t pencil out on a financial perspective. And frankly, you need that regulatory framework to stimulate innovation.”
When I bring up all these concerns to Ruff, he is undeterred. “You’re totally right, it is a heavy lift. It’s a lifetime mission,” he says. “I’m in the storytelling phase to get the vision out there. But I think with the proper support, though, it’s absolutely not impossible.”
He grins at me. “I’m very much an optimist if you can’t tell.”