Ep 144: Bill Fox - Executive Vice President, SNC-Lavalin
1 - 02:02
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Bill Fox grew up in Lancaster, South Carolina with his nine brothers and sisters, going on to received a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of South Carolina. When Bill Fox entered the nuclear industry in the late 1970’s, the U.S. had more than 70 large nuclear reactors under construction. Fox hired on with Duke Power Company, now Duke Energy, which was a utility able to provide their own design engineering and construction team with a highly developed supply chain. Duke Energy bought reactor technology and built a plant around it. This system would probably not work today due to challenges arising from plants getting canceled, due to being taxed on safety, the ongoing energy crisis, and escalation. Thousands of people lost jobs and supply chain went down. Bill Fox designed facilities from a structural and seismicity point of view, but early in his career, discovered that some of his innovative designs were not effective due to a lack of constructability. Fox now aims to teach and mentor design teams that an engineer’s goal should be to product an operational plant end product by designing to construct, instead of constructing to the design.
2 - 09:46
Q: How many new nuclear companies are starting with the construction site and ending with the reactor, instead of starting with the reactor and ending with the construction site?
A: Bill Fox admits to some scars from trying out new technologies in designing reactors for construction, but values the lessons learned from not doing everything right all the time. Small modular reactors (SMR’s) are sometimes advertised as being as simple as driving onto site and plugging in to start power generation, but it is a much more complicated process. Designers are good at the scientific part of the design, but the system that needs to be built around the science is more of a challenge. Designers must know what the plant needs to look at at the end of the project before groundbreaking in order to be successful. However, cost is sometimes advertised as very competitive, but without knowledge of actual build material quantities. Bill Fox and his team developed an SMR called mPower at Babcock & Wilcox (B&W). Just before starting work at B&W, Bill Fox was project director for the V.C. Summer nuclear project and developed the project site from the ground up for five to six years. His challenges in that process and understanding of the end product led him to an opportunity to get involved with new technology at B&W.
3 - 14:57
Q: What were the challenges did you learn the most from on the V.C. Summer project?
A: Bill Fox served as project director at the V.C. Summer project and recognized there was too much focus on the license as the end game, as opposed to the end game being an operating project. The economics to make a project successful is a challenge and since project success is determined before a shovel is put in the ground, planning is essential. V.C. Summer did not get all the details right in the design process and was the first time a project operated under a Part 52 license, which is a combined operating license. Under Part 52, any change during construction required the license to be opened back up and reconsidered. After V.C. Summer, Bill Fox joined Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) to develop the mPower small modular reactor (SMR).
4 - 18:58
Q: What happened to the mPower small modular reactor?
A: Bill Fox joined Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) to develop the mPower small modular reactor (SMR). A significant challenge with reactor development is securing funding. Money must be spent up front to develop details in order to get cost and schedule predictable, but funding might be provided until cost and schedule is predictable. Federal government funding assisted B&W on mPower. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in the design in order to created predictable cost and schedule to attract investors. One benefit of working in Canada is that the environmental industry, regulation, and government are all pointing in the same direction. Canada has an environment that bring revenue back if the plant is built, as opposed to environments where reactors must “bid into” the grid. Opportunity cost benefits, such as climate change, energy independence, national security, fuel independence and diversity, grid stability, and medical isotopes are not measured and instead, the focus is on supporting the cheapest source of energy.
5 - 24:05
Q: How did you end up at SNC?
A: Bill Fox currently serves as the Executive Vice-President for SNC-Lavalin. Fox always had two drivers in career: being able to make a difference and participating in continuous learning. Fox took time off after running the federal and commercial operations group at BWXT and started his own consulting business working on small EPC projects. Fox got a call from SNC to get back into the nuclear business, including refurbishing 10 reactors across Canada and new build opportunities. Bill Fox accepted the position and is passionate about building Canadian technology to a point at which it can be exported. SNC is the largest engineering and construction company in Canada, with a large global presence. The company has experience with CANDU technology and can support different SMR technologies and take deployment models to the field.
6 - 28:46
Q: Is there a generic balance of plant design that could be used across multiple small modular reactor companies?
A: Bill Fox sees an industry vision to have a generic balance of plant design that could be used across multiple small modular reactors (SMR’s), but it is only a vision and not a reality. Lots of intangibles, such as transmission lines, water sources, the environment for cooling water, closed loop, and cooling towers create one-offs in the plant. Enveloping site conditions are created to account for seismicity, wind and thermal, and dispersion effects with design inputs. However, when site conditions are enveloped for the worst conditions, overdesign and conservatism causes price to go up. Cost and price predictability must be obtained before execution. Change kills projects, including changes in regulation. The regulator needs to understands the industry and the projects; Bill Fox sees the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) doing a good job of that. A combination of private capital with government support is needed to provide risk support. Developing technology costs hundreds of million dollars before construction, and with more than twenty potential designs, the development costs go way up.
7 - 35:23
Q: Where do you think nuclear technology should narrow its focus?
A: Bill Fox recognizes that Canada needs a lot of small reactors in rural areas, along with mid-scale reactors to plug into the grid. The customer cares about having energy at hand, and not so much about what specific technology is used. The design must be infiltrated into the supply chain for critical equipment and components. Industry should self-select which nuclear reactors go into production. SMR’s design-to-operation takes too long to be practical, and the industry must be realistic about the timeframe for small reactor implementation, especially considering that new technologies may come down the pipeline to fill the energy gap.
8 - 41:15
Q: Why is nuclear energy important to the future?
A: Bill Fox is concerned about the environment and energy in the future. Energy is the lifeblood of any economy, and if it starts to be depleted or the energy mix challenged, the economy will follow. People don’t know where the energy comes from that powers activities at night and in their cities. Small modular reactors (SMR’s) are also great vehicles to provide desalination services to clean water and heat homes, which has worldwide implications.