Ep 361: Ian Grant - Principal, Ian Grant Consulting
Michael Crabb [00:00:59] Welcome to another episode of Titans of the Nuclear.
Ian Grant [00:01:02] Thank you very much, pleasure to be here.
Michael Crabb [00:01:04] We're thrilled to be joined by Ian Grant, independent consultant and long time nuclear expert. Great having you on.
Ian Grant [00:01:10] Thank you. I'm honored and delighted to be interviewed as a titan of nuclear. It'll be an experience for me.
Michael Crabb [00:01:15] Fantastic, fantastic. Well, before we get into some of the cool stuff you're working on now, tell us about you. Where are you from?
Ian Grant [00:01:22] Well, my accent betrays me as a native of Scotland. I currently live in Ottawa.
Michael Crabb [00:01:28] Okay.
Ian Grant [00:01:29] Maybe I should explain how I came from Scotland to Ottawa.
Michael Crabb [00:01:32] Yeah, you're growing up in Scotland and you said what, "I want to work in nuclear." Like, what?
Ian Grant [00:01:35] Well, as a young graduate, I studied at Glasgow University, engineering. I'm a mechanical engineer by background. And around the time I graduated was in the period of the first Arab oil embargo, the oil crisis, so-called, in the mid 1970s. I'm dating myself. I was a young student at that point. And, you know, it raised energy and energy supplies and consciousness of energy supply and insecurity in the Western world which had become used to cheap oil and cheap gasoline. It raised that as a question in my mind, and I felt this is something I'd like to enter and work in. Out of university, I joined a company that owns Babcock & Wilcox, a storied name with a big works near Glasgow, which was working at the time on both coal-fired facilities because that's what Britain was building, but also components, steam generators for the new advanced gas-cooled reactors that the UK was building, particularly Hartlepool. I had the opportunity to work on some of that really cool advanced technology at Babcock and it really got me started and interested in the potential of nuclear as an energy source that would benefit the world. My idealism, if you like, came to the fore early.
Michael Crabb [00:02:57] You were an early adopter.
Ian Grant [00:02:59] Just so. Yes.
Michael Crabb [00:03:00] So you're an early adopter, you're designing these plants...
Ian Grant [00:03:03] So there I am in Scotland, and I spent about five years at Babcock. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went back to university to do a master's degree because I figured that I needed to know a little more about... in fact I was working still in mechanical materials. I went back to do a master's degree in materials at an institutional called Cranfield in the UK. And then from there I applied for a job in Canada. I looked up an advert in the Daily Telegraph and there was a really good one Sunday afternoon that said "Engineers wanted in Canada."
Michael Crabb [00:03:33] Okay. No, no, no. You don't just see an ad in the paper and fly across the pond.
Ian Grant [00:03:37] I'm telling you, this ad was this big. This was how jobs were advertised in those days.
Michael Crabb [00:03:43] But were you thinking of moving or did you want to come to North America, or you wanted something different in your role?
Ian Grant [00:03:48] No, I had actually interviewed with the UK Atomic Energy Authority and was working on a job offer, but I saw this small ad, I got my atlas out and I thought, "There it is." And I applied. I was single; I had the opportunity to go. I thought, if I don't like it, I can always come back again. And it turned out I got the interview in London with the guy, a New Zealander called Ed Price, who'd become my boss in Canada. He made me an offer. I went to join this company called Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., with no idea what I was getting into, but it turned out to be a great job. I'm still in touch with my former boss and former colleagues. But back in those days, this was before the Internet. It was before personal computers. It was before all this electronic stuff. And nuclear in Canada at the time, I felt was like the Google of today. It was the coolest thing going in technology.
Michael Crabb [00:04:40] So you knew that Canada had some real tailwinds for the industry. If you wanted to be in the industry, it was the place to go. So you saw this opportunity and were like, "Hey, I got to try it."
Ian Grant [00:04:51] Yes, exactly. And so AECL at the time, it still exists, I was listening to my colleague Fred Dermarkar speaking at this event as CEO of AECL. But at the time it was a fully configured, integrated R&D engineering project company. It was the designer of the CANDU reactor. It's a well-known reactor design which still supplies 60% of Ontario's electricity. And I got into the engineering organization to help design and build CANDUs in Ontario and abroad. And it was a really exciting time. As I said, I think it attracted the brightest minds in the country because it was one of the coolest things going on in technology. It had this aura about it. This is pre-Chernobyl and while nuclear still had that high tech aura. And I cemented my place in Canada. I met my wife in Canada and the rest, as they say in that regard, is history.
Michael Crabb [00:05:52] So then, yeah, you're in Canada, and you're still in Canada today, right?
Ian Grant [00:05:54] Well, I have a bit more of a story to that. After nine years at AECL, I moved to the Canadian regulator to carry on doing the same sort of work I'd been doing at AECL, but on the regulatory side, looking at what had become an important issue as regarding the maintenance and what's called, in technical terms, fitness for service of the CANDU pressure tubes, the fuel channels. There had been a couple of early failures of fuel channels which are of concern, and there was a lot of work done, a lot of innovative work done on understanding the causes of failure and developing inspection programs, maintenance programs to preclude failures. I got a little bit involved in that with AECL. When I moved to the regulatory body in Ottawa, I continued that work with a small group of technical specialists and worked for some period in that field.
Michael Crabb [00:06:52] And what was that transition like? Because it's, you know, similar subject matter, right? But a very different lens and I think probably a little bit of a different culture. And so talk to us about what...
Ian Grant [00:07:05] Yes, you're right about that. It is a real change in culture. I traded, I guess, or I worked on my technical expertise, but I moved from an organizations that was promoting, designing, and enthusiastic to the regulatory organization where, the regulator is not anti-nuclear or pro-nuclear, it's culture formally is to be independent and to assess the proposals made by the licensees. I think in a way it's a senior role. You sit in a way in judgment or evaluating the work of your peers. It's an important and serious role, and I grew to appreciate it. We built professional, respectful relationships with colleagues in Ontario, Ontario Power Generation and AECL and others, to help to fulfill our role. It was a job I enjoyed. I liked working for the CNSC. Eventually I moved; another important career step was moving out of the technical field into leadership roles, which is a big step in the career trajectory of many technical professionals. You give up the technical skills that give you some measure of authority, some respect, and move into leadership, which is different. And I benefited from excellent training offered by the CNSC. I was given opportunities. I took over the leadership of some of the technical divisions there.
Michael Crabb [00:08:31] So still at the regulator.
Ian Grant [00:08:32] Still at the regulator.
Michael Crabb [00:08:33] Just overseeing a broader team.
Ian Grant [00:08:35] That's right. And I eventually rose to the position of Director of Power Reactor Regulation, overseeing the licensing and safety assessment of the fleet of CANDU reactors in Canada.
Michael Crabb [00:08:50] What time was this transition taking place now over the years, approximately?
Ian Grant [00:08:52] I joined the CNSC in '89. It's seems like ancient history now. But by 2002 I was holding senior leadership roles in the CNSC in reactor safety assessment and licensing. That was a really busy job. As a matter of fact, I was speaking to the current incumbent just before I came here who's acquired some more gray hairs, still working on pressure tubes and other safety related issues to assess them, to verify the safety of the operating reactors in Canada. I think it's a worthy job. You deal with senior people in industry. It's a serious job. You're working on behalf of Canadians to ensure the safety and security of the facilities that are operating under supervision of the CNSC.
Michael Crabb [00:09:47] And so this is an issue, though, that's been, you know, 30, 40 years of management. I mean, can you tell us more about the... don't get too technical on me. I mean, our audience probably will know. But tell us more about this specific tube failure issue that you're working on. How did you measure it? How do you test it?
Ian Grant [00:10:06] Well, CANDUs are a unique design. It gives them unique advantages and some particular issues. The reactor core is contained in hundreds, 480 is the standard number in the 900 megawatt units, of long slender tubes which contain the fuel bundles and the hot high pressure coolant. That distinguishes the design from other conventional light-water reactors where the reactor core is contained within a heavy single pressure vessel, which is a massive steel forging. So CANDUs have got manufacturing advantages that don't require the large metal components that other reactors require. But the pressure tubes are subjected to intense heat and radiation in the reactor core. This changes the radiation; the heat changes the mental properties, the metal becomes harder, more brittle. It also corrodes slowly in the high temperature water. And these changes over time can lead to, if unchecked, potential failures of the tubes, wherein the limit, they might burst.
Michael Crabb [00:11:23] Are they pressurized?
Ian Grant [00:11:24] Yes. They carry the full pressure of the actual coolant. And so the industry has developed careful inspection techniques to examine the interior of the pressure tubes when the fuel is removed, to look for the presence of possible defects, to assess the level of corrosion that's taken place and the consequential uptake of hydrogen. And that's part of the fitness for service monitoring programs we've implemented and standardized across the fleet of CANDU reactors. And the fact that the reactors have run since my early days in AECL for 30 years without significant failure is a testament, I think, to the skill of the men and women who've worked in this field.
Michael Crabb [00:12:02] Can you just replace the tubes, or?
Ian Grant [00:12:06] In fact, that is what is happening at the operating stations now. Darlington, for example, I was speaking last night to people from Ontario Power Generation who've just completed a successful, what's called refurbishment of Unit Two at Darlington, where they tear down the reactor, remove the pressure tubes and the internal core components and replace them. It's an enormously complex project.
Michael Crabb [00:12:30] You said there were 400?
Ian Grant [00:12:31] 480 of these fuel channels, and they've done that. This has now been repeated enough in different units. They've now got this down to a fine art. They're being funded to do this. In fact, Ontario's not building many new big nuclear power plants. What it is doing is putting money into the refurbishment of these CANDU units, so that each unit, once it's been rebuilt, will run for another 30 or 35 years, ensuring the continuity of generation, low-carbon nuclear generation in the province.
Michael Crabb [00:13:01] It's incredible that we can extend the life of these, I mean, almost indefinitely, right?
Ian Grant [00:13:05] Yes, yes.
Michael Crabb [00:13:06] They become totally new units at some point.
Ian Grant [00:13:08] Yes, it's like Charlemagne's original war axe, two new heads and three new handles, but it's the same. And so these are important projects, economically important. They've been carried out with a great deal of skill and effort by the people in OPG and Bruce.
Michael Crabb [00:13:28] I can imagine. Okay, well, we got away from your story, specifically. So you're in leadership at the Canadian regulator, and then what?
Ian Grant [00:13:35] And then I took an unusual move. I accepted a position in Abu Dhabi. Through initial networking contacts, I came to learn of and was offered a position in the embryonic regulatory organization in Abu Dhabi to help to... My position was to help to set up a new regulatory organization and to oversee the licensing and construction of the what's called the Barakah facility, the nuclear facility that the United Arab Emirates had built at the site called Barakah.
Michael Crabb [00:14:12] And this wasn't a newspaper ad this time; this was a little bit more of a traditional job search.
Ian Grant [00:14:14] This wasn't a newspaper ad. Well, actually, it was word of mouth. I'd been interacting with another colleague through an international project we'd been working on, a Swedish gentleman, and we'd been talking about the project. And he said, "By the way, there's something else I'd like to mention to you." This was the something else. He'd already been appointed as the deputy head of the organization and he was looking for senior people to join him. So I joined what became the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation in Abu Dhabi as the Director of Nuclear Safety. And I think that was really, so far, the highlight of my career. It was a fascinating assignment, a really rewarding experience professionally and personally.
Michael Crabb [00:15:03] I can imagine. Where do you start? You're building a nuclear regulator from scratch? Where do you start?
Ian Grant [00:15:08] Well, at the beginning.
Michael Crabb [00:15:11] But where the heck is the beginning?
Ian Grant [00:15:15] Well, in the very beginning, you know, my badge number is #25, but there weren't 25 people in the organization when I got there. That was the number of people they'd made offers to. There's about a dozen people. And then in the beginning, we sat around the table and said, "What should we do next?" It was really that informal. But I would say that we were operating in an environment where there was really strong policy leadership from the government. The government of the UAE had already undertaken studies. All of the electricity generated in UAE up to that point was generated by natural gas. And the gas wasn't produced locally; it came from a pipeline from Qatar. And of course, money flows in the opposite direction. And whether the system is working, the objectives of the government, as I understand them, were to diversify the fuel supply and also to adopt a generation means that was environmentally sustainable and nuclear was seen as fulfilling these criteria. So the government already made the decision that it wanted to build a nuclear power plant, and it already decided that it was going to set up a regulatory body and an operating company, which was known as Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation. So the frame had been set, if you like, and our job was to make this happen.
Michael Crabb [00:16:30] And how important, when you're thinking about the complexities of a regulatory system with such a technical project, or really projects, right, you're trying to kind of create a process. Maybe compare and contrast that political support and sort of, "Hey, we want to do this and we just want to do it well," versus maybe other jurisdictions that are like, "Oh, you know, it sounds nice," or that has more of a kind of sine wave of support.
Ian Grant [00:17:00] Yes, yes. Well, I think that one of the success factors was in fact the clear policy support of the government. In fact, I just listened to, maybe you were in the room too, our colleague Ahab speaking, who talked about the need for leadership. He referred to President Eisenhower's speech and commented that actually political leaders tend not to commit to nuclear in a way that really provides that driving force in the way that the UAE did. So I think it is very important. I think when policy support is tentative, when many voices are raised and it's a debate, it's very hard for these projects to move forward. That governmental support is actually quite important.
Michael Crabb [00:17:43] Yeah. What have you seen more specifically that the UAE did, or other governments in your pretty broad experience that really drove that signal?
Ian Grant [00:17:53] Well, I think the era I joined Canada in had a similar policy. EACL was a state-owned corporation, a Canadian creature called a crown corporation. It is a state corporation which was managed on... It wasn't a civil service organization, it was managed on normal business lines, but the government was it's sole stakeholder. And its mandate was to implement nuclear energy in all its forms. And at the time, there was public support and really a huge program. When I got to Canada, they were building, if memory serves me right, something like 12 reactors at one time. Were we nuts?
Michael Crabb [00:18:35] We've seen that in the UK, right? They all kind of go in waves.
Ian Grant [00:18:39] Exactly. And I think that it's important in the present for leadership to merge because if you even halfway believe the numbers that we hear about the need for electrification of the economy and the enormous uplift required in generation capacity, we need to get back programs on that sort of scale and the industry needs to deliver projects reliably, on time, on budget, and I believe we can do it. But that is, I think what's crying out for. This tentative, "Let's build one," isn't by any means the sort of, I think, leadership that's needed. You see examples of that. There's a lot of excitement and leadership in Canada now with the SMR Action Plan. The government has taken actions that are much more supportive of nuclear development. But I think more is needed. And I think the UAE as a present day model shows the sort of leadership that's needed to implement a successful program.
Michael Crabb [00:19:38] Yeah. Yeah, incredible. I do get the sense, I'd be curious based on your history, comparing across these years, if this is true, but it certainly seems the last 6, 12, 18 months, there's been a remarkable shift in just broad public sentiment and industry excitement. And I feel like that's flown into the political sphere as well. It's maybe the only bipartisan supported issue in the United States, or one of the few. But I'm not sure people really know how to like voice and articulate that support. I've been frustrated personally that, you know, it just sort of shows up in like free money that gets doled around.
Ian Grant [00:20:20] Free money in what sense?
Michael Crabb [00:20:21] Well, grant money and funding. The governments love... You know, it's very splashy to play venture capitalist. It's a lot harder and much more boring to change some of the very particular things around project development and regulatory processes and revenue incentives. So what sort of conversations have you had lately around how we can create a proper incentive, sort of a demand-pull incentive instead of a supply-push?
Ian Grant [00:20:53] That's a big question, isn't it? I mean, I chaired a panel yesterday on public-private partnerships with a good set of panelists, including Maria Korsnick, the CEO of Nuclear Energy Institute. And one of the questions that came up from the audience I think was an interesting one, because while people are bullish with SMRs and saying, "This is the wave of the future," the question they asked is, "But policies just closed, last month... Another nuclear generating station shutdown because it's not making money. How do you reconcile that apparent contradiction? Nuclear nuclear plants are struggling to stay in business, and yet we're saying we're going to build lots more of them." And I think, Maria's answer, and I don't mean to quote her, but I'll put it in my words, I think it's true that the answer is the current market isn't conducive to... Nuclear projects aren't bankable. The prospects of an economic return on the project seem to be uncertain. It's hard to get private investment into nuclear projects, and I think that's got to somehow change.
Michael Crabb [00:22:00] How do you change that?
Ian Grant [00:22:03] Well, economists say carbon pricing. That's the rational answer, but it's a very, very unpopular one in this era of rising gas prices. If the market only pays you for electricity, that's all you get. You get the lowest cost generation electricity. If the market says you've got to pay for electricity and to reduce carbon, then nuclear and also renewables will then come to the fore through economic incentives. I think that sort of signaling in the market needs to be there in order for nuclear to attract private sector investment. But of course, governments can also do a lot in terms of... On the panel I talked on yesterday, public-private partnerships. We see innovative financing ideas coming from the UK, which seems to be making progress in this area with taking on some of the risk and taking that off the shoulders of investors and making it more possible for projects to move ahead in that way.
Ian Grant [00:23:06] Another area, maybe closer to my expertise and what I'm currently doing is regulation and licensing. I think it's also important to realize the idea of a global market where standard designs are sold in different countries, which I think is essential to the vision of propagating SMRs at low cost. It's going to be essential for regulators to cooperate and to ensure that, on the one hand, they deliver on their accountability to their government and to their public, which is to verify the safety of what's been built, without at the same time needlessly redoing assessment and review of what has already been done competently in other countries. I think that's one of the challenges facing the regulatory community that I'm certainly trying to help WNE, the World Nuclear Association address. And I know that other colleagues in the regulatory field are engaging on this topic.
Michael Crabb [00:24:04] Yeah, I'd love to pick your brain more on that exact kind of harmonization question because I think it actually dovetails with our policy support. Because I do fear that harmonization just means we'll take the strictest part of everything is just make it exponentially more challenging.
Ian Grant [00:24:27] That's right.
Michael Crabb [00:24:28] And I don't necessarily believe that that's really a rational or effective approach and is much more harmful to society., but, you know, personally. So, yeah, how do you avoid that sort of outcome or, you know, taking more of a sort of first principles approach to like...
Ian Grant [00:24:46] Yeah. Well, I think there are a couple of things that could be done, more than a couple. And more than a couple of things need to be done in order to avoid these very issues. One, I think, can be cooperation among regulators. And as an example of that, I'll go back to my UAE experience. The UAE built, you may know, a Korean reactor design after a bidding process. And very wisely, they specified in the bid specifications that the technology, whatever technology was offered, should include a reference plant that had been licensed and was operating in the country of origin. The Koreans fulfilled that requirement. And when they started work, not only were experienced Korean engineers seconded or brought to the UAE to help construct the reactor, they almost had wet concrete still in their boots because they'd come from the construction site.
Michael Crabb [00:25:38] Just did it the exact same way.
Ian Grant [00:25:40] They did it exactly the same way. They were not on a quest wondering where it was going to go. They had books of photocopies saying, "This is what it's to look like in three months time." But also, the regulatory bodies created agreements, cooperative agreements. And FANR, the federal authority that I was working for received a lot of support from the Korean regulator, so that in particular, they helped us understand the safety assessments that they had conducted on the plant in Korea. They walked us through the arguments they made. They helped us understand the standards they had reviewed against to the extent that we could say, "Okay, we understand this particular piece of review. We understand that the standards you're looking at are compatible with the standards we believe are required, and therefore, we're going to make a decision to accept this topic, this area of review, simply based on the fact that you've accepted it. We're not going to inquire any further." We focused our efforts on where there were differences. And there were differences between the Korean plant and the UAE plant brought about by things like siting, the extreme climate in the UAE, the water temperature differences and so on. But we focused on reviewing these which were new information and not on redoing what other regulators have competently done. And that is a model called the Reference Plant Approach or the Country of Origin Approach. I've given you a recent example, but it's also been amply demonstrated in the past. When the original plants were built in Belgium, for example, or France, when plants were imported from Westinghouse, a lot of the U.S. rules were also imported.
Michael Crabb [00:27:13] So apply that to an SMR or an AMR where there's a chicken and egg issue here, right? A little bit. There's may not be a reference plant for...
Ian Grant [00:27:21] But you need a first of a kind. I mean, I think one of the challenges with SMRs is that somebody has to build one and get it operating.
Michael Crabb [00:27:30] Right. The regulator can't regulate if they don't see it operating. How do we sort of bridge this?
Ian Grant [00:27:35] Well, I think the answer is get one operating. Somebody's got to be first of a kind. And you have, I think, the near term deployable SMRs, in my language. I carry no flag for particular models, but obviously you have the NuScale plant which has already received design certification with USNRC. That's a huge intangible resource, that design certification application and Safety Evaluation Report. General Electric's BWR is based on subject technology. Once we hear serious proposals to build these types... Ontario Power Generation's Darlington new nuclear project seems to have all the characters of a concrete project. They're going to build it. TVA has announced a similar project, and TVA and OPG are going to collaborate. Now, if the regulators can also get together, and CNSC and the USNRC have a cooperative agreement, we heard President Rumina Velshia discuss this in her talk, then I think there's scope for working out particularities of difference in the regulations that cause the economic difficulty of the vendors and realize efficiencies. Once you have these first two plants built, I think others around the world, we hear of Estonia, Poland, to name a couple who are interested in doing likewise, I think there's a potential they're getting support from the vendors, whoever they may be, and the regulators who've got the experience of these plants to help them develop the regulatory framework in an efficient way. So I think by working in that collaborative way, I think there's a prospect of removing differences that are causing difficulties for the vendors but which have got no significance for safety. I mean, I think clearly, if a reactor's safe enough to operate in the United States it ought to be safe enough to operate in Canada or Estonia. It doesn't make sense to say that our demanding requirements are... In the present day and age, that doesn't seem like the right approach.
Michael Crabb [00:29:47] There seem to me to be two challenges there, right? The first is... Your example in the UAE was very successful in part because you had the reference plan. But I think a major driver is that political support and that sort of dual mandate obligation by the regulator. Because if you're only going to weigh one side of the scale, it's almost impossible to ever do it. And so that for me, and harmonization... Like, you can collaborate all you want and use best practices, but if you're only measuring one side of the scale, how do you ever get there? So I think that's a really critical piece that I don't know how to rationalize in my head.
Ian Grant [00:30:29] I think there has to be a dialog between the industry and the regulator. If the regulators are left in the room to themselves, they can talk about harmonization and they can do fruitful work and collaborate in a very collegial way. But I think what the industry has is a sense of... I mean, harmonization for the regulators, it sounds like a really big issue.
Michael Crabb [00:30:52] I think it like feels like it's taking away... Really smart, hardworking people that, I think, many have been there for a decade. And so they have real ownership of their process. So saying, "Hey, we're going to use this part of it," I think is like, well, you know...
Ian Grant [00:31:08] I think it's a natural human reaction. I saw that in the UAE, reviewers who say, "What do you mean we're going to accept this because the Koreans accepted it. I want to review this."
Michael Crabb [00:31:17] This is my thing; I've got to know this.
Ian Grant [00:31:19] That's a very natural human reaction, I think. And also, I think it's important to recognize that each national regulator has an accountability to its government and to its public. It can't say, "We give a license to this because we had a license that was granted somewhere else." It has to do its due diligence. But I don't think that due diligence needs to take a graded approach. Apply a risk informed approach. It doesn't mean that you have to review every single calculation. You have to do enough for it to satisfy yourself that what's being offered is safe. The way I used to speak of the UAE experience was that we were not taking shortcuts and doing a substandard job, we were enhancing safety by working with experts who were already familiar with the technology.
Michael Crabb [00:32:04] That's better for everyone, right? To build on that work that's already been done.
Ian Grant [00:32:07] The alternative of us saying, "We're going to do it ourselves," it doesn't... So enhancing safety was the first, and we're enhancing the efficiency, we're helping the effectiveness of review. And regulators, I think, wil;l probably always say, "Our mandate is safety and security," but I think there's a responsibility to work with the project proponent not to be an unnecessary delay. I always said to my counterparts in the UAE and also in Canada, "We recognize your project schedule. We will work as efficiently as we can to meet your project schedule. We'll give you our estimates of how long we think a review is going to take. We will stay in contact with how it's going, but recognize that we are here ultimately not to promote the project, but ensure safety." I think within that ethical approach and professional approach, there's much that can be done by adopting a respectful professional relationship rather than an adversarial one.
Michael Crabb [00:33:09] Absolutely, absoltely. And there are great examples in other industries as well that deal with high requirements in safety and industrial complexity.
Ian Grant [00:33:18] That's right. The example of aviation is often talked about. I think the similarities are that nuclear designs, it costs so much to develop a nuclear reactor that I think ultimately what's going to be successful around the world are a small number of different designs that are marketed internationally. You see the same thing in commercial aircraft. It's very hard to tell if we arrived in an Airbus or a Boeing, because they all look the same.
Michael Crabb [00:33:44] Sure.
Ian Grant [00:33:47] More or less for the same reasons. It's enormously expensive to develop a commercial aircraft, they're optimized according to the set of rules, and they wind up with similar looking products.
Michael Crabb [00:33:58] What is expensive. I want to peel that back because I think people think about, "This is a really expensive hot rock." What is so expensive about a nuclear plant? Are you specifying between a nuclear design or a reactor design or the full power plant delivery itself?
Ian Grant [00:34:16] Well, let's break that down. I mean, the engineering of a nuclear power plant is a small fraction of the total cost of building a modern gigawatt scale nuclear power plant simply because of the massive amounts of material and labor that go into the physical construction. But if you peel that back, there are many innovative designs of SMRs out there. In the early stages of conceptual design, a design on paper with a flow sheet that on paper has got attractive features, it has nevertheless got to go through a process of maturation of the technology until it's ready for licensing. You need, for example, to submit to the regulator a coherent safety assessment. It's not sufficient simply to say our reactor is safe, you need to demonstrate it's safe. There needs to be a set of arguments and evidence provided to support those arguments. In the design of molten salt reactors, for example, they seem to have some excellent features that make them very attractive. It's necessary for the developers to step through that. And in addition to providing an analysis, there may be a need for experimental evidence to back up particular claims. You may need to do some lab work to support what's being offered in terms of a computer code analysis and validate codes. And that's expensive for developers, to get to the point where they've got the design that's mature enough for licensing and for commercialization.
Michael Crabb [00:35:45] So why not use existing designs?
Ian Grant [00:35:48] Well, I think that's what you're seeing and what I've referred to already as market-ready SMRs. They're based upon existing light-water reactor technology. They show evolutionary improvements with passive systems design. We heard the NuScale developers say that they've been approved for off-grid operation. You don't need electricity supplies in from the grid to maintain the safety of the plant is the claim they make. And that's been accepted, I understand, in design certification. So these are worthwhile gains, but the technology is still familiar. It's still based upon what regulators and designers around the world are seeing.
Michael Crabb [00:36:27] It seems to me that's really the commercial opportunity. Because you can't demonstrate, experimentally, the thing at scale that you want to build at scale. It's like a circular problem.
Ian Grant [00:36:39] It's like aviation. I mean, in aviation you build prototypes and test them. And I think that a lot can be done with computer software and sophisticated analysis codes. But some of this is going to require expendable and verification, and that's costly for developers to bring that up to market.
Michael Crabb [00:36:58] No, that's fascinating. Okay, well, we've gone all over the place. Just to wrap it up here, what have we not talked about that you wanted to make sure that we covered?
Ian Grant [00:37:10] Well, you know, I've been enthusiastic about what I've heard at this conference. This is a moment of renewed optimism for the nuclear industry that, to my mind, recalls the heady days of joining AECL and working in Britain on these cool projects. I really hope that the industry can deliver the first few plants. I think if they're built on time, on cost, and start to generate electricity, there's going to be an enormous acceptance of that as a model and you'll start to see it propagate. But I think it's very important to get over that hurdle of talking about it and actually building one, on time, on budget.
Michael Crabb [00:37:55] I couldn't agree more. So I couldn't agree more with that. We need to get steel in the ground because the scale of the the problem is enormous.
Ian Grant [00:38:04] That's right.
Michael Crabb [00:38:05] And how do you think about that fear? When I've talked to people, sometimes there is this fear like, "Oh, the first one has to be so perfect." It's almost a paralyzing nervousness.
Ian Grant [00:38:14] I agree. I absolutely, totally agree with that. And Ahab spoke very... He talked about how we've been regulated to a standard of perfection so that the least imperfection is cause for disengagement. And I think we've got to get over that. You know, in the early days, all sorts of mistakes were made. People say, "We built a plant in five years." Yes, but when you look at all of the work that has been to be done to fix it after that and to deal with unexpected occurrences... I don't want to say in the '60s and '70s, people were reckless, maybe they were less aware of the risk. But there has to be some practical bound on the standards, not perfection. The standard is do no harm. And we recognize that low levels of radiation don't cause significant harm to people. But somehow helping the public understand that countering negative voices who continue to exaggerate, I think is really part of the process.
Michael Crabb [00:39:10] Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's an exciting time. Looking forward to seeing stuff get built. Thanks so much for coming on.
Ian Grant [00:39:17] Thank you very much for the interview. You had great questions. I've enjoyed talking to you.