Aug 28, 2019

Ep 180: Glen Watford - Chief Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy

Chief Engineer
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
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Show notes

A full career in GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (0:08)
0:08-7:27 (Glen describes what inspired him to study nuclear engineering and how he started working with GE.)

Q. You got started in Florida?
A. Glen’s father worked for Motorola. One of his father’s customers was Florida Power and Light. This gave Glen the opportunity to tour the Saint Lucie nuclear plant at a young age. Later as an architectural engineering student at the University of Florida, Glen attended a class where each engineering department head discussed their engineering focus. The nuclear engineering professor gave a passionate explanation of the industry, causing Glen to change majors to become a nuclear engineering student. He has been in the industry ever since.

Glen graduated from college one week before the 3 Mile Island accident. He notes that the late 1970s was a time for activism. Local groups were energized by the “not in my backyard” mentality and spoke against building nuclear plants in their neighborhood. However, this type of action was localized and not nationwide.

GE’s Edison Engineering Program enabled Glen to work in a different area of GE’s nuclear wing every 6 months over a 2 year period. The program also enabled Glen to take classes at UC Berkeley, where he was able to graduate with a master’s degree. This program gave Glen an idea of what he was interested in: looking into how the core interacts with the rest of the plant. He worked in a team that created the interface between the fuel designers and plant designers to understand system integration. The team looking into how systems interact with one another, including both normal operating systems and safety functions. Glen is now the Vice-President & Chief Engineer of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.

Uncovering GE’s past to reevaluate nuclear systems (7:28)
7:28-13:04 (Glen discusses the changes to reactor designs over time and how many designs remerge throughout GE’s history.)

Q. Removing heat from the core is one of the limiting factors that determines the size of the whole system, right?
A. It is dictated by the available turbine technology. Plants are optimized for steam flow conditions. The reactor design has changed over time to accommodate different flow rates of steam. Turbines have been redesigned to handle the increased steam flow, but pressure has not changed due to the requirement of reanalyzing every component of the primary system if pressure were to increase. Increasing pressure, therefore, comes down to a cost benefit analysis to understand if the increased efficiency percentage is worth the added cost. Additionally, super heat cycles have been looked into in the past, but it was determined that material issues do not make super heat cycles economical for nuclear plants. This is reevaluated every 10-15 years to see if new materials create more cost efficient solutions.

Glen has the opportunity to look into GE’s history to gain insight into the ideas that repeatedly emerge. He gives the example that in 1951, GE signed a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission to gain access to classified nuclear technology documents. This enabled GE to study 8 different reactor designs to move towards designing and building a commercial reactor. At the time, GE adopted the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) and Graphite Moderated Water Cooled Reactor designs. Most of the technology seen today has been looked into in the past, such as the new BWRX300, which is based off the same technology seen in 1951. Material technology changes, making some designs more feasible today than they were in the past. It is important to continue uncovering things from GE’s past to take advantage of what was learned then.

GE’s involvement in government programs (13:05)
13:05-18:00 (Glen describes the various nuclear projects that GE worked on with the US government.)

Q. The early industry had the opportunity to adopt other technologies, but comparisons pushed for PWRs and BWRS over other technologies, right?
A. Besides Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs), GE was looking at different technologies than most of the industry at the time. For example, GE was working on developing a Sodium Fast Reactor. GE worked independently of the US Navy and Rickover because GE was focused on commercial development.

While commercial development is a priority for GE, the company has been involved with the US military and the government’s nuclear efforts. GE developed the Knolls Atomic Power Lab to research power reactor development. During WWII, GE provided technology and electrical equipment for such things as aircraft carriers. From 1946 until the mid 1960s, GE ran the Hanford Site and were responsible for the reactors that produced plutonium for the US’s weapons program. In the late 1940s and 1950s, GE worked with the US government on the aircraft nuclear propulsion program, which looked into powering aircrafts indefinitely using small reactors.

Cost and regulation limit nuclear potential (18:01)
18:01-22:56 (Glen explains that the slowed innovation was due to new regulations, which the industry did not push back against.)

Q. We have access to this magical technology, but we have not embraced it. Why have we not unlocked this potential?
A. Looking back, GE did discuss other technologies and uses for nuclear power, but ultimately cost limited GE’s actions. It was important that the nuclear industry could compete with the existing energy industries while adequately protecting the environment and the public. Unfortunately, nuclear lost the competitive edge in 1979 with new regulations. Design and build slowed, creating uncertainties and driving up cost.

The nuclear industry did not push back against these new regulations because the industry does not have an effective public relations strategy. It stems from the fear of radiation. The large catastrophic potential accidents that many people think about are much worse than the actual probability of an accident. The nuclear industry has not been successful in portraying risk in the way the average person can accept. Glen is frustrated by this because he has spent the last 40 years working to improve the nuclear industry. He has spent a great deal of time convincing people of the benefits of nuclear energy but is faced with the predispositions people have and a lacking ability to accept nuclear power. He believes this stems from a rising lack of trust in corporations.

Regulations limit nuclear build speed (22:57)
22:57-29:32 (Glen explains that GE has lost building speed due to increased regulations and limited ability to refine the regulation process.)

Q. How many plants have you worked on during your 40 years?
A. In 1979, GE had 20 plants under construction and was putting on line 2 to 3 plants each year. GE has lost this speed and there is concern within GE that the capacity and knowledge to build at the rate of 1979 is lacking. However, the requirements for the nuclear industry are no different from other energy sectors regarding the design, testing and qualification processes. Further, 90% of a nuclear facility is a steam powered power plant with primarily civil, mechanical and structural engineers as staff. Regulations keep the nuclear industry from moving as fast as the coal industry. This is because coal plants only require protective devices on equipment and because the nuclear industry is reluctant to change. Even today, the perceived cost of adopting digital systems means that some protection systems are still analogue.

Relaxing regulations regarding digital systems are in the works, making it clear that restricting digital systems prevents systems from being as safe as they can be. However, many regulations are written at a high level, requiring qualitative analysis, which slows the regulation process. There has been some attempt at streamlining the regulation process for new plants, but because the nuclear industry suffers from a lack of scale, there is little opportunity to refine and improve the regulatory process through multiple iterations.

Limitations to experimental and international projects (29:33)
29:33-36:00 (Glen discusses GE’s experiment reactors, the waves of development and experimentation throughout history and the reasons why GE does not rapidly build in other countries).

Q. Is there any ability within the nuclear industry to just gain experience building?
A. GE has a history of working with the US government to build testing reactors for national laboratories. One example is the PRISM sodium fast reactor, which is the basis for the new Versatile Test Reactor (VTR). Building test reactors relies on government-sponsored development programs because energy is not handled well by the free market. Startups have an inability to take these projects on due to the extremely high cost associated with nuclear projects.

There were periods of high development and experimentation during the 1950s and 1960s, the 1990s and today. Overall, nuclear development comes in waves. Accident events may cause these waves, but development has always continued. The Department of Energy (DoE) initiated funding for a post 3 Mile Island reactor that was not water-based. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with water-based system and they are inherently safe, but there are many hurdles to overcome in demonstrating their safety to regulators.

When attempting to build in countries that do not have nuclear regulations in place, it comes down to local regional politics. GE does not try to get around regulations and have been talking to a number of countries around the world, many of which follow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements. GE wants to ensure that the recipient country has reliable and acceptable liability laws before entering into a project. Building in countries without an established nuclear regime comes with different challenges to those of the US, such as the need for nuclear education.

Readopting the natural circulation system (36:01)
36:01-41:17 (Glen explains the old designs he wants to see used in new designs, including the natural circulation system.)

Q. What are some of the design features that you have seen in the old plants that you would like to see incorporated into new designs?
A. The old plants were much more simple. More complexity brings higher cost. Glen would like to see the readoption of natural circulation, a feature seen in designs from the 1960s. Forced circulation was used to make systems more economical, but better understanding and materials means that natural circulation should be readopted. Natural circulation operates on the fact that the density of water inside the core is low because it is boiling. The colder feed water is dense, so gravity drives the flow in natural circulation. In a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), there is 1,000 pounds of pressure to drive the condensed steam back into the vessel. The benefit of natural circulation is not only that it eliminates pumps, pipes and valves, but it also decreases the risk that a pipe could break, which would cause a loss of coolant accident.

Designing without regard to the loss of coolant accident (41:18)
41:18-47:50 (Glen explains how to design an optimized plant based not on the loss of coolant accident, but on the most likely risk scenario.)

Q. Has anyone pushed to forget about the loss of coolant accident to design a system that does not account for this accident?
A. Risk-based licensing gives GE the ability to do this through design. This requires the understanding of how to design a plant based on the next most likely scenario: a station blackout. Regarding the loss of coolant accident, the industry has yet to raise the point that it should not be listed as the primary risk. Down the road, risk-based designs can be further improved to design based on a different set of assumptions that create safer, lower cost facilities. Designing without the loss of coolant accident as the focus will lead to smaller designs, decreasing the amount of concrete, and therefore cost, associated with the plant. Ultimately, designing is all about tradeoffs and optimizations.

Achieving GE’s nuclear goals (47:51)
47:51-53:39 (Glen explains his goals for the future of nuclear for GE and the wider sector.)

Q. What do you think is an achievable building target for the BWRX300?
A. Glen believes 2 years should be GE’s target for designing and building the new BWRX300 reactor. To be competitive, GE must design for cost. Change control is the number one issue within the design process, meaning only design changes that support the mission should be approved. Achieving this target also relies on looking outside of the nuclear industry to understand how other sectors build large underground structures quickly. Additionally, GE must further understand how much of the BWRX300 can be pre-built and assembled on site.

Moving forwards, GE is focusing on how to make the BWRX300 more cost effective. GE is also working on the new VTR to renew the sector’s testing ability. GE is also focused on the continued operation of their current fleet of reactors with the goal of improving fuel efficiency to lower operation costs. Maintaining the fleet is necessary to building the bridge towards the new reactors.

For Glen, the future of nuclear depends on understanding that nuclear power can not be the only solution to achieving sustainable energy. Nuclear energy must be used as part of the solution along with other clean energy sources.

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