Aug 25, 2020

Ep 275: Amir Vexler - President, Orano TN

Orano TN
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Show notes

Introductions and background (00:24)
Q: How did you get started in the Nuclear industry?
A: Amir Vexler is the president of Orano,TN, USA. He graduated as a mechanical engineer from the university of Toronto and worked in several engineering industries before arriving in nuclear 20 years ago.
His first job in the nuclear industry was with General Electric (GE) in Toronto, back when the company had a large nuclear footprint. Amir rose up to become a plant manager for most of the GE plants in Canada, later moving to operations in the US.
In 2015 he became the CEO of Global Nuclear Fuels (GNF), which was a joint venture between Hitachi, GE, and Toshiba. A role which he held till 2019 before moving to Orano,TN.
(02:38-4:45) Early impression of the nuclear industry
Amir was working in the chemical industry when he first interviewed with GE, and didn’t realise that there was a large nuclear facility in downtown Toronto that was making nuclear fuel. His early perception was of shock that a nuclear facility was functional in a large city, this later changed drastically as he started working at the GE facility with all the controls and safety measures that were put into place.

Nuclear spent fuel management (4:56)
(4:56-14:05) Specialisations and unique challenges in Orano,TN
Q: What services does Orano,TN specialise on?
A: Orano has a turn key integrated supply chain that starts at the moment a utility company offloads their fuel into the spent fuel pool and Orano takes it from there onwards.
When speaking of the challenges that come with dealing with spent fuel and the negative public perception, Amir remarked: “I think the media, movies, cartoons - have done us no favours in that, it's just a complete exaggeration of what this business is about. I think if the public had any knowledge of the amount of engineering work, licensing rigor, the amount of testing, the amount of quality control that goes into fabricating, installing, and maintaining a dry fuel storage system, I think people’s concerns will very quickly go away with anything that has to do with spent fuel.”
Amir feels strongly that most concerns have very little rationale behind them, and some of these attitudes have delayed or outright stopped the commissioning of a national nuclear waste repository. He believes this doesn't help the industry of society in general, especially when the issue becomes overly politicized.
Another challenge that Amir mentioned in the misconceptions on the side of customers (utilities), that consider dry fuel storage as a commodity.
(14:18-18:25) Developing a permanent solution to spent fuel management
Amir shared his views on the delay in developing a permanent solution to spent nuclear fuel, referring directly to the proposed Yucca mountain repository: “Unfortunately that issue has been politicized and the reason why it was allowed to be politicized is the lack of education of the general public. I believe i’m just stating simple facts, obviously in my opinion - as a taxpayer, as a citizen - it makes more sense to have a central repository for nuclear spent fuel.”
Amir feels a more permanent solution is needed, but going off historically trends, the solution might not arrive very quickly in the US. He mentioned a collaborative effect between utilities with nuclear plants could also hold solutions in creating a consolidated storage site, and although the framework for that kind of collaboration already exists - a strong obstacle remains public opinion regarding nuclear and radiation, another challenge he mentioned was the transport system to move large quantities of spent nuclear fuel in the US.

The case of public opinion (19:20)
(19:20-25:35) Influencing public opinion regarding spent nuclear fuel.
Q: What are the difficult questions you get regarding the work you do?
A: Amir identifies the reason behind poor public opinion on nuclear to a knowledge gap between the comforts they are used to with electricity and the systems needed to generate energy - especially low carbon energy. He believes that until the public has correct information readily available and an environment to listen to, many problems will remain unsolved.
“I do see that some people are very closed minded when it comes to stuff [spent nuclear waste] like that. And I think what’s driving closed mindedness is the lack of education and understanding of what really generates power in this country, and what provides grid stability, and what provides the comforts that people are used to.” Amir said while remarking on the question.
Amir also pointed out that simple things like organizing open houses to show the local communities and tourists what these facilities do, and as people come to understand that there is very little risk involved with the work. Another step is for employers to encourage workers in the industry to talk to their neighbors and family about the work they do, a method that Amir believes could be the most impactful.
The priority should be closing the nuclear fuel cycle, and America must do that before it can be a global leader in the nuclear energy space.
(26:05-29:13) Main priorities at Orano,TN
Amir mentioned 2 things any company needs to be at the top of their game, especially when they’re in the business of serving customers. First is technology, constantly evolving as a business and improving on your service offering where possible to make sure they get the best value has to be top of mind - especially now that the business landscape can evolve so quickly. Second is a strong cost positioning in the market, Amir is aware that a lot of Orano’s clients will be more careful about spending - especially post covid impacts on revenues. Finding a way to remain cost competitive and transfer the same cost competitiveness to their customers. These 2 points are what he identifies as keys to keeping Orano,TN and prime players in the nuclear supply chain.

Conclusion (30:08)
(30:08-34:00) Optimism for the future of Nuclear energy.
Q: What excites you about the future of nuclear energy?
A: Amir sees trends of a turnaround on a governmental level, where everyone agrees that the nuclear industry needs to become more competitive in the world. He attributes the statement to the support of the US Department of Energy to various projects in nuclear, especially the development of the new generation of nuclear reactors.
Seeing these new projects take on life and attract attention from private companies is one thing that excites Amir.
Another point that he’s excited about is the younger generation coming into the nuclear industry.

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