Oct 5, 2018

Ep 94: Ron Faibish - Director of Business Development, General Atomic

Director of Business Development
General Atomic
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Show notes

1 - Intro to Nuclear through Desalination

Bret Kugelmass: Where did you grow up?

Ron Faibish: Ron Faibish grew up in a suburb of Haifa in Northern Israel. At the age of 18, he graduated high school and moved to the U.S. In high school, Faibish picked a concentration in life sciences based on his interest in chemistry, math, and biology, set on going to medical school. In seventh grade, he interviewed a chemical engineer for a physics project and it opened up a whole new outlook on his professional future. Once Faibish came to the U.S., he spent two years at junior college before transferred to UCLA with a chemical engineering major and an outlook to be pre-med. He eventually got a Master’s and PhD in chemical engineering, with a focus on membrane separations, and medical school became a distant priority. Faibish got an opportunity to work the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from the desalination side which looked at linking nuclear power plants with very small electrical applications. In 1999, Faibish presented at the International Desalination Association meeting in San Diego, where he met some individuals from the IAEA, eventually leading him to take a position there.

2 - Thermal and Mechanical Desalination

Bret Kugelmass: How did the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) look at desalination?

Ron Faibish: When Ron Faibish joined the International ATomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it was very challenging to get attention and traction on desalination ideas. Kazakhstan had a fast sodium reactor that was coupled to a thermal desalination system. The IAEA was touting the Kazakhs as an example of what has been done; both India and Pakistan expressed interest in desalination and have started demonstration units. The hub of activities was in Asia and the Middle East. The technology and the investment needed to make this a reality was a big question. Reverse osmosis is the mechanics of separation to achieve desalination. The Kazakhs had a multi effect distillation process in which water is purified by boiling in multiple stages. Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant mothballed a flash distillation unit in the plant, which was never activated to use heat to boil off water. The local communities use reverse osmosis and electrodialysis to dissolve on-site water for on-site use. The plant could scale up to provide water off-site, but it requires space, investment, and a good business model. During his time in the nuclear industry, Faibish’s primary focus became international nuclear safety and managed Armenia’s Department of Energy nuclear power plant upgrade project.

3 - Technical Advisor to Congress

Bret Kugelmass: What were some of the safety concerns at the Armenian nuclear plants?

Ron Faibish: The Armenian nuclear power plant was a Russian VVER 440 megawatt reactor that was shut down after a major earthquake. This threw people back into the Stone Age because the reactor supplies almost half of the electricity needs. Armenia sees nuclear very favorably because they need it. The U.S. and others have agreed that, even though the reactor is not the safest design, it needed to be brought up to par with international standards. Since it was not a Western-style reactor, it had old valves, did not have a containment structure, and had to be retrofitted for seismicity. Ron Faibish spent about 14 years at Argonne National Lab, with about 9 years spent on the Armenia project. Towards the end of his time at Argonne, Faibish spent three-and-a-half years as a fellow with Congress energy committee. He was a direct detailee from the Lab to the Senate and the committee. Being a technical advisor is about working the issue and making sure the boss has the most up-to-date information. It also includes writing memos and thinking about legislative strategies. When Faibish joined, there was a huge ramp up on the nuclear waste act and he spent a couple of months working intensely on this issue, which was never resolved.

4 - Contributions to Argonne, ARPA-E, and General Atomics

Bret Kugelmass: Why is the current status quo of dry cask storage above ground inadequate?

Ron Faibish: There is a law that the government needs to find a path for because it is paying fines to industry. Interim storage on-site is fine, but there is limited space and considerations about the containers. Economically, it makes more sense to consolidate them and a permanent solution must be determined. Interim storage is also a solution and is a means to an end, absent Yucca or some repository. WIPP has some issues, but has been an overall success for the Department of Energy. Ron Faibish went to ARPA-E for a year and a half where he was the senior advisor to the director. Faibish initiated a discussion about a fission program and a program director took the initiative to make a case to the community. The initial focus was on micro reactors, or VSMR’s, very small micro reactors. Since then, the MEITNER program came to life and focused on innovative technologies that could advance various concepts that already exist. Ron Faibish returned to Chicago to assume a new position as energy systems lead for strategic initiatives at Argonne National Lab and got a call from General Atomics looking to hire him into a business development role. His role is to develop a more strategic outlook of how the company expanded the portfolio of programmatic activities. General Atomics has core capabilities and is very big on materials. They developed and recently branded SiGA, for silicon carbide technologies, which will help with fast reactor concepts in terms of high temperature materials.

5 - Silicon Carbide in Advanced Fuels

Bret Kugelmass: Is silicon carbide a material that has a high melting point and good structural properties?

Ron Faibish: Silicon carbide doesn’t melt, but instead dissociates, and is used in the cladding for the Westinghouse accident tolerant fuel (ATF) program. The geometry of this material doesn’t melt at very high temperatures; it might crack, but the pellets maintain their geometry. Silicon carbide is very versatile and robust. Westinghouse provides the uranium silicide fuel and General Atomics provides the silicon carbide cladding. EM squared is a high temperature, fast, helium cooled reactor. It is a combination of a high temperature gas reactor and the fast spectrum, making it passively safe and proliferation resistant. It’s a small modular reactor (SMR) which could be dry cooled or wet cooled and uses the Brayton cycle to convert heat into electricity. All of the commercial plants working now are steam driven, which has low efficiency, but the temperature is the limiting factor. Innovating advanced reactors need to be deployed instead of modifying existing reactors. Accelerated fuel qualification (AFQ) allows qualification validation licensing and safety demonstration time to be cut in half. Ron Faibish went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to start discussions about the irradiation experimental projects to inform the NRC and get buy in.

6 - Fusion Programs at General Atomics

Bret Kugelmass: What other activities is General Atomics engaged in along the lines of new nuclear technologies?

Ron Faibish: General Atomics has accident tolerant fuels, EM squared, advanced fuels, and a salt waste treatment plant for cesium extraction at Savannah River. This extraction design has been deployed successfully and is getting into commissioning. General Atomics (GA) is a big defense contractor that does work in aeronautical systems, drones, laser technologies, and electromagnetic systems. On the nuclear side, GA has fission and fusion, inertial fusion and magnetic fusion. ITER is a magnetic fusion user facility where people from around the country and the world can do plasma and fusion experiments. Silicon carbide potential materials are tested for the inners of fusion reactors and GA has samples being exposed to plasma at various degrees to see how it performs. The inertial fusion program supports the U.S. weapons programs and target fabrication for various national labs and facilities.

7 - Future of U.S. Nuclear

Bret Kugelmass: How do you see the nuclear industry moving forward and how would you like to see them moving forward to bring nuclear energy into a more prominent position?

Ron Faibish: There is renewed interest on the Hill realizing the significance of nuclear being in the game for the U.S. and to the outside world. The U.S. has always been the leader in nuclear technology and safety and that needs to be maintained, but it is slipping away to China, Russia, and state-owned enterprises. Ron Faibish wants to see the U.S. deploying the best technologies in the world and enjoying the benefits of that domestically and internationally. The supply chain needs to be brought back and there need to be more students going into nuclear engineering. The existing fleet must be maintained and the next generation needs to be deployed. Advanced reactors, like EM squared, have a lot of promise and are game changers. Nuclear should be able to do in the industry what NASA can do in the space industry. With all the tremendous support from the government, labs, and industry, this opportunity cannot be missed to make something happen.

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