Ep 207: Neil Alexander - Principal Consultant , Bucephalus Consulting
Neil’s path from the UK to Canada (1:55)
1:55-7:16 (Neil explains how he came to reside in Canada and how he first entered the nuclear field.)
Q. What brought you to Canada?
A. (1:00) Neil Alexander came to Canada from the UK 20 years ago. At the time, Neil was working for AA Technology who bought a radioactive waste management company in Canada. Neil was assigned to run the newly acquired company. At the end of his contract, Neil returned to the UK but soon realized that he preferred living in Canada. He is now a Principal Consultant at Bucephalus Consulting.
Neil was a metallurgist, or a material scientist, with little original interest in nuclear. Neil joined the Energy Technology Support Unit after his PhD. The group was established by the UK government in response to the depleting coal resources. Here, Neil spent a year and a half researching both renewables and energy efficiency. He then transitioned to the commercial side of the company where he became involved in nuclear power.
Transitioning to commercial nuclear practice (7:17)
7:17-12:54 (Neil explains how he and the UK transitioned from renewables to commercial nuclear practice. He also discusses his role in the commercial nuclear industry.)
Q. How did you transition from renewables to nuclear?
A. (6:29) AA Technology was created from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority as it transitioned into commercial practice. Neil was recruited to work in the commercial side and was introduced to the nuclear industry. The UK chose to transition to a commercial practice because they saw the opportunity to succeed, decreasing the need for further government funding. This transition was consistent with how the UK’s nuclear industry was changing at the time. The UK was involved in the development of reactors, including the Magnox Reactors and the advanced gas core reactors. The UK had then become involved in reprocessing. Once plants were built and operated, the research side of UK’s nuclear program was naturally changing.
Neil found transitioning from research to commercial practice quite natural. Neil found that he was usually assigned the challenges that others did not want to pursue. This meant that he often moved between between different fields. With AA Technology, Neil gained insights into decommissioning, waste management and sales in the US. He then went on to work in radioisotope production and with radioactive materials produced outside of the nuclear industry. This raised his awareness of how modern society relies on radioactive material.
Disposing of radioactive waste (12:55)
12:55-17:33 (Neil explains how nuclear waste is disposed of in the UK, the US and Canada.)
Q. What was the protocol for disposing of waste at the time in the UK?
A. (12:06) Neil was primarily dealing with waste from outside of the nuclear industry and working in decay storing. Hazardous materials can lessen their hazard by being left over time in a controlled way. Neil believes that the industry must develop an effective communication strategy for discussing nuclear waste with the public. Radioactive waste has a negative connotation, but it is no different from any other man made waste, especially when handled correctly.
Used fuel in Canada is stored similarly to that of the US. It is stored onsite in ponds until the heat has been removed and then is stored in dry storage containers. These containers are kept inside buildings in Canada as opposed to in the US where they are sometimes stored outside. Like the US and the UK, Canada plans to construct a deep geological repository. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is currently working on securing a socially acceptable site. Part of this work involves establishing strong relationships with the communities of potential sites.
Speaking about radioactive waste (17:34)
17:34-25:27 (Neil explains how he approaches radioactive waste conversations and what needs to happen within the industry to improve communication.)
Q. How do you communicate nuclear waste to a community?
A. (16:45) Neil does not talk directly with communities but rather speaks more generally about radioactive waste. Neil believes the industry has accidentally scared people in their attempt to communicate safety. He gives the example of pointing out a crack on a plane to somebody sitting besides him. While Neil knew that the crack had been dealt with and meant the plane had been inspected and was safe to fly on, the man next to him was not secured with this information. Neil compares this to the nuclear industry’s communication strategy, noting that explaining how the industry keeps people safe does not help peoples’ peace of mind. Instead, the industry should be stating that no problems exist and no harm is done. Neil also states the need to calibrate the problem. He gives the example of a politician asking what would happen if a glass container of radioactive material was dropped and broken. Neil had needed to remind the politician that the radioactive isotope would be injected into somebody for medical treatment. This regrounds the idea of how big a hazard is in reality.
Neil recently realized that he is still afraid of radiation. Even though he knows the facts, facts do not remove fear. Working in the industry creates radiation fear, which is fine to an extent, but this fear is then passed on to the public. Neil notes that sometimes more issues are created when the industry talks about safety issues. Social scientists must be brought in to introduce a people-based understanding. This new perspective will help solve communication problems.
Establishing fertile markets for SMRs (25:28)
25:28-33:12 (Neil discusses how SMRs are changing the nuclear industry and how governments can help establish fertile markets.)
Q. What do you think is the best way to advance nuclear power and are SMRs the right direction?
A. (24:40) Neil works with Bob Walker, a proponent of Small Nuclear Reactors (SMRs). Together they have created an independent think tank to explore SMR adoption. SMRs present a paradigm shift that introduces changes to the industry. In addition to new technology, SMRs create a new nuclear market. Rather than individual large plants, SMRs must be built in fleets. Fleet building increases experience within the industry through multiple quick builds. This will ultimately drive down costs.
Selling SMRs requires a focus shift from technology towards generating a demand for SMRs. Governments can support this by helping people understand nuclear better through the explanation of the economic and greenhouse gas benefits of SMRs. Governments can also include SMRs in nuclear plans, establishing confidence that the industry will not face protests or complaints later on. This creates fertile markets, signaling to investors and creating SMR positivity.
Increasing public acceptance (33:13)
33:13-37:13 (Neil explains the challenge nuclear faces when winning over the public. He discusses several ways in which governments can increase acceptance.)
Q. Do you think that making nuclear more visible to the public will make it okay?
A. (32:24) Neil believes the industry faces a harder challenge than wind and solar because people are fearful of nuclear power. Nuclear, however, can produce energy on a greater scale than wind and solar. Neil believes governments making pro-nuclear statements would be helpful in establishing greater public acceptance and support. Proving the success of nuclear energy in countries where nuclear is more receptive is also important in winning over other governments.
Compelling communications (37:14)
37:14-42:27 (Neil describes his role at Bucephalus Consulting. He also expands on why effective communication is needed for the industry.)
Q. What have you been doing with Bucephalus Consulting?
A. (36:25) Neil primarily discovers what people want and produces results. Neil also works outside the nuclear industry, developing proposals and compelling communications to help others. He is also involved in creating the market for SMRs where he spends time convincing people within the industry to look into preparing the groundwork for these emerging markets. Neil believes effective communication is a major issue in the industry. He thinks this is due to the fact that most industry professionals are physical scientists and engineers that do not focus on people. Additionally, people are unable to agree on whose job it is to better understand the public. Neil believes that governments should be taking on communication strategies if they wish to reach greenhouse gas targets through the adoption of successful nuclear program.