Ep 56: Luc Van Den Durpel - Managing Director, Nuclear-21
1:45 - Entry to Nuclear in Belgium
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get into the nuclear space?
Luc Van Den Durpel: Luc Van Den Durpel is from Belgium, where he studied physics engineering and nuclear engineering at the University of Ghent. He has been intrigued since nuclear by the age of 12 when he won a competition in grade school and received a book on nuclear as a prize. At university, Van Den Durpel was the only full-time nuclear student at the time, one year after Chernobyl. He spent some time at the Belgian nuclear research centre where the focus was on policy-backing R&D related to safety and radioprotection. The centre is very connected with the international scene and working on development of new concepts in nuclear energy and nuclear medicine. Van Den Durpel worked on Belgian Reactor 1 (BR1), a graphite pile reactor with natural uranium and air cooling. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) is a governmental organization that has the Nuclear Energy Agency within. Van Den Durpel’s role at OECD was looking at developments on the back end of the fuel cycle. There were also questions at the time of “clean waste” in order to facilitate geologic disposal.
7:20 - Opportunities in Advanced Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: What were you considering in your research to understand the options for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle?
Luc Van Den Durpel: From the early 1990’s, there has been a wealth of R&D by virtually every organization and government, with the national labs and industry, on how to handle spent fuel. Spent fuel can be reprocessed or recycled, and new advanced methods are still being developed. There has been a lot of hype about what can be done with advanced nuclear technologies. If society decides that new, advanced nuclear technology is needed for sustainability or social acceptance, the nuclear R&D technology industry has shown that it could be done at a reasonable price. The energy density of nuclear allows a lot or little to be done with little extra cost. Van Den Durpel was offered the opportunity to go to Argonne National Lab near Chicago. He commuted to Chicago from Belgium for about six years at the same time he had his own consulting company working for different governments and agencies worldwide. At Argonne, one of the outcomes of the Gen IV programs was scenario analysis. Argonne was on Van Den Durpel’s bucket list of places to work in nuclear.
13:35 - Qualification Chain and Supply Chain
Bret Kugelmass: Tell me about your transition to private industry.
Luc Van Den Durpel: Luc Van Den Durpel connected with some French colleagues and joined Areva corporate R&D as scientific director of fuel cycles and later got involved with more strategic R&D on the corporate level. Areva was active in renewables and energy storage. Van Den Durpel had lots of connectivity between multiple different countries and a high level of expertise. He spent most of his time in R&D labs or intergovernmental affairs, but was also exposed to R&D as a consultant. Nuclear has long business cycles. Industry-wise, there are two steps before going to innovative, new technologies. Industrial supply chain requires materials and facilities. Before this supply chain can execute, there must be qualification of your technology, materials, and fuel, which takes time. If you want to bring a small modular reactor (SMR) into the market, investors may include utilities, governments, and energy-intensive industries. They are going to invest if there is a certain level of reliability, credibility, and bankability in the option. Manufacturers will make a new fabrication line once they know the technology makes sense. Certain qualification testing must be done, but there is diminishing testing and qualification capability available, such as thermohydraulic testing. Advanced technologies may struggle with qualifications. The nuclear community must be prudent that they don’t propose to society that they will have the solution with the caveat that they must wait 30 years before qualification. Nuclear today is already among the most sustainable energy actions we have. Governments and intergovernmental organizations and national labs have an incredible role in keeping the qualification chain available. There might be two waves of SMR’s and advanced reactors: those that can build upon the qualification chain and supply chain already done for existing reactors and those that still need to cross through those chains.
23:30 - Nuclear-21’s Decision Support
Bret Kugelmass: What is Nuclear-21?
Luc Van Den Durpel: Nuclear-21 is an expert cabinet of people with different backgrounds worldwide in government, safety, regulatory, commercial and other areas of expertise that typically does decision support relating to technology-to-business. Technology developers at small-to-medium companies have products in ongoing development but lack the business sense. Utilities and governments look forward to certain technologies. Nuclear-21 bridges between the two groups. Each individual on the cabinet has between 15-20 years experience in different environments. Nuclear-21 is currently working in the nuclear energy field looking for more business opportunities of a new fuel to manage certain materials. The cabinet accompanies their clients to look at the business prospects and how to make those prospects a reality. Nuclear-21 is also working in nuclear medicine on radioisotope production and guidance for a client. The cabinet also performs cost-risk decisioneering. Nuclear energy must be bankable; utilities operating nuclear plants are provisioning for decommissioning but also spent fuel management. There are a lot of uncertainties in these areas, which translate into financial risks. Nuclear-21 helps clients to decide when to execute in order to minimize their cost-risk exposure in the future. One prospects is SMR’s and looking to what the bankability is in an uncertain energy market. New financial methodologies and approaches may shorten the bankability period of nuclear. Nuclear needs to make its neutrons competitive with electrons. Luc Van Den Durpel sees a change sociopolitically and in public perception on nuclear. Climate change, energy security, and societal changes, such as urbanization, all call for a sustainable society. Nuclear costs are predictable, have high reliability, and are very independent. The electricity grid and market is changing quickly. Nuclear-21 does its own modeling database, looking at historic data and the best available data.
32:39 - Upcoming Nuclear Future
Bret Kugelmass: What are some data sources you’ll integrate into your nuclear models?
Luc Van Den Durpel: Nuclear-21 uses three different data sources for their nuclear modeling: public data sources from various international organizations, confidential data related to their clients, or data assembled by Nuclear-21 that has been cross-checked and validated through their connections. The data is a tool to document and support robust decision-making. By mid-century, the world will essentially be on oxide fuel because the qualification has been done. R&D must be done on other fuel and reactor types, but from an industrial bankability perspective, light water reactors and CANDU reactors will be used. Small modular reactors (SMR’s) will probably see the market in the late 2020’s or early 2030’s, but there will be a qualification chain for other advanced technologies. Nuclear is a long business cycle and it is strategic, but people must be realistic about the prospects and claims, since it will not happen overnight.