Ep 256: Edouard Hourcade - Group Manager, Jules Horowitz Experimental Reactor
Edouard’s background (0:01)
Q: How did you get into nuclear field?
Edouard started from studying theoretical physics and continued with nuclear engineering to work on application of physics in electricity production. Due to his strong interest in research, he was hired by CEA – France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission and became a research engineer.
Q: What is CEA and what were you doing there at the beginning?
CEA was created after WWII by general de Gaulle as an institution responsible for delivering nuclear capacity to France. Big French nuclear companies, like Areva Group originate from CEA. The commission covers both fundamental and applied science. Edouard started his career in the group designing exotic nuclear systems which worked on, among others, magnetohydrodynamics coupled with neutronics, space systems for nuclear propulsion as well as fast reactors. First, he focused on core design of PWRs, which was a great entry into his career.
Sodium Fast Reactor development and ASTRID project (8:06)
Q: After that you were engaged in the fast reactor project. What was it about?
Edouard moved to the fast reactor program, which was launched by recommendation of the president Jacques Chirac and was sometimes called ‘chiractor’. Finally, ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration) program was created. Fast reactor program gave a space to perform developments in the simulation field, using artificial intelligence to extend the code and optimize the process of design. The large amount of data required clever management, which was also a challenge to researchers’ expertise. The beauty of this job were versatility and multiple possibilities of skills development. Nowadays engineers are designing the reactor concepts and hand it over to the machine to explore all options for design process.
ASTRID design process (16:50)
Q: What changed in the framework of the project after ASTRID was officialized?
Soon after ASTRID was launched, Edouard moved from process development to the project phase of ASTRID. He was piloting all the partners of the project in terms of the development of components for nuclear island. He enjoyed a lot international cooperation. ASTRID is 600MWe reactor consisting of pool of sodium with an exchanger to extract heat. He was in charge of designing safety systems for the secondary circuit of the plant as well as core catcher and reactor pit. Originally, ASTRID was a quite large reactor, which later developed into SMR-size project. Thanks to the last phase of a project Edouard learned to make a project come into life. He was amazed by the power of his engineers who were able to redesign the reactor into a smaller one in only 2 years. He thinks the project was sufficiently compact and optimized in terms of cost that ASTRID could have made an impact on nuclear industry. However, even if the engineering skills in this project were developed, they may not be fully transferred globally.
Intellectual property and communication after closing of ASTRID program (26:10)
Q: But it doesn’t need to be this way. What if I wanted to buy all this data and open a company ?
Even if somebody wanted to buy the project for further development, the obstacle is always the intellectual property. Sometimes, if some country is investing in a project, the IP rights are lost to the creator. It is complex to bring outside money and to keep IP rights. Finally at the end of 2019 the project was abandoned. Several papers announced it showing the decision in negative light, saying that the government wasted money. ASTRID was a project for the future, and maybe it was a lot of money, but in comparison of French budget is not so much. The investment was not so big for the national scale, so it’s not clear what was the communicate from the side of government.
Public communication (29:18)
Q: How should such a high-visibility project have been communicated ?
ASTRID did not communicate enough about all the benefits of development of this reactor, not knowing if people are ready for this so soon after Fukushima. However, direct communication is not the first issue, communication about energy is. Edouard was engaged in network of young professionals, European Nuclear Society - Young Generation Network and it’s French part - SFEN. One of the projects he realized was educating young students. He was struck by the level of education of the kids and also the teachers in terms of nuclear and energy in general. Media do not help in education of people. What he was working on, was micro communication for several dozens of people at once, but the true impact through is entering mass media.
European Nuclear Society Young Generation Network (35:14)
Q: So you realized you wanted to do something more than only being a professional, what were your tasks in ENS?
Edouard realized that he wanted to be more engaged in nuclear than only on professional level. He entered the Nuclear Society – young professional network is a good space to meet other people interested in nuclear. He became a chairman of ENS and had a chance to take part in COP conference. He thinks that the power of youth is amazing – the perception of interlocutors is much different then when facing youth than when speaking to older professionals.
Edouard admits that identifying with nuclear is scary - some people just want profession, some want also identity. The problem is that engaged nuclear engineers have to be also aware of the mistakes of nuclear industry and keep on explaining fundamentals. Sometimes nuclear professionals are being identified with the mistakes of nuclear industry and they are not ready for this. However, joining a society creates a team spirit, which is helpful.
Jules Horowitz reactor (40:57)
Q: You changed from doing these “exotic” projects into a down-to-earth one – Jules Horowitz Reactor...
Edouard wanted to build something that was using the exotic principles that he was studying for the past years, so he’s moved to the realization of research reactor, which is even more practical than ASTRID and also exciting. The reactor is a great riddle for him, being small and having safety constraints, used for multiple experiments like material aging, but also radioisotope production. JHR is a very ambitious project, the target is to make it work.
New nuclear (43:31)
Q: You said that maybe we’re listening to much to the physicists when designing reactors. How is it with new nuclear projects?
The current status of nuclear projects reflects the loss of the technical skills and the loss of big project management skills. Edouard’s view after having all his experiences is that all these constraints come from skill loss and high level of specification in nuclear. We over specify instead of looking back and checking if we really need it. The reactor lasts very long and it’s good for the operator, but this vision of reactor is not related to the engineering cycle, in this respect we should adapt more to the mainstream industry. Currently, conventional industry would be scared to take over a nuclear project. An idea that could be implemented in countries having large nuclear industry like France is having small projects all the time not to lose skills between the consecutive investments. SMR projects are great for this and pop up all around the world, in France it only came recently.
Future of nuclear (50:33)
Q: What is exciting for you in the nearest future?
We need to change perception of nuclear and communicate its role among people. Another path to follow is to refresh our old tools used for design, e.g. codification. Nuclear has special codes, like ASME, describing how to mechanically design a component. These codes are up to 50 years old and very outdated. We have an amazing database now, we should reinterpret the codification system as it’s too stiff, we are the prisoners of the codification. The codes are a pile of paper with tables and references, we could make it more interactive, but the challenge is to make the most of the code, create new rules which are more adapted to the current market. It could help to prove that on-the-shelf components are sufficient for nuclear industry. The industry could better understand us and then nuclear would not be so expensive.