Ep 21: Bill Stokes - President, Columbia Basin (Advanced Reactor Consulting)
How long have you been here in Washington State and how did your career get started?
Bill Stokes moved to the Tri-City area in Washington state in the early 1990’s, originally on the Basalt Project, which was an alternative site to Yucca Mountain, and then later at the Hanford Site. Stokes studied Thermal Fluid Systems in the Drexel University Nuclear Engineering program and participated in multiple co-ops, which provided school credit while working in the industry. His first co-op experience involved manufacturing and fabricating large Naval nuclear components, such as reactor vessels. Stokes’ then participated in another co-op at Westinghouse Electric in Tampa Bay, Florida, where large steam generators and pressurizers for nuclear plants were manufactured.
Early Nuclear Experience
What type of work did you do after graduating from Drexel University?
Bill Stokes worked for United Engineers and Constructors in Philadelphia as a Systems Engineer right out of college. He started out working on high temperature gas reactors, which was a newer nuclear technology at the time, developed in the 1970’s. Some production reactors experienced technical and engineering issues which caused many of these reactors to be converted to light water-cooled reactors and upcoming projects to be cancelled. Bill Stokes’ career shifted into the world of nuclear reactor construction as he took a position with Brown and Root in Texas as the Lead Mechanical Construction Engineer at Comanche Peak Nuclear Station. He was responsible for plant constructability.
Nuclear Plant Constructability
There are considerations in the design of the plant itself that affect the logistics of its constructability. How much do the design and nuclear engineers take this into account?
In the early 1970’s, the industry was fairly young and there were not many experienced constructors; Bill Stokes noticed that specialty knowledge about construction and delivery schedules and logistics were not paid attention to. Individual pieces of equipment dictated the sequencing of specific construction events, such as installation of large heat exchangers, which require a significant amount of space to mobilize and install. The most efficient and stable cost per kilowatt construction took place in Japan, where the projects were managed well, had defined requirements, and controlled cost. Following Comanche Peak, Bill Stokes returned to the Northeast in a position with an engineering consultant company to work outages at plants for operational plant upgrades and repairs.
Nuclear Plant Repairs
What are some of the components that were most susceptible to damage that needed repair during nuclear power plant outages?
Bill Stokes worked outages at plants to complete upgrades and repairs, including nuclear safety equipment designed into power plants, such as pumps and equipment designed to react during an event. Over time, pump seals would degrade due to lack of use, as this equipment was designed to standby. Stokes also saw some design flaws come up, such as the boiling water reactors’ nozzle configuration, which had a sharp crevice subject to strain and cracking. Stokes saw a large effort to remove those nozzles to mitigate the issue. Bill Stokes also saw regulatory driven changes after Three Mile Island. This including improved testing and surveillance of equipment, controls systems, and ergonomics of the control panes, as well as required stiffening of all piping systems to improve resistance to seismic events. Stokes saw his as a very major impact, since, after the stiffening, experts found that pipes were too stiff and could not respond, sending in teams again to remove some of the new hangers. There were also inconsistent approaches, such as the requirement to have an emergency off-site engineering center (EOC). One group wanted it on-site next to the control room, while one group wanted it ten miles away. Both requirements conflicted each other and required plants to have an EOC before coming back online. Issues like these caused construction schedules and budgets to both increase, directly impacting the public utilities funding the project.
Project Management Challenges
When did the DOE start discovering these project management challenges?
Bill Stokes saw issues come to light after plants resumed operation following outages. In the 80’s, public utility commissions claimed mismanagement of the projects and withheld payment for extended work. Legal fights started between utilities and utility commissions, and many went out of business. Project financing was the Achilles heel of the business. Some anti-nuclear organizations had the agenda to file multiple lawsuits, with the intent of causing a halt or delay construction, making the projects not economical and stopping contraction. One example is Diablo Canyon, which had a budget overrun of 1000%.
How did you decide to start your own engineering firm?
Since Bill Stokes was part of engineering consulting in the 1970’s, opening a firm was a natural progression and gave him experience to run a business based on his customer interactions and proposal work. In the early 1990’s, Stokes was Vice President of ICF Kaiser Engineers, which ran into financial problems through acquisition expansion. Stokes created an engineering consulting company with a colleague and began to focus on independent power projects, mostly gas combustion turbines. Learning that side of the energy market was valuable for Stokes, and as the price of gas changed, he migrated back into engineering services. Stokes started out with project management for the Hanford Site and was asked to assist the primary contractor with managing the single shell tank clean up program. The processing for weapons program created a lot of chemical waste, which was pumped into underground storage tanks.
Your consulting group started off as part of the project management on Hanford clean-up.
Did you branch out into other areas?
Bill Stokes�� consulting group focused on nuclear energy, but the U.S. administration was getting away from nuclear energy. Pollution was a big concern and natural gas was expensive at the time. Base load power production did not have a clean energy alternative. Nuclear science, such as medical radioisotopes, was being abandoned, not just nuclear energy. These radioisotopes were being used in medical trials to attach directly to cancer cells, called cell target therapy. Stokes’ firm saw some changes in the market and deficiencies in the industry’s ability to create the radioisotopes. Stokes wanted to used the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) at Hanford, which was the most advanced fast spectrum liquid metal test reactor in the world, but was shut down in 1992. All nuclear testing went offshore with the shutdown of the FFTF. Stokes’ firm went to DOE and proposed to privatize the surplus facility in order to produce radioisotopes for medical applications and also produce tridium, which is used for stabilization of the weapon complex.
Politics of Research
Where did you take your consulting group from there?
Bill Stokes followed the U.S. need for a fast spectrum test reactor. In 2001, the DOE released an Expression of Interest Request to commercial industry for possible uses of the FFTF. Both Stokes’ proposal and that of Argon National Labs were approved, but shortly after, the events of 9/11 shifted the importance of what the companies were proposing and were put off the table. In 2007, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was created to control closed fuel cycle technology, in order to prevent other countries to have the technology, while allowing them to still have nuclear power. Stokes sent in proposal for a grant to reconstitute the advanced reactor program team and looked at what it would take to put the plant back online. He put together a highly expert team and got called to assist with Traveling Wave Reactor physics, used by Terrapower.
Lead-Bismuth Cooled Reactors
The only fast test reactor that exists right now is in Russia; do we have to depend on
them to complete testing?
Bill Stokes’ company has difficulty completing tests with fast test reactors, since the only operating reactor is in Russia. His company has also looked into Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology. The NRC only wanted to work with traditional water-cooled technology, but Bill Stokes started looking around at advanced technology and discovered a Russian lead-bismuth fast reactor. Lead-bismuth was used as the coolant because it does not react with water and it had a very low freezing point. Stokes worked with Russia to license their technology for use in the U.S. Russia’s naval nuclear submarines used the lead-bismuth technology very successfully. Terrapower was also looking for a fast reactor to test their fuel. Political events have prevented the opportunity to complete this work with the Russians, as the federal government must approve the transfer of all nuclear technology. Stokes started to create lead-bismuth technology with his team based on his experience with sodium-cooled reactors.
What’s the development timeline for the your fast reactor?
Bill Stokes and his team continue to pursue investment organizations for long term funding in order to move the liquid metal reactor design along. They continue to support Terrapower, Idaho National Labs, and some molten salt reactor teams.