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Enriching Uranium Understanding

James Krellenstein

Monday, November 20, 2023

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to decouple. Today I'm joined by Jacabo Bongorno, who is a TEPCO professor of nuclear engineering at MIT Jacobo, and I had the pleasure of meeting each other. At the MIT. I'm going to blank on the name of this, but it was a nuclear education workshop. Do you remember what it was called the hacker boy, imagine you do is you organize it. It's a course


Speaker 1  0:20  

on nuclear energy in a carbon constrained world facts. And he shows I think that's the official title of the course. It's a three day program that you and 60 other people attended to learn about basic facts and issues about nuclear energy,


Dr. Chris Keefer  0:38  

I did get a participation medal that I'm very proud of. It's like, you know, a little certification, I felt quite proud of that. It's not quite framed in the office next to my medical degree. But I think it's, you know, the first kind of formal training that I have a nuclear. So that was great. Thank you for the invitation. And it was good times.


Unknown Speaker  0:55  

It was great to see you there.


Dr. Chris Keefer  0:57  

That is a bare bones introduction. You've got a long and storied and fascinating career. So just take a minute or two, just to introduce yourself a little bit further to the audience. Yeah. Thanks,


Speaker 1  1:10  

Chris. First of all, thanks for having me here. It's great to reconnect, I look forward to the conversation. So as you said, I'm on the faculty in the department of Nuclear Science and Engineering here at MIT, I've been at the Institute for close to 20 years, all my background is in nuclear engineering, I grew up as you may gather from my last name and my accent in Italy. I did my undergraduate studies there in nuclear engineering, then I came over the US for my doctorate, and I realized job opportunities here in my field were much better and decided to stay. I, you know, in the course of my career, of course, as a professor, you teach, but you also do research. So I started my research program with topics that are fairly narrow, specialized on the thermal hydraulics, you know, basically the the ability of a fluid to transfer energy from the core of a nuclear reactor to other parts of the plant, and starting with my students really sorted the details of those physical phenomena. And then roughly 10 years ago, I progressively started to shift towards more technical economic analyses of, of nuclear technologies. So to boil it down in one sentence, what is it going to take for nuclear energy technologies will have an impact on the big challenges that we're facing as humanity in the 21st century?


Dr. Chris Keefer  2:30  

Well, that's definitely the focus of our podcast. So it's great to have you on to discuss that just briefly. You are from Italy, Italy, has a nuclear ban as a result of a referendum right after Chernobyl. I've heard that there's a reconsideration going on right now, probably with the impact of the the energy crisis, but just briefly, do you have any updates for us on what's happening in Italy?


Speaker 1  2:51  

Yeah, there seems to be a resurgence of interest at the highest level, actually, the Prime Minister and several members of our cabinet have expressed the desire for Italy to reconsider nuclear fission as part of one of the future energy technologies, I've actually been invited to a workshop with, with, with some politicians, as well as members of industry that would presumably participate in a, you know, resurrected nuclear energy program in the US, and that's going to happen in a couple of weeks. So when I come back, I'll be able to tell you more, what generally concerns me about leaving, you know, being born there and grew up there is politically not very stable country, decisions are made. And then you know, a new government, or a new administration comes in and the decisions are reversed. So what's lacking in Italy, and unfortunately, many other countries, this sort of long term stability of decision making, which I think is one of the premises for nuclear energy programs to be successful, particularly of the type of the traditional types. And when you're looking at large scale reactors that require a decade or so from, from the from the time you start planning, and then licensing, and then building and all of that. So. So that's one point of concerns. But it's certainly good to see that in Italy, as well as many other countries now there is a, you know, a graph of all the interest for nuclear and, and hopefully something good will come out of it. So,


Dr. Chris Keefer  4:25  

you know, listen, I think the anti nuclear arguments have shifted, not entirely, but largely away from fear, uncertainty and doubt around radiation and accidents, obviously, still a big preoccupation with waste. But I think the most compelling arguments that they're making and the loudest ones these days have to do with the costs and schedule challenges of nuclear, particularly in the West. And that's an area of interest for you. We were just talking about this report, the future of nuclear energy in a carbon constrained world. And that was the focus of the talk you gave at MIT and why I'm excited to talk to you today. You know, a big theme As obviously, the regional differences, that was a slide of yours that really stood out, just comparing the the kind of cost per kilowatt, you know, in the West versus in Asia and Russia, you know, and we're gonna break this down in a lot more detail. But that all was that hasn't always been the case, obviously, the West did deploy, I think in a fairly cost competitive manner to contemporary deployments in the East and in Russia. But what do you see as the the big explainer there, in terms of the skills that the West has lost?


Speaker 1  5:34  

Well, quite simply, what has happened is that the nuclear industry in the US and Western Europe did not build nuclear power plants for between 20 and 30 years in the US for literally 30 years in, in some countries in in Europe for a little bit shorter than that. And during that period, a lot of capabilities that are necessary for new nuclear power plants to be build cost effectively and on time on schedule. Or last. This was obviously not the case. And in countries that have continuously been growing their nuclear capacity, I'm thinking, of course of South Korea and China, above all, but also Russia and other regions of the world. And if you look at the schedule, and a cost associated with those projects in those other countries, you can see that, you know, they've managed to keep it quiet, quite reasonable. So I think it's been, you know, the main culprit for, for the poor performance of the new construction projects that we have witnessed that we have observed in the US and Western Europe for the past decade is really these long hours during which a lot of capabilities in terms of supply chain workforce, the ability to manage large sprawling construction, sites with 1000s of workers, etc. Those capabilities were lost. So I


Dr. Chris Keefer  6:53  

mean, beyond that, I think that's, you know, probably the most consequential and the most obvious, but in terms of getting into a little more detail and subtlety. It seems to me that the successful contemporary programs are often state letter significant role of the state and often more of an in a vertical integration model. Do you feel like that's something that was present? I mean, I know in Ontario, we had a collaboration between atomic energy of Canada's limited and Ontario Hydro, you know, utility and essentially construction companies kind of how it was referred to despite being primarily utility. But do you see that as being a major issue? I know, in the US, there's an aversion, I think, to government involvement, in terms of, you know, having a National Industrial Policy centered around nuclear, it's more, I think, kind of reactive in terms of the loan program office looking at financing projects, but in no way sort of coordinating or directing them. What are your thoughts on that theme?


Speaker 1  7:50  

Well, that's that's a great question, Chris. I don't think the issue was lack of government involvement. I mean, the government certainly here in the US did certain, took certain actions that actually help sort of recreate an interest then and promote the construction of the nuclear power plants and thinking particularly about the nuclear power 2010 program in the first decade, of the 21st century. And then the loan guarantee program, which has actually been used by by the projects down in the south, Vogel being the one that was actually eventually completed. But it but you put your finger on a very important topic, and that is how these projects were structured, in the West, particularly in the United States. And how does that differ from the way they're typically structured, in places where those projects are completed on time and on budget, like South Korea, China, Russia, etc. So in those countries, these projects tend to be a lot more vertically integrated. The company that designs that develops the technology designs, the plant, builds, the plant often is the same company that actually owns and operates the plant. And what that does is from the very beginning, you have the fabricators and constructors, the supply chain, very much integrated in the design team. So what that does, it ensures that whatever is design of the reactor, or the plant that is designed is constructible. And that's hugely important, because once you sort of pulled the trigger, and you decide to launch your project, and you start to deploy 5000 workers and you open this prolly construction site, well, the clock starts to tick and the money starts to flow. And the last thing you want is to have sort of a back and forth between the technology developer and the constructor to sort of finalize the design the the needy, greedy, detailed design down to the blueprints that are required to actually build the plant. So you want all that work to be done, and be officially done and agreed upon the different parties up front. And that, if you look at the way they do things in in those countries is done very well, because there is that integrated team that is formed from the very beginning. In the US, if you look at the projects down in, you know, in Georgia and South Carolina was not done that way at all, you had a technology developer, Weston gals, and you had constructors, and then you had a utility that was the ultimate, the ultimate customers. And there are several instances in which components and systems for the AP 1000, which is that, you know, the the model of the reactor that was built here, in which they were designed by Westinghouse, and then pass that design was passed through the supply and supplier could not make it cannot deliver it, because they're not being sort of integrated in that in that design process from the very beginning. So that that coordination is absolutely important. So the way the way is structured, does make does make a difference. The other facet of this crisis is also all parties within the team must have similar incentives for the success of the project. And, you know, I'm not an expert on this, I'm not a, you know, a contract specialist. And I'd never managed myself, you know, mega projects. But it seems to me that all the parties, all the companies involved within these projects, must march align coordinated fashion towards the successful completion of the project, when I say successfully means on budget, and on time, and there must be rewards for everybody to meet that target. And that's that was not by my observation and the observation of others, the case for the projects in the United States, where you could argue that some parties would actually have any incentive in stretching the duration of the project, because they were making more money out of that, you know, reworks, and things of that type. And so that that can't be the case. And I think, in Asia, it's not the case they clearly have because it's essentially one integrated team. They they march along, or they march along efficiently.


Dr. Chris Keefer  12:17  

So one of the elements of the report is is kind of a cost breakdown of nuclear construction. And it seems like the actual nuclear supply system steam supply system is not the major cause. So how does that break down? Because I think in your report, there's a kind of de emphasis on reactor design, and you know, an advocacy for more of a focus on constructability. Yeah,


Speaker 1  12:41  

in a way that reason, I have to tell you, it's a little bit frustrating, because as a nuclear engineer, there is nothing more entertaining and gratifying than coming up with beautiful new reactor designs, right, we love to work on fuels, and moderators and coolants, and control systems and operating conditions and all that that's the fun part for nuclear engineers. But it was a little bit of an epiphany for me, and I think many other members of the team when, during the study, through interviews and and analyzing the breakdown of the costs for this project, we realized that only 20 to 25% of the total capital costs, basically the cost of building the plan is associated with the direct cost of the equipment, you know, the vessels, the pipes, the control rods, the support, and all of that. And the and so that's, you can do your best job with that, but it's not going to move more than a quarter of the total cost. In turn, what we found is that roughly half of the cost is in the actual installation, if you will, of the of the of the reactor itself. And what we mean by that we mean the site preparation, all this conditional work that has to be done all the Civil Works associated with building a nuclear power plant, which mostly means erecting concrete structures and for the nuclear Island, erecting reinforced concrete Nuclear Grade structures or Nuclear Grade reinforced concrete structures, and all the labor associated with it all the site oversight associated with it, that's where the bulk of the cost is roughly half of it is there, then you look at the other sort of quarter left there. And that's roughly divided in two parts. One is the engineering, the engineer the design and engineering part, which, you know, largely is done. In fact, awfully is done almost entirely upfront, and largely is site independent, but there is always some site dependent site specific engineering work that has to be done. And that's, by the way, another sort of downside of the current approach is that there is no such thing as a truly standardized nuclear power plant, unfortunately, because if you put it at site A versus Site B, at a minimum, you got to deal with the differences in peak ground acceleration with the seismic profile at that particular site, as well as any other sort of external hazards. But, but the point being that the engineering cost is roughly maybe 12 15%. And that's so that's also significant. And then lastly, you have what what I would call owner or what we called owners costs. And so these are things like the cost of the land insurance. Now, if and this is sort of overnight construction cost breakdown, if you then pick up or you put on top of it, also the financing, which really means interest during construction, then the share of the total cost that is not directly related to the reactor itself to the equipment to the design of the of the reactor itself becomes even larger. So the implication of all of this, Chris, is that if we want to reduce the cost of these plants, we need to attack those cost drivers. It's not enough to have a better mousetrap, you know, a more a more clever nuclear reactor design, what you really need to attack are some fairly mundane things like how do I build large reinforced concrete structures at lower cost? And how do we manage the you know, how do I manage the construction site that are in all of them?


Dr. Chris Keefer  16:18  

So I definitely want to chat about some of the nitty gritty of that. And you know, some of the advances in terms of steel, bricks and opportunities for modularization. But first, I want to get a sense of whether or not I mean, you think that there's something uniquely hard or special about nuclear construction versus hydro dams, bridges, airports, all of them have specialized needs and quirks. But would you say nuclear construction is unique in some way or uniquely difficult, I mean, regulatory environments tough, but what what's your take,


Speaker 1  16:48  

I will say 80%. Similar. And and, and so two observations here, as part of the study, we quickly reviewed, what is the productivity of different sectors of the economy in the United States, right. And we found that the productivity, you can define that as you know, value in terms of dollars per hour per hour worked, okay. And we found that the productivity in the construction sector actually peaked in the mid 1960s, in the United States, and then has been declining steadily since then. By contrast, the productivity for example, the manufacturing sector, which means factories, as skyrocket has gone up by a factor of eight or 10, over the same period of time. So now, who builds nuclear power plants? Well, the components, the individual pieces may be made in factories. And we can argue if you know, our factories are efficient, they seem to be efficient. As you get to large components, they're not the factories that make the iPhones or factories that make, you know, millions of pieces per year. So they might not actually be as efficient as the average manufacturer, in fact, but the bulk of the plant these built by the construction sector, and the construction sector, unfortunately, is not a very, very productive, very productive environment. So that is independent of nuclear. And, and so that's something to ponder on. So do we want the manufacturing sector to build nuclear plants or we want the construction sector now, inevitably, will be a combination of both, but at the moment is heavily skewed towards construction, and not manufacturing. And I think if we want to see costs decline in the US, we need to probably shift scope, larger shares at the scope of the project towards towards manufacturing, that so the second observation is that when projects become of a certain size, what people in the literature call mega projects. And I forgot what the exact definition is, I think he used to be greater than a billion dollars now a billion dollar now he's no longer what it used to be maybe 10 years ago, so let's say greater than three or $4 billion, but when it becomes a large infrastructure projects, with multiple stakeholders, multiple companies involved, a tough regulatory environment, all of that, then whether it's nuclear and non nuclear, these statistics quite clearly show that these projects tend to be chronically late and experience cost overruns. So again, in a way, it's it doesn't seem to be a very nuclear specific, a very specific issue. So, having said that, there is something that I think is uniquely tough about nuclear and you alluded to it is the regulatory environment, right. And so the, the attention to safety, which I think is you know, overall of course appropriate A such that there is very little versatility and flexibility within that system to accommodate small changes in particular small changes during construction that would allow the project to move forward as opposed to stopping it for you for months at a time waiting for those changes, those design changes to be approved by the NRC. And again, needless to say, when you have so many companies involved so many workers at the site, yes, you can stop the work for three months, but you still pay your workers and you still get paid pay the suppliers and saw that that's what accumulates cost and, and delays in the schedule. So the regulator if you if you examine these particular projects in in the south, it's not that the regulator intentionally derailed it, but it was what I would call an aggravating factor, in addition to the self inflicted wounds by the industry, the fact that their supply chain was not ready, you know that they lost a lot of no out, they quite clearly didn't know how to manage a big site like that, in addition to that, the sort of stiffness in the regulatory projects, by which it was very difficult to approve small changes to design, as they were occurring in the field, also aggravated the situation.


Dr. Chris Keefer  21:01  

I think, a concrete example I heard no pun intended, was it might have been on the base mount across the rebar rebar. Yeah, can you can you tell that story really quickly? Because I think that's pretty illustrative. Yeah.


Speaker 1  21:13  

So the story is that the the AP 1000 licensing path was based on what we call par 52. That is the combined construction operating license. So instead of being a two step process in which the applicant goes to the NRC and says, allow me to build a plant, then it builds the plant, goes back to the NRC says, Now allow me to operate it. That's the old fashioned part 50. What the companies decided for this project was to do part 52 combined one step. So they went to the NRC, and said, allow me to build and then operate the plant. That sounds good. It sounds like progress. It sounds better, because it's one step instead of two steps. And I think it is progress, but it's not progress. It's but it carries some risk, if it's for a design or a product that you never built before. Why is that because you can do a very good job in designing your plant, putting a lot of thinking to a lot of analysis, but until you actually try to build it, you don't know that that's the ideal design, inevitably, you want to make some changes, or you must make some changes. And with par 50 tool once your design is certified, and the NRC as approved both construction and operation, in order to make changes, you need an amendment to that design certification. And that takes time. It requires basically a lengthy analysis by the NRC and I believe, don't quote me, but I think it also requires a vote by the commission. So it's lengthy and again, it stops the project and extract. So, now getting to the story. So, what happened with the AP 1000 Is that they put a lot of details about the reinforced concrete structures the Nuclear Grade reinforced concrete structures, and because they're a Nuclear Grade and they have to withstand certain loads for example, a commercial airliner crashing to the containment etc at the density of the of the reinforcement, which is in the form of steel rebar within the concrete has to be very very high, which by the way creates already a challenge it in in constructing those structures, because there is a difficulty for the for the concrete to basically flow in between the rebar and then it has to be you know, vibrated and ensure that there are no no voids, so that you have a structural a structurally sound building. So, what happened is that they had specified the angle at which these rebar would be with respect to each other. And, and for reasons that I don't quite know, the, the, the range within which that angle had to be specified or was pacify was pretty tight. And so what happened was that when they actually in the field built, started to build the structures, and they measure the angle of those rebar was a little bit off that rage, and well, that required an amendment to the design certification. And essentially, they decided that it was easier to just strip it off and then report so that set them back several months and of course, not Nozomi many hundreds of millions of dollars, not because of the cost of that job but because of the you know the delay in the schedule, of course and then the interest that was paid and all that.


Dr. Chris Keefer  24:42  

Now, I mean, I've seen some videos of believe, the nuclear base mat and just the density of rebars and saying I you know, I'm thinking of using a jackhammer to break that up. I'm sure there's more sophisticated methods but sounds like one hell of a headache. So another another feature And this is something that was new to me. So there's a degree of completeness to the design to get it licensed. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the design is complete from a construction perspective. Can you just go into that really briefly, again,


Speaker 1  25:13  

for design certification is a, the amount of information that goes into the design certification is is vast, but it's, by and large geared towards demonstrating to the NRC or safety case, it's, it's not the amount of information required to actually build the plant, for a fabricator or constructor to be able to plant in the field or in a factory, whatever components are built, they need blueprints, right, and blueprints are down to the nitty gritty details of all the tolerances, and all the dimensions are specified on all the materials are specified all that. So. So what happened was that the AP 1000 was or is a design as a certified design. And so the Westinghouse went through with the NRC, a lot of iterations and analysis to show that the plant would be would be safe. But then, when they decided to build it, they had to start creating those, for lack of a better word, those blueprints, right those detailed designs. And so that, that took time, of course, and the what happened with Western gods, but similarly with, you know, the project of us, but similarly, the project seen in Europe is that the company has actually broke ground and started building the plant. Without that detailed design being very close to completion. I actually forgot it percentages, but they were around 50%. In some cases, I think couple of cases in Europe, even less than 50%. So, in one word, the plant was not fully designed all these details before they started building it. By contrast, in the countries that we've mentioned already, a few times like China, South Korea, and even Russia, when they start when they break ground, they start actually building the plant, they have north of 90% 95% of their detailed design completed, and any shots because then you know what you're building. Now, again, in fairness, you can do that easier if you have already built that plant before, right. And this was the first time that that that the AP 1000 will be was built in the United States. And similarly, the EPR in Europe. But But again, the decision to sort of rush the construction, instead of finishing that detail design, in hindsight definitely was a poor decision. Right, right.


Dr. Chris Keefer  27:35  

I think Einstein has a quote about, you know, if you had 100 hours or 100 days to solve a project, to solve a problem, spend 95 days planning and five days executing, kind of only when you're ready to go. I mean, that must mean that there's a significant Vantage, obviously, to second or nth of a kind. Compared to novel technologies, it seems like there's a real first mover advantage, it's, you know, in terms of the x 300, for instance, significant momentum there, because seems to be the first reactor of its type, the first grid scale SMR, that's going to be deployed. Similar, that seems like there's a big advantage to building another ap 1000 Given that that part of the headache is gone, you've actually built one, you've got a fully completed set of blueprints, as you said, they'll be slightly modified, depending on the site and the seismicity, etc. But that seems just an obvious tourism. I'm not even sure if it's a question for you. I


Speaker 1  28:26  

would agree, I mean, rationally now that with we, as in the US, and the companies involved have gone through the pain of those first couple of projects. Why not insisting with that design? And, and and leveraging whatever expertise has been gathered, and remains from those projects. But But and so why bother with small modular reactors, smaller reactors and micro reactors? And all of that? And I think the answer there is twofold. First, these first projects have been so dramatically bad in terms of execution. And in terms of cost overruns, and schedule delays that I think, particularly in the investment community, but maybe even the, you know, in the electric utility community, they've left such a bitter taste in the mouth. And now there is very little appetite for for more than and, you know, I can't imagine that this boils down to a CEO who may even be convinced about the rational argument that we're making here says, Okay, well, that was the first project. Now I know how to build them. Let me build another one. Going to their board, and say, you know, let me let me spend $15 billion on this project and they say, Well, wait a minute. We just seen what happened at Vogel, we just seen what happened this summer. It doesn't seem like a like a likely proposition. So. So that's the first point. I think the perceptions have been so bad about these projects. That It's gonna be hard to sell large reactors again, at least here in the US, you know, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, you go to the other countries, South Korea, China, Russia, they they keep building large lightwater reactors, they're also looking at advanced reactor generation for small modular, just like cars. But in their case, he makes a ton of sense to just continue to put to build large libraries, because they're obviously pretty good at it. The second point for why I think there is value in looking at alternative technologies is that the grid is an important market, but he's not the only market for nuclear. And and so if you want to penetrate, for example, the heat market for processes for chemical plants, for refineries, for whatever it is, then I'm not convinced that large light water reactors are the right product. But you probably one is smaller reactors, because the needs are not, you know, maybe a site doesn't need a gigawatt. But also you need maybe reactors that produce heat at the right temperature to support the support those processes. So I think if you, if you combine those two reasons, it's unlikely that we'll see a large light water reactor in the US, maybe in North America for the for the foreseeable future. After these first wave of new construction is completed, particularly if it's successful, I think there may be a different perception about nuclear and then people will, will start to reconsider large lightwater reactors. But


Dr. Chris Keefer  31:35  

I guess it certainly helps having, you know, ongoing increasing demand, and that can justify these big chunky expenditures. And also, if there's other factors that play like constrained fossil fuel resources, or maybe an excess of exportable fossil fuels that justify deployment, maybe we'll talk more about the rationale and whether the climate imperative is enough to get things going. And certainly, it's led to some changes, for example, an inflation Reduction Act to try and incentivize it. Before we get there, though, just while we're still in the kind of construction side of things modularity, huge buzzword recently, you know, and obviously, there's always going to be a civil works component, but maybe there's a way to shift to a higher percentage of modularity. And then some advances, I guess, in terms of construction, whether that's steel bricks, or, you know, seems like there's a move towards burying the nuclear steam supply system to reduce the amount of concrete or civil works required. So maybe we'll start with, with this question of modularity, it's certainly become a major part of the branding. I really don't like the term SMR, particularly, you know, talking with politicians who are not experts, they seem to think that an SMR is just like a Model T Ford, and can just be driven to the site and just sat down there nice and gently. And, you know, you're all done. Your thoughts, I guess, on on modularity, its promise its limits.


Speaker 1  32:53  

Yeah. Great. Great, great question, or a great, great topic. So actually, let me start from, from the last statement you made? Is there a is there a nuclear space and equivalent of the T for the fourth? I think there is, but it's not the small modular reactor, it's is the plug and play transportable micro reactors, I call them nuclear batteries. So now you're down to a scale, you know, a few megawatts output into a physical scale that can actually be transported in one or multiple pieces, to a site on the back of trucks. So now we start to approach that idea that you have sort of a, a plug and play factory made the machine that you can, you can literally quickly connect and use and use for your energy needs. But setting that aside, let's talk about modularity in small modular reactors. So So what do we mean by modularity? Well, it's a word that means different things to different people. But when we looked at this from a construction point of view, what it means is the following a traditional approach for the construction of nuclear power plants, you bring raw materials into bring individual components to the site, and then you start assembling your plant at the site. That sort of stick build that's tradition, when you hear the word modular construction in nuclear what is meant is now that you pre assembled pre fabricate large modules, so entire systems or subsystems within the within the plant in high productivity environments. And what I mean by that is either factories or or or shipyards, which are the Mirena equivalent of factories, and then you transport those large modules to the site and you connect those modules at the site, there is still a need for for for civil works. And I'm going to address that in a second because you brought up you know, steel breaks and still play composites and things like that. But the bulk of the plant and all its subsystems are preassembled in factories or shipyards and then shipped to the site in large chunks and connected as opposed to assembled at the site. So what this does is shifts part of the, hopefully, a significant chunk of the of the project from the construction site, which was said over and over again, is a low productivity environment, to factories and shipyards, which are much more efficient environments. So that's the, that's the approach. Now in our study, we looked at this model, which, of course, was not invented by the nuclear industry in the past 10 years being used by other industries for many years, and we've observed that, in some cases, it has been transformational. And what I mean by that now, people should not have, you know, ridiculous expectations. But when I say transformational, it means we've seen a range of cost reduction associated with modularity, between 10 and 50%. Now, 50% is massive 10% These good, you know, it's probably something to write home about, doesn't blow you away, but it is, it is good. So that's the range. That's a big range. But you know, this has been applied, for example, to chemical plants, chemical plants, many instances these days are built in, in big modules. And when I say big, I really big, I really mean big, they don't, they don't travel on a road, they have to travel by by barge really massive. And then when they arrive to the site, they are, they're connected. Interestingly, nuclear submarines in the US now are built in a much more modular fashion, you know, places that you will bring us our Groton, electric boat, they pre assemble large subsystems in the shop, and then they bring it out to the drydock, which is their equivalent of the construction site, right, and there is the 138, you might have heard the 138 rule for shipyards, if it takes one hour to do a task in the shop, it takes three hours outside, it takes eight hours if you do in the drydock, right. So, so again, there is this, this desire to shift as much as possible to a to an enclosed environment, which is which is efficient, that looks like a factor. So all of that is good, and it's part of the modularity. Now, even with this approach to modularity, you're still going to need to build the bones of the plant, which means the you know, if it's a nuclear plant, you have a reinforced concrete structure for sure that is required to take the boss from a or the impact from from a commercial airliner things like that are the external events. And so how do you reduce the cost of that? Well, their tool, the idea is to shift scope of work from the, from the construction site to factories, and the way to do it for civil works is to potentially is to use this composites. So a traditional reinforced concrete structure is built essentially in four steps. First, you create a rebar cage, we already talked about and that's steel, then you have formwork, typically wood formwork that sort of creates the shape of the structure, then you pour the concrete, you got to let it set and vibrating and again, make sure that it's it's at the right quality and finally, you strip off the formwork very lengthy labor intensive for stent, the idea of the steel plate composites or you can call them still break or some people just call them steel steel composites is that you pre fabricate boxes essentially steel boxes in factories, and then you ship those to the site, they have the proper reinforcement bealtaine in the form in the form of cross bars within these boxes. And then once they get to the to the site, they are welded together, you can do that robotically. So that saves also you know time and labor costs and then pour the concrete into the into the boxes and off you go we have another layer okay. And so, that's one one approach that has been looked at and other approach that is that I think is promising for reducing the cost and schedule of reinforced concrete is to use high strength rebar. So, if the steel rebar that you put in the in the concrete as a higher strength then you don't need as a dense rebar cage as you do with the lower strength and that does a few things for you the first First of all, it reduces the risk of having to re pour the concrete because the the concrete floor is very, very nicely in it. And number two, the in the increasing strength of the rebar is such that even if on a per unit mass of steel, that high strength steel is more expensive than the traditional steel. The fact that you require a lot less of it actually allows you to reduce the direct costs associated with those materials. So it's a win win situation and it's mostly a matter of bringing those materials into the construction codes and regulations that are used by the nuclear industry because As these materials are being used in other industries, so anyway, those are Yeah, yeah. So So I gave you a very long answer there. But so these are a somewhat mundane, I don't even want to call them innovations, but measures that you can take to reduce the cost and you appreciate none of these has anything to do with the reactor itself. It's not a nuclear engineering question is, it's almost like a civil engineering question.


Dr. Chris Keefer  40:24  

The officer, I think there's a, you know, a lot of advocacy around the idea of, you know, restoring the national labs, to a state where you're gonna, you can actually not just run simulations on novel reactor designs, but actually built prototypes. But, again, the focus of the support seems to be more on the construction side. And I understand GE Hitachi is working with TVA to actually do some preliminary work, I think with steel bricks, and they're kind of silo excavation, you know, for putting that big reactor pressure vessel underground. Are you aware of? Is that just kind of a one off example, are there more of these prototyping for the construction side rather than the reactor side occurring, which, which may give us hope for for future deployment and easing construction?


Speaker 1  41:07  

Yeah, I'm aware of at least one more high profile example in Europe, and that's EDF. So the the French utility, they have actually built a Nuclear Grade building in one of their research centers south to Paris with steel brakes, and still play composites to basically gather that experience. And and, I suppose evaluate if, in fact, it's advantageous from their point of view to start building nuclear plants with that technology, so that they clearly put, you know, the time and money into this tool to evaluate if it's feasible, I don't know what they what the outcome of that evaluation is, they have concluded that the EPR to you know, the next generation of their nuclear reactor or new word, will actually use the steel brakes or the steel plate composites or will just use traditional reinforced concrete but but it's it's significant that they have taken a serious look at it at the composites.


Dr. Chris Keefer  42:09  

Listen, I'm conscious of your hard stop and in a few minutes, but just maybe we'll finish up on the modularity. And we might have to see if we can schedule a part two, because there's a lot more I'd love to talk to you about. You know, modularity is often tied into the word small. I understand the AP 1000. Maybe the AB WR is in Japan. But if you want 1000 is one of the first modular designs that the AP 600 I think it's suffered from a, you know, not having the same economy of scale is never built. But the whole rationale is it's modular, it's going to make up for its lower lifetime output by snapping together and being a very fast construction project. Was this is a possibly modular and large? What was your take?


Speaker 1  42:49  

Yeah, no, I completely agree, Chris, I don't think modularity is necessarily associated with small reactors. And you mentioned EP 1000. But the other one that you mentioned, that is even more significant experience is the AV WR, which they built, I think six or eight in Japan, and they use modular construction that I described, from from their first unit, and they and they saw a nice reduction in cost the other about 20%, which is significant. And some of these a VW Rs in Japan, I think are still the, they still hold the record for the fastest construction. So there is a lot of good experience there. And it's primarily with with Hitachi, which now of course, he's, you know, an ally of it as an alliance in nuclear with General Electric. So I'm, I hope that for the b2b RX 300, that's a smaller reactor, but they will fully benefit from that experience, although, once again, the experience and the know how, and it's not like once you have them, you'll you keep them forever. Right. And so these plants in Japan were built well, 20 years ago, so at people retired, you know, what sort of transfer of knowledge is in place for from those projects, which were very successful to, to the new GE Itachi projects that are starting now in in North America and elsewhere. I


Dr. Chris Keefer  44:15  

have a lot of worries about Japan, having, you know, basically throwing their nuclear industry into the deep freeze and being able to resuscitate it. But maybe there's hope, you know, Italy, obviously, you know, had a referendum to ban nuclear power, but there's still a generation of pretty amazing Italian physicists seem to have a reputation for that and yourself are living example of someone who's working towards this goal and keeping the flame alight, Jakob, thank you for making the time today. And I do hope to have you back in the near future for part two to dive a little deeper. Thank


Speaker 1  44:44  

you, Chris. It's been a pleasure. Always fun to talk about these topics. So till next time, for


Dr. Chris Keefer  44:50  

certain if you have any shameless self promotion or the MIT course next year, the floor is yours for the next minute before you gotta run.


Speaker 1  44:57  

Well, this course is quite neat. And I can see there a little Be My Baby. Because I, you know, I created, I think, five years ago. So yes, for those who are listening, if you have an interest in nuclear and you don't know much about it, and you're willing to come to Cambridge, Massachusetts for three days to learn about nuclear both, you know, the benefits and the issues. The invitation is open. We typically all this course in early August and According to Chris is valuable, so let us know, if you have an interest and we'll be we'll be happy to invite you.


Dr. Chris Keefer  45:33  

Okay, wonderful. MakerBot. Thanks again.


Unknown Speaker  45:35  

Thank you. Bye bye.



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