Ep 59: Bernard Bigot - Director-General, Intl. Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor
Q1 - International Nuclear Design
Bret Kugelmass: Did you grow up in France?
Bernard Bigot: Bernard Bigot, a French native, served as a university professor in quantum chemistry at École normale supérieure. The study of chemistry critical for many issues as chemistry permeates other fields, such as natural resources and energy. Bigot was later appointed the Director-General of the Research and Higher Education Minister in France. France has a large number of public institutions, such as universities and labs, and many private companies are relying on these national support programs. When Bigot first became Director-General, fission development were just started seeking out government support. In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev decided to launch a large international corporation program for research. In 15 years and across three countries, a conceptual design was developed for the Tokamak Reactor, a special device allowing for the fusion of hydrogen. By 2000, the public considered the project mature enough to build it, but three major details had yet to be determined: governance, funding, and location. After a large negotiation, six partners, United States, Russia, Europe, China, Korea, and Japan decided to move forward on the project in 2005.
Q2 - Nuclear Fusion
Bret Kugelmass: On a basic physics level, what is fusion?
Bernard Bigot: Stars are a big bubble of hydrogen, the lightest element. When hydrogen nuclei is forced to get closer together, a new nuclei, helium, is spontaneously produced, as well as neutrons. These new particles are expelled at a very large speed, which can be converted into thermal energy. This thermal energy can be used to heat water or produce steam. Both hydrogen atoms have a positive charge and want to repel each other. A large force is required to get these atoms close together, so magnetic forces are used in a circular shape to create the collision. The Tokamak is a 20m diameter circular shaped chamber with very precisely aligned magnets. Bernard Bigot was requested to consider a position as the main advisor about nuclear issues and nuclear technology to the French government and the public national labs. In the nuclear industry, there are many international corporations. All the big players in nuclear fission technology, in the United States, Russia, Japan, China, Korea, and India, needed good relationships and collaboration with each other to preserve safety and long term projects. When dealing with international corporations, one must understand the perspective and expectations of the other parties. Bernard Bigot currently serves as the Director-General for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
Q3 - Value of Energy Security
Bret Kugelmass: What does CEA do?
Bernard Bigot: Bernard Bigot served for a time as the CEO of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). After the oil crisis, France discovered that energy resources are critical for social and economical development of the country, leading them to pursue nuclear energy. Between 1870 and 1945, France has been invaded three times, hurting a country that did not want to be dominated. The development of nuclear energy was a wonderful opportunity to master the technology and establish energy security. Leaders decided this technology was critical and began building up the spatial agency on behalf of the government to support the industry development expertise and competence. During his time at CEA, Bigot managed up to 35,000 employees and oversaw a budget of five to six billion dollars. Engineers and scientists in the nuclear industry tend to be passionate about their work and value the long term impacts. One of the most challenging issues for fission technology is how to deal with the waste. During his term, Bigot witnessed progress on waste management procedures in France.
Q4 - Benefits of Reprocessing
Bret Kugelmass: What are some new technologies you saw happening in France?
Bernard Bigot: Reprocessing was a big challenge to reduce the life cycle of the radioactive matter and optimize the whole process. In the beginning of reprocessing work, progress was needed in order to create a viable technology, but there was a lot of development in the medical field. Some radioactive products are used for tracing biochemical reactions. Reprocessing can be used to extract some components which could be useful for understanding illnesses, detection, and treatment. Bernard Bigot saw a lot of progress in this field alongside the growth of electronic devices that the materials were paired with. Bigot was involved with ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) early on trying to facilitate the international corporation. The project started in 2007, but began to suffer by 2013. The project was not managed as a technological, industrial project, but instead as an international corporation with many people working independently. A management assessment report was completed every two years and brought change the group into a project setting.
Q5 - Project Management of a Fusion Reactor
Bret Kugelmass: Given the problems at hand and your experience working with other countries, were you the only one who could help ITER?
Bernard Bigot: Bernard Bigot was preparing for retirement when he got pulled in as Director-General of ITER, but he could not afford to say no. The project is important to the future of the world and humanity; he felt he had no right to say no or to fail. Because of his previous relationships with the members, Bigot felt he could build up the new project management culture. Bigot proposed some ways to move on and be successful with the key value being mutual trust. Firstly, the Director-General must be trusted by the team and must be able to make any technical decision in the remainder of the project. Secondly, people must work in an integrated manner and each individual person must own the whole project. Thirdly, a common scheduled is necessary to build a framework in which all staff can work. Bigot also instituted the overhaul of culture based on common values are: demonstrating your professional excellence daily, mutual trust, and team-based spirit. Last November, ITER passed over the 50% milestone of physical completion of the different activities that lead to First Plasma in 2025. After three years directing ITER, Bigot sees momentum in the project. The goal of the project is to produce more energy than required to push into the reaction. Different heat systems, such as the current from the coils and injection of particles and radio waves, will elevate the temperature to 150 million degrees (ten times hotter than the core of the sun). The plasma is low density, so in order to have enough energy when the collision happens, the atmosphere needs to be much hotter.
Q6 - How Nuclear Fusion Generates Electricity
Bret Kugelmass: How do you produce energy and electricity from a fusion reaction?
Bernard Bigot: After the two hydrogen nuclei collide, two new particles are produced: one helium nuclei and one neutron. Helium has five times the amount of energy than the hydrogen which was collided, and the neutron has twenty-five times the amount of energy. The helium, which has an electrical charge, will stay in the plasma and transfer its energy to the hydrogen atom. This process requires a lot of energy to get started, but due to the high energies produced, it becomes sustainable and self-heating. The neutron escapes the magnetic field and hits a wall, transferring its kinetic energy into heat. Water cooling is heated by the wall, when then makes steam and runs the turbines. Each country in ITER is willing to see fission as a viable option for energy and has enough raw material to produce their own energy supply for a million years. A nuclear power plant requires only 350kg of raw material per year, compared to a 1000MW power plant which requires 10 million tons of coal or 6-7 million tons of oil. Nuclear plants are long term, sustainable, and low environmental impact. Developing this technology alone is extremely difficult; if we don’t work together, there is no chance to succeed.