Ep 270: Chris Colbert - Chief Strategy Officer, NuScale Power
Q. What are you doing on everyday basis in Nuscale?
A. Chris works as Chief Strategy offices in NuScale since 2014, focusing on business
development, government affairs and working with customers on a number of issues. In Nuscale
a position of CSO is very flexible, which he likes.
Q. What did you study?
A. Chris’ initial choices were influenced by his parents. One of first experiences that Chris
recalls is reading “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. In his community there was a discussion
about nuclear waste and he remembers writing a paper about it in 8-th grade, that turned out
anti-nuclear. He got his Bachelor of Electrical Engineering at MIT and started his career in
General Electric. After several years he came back to university to make his Master from
Business Administration. This experience allowed him to look from the engineering details to the
macro-impacts of his actions. One of the first opportunities after graduation was to work in
Bechtel Financing Services, focusing on large construction projects. He developed several
power plants – in India, Australia, United States. He always believed that having access to
affordable power is an important factor for people to have a high quality of life. Wanting to join
the benefits of large scale projects with source of energy being clean, he looked for the first time
into nuclear. Around that time the Energy Policy Act of 2005 came to power, supporting building
new nuclear units, so called ‘renaissance’. Chris joined company called Unistar, that was a joint
venture between EDF and Constellation Energy, which was pursuing the design of US-EPR
reactor. His conclusion from this experience was that technology was very safe, but also very
based on active systems. It involved the use of four safety trains, diesel generators, required
active pumping to be cooled down. In 2011, when Fukushima occurred, two things became
clear – active systems were a challenge in case of power loss, and the size of the plants on the
level of 1600MWe made them too expensive to afford and a number of existing grids being able
to accommodate such unit was limited. Soon after Chris moved to NuScale and experienced the
features of its small units. They are passive, mostly manufactured in factory and affordable, on
the level of 3bn $, which is comparable to the coal power projects that Chris worked on, worth of
2.2bn $. Chris was looking on different sources of energy, also renewables and other nuclear
sources, but NuScale won in terms of scalability.
Q. Unistar was partly owned by a French company, EDF, could you observe different working
culture? Which one did you like more?
A. In Unistar, EDF was bringing cash into the venture and Constellation was providing platform
with the existing sites on it. At the beginning of the company, several hundred French nationals
came to US to work. Bringing these people and assimilating them was one challenge. The other
one was that the cultures are different, requiring cultural training. The last one was the language
differences which made it harder to communicate efficiently. Another interesting difference was
a custom of staff rotation in EDF, that is not usual in US companies. Finally, Chris spotted that
in the US the cooperation between companies and government is not as tight as in France.
Ultimately, the project was not successful - design was too large as for current US market needs
and the overall unfavorable economic environment (cheap natural gas, the onset of renewables)
Q. What do you think about big units and their future in nuclear?
A. There is a place for the large reactors for sure. Small reactors can fit in places with lower
capital or smaller grids, but large reactors are seeked for e.g. in Europe, while for district heating
and other applications, also a small reactor is wanted. For small grids, e.g. in Jordan small
reactors are better. Initially they were looking for large VVERs, but taking into account how
much transmission lines they would need to build to accommodate it, it turned out to be very
expensive. In conclusion, there is a place for both.
Q. When you moved to NuScale, what were the qualities and experiences that Unistar didn’t
prepare you for?
A. When moving to nuclear, Chris appreciated the safety culture – there is a space for an idea
and everybody is being heard. The independent power project were commercially driven, in
nuclear, the interest in safety, the culture you operate in and discussing ideas generally, was
work-inducive, which was refreshing. In his childhood Chris learned to present his ideas
forcefully, it is good to have similar response from people, when you work in the nuclear sector.
Q. You open numerous new partnerships, MoU’s with different countries. Does it take a lot of
time to prepare to enter new market, a newcomer country?
A. It’s a broad experience, depending on which countries are we talking about, it looks different
in terms of technology, regulatory, culture. In Chris’ experience he was exposed to partnerships
overseas, in particular the countries having partnerships with US government. Chris was
working on making sure in succeeding with the translation of public-private partnerships in US
into the projects overseas. In US a natural reaction is to be weary of the government. Overseas,
people are at intersection of these two all the time. Also, there is an expectation from the
overseas partner, that the government has to support NuScale to provide its credibility,
whereas, in US culture, government cannot pick favorite technologies or companies like e.g. in
China. The US has plenty of different companies and partly this is why they are so innovative
Q. How can you compete with state-owned companies?
A. NuScale is able to shut down and cool without a source of power. Next, because of the safety
case and all source term, the emergency planning zone that is the site boundary. That in part
is important to people. Once NuScale gets operable in the US, it will raise the confidence in the
design and this is where the company is competitive against state-owned enterprises. They will
not compete with the pricing of state owned enterprises, that are not so focused on profit.
However, Chris is excited about new results of a Fuel Working Group of DOE that plans to
implement US sources of financing, that will not be the cheapest, but will be available. It can be
in a form of loan or equity, that will be affordable. If the only factor that a client is strictly looking
at is price, then they are maybe going to choose Russians or Chinese, but as for safety,
operating history and avoiding a ‘pay day loan’ financing an American history is a good option
for them. Back in the US the competition is also based on the price, but it possible because the
rules and structures are already in place. When you go to a newcomer countries, they don’t
Q. Are there any incentives on bridging the SMR market between young companies designing
SMR and newcomer countries?
A. For example IAEA has its 19 steps showing what is there to do, focusing on establishing
regulatory framework and the regulator itself. NRC has about 43 MoUs to cooperate with foreign
regulators. NuScale wants to expand on that and provide US expertise, because they see that
their partners overseas are interested in aligning to the NRC standards. The US government
has realized that before selling a US reactor, a regulatory body is needed. There are initiatives
that NRC is taking to make sure that countries have solid foundations to make use of SMR
Q. What are your favorite economic advantages or NuScale?
A. The economy of scale: thanks to smaller scale of the reactor, many systems could be
removed. There are no coolant pumps, so there is no need for back-up power like diesel
generators. The project is easier to manage on-site, thanks to for example containment that is
factory-built. The outages can be performed module by module, which minimizes lost power in
the grid. Also thanks to it, on average every 2 months one of the modules in a 12-module power
plants will need to be refuelled, which supports excelling of the staff in this process. The
capacity factor of the plant is very high, around 95%. Chris recalls an analysis of SCRAMs in the
US reactor fleets and 2/3 of the cases were due to the faults that are not possible at NuScale,
like leaking DG, faults in Reactor Coolant Pumps etc. these benefits show up in the cost of the
plant, number of operators to maintain it, in Core Damage Frequency. For these reasons
NuScale can be cost-effective.
Q. What is the learning curve of NuScale?
A. Initially NuScale will be using existing manufacturing capacity to create the modules and the
optimization in this non-specified factory is supposed to be reached around 8 th reactor – in the
scope of the first power plant built. The second step of productivity will be second, dedicated
plant, where production efficiency thanks to purpose-built machines, layout etc. For comparison,
Chris mentions Unistar, that was counting on getting all the learning curve by the 4 th reactor.
The partnerships for the first step factory production are signed with BWX Technologies and
Doosan Heavy Industries. The search for a good partner was performed worldwide and the
conclusion is that thanks to the small size of modules, multiple companies are capable of
performing requested services. After the first module is manufactured, NuScale will be able to
assign the manufacturing to numerous companies worldwide.
Q. Many people have this opinion that technologies based on Light Water are only transition
technology, what do you think about it?
A. Chris says, that wood used to be transition fuel, the same is with coal and oil, natural gas.
NuScale doesn’t need to be around for a hundred years to be successful, they look up to maybe
2040. And after that, the modules will be in operation for many decades. Chris mentions that in
the developed world, the electricity is so cheap that there is little difference in changing the price
by several cents per kWh, it is still affordable to people. In the developing countries, the prices
of electricity are very high so bringing down this cost is of importance.
Q. What are long term plans of NuScale? Creating new reactor designs or rather providing
services for the units in place?
A. NuScale is going to stay focused on the current technology. They are going to obtain design
certification in September 2020 and they will be able to get the first customer. 40% of the
workforce is under 40 and they are interested to see what is the future of NuScale. However,
current focus stays on delivering the first module on time in budget and adequate quality.
NuScale was able to disprove the issues that people assume about nuclear like financing of the
young company, timely review of certification by NRC. Now they are working with their first
customer Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to deliver the product in time and budget
by learning all the possible lessons like achieving high degree of design complete before
starting construction. Some elements of NuScale are different from the rest of nuclear light
water fleet: instead of Control Rod Drive, there is a long control rod, instead of U-tubes in the
Steam Generator, the tubes are helical. Any part of the technical project that is deemed risky
will be analyzed before going to the field, including all the parts outside of nuclear island.
Q. What are the near-term goals of NuScale?
A. Chris outlines the next steps of NuScale as design certification, first customer, combined
license application, manufacturing trials and test with the supply partners to have modules
available when they need to be installed. It is a huge undertaking, requires attention to detail, a
proper plan. In this technology, if you want to do everything right at the first time, it requires time
and effort to prepare. Chris states a US nuclear fleet outage as an example. Before the outage,
around 20-25% of its budget is used, next, during only several months, 80% is spent, which
makes the outage time require a high level of detail and proper scheduling. Thanks to it, US
fleet has the lowest cost per unit produced, highest capacity factor and high safety. It was
observed that after TMI when nuclear industry was dedicated to development of safety, the
capacity factor of the plants went up, operating costs came down. This is partly why US nuclear
fleet is looked at the way it is and this could have been one of the reasons why EDF partnered
with Constellation to form Unistar.
Q. Are you excited about the nearest future of NuScale?
A. Chris is absolutely excited about the future. Chris wishes it happened faster, because this is
the longest he’s been in one job. There are many places where people don’t have enough
energy and they need it. NuScale has been the stage of growth in Chris’ career that was the
most challenging and the most worthwhile. Even more than him, his employees are excited
about the future. Chris likes meeting them. During the Covid crisis NuScale staff was
teleworking not diminishing their effectiveness.