Ep 178: Jon Ball - Executive Vice Pres., Nuclear Plant Projects, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
Following in his father’s GE footsteps (0:08)
0:08-10:59 (Jon explains how he transitioned from studying computational chemistry to a career in GE’s nuclear project.)
Q. I’d love to start with your story and how you got into the sector.
A. Jon comes from a background in chemistry. After graduating from Penn State with a PhD, Jon moved to Washington State where he worked in research and development for Westinghouse at the Hanford nuclear site. His role was to look into the high level tank waste generated during the process of separating uranium and plutonium during fission. The Hanford site had produced 50 million gallons of this high level waste, and Jon’s role was to analyze this waste using different methods to create the perfect fission product yield curve. Jon also worked on characterizing the waste to be vitrified, or the process of turning waste into glass logs. To do this, Jon used radiological methods and mass spectrometry to understand the isotopes present in the waste, whose chemistry is constantly changing due to the decaying properties of radioactive materials. This work really cemented Jon’s fascination with nuclear energy.
After 5 years at the Hanford site, Jon was recruited by GE to work at a nuclear site in North Carolina. Jon’s father had worked for GE for over 20 years and had a strong interest in computers. This meant that Jon had access to computers from an early age, sparking his interest in AI and programming, which he used in graduate school when studying computational chemistry, the use of computers to identify the geometry of organic compounds to predict their chemical properties.
At GE, Jon’s first role was in fuel manufacturing operation as a laboratory manager. He was in charge of testing the quality of uranium. He then become the Quality Leader for GE’s fuel business and later led manufacturing operations. He is now GE’s Executive Vice President of the Nuclear Plant Projects.
Over Jon’s GE career, he has seen GE focus on both change and perfection. For example, GE has introduced new fuels, such as the change from GE14 to GNF2 fuel, which are 10x10 boiling water reactor fuels. GE has also focused on how to run operations to be safer and drive productivity. While automation and robots can be used to do this, Jon focuses on the principles of Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota production system. These ways of producing faster allow GE to identify waste and areas in which they can make jobs easier for the operator by giving them what they need, when and where they need it.
Upgrading nuclear power plants (11:00)
11:00-18:29 (Jon describes the different engineering services that GE provides including EPUs and Outage Management.)
Q. What kind of services does GE offer?
A. GE offers services that cover the breadth of a nuclear power plant. In terms of engineering services, GE focuses on upgrades, such as Extended Power Upright (EPU) which can increase a plant’s power output by 20%. Although upgrades can be costly, they are much cheaper than building a new plant. GE has so far implemented enough EPUs to equivalent the power generation of 3 new plants. GE created the Licensing Topical Report (LTR) which outlines a process for how to implement EPUs.
Another engineering service that GE offers is Outage Management. During this field service, GE will shut down a plant and take the reactor apart. They will conduct inspections and address any issues, such as cracks, that may have arisen over the last 12 to 24 months. They will repair or analyse these issues to determine if modification, repair or monitoring is needed. During repairs, GE takes the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) approach, meaning minimizing the time and distance spent repairing with respect to radiation. These means GE prefers to use automated and submarine tools, but may require underwater welding in some cases.
There are three types of uprights. The first is the Measurement Uncertainty Recapture (MUR), which improves output by 1.5%. The second is the Stretch Upright which increases power by 5%. The last is the EPU, which increases power by 20%. Some of GE’s customers have increased power by 121.5% through EPU and a MUR. The amount a plant can upgrade is limited, however, primarily by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) licensing process. Because GE has the LTR, it can be applied to any plant that GE evaluates. Each plant undergoes a specific analysis and a unique roadmap is created. This is used by the plant operators to gain approval from the NRC to operate at a higher power.
The road to the BWRX300 (18:30)
18:30-27:51 (Jon discusses his current role in GE and the realization which led to the design of the new BWRX300.)
Q. Does this bring us to what you do today?
A. After working in GE’s fuel, service, manufacturing and supply chain segments, Jon entered the new plant division of GE’s nuclear project. This role has evolved over the 4 years he has been in the position. GE had been focusing on Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactors (ESBWR). In 2014, NRC had licensed 2 ESBWRs for construction and operation: Dominion (a US utility company) and Detroite Edison (DTE). For Dominion, the low gas prices at the time meant that they could no longer justify the large investment, so the project was suspended. This prompted Jon to recognize the need to rethink the market. The ESBWRs produce 1500 megawatts of electricity, creating a niche market for such a large reactor. GE needed to reconsider the economics of their products and decide what to put forward.
GE had been designing microreactors and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the 1940s. At the time, the nuclear industry was more focused on building large reactors. But low gas prices and large nuclear projects around the world that were running over time and budget caused GE to return to their small reactor designs. Jon put together a small team of GE’s best and brightest and took over the ideation site for 2 months to figure out the new design. The team first began looking at PRISM (Power Reactive Innovative Small Module), which is a sodium fast reactor that has been around since the 1980s. After speaking to customers, the team learned that building new nuclear plants meant understanding how to compete with Combined Cycle Gas and that customers were not interested in investing more than $1billion in a new plant. The team knew they needed to focus on simplicity to drive down costs, and pivoted to look into how they could downsize the ESBWR, which had a proven technology and supply chain. The team realized that they could eliminate the loss of coolant accident, meaning many systems and structures of the plant could be removed. This game changing design became known as the BWRX300 (Boiling Water Reactor, 10th Generation, 300 output) and GE rushed to protect the idea through patent disclosures and identified partners and investors to push the project forward.
Making BWRX300 a commercial reality (27:52)
27:52-33:08 (Jon explains the factors affecting the commercialization of the BWRX300).
Q. How do you take the next steps to make it a commercial reality?
A. It all starts with an investor, which in the BWRX300 case was Dominion. GE then began collaborating with Bechtel, Exolon and MIT. Identifying markets is also key, and Jon notes that Canada has a strong SMR market. The US will eventually be a strong market for BWRX300, but only once nuclear finds a way to compete with the US’s low gas prices. Determining nuclear price point is important and includes understanding the total build cost, determining the market that GE can enter and identifying how well capitalized a customer has to be to take on a nuclear project. The price of the electricity produced by a nuclear plant competes with natural gas and is affected by the overall plant size. This means GE takes on a design for cost approach, including using off the shelf solutions which do not require much modification. Additionally, areas which will be retiring coal plants over the next several decades are key to making the BWRX300 a commercial reality. A coal plant can be replaced by a 300 megawatt nuclear plant. This smaller plant size also works well for countries that are lacking a developed infrastructure and can not take on a high power producing nuclear plant.
The BWRX300 strategy (33:09)
33:09-41.58 (Jon explains the licensing and siting strategies for the BWRX300.)
Q. What is the BWRX300 strategy?
A. There are lots of discussions on this topic of replacing coal plants. GE has limited resources and time, so they focus on the areas of the world that show the greatest promise for adopting nuclear. This includes looking into which regions have a nuclear regime in place, understanding if GE will be able to export produced energy, and predict government approvals. GE engages in both short and long term thinking.
The licensing approach for the BWRX300 is also taking on a different strategy. This is because the licensing is borrowed from the ESBWR license. GE spent hundreds of millions of dollars certifying the ESBWR design with the help of the US Department of Energy (DoE). This significant investment indirectly supports the BWRX300, shortening the licensing process. Additionally, GE is taking a Part 50 instead of a Part 52 approach. Part 52 is when a design is certified before a utility is licensed to construct and operate. Part 50, on the other hand, enables construction to begin earlier, creating more flexibility in the design process. Although it presents the risk that the NRC will not sign off on the final design after construction, it avoids the problem that GE faced with the ESBWR where large investment is put into the design of a plant, but it is ultimately not constructed.
Countries that stand out to GE as potential BWRX300 sites include Canada and the UK for their expressed interest in SMRs. There is, however, promise in a number of regions around the globe. A potential site must have the infrastructure and capital to support a BWRX300 project, but the Export Import Bank can help with a country’s financing. Additionally, the BWRX300 reactors cost less that $1 billion, increasing their accessibility to a larger range of countries.
A future with cheaper nuclear power (41:59)
41:59-46:03 (Jon notes the PRISM VTR project and his goals for the future of the nuclear industry.)
Q. Tell us the story about where PRISM is going and your thoughts on the future of nuclear.
A. Last year, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Capabilities Act (NEICA) was signed into US law. This called for a Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) to be built by the end of 2025. GE entered the competitive bid and won due to their PRISM design, which the DoE had previously invested in. The VTR will test fast neutrons rather than produce electricity which will help support the research and development of fast reactors. The PRISM VTR is foundational to moving the industry towards generating cheaper nuclear products.
For Jon, the future of nuclear relied on shifting towards the adoption of SMRs, advanced reactors and microreactors. He foresees nuclear being used in high temperature industrial applications and in remote areas of Alaska and Canada that currently rely on expensive diesel fuel. Jon hopes to see advanced reactors turn fuel into an asset where reactors can recycle and burn plutonium and for SMRs to become cost competitive. He believes that nuclear power will play a significant role in long term power generation for the US and that nuclear will help reach decarbonization goals.