Ep 188: Bernard Blanc - Business Development Manager, Assystem
Bernard’s role in reinventing nuclear (0:55)
0:55-7:43 (Bernard discusses his journey to becoming the Nuclear Business Development Manager for Assystem. He also provides a brief overview of France’s nuclear industry history.)
Q. How did you get into the nuclear space?
A. Bernard is from the South of France where he attended engineering school. His first role after graduating was as a trainee building a nuclear facility. Bernard then went on to become involved in nonnuclear construction projects, including infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia, in the French steel industry and in the automotive sector. He then moved into managerial and operational roles and eventually into business development. He returned to nuclear in the early 2000s with a variety of viewpoints and is now the Nuclear Business Development Manager for Assystem.
In the mid 1960s, Assystem was created to support architect engineers that needed to license new nuclear facilities. The Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN), France’s nuclear safety authority and strong regulation body, requires operational licenses and several thousand verification tests during a facility’s commision phase before a plant can become operational. In the 1990s, the construction of the initial French nuclear facilities was about to be completed. Assystem shifted away from construction to help move these facilities into full operation by supporting operation, optimization and maintenance. Today, the nuclear industry is strong in France. Building new nuclear facilities, however, is difficult. Assystem’s current goal is to focus on reinventing methodologies to improve the nuclear industry’s performance.
Improving nuclear construction efficiency (7:44)
7:44-17:44 (Bernard discusses how new ways of engineering with mixed teams are key to achieving efficient and cost effective nuclear construction. Bernard also mentions the importance of designing nuclear facilities with the construction and commissioning phases in mind and touches on the differences between US and French engineering.)
Q. What are some of the ways that you see construction becoming more efficient and more cost effective?
A. More modular construction creates more efficiency and is more cost effective than large reactors. Modular construction is not the only way to achieve this, however. Digital tools, new ways of engineering and creating a strong link between the engineering and construction phases are also key. Continual building and rebuilding without stopping a project will also lead to more efficiency and cost effectiveness.
Connecting design engineers with construction engineers is also important. Creating the best design possible requires considering the construction and commissioning phases during the design phase. Mixed teams of nuclear engineers, construction engineers and people involved in commissioning will have overall better performance that teams of only nuclear engineers.
The US and French nuclear industries have some differing approaches to development. While the US nuclear industry has separate engineering and operation companies, French companies, such as EDF, want to both design and operate facilities. Assystem supports EDF engineers in doing this, not only helping to design the nuclear power plant, but also the nuclear support buildings, such as the waste treatment building. Additionally, unlike US universities, France has engineering schools where students learn broadly about engineering. Engineers only specialize after graduating. Bernard, for instance, was not trained as a commissioning engineer, but broadly wanted to build something to help the world.
In support of nuclear fusion (17:45)
17:45-27:32 (Bernard describes the difference between nuclear fusion and fission and the ITER project. Bernard states why it is important to fund both nuclear fusion and fission reactors.)
Q. What exactly is fusion and why is it difficult to make it commercial?
A. Broadly, fusion reactors are used for research and development while fission reactors are used to generate power. Fusion is complex and difficult to explain and research has progressed slowly due to the large fusion research reactors needed.
ITER is a nuclear fusion project with a unique international collaboration between 7 partners: The US, China, South Korea, Russia, Japan, India and Europe. The goal is to share fusion funding and knowledge and to establish a network for next phase fusion reactor building. ITER is the largest test reactor in the world and is used to understand how to manage and control fusion reactors. It is also used to understand how to improve fusion reactor technology to eventually produce electricity.
ITER is a step towards producing fusion energy by the end of the century. Fusion is safer and lower waste than fission because sea water, not uranium is needed to power the reactor. Fusion could be used to generate infinite energy and has already been featured in popular culture, such as in Star Wars.
Because fusion is a long term commitment, it may make more sense to focus on fission to address climate change now. However, it is important to distribute resources because fusion and fission are different projects. Fission reactors need improvements to increase construction speed and to remain in budget. Fusion requires investment because it is the energy of the future. Both require a lot of money, but are both critical in the immediate and distant future of nuclear energy.
Gaining nuclear support through regulation (27:33)
27:33-39:28 (Bernard discusses the role government plays in nuclear projects and the need for fusion regulation.)
Q. Do you think it is better when projects are supported by the government?
A. Nuclear projects are costly and take time and are therefore not ready for full private investment. Nuclear energy is also strongly linked to policy because of states’ electricity and development interests. Security, safety and improvements are additional reasons for government involvement in nuclear projects. Nuclear regulators, which are independent of governments, also play a strong role in projects. While this can slow down even privately managed projects, they are necessary.
ITER will be the first nuclear fusion facility to be regulated. Smaller fusion reactors are not classified as nuclear facilities and are therefore not regulated. Because nuclear has a rocky history, regulations can bring more comfort to people by ensuring them that a facility is safe and well operated.
Regulating fusion is questioned, but Bernard states why it is necessary. Research and development into fusion is needed because, unlike fission, fusion does not require uranium, which will be expended in about 150 years. While regulation may influence the public to think all nuclear power has a degree of danger, it also ensures the public that facilities are safe. Public support is crucial in moving towards fusion energy and the ultimate future of nuclear power. It is therefore worth the costs associated with regulation.
Reaching goals through international collaboration (39:29)
39:29-50:29 (Bernard discusses Assystem’s role in ITER. He also mentions if ITER is on track to achieve goals and the collaborative work environment behind ITER.)
Q. What is Assystem’s role in the ITER project?
A. ITER was established in 2005 and Assystem’s role of nuclear safety engineering support began in 2006. Assystem is involved in engineering and designing key components of the reactor, but also in architect engineering of the buildings in the facility. They are also in charge of construction, meaning providing supervision, coordination, inspection and an evaluation of the full facility.
This is a long term commitment, as ITER will begin the First Plasma phase in 2025 and reach full power in 2035. The primary goal of ITER is to demonstrate the success of a nuclear fusion reactor. ITER is currently on track to meet goals.
The collaboration in this large, international organization is key to reaching these goals. This includes Assystem’s young graduate program that trains graduates in nuclear fusion. Assystem believes that investing in people is required for long term project support. Many students come from a construction or engineering background which supports the idea that bringing together non-nuclear backgrounds creates more open minds and better conditions to work together. Momentum and Engage are two teams that set an example of how different expertise can be brought together on an international level to not only push ITER’s research and development, but also train people on various languages and cultures. This creates an exciting and interesting work environment for the ITER project.
Using fusion to reach a galaxy far, far away (50:30)
50:30-55:18 (Bernard discusses the following phases in fusion energy and what he believes is the future in nuclear power.)
Q. Are you able to develop commercial models for fusion in France or must ITER first be completed?
A. After ITER is active in 2035, it will be used as a research reactor for 10 years. In 2045, ITER will then be decommissioned as the reactor is designed only to operate for 10 years. The next phase of nuclear fusion is to produce electricity. Between 2050 and 2080, DEMO will be built which will produce fusion energy. The following industrial phase is projected to begin in 2100.
Bernard strongly believes that a commercial phase for fusion reactors is less than 80 years away. ITER is a key phase in fusion development and is comparable to landing on the Moon. Bernard sees a future of using nuclear fusion energy to power space travel and exploration.