July 3, 2019

Ep 174: Finis Southworth - Former Chief Technology Officer, Areva

Former Chief Technology Officer
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Show notes

0:00 Finis Southworth’s Entrance to Nuclear
Finis Southworth is the Former Chief Technology Officer of Areva. He got his PhD from the University of Florida in 1974, and then went on to teach at the University of Urbana-Champaign and expand their fusion research program.

Finis hoped to make an impact in fusion but he eventually realized that fusion wouldn’t be a practical energy source for quite some time, so in 1977 he left academia to work at Florida Power and Light (FPL). At the time, FPL had two operating reactors and bought the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station (Turkey Point) as a turnkey plant. The fuel for Turkey Point was leased at a price of $1/barrel from Westinghouse which was predicated on a $6/lb Uranium price and a $38/swu enrichment price. The end to end fuel contract with Westinghouse meant that Westinghouse owned the fuel, controlled the core fuel management, and at the end of the fuel cycle after the spent fuel was kept in a pool for 5 years, they would take it off site for reprocessing. By the end of the contract they defaulted to the actual Uranium price and changed the contract so that Westinghouse didn’t take back the fuel for recycling (based on government trends and the fact that the West Valley Nuclear Waste Site was still at pilot scale).

The idea at the time was that fuel could be recycled and prefabricated into new fuel, but this fell to the wayside. In the end, the plants were responsible for managing their own fuel, which is what Finis was hired to determined. President Carter gave a speech in April 1978 in which he called for a halt on reprocessing, so almost immediately, various reprocessing facilities such as the Allied-General Nuclear Services plant, the West Valley Demonstration Project, and General Electric’s Morris Operation all stopped. At the same time, commercial enrichment was outlawed because President Carter viewed reprocessing as enrichment, and considered them proliferation technologies. The commercial nuclear industry wasn’t favorable to this response and Finis thought President Carter's speech might end the industry.

Overtime they came to see that this speech meant that the Department of Energy would enrich the fuel out of the Paducah Site and the commercial nuclear companies would negotiate market prices with them. Eventually around 1981, they were able to negotiate to take up to 25% enrichment from offshore sources. The cost of enrichment escalated up to $138/kg-swu, although it never was inexpensive because of the diffusion technology.

7:00 The History of Nuclear Fuel Prices
Part of the reason the prices were so high is because they hadn’t perfected centriufges at the time. Later on Urenko, and others, improved the design to be more efficient and lower cost per swu than diffusion. A “swu”, or separative work unit, is what it takes to move 1 kg of fluoride up to the next level of enrichment. With the LES facility in Texas and Areva’s Eagle Rock Facility in Idaho (which was designed and licensed) would have been 1⁄3 of the national use capacities. When Fukushima hit, the international market collapsed and 50 reactors went off overnight, so the LES and Eagle Rock Facilities were never built.

10:00 How Florida Power & Light successfully built Saint Lucie Unit 2 Post - Fukushima
At the time, FPL had just started up St. Lucie Unit 1 (which was finished in 1976 and later fixed in 1977). In October 1978, FPL began plans to build St. Lucie Unit 2. Although Three Mile Island occurred in March of 1979, St. Lucie 2 was built and went commercial by August 1983 (only 58 months after). After Three Mile Island, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, bond interest rates were 14-15% and inflation was 12-15%. So it was hard to borrow large amounts of capital needed to build new nuclear and slight delays were exaggerated.

All four ~900 MW new build units that FPL were working on were built in 60 months or less and were built on or ahead of schedule, regardless of Three Mile Island. Comanche Peak and a variety of other units that were getting built at the same time were getting delayed. St. Lucie 2 was license number was 50-104 and it was the 78th plant licensed. From the time it got it’s construction permit, it surpassed 25 other units. Over the next five years, there was a constant battle to convince the NRC to meet the schedule set for St. Lucie Unit 2. To do so, they sent FPL employees to permanently work near the NRC (in then Bethesda) to really push their plant permits forward.

Finis thinks a large part of this success was because of the FPL project manager, Bill Derrickson who had the authority and will to see the projects through. Bill reported directly to the Board of Directors (instead of going through the CEO) so that he could communicate the urgency of completing the build on time in order to prevent risk of FPL going bankrupt. Since this was a Bechtel and Westinghouse turnkey plant, Bechtel helped pushed the plant forward. Bill also froe the design a year in advance of the construction and only allowed optimizations on construction for the next year out. As can be seen from certain new builds by AREVA, Series and Westinghouse, fixed cost and fixed schedule never works. St. Lucie Unit 2 succeeded because they didn’t have an outsourced project manager, the construction project manager was from FPL themselves.

As CTO, Finis was focused just on the core. They didn't want load follow because it eats margins, you can have better fuel economy without it. St. Lucie Unit 1 was 14x14 fuel assembly. Finis argued to keep the assembly of St. Lucie Unit 2 the same, but in the end they went with a 16x16 (16 rods wide and 16 rods long) assembly. The 14x14 assembly has 176 potential fuel rod locations and the 16x16 has 236, which gives you more surface area for the same power in a 16x16 assembly, and your linear heat rate becomes 30% lower. However, they had a lot of rod bow in the 16x16 and had higher axial growth so this design ended up being less advantageous. They had to perform a three month outage to take out the fuel and inspect it. Together with EPRI, they put together their own axial rod growth model to measure every rod (using tools from Babcock and Wilcox). They validated the model and they never hit critical path before the outage was over so St. Lucie Unit 2 had a record first refueling.

30:00 Finis Southworth Joins Idaho National Labs
Finis became known as the change agent for FPL Nuclear. He traveled to Japan to benchmark plants such as Kansai Electric, people on his team were independent and capable, and his team was empowered to speak up. After FPL won the Deming Prize in 1989, Finis was put in charge of system planning and getting their capital expansion plans for the next 10 years in order and ready for the public utilities. They modeled the state of Florida, as FPL had ¾ of the state and did a determination of need. Finis spoke to their new CEO, James Broadhead to explain their ten billion dollar expansion plan for the 1990s, but it was clear that they FPL wasn’t going to build more nuclear until 2000 or 2005.

Finis then transitioned to Idaho National Labs where they were working on a new production reactor which produced large quantities of Tritium. Every few years you have to refurbish the amplifiers but without the K Reactor, they were running out of Tritium. To solve this, they designed a concept with gas reactors to make Tritium; in 3 years they developed 27 different radiation capsules and 3 major fuel qualification capsules. A capsule is a stainless steel encased rod with fuel elements that you put in a test reactor, irradiate and use to pull out the fuel. The advanced test reactor was built in 1967 and started off as a navy research reactor but now it has many uses. The difference between the test reactor and an operational reactor is that it doesn't allow neurons to move around, so you can use this to see if Tritium is leaking out of the reactor and if it can be recovered (it was capable of 99% recovery). They resolved a few problems in only 3 years and they beat (conceptually) the heavy water design.

35:00 The Plutonium Focus Area
The Rocky Flats Plant, a former plutonium fabrication plant, was shut down on the basis of environmental regulations violations. However, shutting down the plant led to worse environmental conditions and subsequently, Rocky Flats never started again. A similar event happened at the Savannah River and Hanford Sites because the waste is stored in tanks and not in final waste storage locations. Right after the Nuclear Posture Review in 1994, DOE started a project on handling the weapons residues. Hank Dalton reported to Charles Curtis and headed the project under the DNFSB recommendation 94-1. There was about 20 tons of waste around the complex to get rid of. Hank Dalton wanted all the labs to be working together as a single project to get rid of the waste at all these laboratory sites (Hanford, Oakridge, Los Alamos, ect). Finis was the manager and put together a team of experts to drive a complex wide plan, called the Plutonium Focus Area.

38:00 Finis Southworth Joins AREVA
Finis applied to AREVA and became the CTO after a year. He worked with gas reactors for a year, then on their expansion to the EPR (third generation pressurized water reactor) and other generation 3 reactors. In the US, there was a want for technologies that required R&D and more time. Finis helped orchestrate the R&D to make it on a more reliable basis. In terms of changing the fuel, the costs and timelines for doing so would be enormous. This is because changes in fuel assemblies take over 10 years to qualify and you have to do lead assembly tests, so it would take 15 years before the new fuel achieves market penetration.

52:00 Finis Southworth’s Outlook on Nuclear
Finis believes that we need to be building advanced reactors. If the US had 500-600 GW of nuclear energy, our carbon impact would virtually disappear. We need to be building prototypes of different types of new technologies (molten salt, sodium, gas reactor, ect…), prove 4-5 different concepts and get them out to market.

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