Ep 69: Alastair Laird - President, European Nuclear Society
Q1 - Path to Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: What is it like to be a Scot and how does that fit into the rest of the U.K.?
Alastair Laird: Alastair Laird is from Scotland, which is part of Britain, and the nuclear energy part of U.K. is a British entity. The very first civil nuclear power plant in the U.K. was Calder Hall, and its sister station, Chapelcross in Scotland opened shortly after. Subsequently, the Magnox fleet was created, the first being Hunterston A. This was Laird’s first formal site when he started employment as a graduate trainee, eventually moving onto the B site, an advanced gas-cooled reactor, and then the construction and commissioning of Torness, near Edinburgh. Laird enjoyed mathematics and physics in school, leading him to pursue physics at university during at time in which laser power technology was popular. His master thesis was an analysis of the reactor physics on the Scottish University research reactor center. It was one of seven of the original test reactors designed to encourage research. They have all since closed because they were early R&D and had radiation source, but did not produce power, and had been open for about thirty years. After graduation, Laird’s first job was with Scottish nuclear, a utility owned by the public sector, spending time at Torness and Hunterston A and B stations.
Q2 - Transition Between Reactor Construction and Operation
Bret Kugelmass: What configuration is Torness and what is the commissioning phase like?
Alastair Laird: Torness is a twin advanced gas-cooled reactor. When Laird joined Torness, there were 5,000 construction workers on the site pouring concrete and placing rebar for the ancillary facilities, but most of the technical aspects of the reactor had been constructed. Progressively, Laird was in the phase in preparation for fuel loading and designing technical equipment. Laird then left Torness to join the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) at Heysham 2 in England. Heysham 2 was another sister station to Torness that was six months ahead and did the fuel load. Laird’s first fuel load experience was spent standing on top of the reactor, hand guiding the fuel assemblies that were being lowered by cranes into the fuel channels. When the fuel is being loaded, it is being monitored for any anomalies, visually inspected, and quality paperwork signed off. The transition between 5,000 construction workers and 350 operators is quite quick. During the operational phase, the mindset must change into calm, procedural compliance with routine things done well. Gas-cooled reactors are cylindrical and have a basement with the cooling systems. The reactor has holes for control rods and fuel, with gas flow channels and a door that directs the flow of gas, carbon dioxide. A concrete structure provides not only the pressure vessel, but also the shielding.
Q3 - Nuclear Reactor Start-up
Bret Kugelmass: What is nuclear start-up like?
Alastair Laird: The control room of a nuclear reactor is one of the quietest places you can be. There is a lot of information and data and the cognitive processes are working. When you make a change during start-up, there is a strong procedural, compliance aspect and criticality is important. Initially, there is zero power, but there is a balanced chain reaction and it is brought to slightly supercritical and back down to critical. This brings the power rating up to the point where you can raise steam, but it is not at operating temperature yet. The first critical reaction is maybe one fission taking place, which doesn’t release a lot of heat. At the point of criticality, millions of chain reactions are taking place. Once more reactions take place and it is at a comfortable power level, you can raise steam through the steam systems to get the turbines and mechanical processes moving and ready to connect to the grid. If there is zero power on the turbine and it’s connected to the national grid, it will synchronize in terms of the 50Hz cycle. If the grid moves faster, the turbine moves faster, The turbine and steam systems must be synchronized against the power reactor. Energy can’t be produced without getting rid of energy. As heat is produced and energy produced in the turbine, the mechanism to get rid of it is the national grid.
Q4 - Privatization of Nuclear Energy in the U.K.
Bret Kugelmass: How does the ratio between thermal power produced and electrical power produced differ between a gas reactor and a light water reactor?
Alastair Laird: The operation temperature of a gas reactor is around 550 degrees Celsius, with a 300 degree inlet steam temperature. Steam can be reheated using the Rankine cycle to increase efficiency. If the outlet temperature it hot, you use reheat steam, and have cold water available gives a better vacuum all helps the reactor generate more efficiently. Alastair Laird went to work at Dungeness B on the South coast of England, which was effectively the first full-scale prototype of a gas-cooled reactor. It didn’t work well and wasn’t designed perfectly, such as components not fitting in the right spaces; it was built by a consortium by a competition process. Due to this, a single design authority entity was created called National Nuclear Corporation. At Dungeness, Laird looked after the turbine, fuel outages, and learned about what else goes into a nuclear reactor other than the reactor itself. After spending fifteen years in operations at five plants with British Energy, Laird had the opportunity to join British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL). Nuclear power plants are designed to be a flexible base load, meaning there is always associated risk. They were part of the national strategic infrastructure, but to privatize them there had to be a niche in the market. The first attempt failed, so nuclear was kept in the public hands. The nuclear utilities wanted to be privatized and felt they had a role. Around 1993, the position was agreed upon that if nuclear utilities could demonstrate three years of continuous cost improvement against the unit strike price that the market was set to demonstrate it could survive in the market. This happened in 1996 and by 1997, British Energy was formed; Laird was on the privatization team.
Q5 - Nuclear Decommissioning Process
Bret Kugelmass: How does decommissioning differ for weapons waste and civilian power?
Alastair Laird: There are many legacy facilities, some as a direct result of the civil research and development program and some tied to the dash for a nuclear defense or bomb production. The U.K. has a mix of both. These facilities have nuclear material and contamination that needs to be cleaned up, environmentally remediated, and decommissioned and demolished. Scotland has legacy sites from the fast reactor and R&D programs, including Dounreay. Dounreay had the full 360 of early reactor design, fuel cycle areas, and legacy decommissioning facilities. Some of the modern facilities were built with decommissioning in mind, but most of the early facilities were built with a focus on speed. In Magnox reactors, fuel storage is not the norm but is instead moved and sent to Sellafield. To suddenly defuel four reactors, instead of a bunch of fuel in every fuel cycle, the reprocessing facility at Sellafield could not take all the fuel at the same time. There was a logic at optimizing the Magnox fuel. In the U.K., decommissioning licenses are given right from the start as a regulator approval to continue under the existing license and commence decommissioning. The Magnox fuel rods are highly irradiated and radioactive, so they must be put within a shielding condition, transported from the reactor into a flask and into the processing facility at Sellafield. The Magnox fuel is transported in water and the cladding is removed in the reprocessing facility. Laird spent five years with BNFL at Sellafield, joined the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for four years, and they joined a U.S. company, Project Time & Cost (PT&C). This work was focused on project assurance and validating costs and schedules while supporting projects going forward. Alastair Laird now works as an independent consultant, supporting programs such as waste encapsulation.
Q6 - European Nuclear Society
Bret Kugelmass: As the President of the European Nuclear Society, what are you doing to advocate for the members?
Alastair Laird: The European Nuclear Society (ENS) is the holding society for all the European member states that have nuclear and usually have their own nuclear society. Alastair Laird represents the European professional memberships, with 21 member societies, with a wider membership of 10,000 industry professionals. The ENS is about behaviors, standards, training, advocacy, and joining up collectively as industry professionals. Technical conferences, networking events, and webinars support that dialogue. ENS is co-located in Brussels with FORATOM, which have a symbiotic relationship. Many people don’t understand the technology and all they know about is the major accidents. Advocates end up talking about nuclear safety. Safety enhancements increase cost, which is justified by safety, leading to a spiral of cost increases. When the scientists do their design right and the operators operate the plant per procedures, nuclear is successful. Communication about nuclear has differing effects on the public audience; different aspects of the technology inspire confidence. The power generation record of nuclear is phenomenal. The world has become so electricity-centric and civil nuclear power is a key element to keeping the lights on. With a good track record, a consistent investment program is needed to adapt to the changing market. If more politicians and advocacy groups focus on nuclear as a solution for climate change, more people will embrace it.