Ep 77: Neil Wilmshurst - Chief Nuclear Officer, Electric Power Research Institute
Q1 - Entrance into Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: Where were you born?
Neil Wilmshurst: Neil Wilmshurst was born in Plymouth, U.K., but grew up near Newcastle. While he was in school, Wilmshurst’s class took a trip to visit Calder Hall Nuclear Power Plant, the first generating plant in the world. Calder Hall was built to produce plutonium for the U.K.’s weapons systems. Wilmshurst’s father and grandfather were both in the Navy and Wilmshurst followed suit and joined the Navy to be a captain of a ship. He was selected early on to pursue an engineering degree in the stream to navigate fight ships. Wilmshurst ended up on a destroyer during the uprising in Beirut. From there, they went down through the Suez Canal and, during that trip, decided he wanted to be a submarine engineer. Four personnel were responsible for all the engineering aspects on the nuclear submarine. In the 1950’s, the U.K. decided it wanted a nuclear program, so Hyman Rickover allowed a technology transfer from the U.S. Navy to the Royal Navy, via Rolls-Royce Aero Engines. This technology was used to build the first U.K submarine, the HMS Dreadnought. After that, the two programs diverged and completed their own design work. The reactor is so critical and it must be robust enough to withstand the movement of the submarine and depth charges. Wilmshurst initially started at Sizewell B, a Westinghouse 4-loop SNUPPS plant, as a systems engineer for the diesels and cooling water systems. Wilmshurst was one of the first people the U.K. brought in from outside their nuclear program because of the new technology. Wilmshurst then became the in-service inspection (ISI) coordinator and moved on to run maintenance. In early 1998, British Energies started a partnership with PECO called AmerGen that was going to go buy nuclear plants and Wilmshurst joined on in mid-1998 as part of the team to do due diligence on Three Mile Island (TMI).
Q2 - Buying and Selling Three Mile Island
Bret Kugelmass: How did you find yourself in the financial side of nuclear?
Neil Wilmshurst: Along the way in the Navy, Neil Wilmshurst got plucked out of a job and sent off to do his MDA for a couple of years. AmerGen needed some technical people on their due diligence team to understand what it was they were thinking of buying with Three Mile Island (TMI). When considering purchasing a power plant, you look externally at the market, but also the condition of the plant, the staff, the training pipeline, the fuel contracts, the maintenance history, among other things. The value of the plant, warehouse, and decommissioning fund must be considered, as well as staff reduction funding and value of fuel in the reactor at the time of sale. AmerGen faced companies making the strategic decision to just enter the business, which would allow hits to the bottom line to purchase a plant and enter the business. AmerGen had the perspective there was a value there with tremendous revenue. The seller’s perspective was that it wasn’t their core business and they didn’t want to maintain the infrastructure and the risk. In 2003, Wilmshurst came over to the U.S. After the purchase of TMI, Wilmshurst was asked to stay there running work management. Because of some market issues in the U.K., where the U.K. changed the electricity market and futures prices of electricity plummeted. British Energy went bankrupt, went to the government for a bailout, and had to sell all its offshore assets, including TMI. Wilmshurst was ready for something different and joined the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the U.S. Wilmshurst was brought in to head up their equipment reliability efforts. Over time, the nuclear industry added more and more commitments, testing, and maintenance. The focus of equipment reliability program was to understand what needed to be done, how often it needed to be done, and making sure it was done right. Then, they had to systematically go through the designs of the plants and figure out the vulnerabilities that would create trips and downtime. When a reactor trips, the control rods may go in or you may lose a pump or transformer causing a power reduction.
Q3 - Probabilistic Risk Assessment in Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: How did U.S. nuclear operations make a turnaround?
Neil Wilmshurst: A big part of the turnaround in U.S. nuclear operations had to do with probabilistic risk assessment (PRA), understanding the real risk profile of a plant. This allows people to go to online maintenance, rather than waiting for an outage. If you wait for a plant shutdown to maintain the safety equipment, the equipment may degrade and cause an unplanned trip if it fails. It many cases, it is safer to take a diesel out of service with a plant operating to repair a lower level outage than try and stagger on the outage and do the big repair. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is predominantly funded by the utilities, but also some funding from the U.S. government and global governments. EPRI is set up as a non-profit, requiring that they maintain their independence in serving the public good. The value of EPRI for their members is that they are independent and tell the story as it is, not the voice of the industry. The U.S. has 90 plus percent capacity in nuclear power, which became achieved by focusing on the outcomes and not so much the cost. The capital, operating, and maintenance costs are now in focus. There is still some overmaintaining and too much preventative maintenance on the plant, which requires many more parts; there are opportunities to optimize the maintenance. Your inspection scope for a plant can also be looked at from a risk-informed perspective to reduce the manhours. In 2010, Wilmshurst took the position of Chief Nuclear Officer at EPRI. Every career move Wilmshurst has taken has never been a zero risk strategy.
Q4 - Electric Power Research Institute
Bret Kugelmass: What are some of the areas that you saw back then that could use a fresh way of thinking and how has that translated over the last few years?
Neil Wilmshurst: Neil Wilmshurst inherited an organization which was very slow moving, tied to its past, and very U.S. centric. There was certainly a need for a greater global footprint and the time was right for some radical rethinking of the construct in how they interacted with their members. The way Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) operated with their utility members is that they were happy to be in the room and not perceived as being on an equal footing with their members. Wilmshurst seeked to gain a level of trust in those relationships in which EPRI was no longer being viewed as another supplier, but were true partners with the utilities in their endeavors. This transformed into a lot more time on member sites and working with our members for the staff. About half of the staff in the nuclear sector at EPRI had worked at a nuclear plant. Wilmshurst aimed to get those that didn’t have that experience to the plants to understand their issues and challenges. EPRI also started an aggressive outreach outside the U.S. Of the global nuclear fleet of 400+ reactors, EPRI is interacting with over 90% of those plants; they fund EPRI’s programs. Nuclear plants used to view the fact that they were working with 1960’s technology, such as analog controls, as a positive because they were tested and reliable. Nuclear plants need to move into the digital age and embrace the digital effort and analytics. This will give benefits such as higher reliability and lower cost. EPRI also supports small modular reactors and Gen 4 reactors. In order to get to the Gen 4 reactors, you need to extend the life of the current fleet so that there is the infrastructure, staff, and supply chain to support the Gen 4 reactors.
Q5 - Connecting Global Nuclear Organizations
Bret Kugelmass: Is EPRI the vehicle carrying the nuclear industry into the future?
Neil Wilmshurst: In the U.K., a visionary called Lord Walter Marshall set up the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). Marshall drove the nuclear industry in the U.K and in the U.S., Bill Lee set up the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). The next group of global leaders is coming together and realizing that this is the time to rally the industry and get moving. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) is talking about market construct and the national security and global impact of nuclear programs. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the OECD to look at what it takes to keep nuclear viable. They are working with a number of organizations towards a big conference in Korea next year around nuclear plant innovation and looking at innovations other industries have deployed to bring safety and economic benefits. The hurdle nuclear typically faces with deploying innovative technologies is the regulator. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is open to this perspective, supplier naturally see a commercial benefit, and utilities are starting to see technology as an opportunity to reduce costs. Getting global regulators more connected and more similar, it becomes easier for the supply chain. If you believe in climate change and look at where the energy market is going, there’s a growing consensus that, in order to achieve the CO2 reductions we need, there needs to be an 80% drop in CO2 generation. You cannot get there just by decarbonizing the electric industry, but also industry, transportation, commercial, domestic, and everything else. It’s important that the nuclear option is there and available to meet growing demand; to get there, the current fleet must be successful to drive the university courses, research infrastructure, and supply infrastructure.