May 24, 2019

Ep 169: Juan EibenSchutz Hartman - Director General, Mexico's National Nuclear Safety and Safeguards Commission

Director General
Mexico's National Nuclear Safety and Safeguards Commission
Play audio

Show notes

Bret Kugelmass: What was your path to your current role as Director General of of Mexico’s National Commission on Nuclear Safety and Safeguards?

Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: Juan Eibenschutz Hartman studied mechanical and electrical engineering at university, following up with a nuclear engineering post-graduate degree. This program at the National Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology, in Saclay, France, got him hooked on nuclear energy. Hartman returned to Mexico in 1960 and joined CFE, a large state-owned electric company, in 1962. In the previous administration, the constitution was modified to allow utilities other than CFE to sell power, with the hope of creating an electricity market, but current administration has returned to a state-owned market.

5:47 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: An acquaintance of Hartman’s performed preliminary studies for more nuclear power plants at the Northern border of Mexico. During that administration, the Northern part of the country imported electricity from the U.S. and it was thought that Mexico should produce their own electricity. Hartman spent two years in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in what was then called the Division of Nuclear Power and Reactors. This division focused on safeguards and physical security at nuclear reactors. The basic function of the IAEA is to implement the safeguards program, but the origin of the IAEA was the Atoms for Peace program from U.S. President Eisenhower. The agency aimed to prevent proliferation and give technical assistance to developing countries. Hartman was part of a mission in 1963 to South Korea aimed at studying the energy situation and looking at the possibilities of implementing nuclear power. The economic situation at the time was very low, but it has since turned around to be very successful, which many attribute to energy abundance.

11:59 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: The only resource South Korea had was coal, and it was not very good quality. There is some hydro energy, but no oil or gas. The recommendation to the country was that they would not be able to grow without nuclear power. Since Juan Eibenschutz Hartman spoke French, he became good friends with the Deputy Director General for Technical Operation, who was a Frenchman being groomed for the keeper of the first French Atomic Energy Commission. This connection led to Hartman’s mission in South Korea. Hartman was also responsible for looking into direct energy conversion, from source to user, achieved through the use of ionized gases. In the process of pursuing new fusion technologies, new materials were developed that could be used in practical applications.

17:44 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: A special unit focused on operations research was formed and the first nuclear power plant in the U.S. was decided on economic grounds. Mexico decided to look into the technology more carefully. With the prices found during research, it appeared that nuclear energy would be competitive with fuel oil, the main source of power plants.

19:02 Bret Kugelmass: Why was the default assumption that nuclear would be cheaper than oil based power? What were the limiting factors in the industry that made it almost not competitive?
19:21 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: The energy density of nuclear is so enormous, it is easy to make it economically competitive. The main problem with nuclear was that the development of the first nuclear power plants, in the U.S. and other countries, was work carried out by scientists who evolved from the weapons program, such as nuclear submarines. For this application, economics were not a factor in development; for example, the cables are made of silver, which is the best conductor, but is expensive. At the beginning, people who designed nuclear power plants were fairly confident with nuclear power plants, but did not take into consideration the capital sin of nuclear: the bomb. Originally, the nuclear bomb was known to the world in 1945 and the conventional thought was that people would forget. When talking with the general public about nuclear, the first thing they picture is the mushroom cloud created by the bomb. Hartman saw the nuclear industry grow up to be psychologically complex, as the industry is more afraid of an accident than the general public, regardless of the fact that if an accident happens, the consequences are low.

26:21 Bret Kugelmass: Is iodine the fission product that we have to worry about in terms of being a hazard to human health?

26:29 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: The reactors are designed to trap the fission products, in gaseous, liquid, and solid forms. Multiple barriers are in place, including fuel pellets, zirconium tubes, reactor, the building around the reactor, and in some places, a building that will withstand the crash of a large airplane and allow the reactor to maintain its integrity. At Fukushima, the direct vent, also known as the filter vent. If something bad happened, it is better to let the pressure escape the building, instead of letting the building explode.

27:52 Bret Kugelmass: Why, from the defense theory, is an airtight structure good to restrict the flow of radionuclides?

28:18 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: Many people said that it is good to have it airtight, provided there was not a failure. The containment building is very big and is designed for relatively low air pressure in an airtight state. Increasing the pressure beyond its limits could blow it up, so a relief valve is needed in airtight systems. Boiling water reactors have a condenser inside the reactor; if the steam from the main system blows, it blows into water and it is condensed, so the pressure in the containment does not grow too much. In spite of that, it has now been ruled that containment building must now have a safety valve, mostly as a result of Fukushima. For a while, nuclear energy was well liked, but there were some mishaps with public relations. One example is a situation in which a family was approached by representatives from the nuclear industry to notify them of new nuclear construction in the area. The representatives explained how safe the nuclear technology was and that nothing would go wrong, but the couple remembered that, when a refinery was built nearby, nobody came from the refinery to convince them of its safe operation. The couple began to distrust the people from nuclear; the public was suspicious why nuclear was making special trips to tell people how it was safe, instead of just building the plant, leading to an overall perception of mistrust. Nuclear scientists were selling nuclear power as too cheap to meter and too safe to worry about.

33:42 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: If you want to project confidence, you have to act with confidence. The reaction to Three Mile Island was an absolute shame. The person responsible for the safety of reactors invented the hydrogen bubble, but was not an engineer. This idea that there could be a hydrogen bubble, which could combine with oxygen and blown fission products would be distributed across the state. At Three Mile Island, nobody in the general public received a higher dose of radiation than normal. Normally, nuclear power plant vendors all would have the same speech based on the economics and the characteristics of nuclear. The density of the fission reaction is so big that all the irradiated material could fit in a standard household room. The nuclear industry transmitted a sense of insecurity. After Chernobyl, in spite of the fact that Chernobyl was not a nuclear power plant, the conversation started shifting towards safety because they think people will have to be reassured.

41:09 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: The result of the preliminary studies in Mexico brought interesting insights. In 1968, a specialist in decision analysis from Stanford came to Mexico to present a guest lecture at CFE. Hartman thought his operations research group, which included a few nuclear people, could absorb more of these decisions analysis techniques and mathematical tools. Hartman’s group wanted to get this expert, Ron Howard, to open a project for their operations group through the non-profit, but expensive, Stanford Research Institute. Through this project, a system was developed for optimizing the expansion of the power system. Different alternatives are evaluated by combining different factors, such as probabilities of plants being available and probabilities of transmission systems working properly. This model was used to test the feasibility of nuclear in Mexico. Ron Howard wrote the program and was used by many consultants in the electrical power planning business. After approval for the plan from CFE, the proposal went to the President, who approved, but passed the decision on to the next administration.

48:20 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: Normally, big utilities have a competent engineering system and contractors that run the show. Hartman and his group convinced CFE that their project should be run this way. The operations group used the Stanford program for the bid evaluation, including bids for nuclear supply system, generators, and fuel. The program combined the bid to evaluate the different combinations, such as a Mitsubishi reactor with a Toshiba turbine. This would use the expenditures for one combination as income for the other determine which combination got the highest factor. The combination that won was the G.E., for combustion engineering, and Mitsubishi, for the turbines. When the administration changed, the supplier had been selected, but it was discovered there were bribery issues. The new President authorized the project, but required a re-evaluation. The results were exactly the same, but the bids were 3% lower. The first letter of intent was signed in 1973 and the first completed unit was in 2005. A new director for CFE came in and thought the design should have been all different. The plant was the wrong type, it was located in Vera Cruz, a center of wealth, on a fault, and a series of other concerns. The project became stop-and-go with lots of changes, including the engineering firm, and the price continued to climb.

57:22 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: The whole supporting system for the cooling pipes had to be redone, changing the scope of the entire plant. Regulators did not want to modify the design because it had been approved and licensed.

1:00:10 Bret Kugelmass: How come every regulator has the same problem?

1:00:19 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: Hartman sees an issue with technology and philosophy of regression, not necessarily the regulators. The Nuclear Energy Agency of OECD has two groups: the committee on the safety of nuclear installations, and the committee of the safety of regulated activities. These committees work together on physical projects to examine different phenomenon. There is a tendency to have a certain non-uniformity, or homogeneity on regression, but this is changing due to small modular reactors. The new plan is to open the door for new designs and support small reactors. Hartman’s last IAEA meeting in 1964 was about small reactors; Hartman presented a paper suggesting that the agency act as a broker for small reactors to put together the demand for many companies for the same type of reactor.

1:05:00 Bret Kugelmass: In the last 50 years, what has prevented the idea of small reactors from surfacing and being implemented commercially?

1:05:10 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: The problem with nuclear is that, on one hand, the first mass application was the nuclear bomb, and the attitude of the nuclear industry regarding fear. Aside from the fact the weapons of mass destruction can be released, the way that climate change is being approached is amazing to Hartman. The interruptible energy sources are not enough to meet demand when needed. The only source that can really substitute fossil fuels is nuclear, which can become an infinite source. Uranium as a component of the Earth continually circulates, and is relatively low as a function of the cost to deliver power from a nuclear plant.

1:08:22 Bret Kugelmass: Safety barriers are based on the consequence of an accident being high. Why can’t somebody demonstrate that the consequence of an accident is not high in order to get relief from the safety paradigm that drives cost?

1:08:45 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: When the AEC in Brussels decided what to do with irradiated fuel, they came up with a solution. Radioactive material is very easy to detect and only requires a simple device. Plastic, metals, and chemicals are all materials that have a long term disposal effect, but radioactive material is treated differently. Public perception is still generally fearful of radiation and nuclear technology. Radiation is a natural phenomenon and should be taken into consideration by the nuclear community. Hartman sees Fort Knox as the best solution for nuclear waste.

1:14:02 Bret Kugelmass: Why isn’t dilution the best solution for nuclear waste?

1:14:15 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: Dilution is very complicated as a solution for nuclear waste due to the amount of water that would be needed to dilute. The canisters used were not that resistant and the fission products were escaping. There is no need for purposeful dilution, because we can keep the radioactive materials safe and let them decay.

1:15:38 Bret Kugelmass: Has anyone tried to reshape the culture of the nuclear community, or are there countries where the engineers talk and feel differently?

1:16:00 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: Both Finland and South Korea have successful nuclear programs. China has an objective view on nuclear culture. The original concept in Russia is that maintenance is not required; plants are built to produce copper, and when it is useless, a new plant is built.

1:18:20 Bret Kugelmass: Do you see a bright future looking forward for the nuclear community?

1:18:38 Juan Eibenschutz Hartman: The future of nuclear depends on the manifestations of climate change. Hartman challenges the APEC idea of limiting carbon content in the atmosphere. A future with nuclear is unavoidable. There is no viable society without nuclear, unless a new form of energy is discovered, such as fusion. If we keep putting carbon into the atmosphere, it is going to collapse and change the world we live in. It is important to avoid putting debris into the atmosphere. We must stop being frightened, start being more objective, and put the nuclear community to work.

Sign up for our newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.