Interview of atw - International Journal for Nuclear Power with Sama Bilbao y León ı Director-General of World Nuclear Association

January 2021

Sama Bilbao y Leon
Sama Bilbao y Leon

Sama Bilbao y León became the Director General of World Nuclear Association in October 2020.

Previously, and since June 2018, she was Head of the Division of Nuclear Technology Development and Economics at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. In her role at the NEA, she led a team of analysts responsible for providing Member Countries with authoritative studies in the intersection of technology, innovation and economics in support of their energy policy decision-making. Since January 2020, she was also Head of the Technical Secretariat for the Generation IV International Forum (GIF).

From 2011, she was the Director of Nuclear Engineering Programs and Associate Professor at the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). At her departure from VCU in May 2018, Sama was also a member of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) National Accreditation Board, and the Chairman of the Board of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium (VNEC).

From 2008, Sama was the Technical Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Water Cooled Reactors Technology Development Unit and she was responsible for IAEA activities in support of the development and near-term deployment of advanced water cooled reactors and their associated fuels.

From February 2001 until March 2008, Sama was a Nuclear Safety Analysis Engineer at Dominion Energy, where she worked on the development and licensing of new methodologies in core thermal-hydraulics and nuclear safety analysis in support of Dominion’s nuclear power stations.

Sama is one of the seven founders of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN), and served as Public Information Chair since its creation in 1999 until May 2005. Sama is also an active member of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) since 1995. In 2007, and again in 2010, Sama was elected to the national Board of Directors of the American Nuclear Society and is also a member of SNE, ASME, ASEE, SWE and WiN.

Sama, who is originally from Spain, holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Energy Technologies from the Polytechnic University of Madrid; a master's degree and a PhD in Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics from the University of Wisconsin – Madison; and an MBA from Averett University.

You took the office of World Nuclear Association Director General in October. What are your priorities for the work of the Association?

My first priority has been to learn more about the Association, by listening to our staff and to our members. I am taking over an association that is in great shape, which means that no immediate changes are needed. At the same time, I have come with many ideas that may make us even more effective in making the case for nuclear energy and delivering value for our members.

This has been a very unusual transition, marked by the COVID-19 crisis. Many of our members have been dealing with several challenges because of the pandemic. This may have included interruptions to normal operations because of national lockdowns, having to carry out operations under difficult conditions, or facing lower demand due to the slowdown in the global economy. In the short term, I want our Association to help its members emerge as strong as possible from the pandemic and to contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable global recovery. In this sense, the Association has prioritized efforts to highlight the important role of nuclear energy as a resilient low-carbon energy source and the substantial socio-economic impact nuclear projects can have in the context of the post-COVID economic recovery.

We are seeing a number of civic initiatives in support of nuclear power in the context of climate policy and there was already a presence of nuclear organizations at the climate summit in Santiago/Madrid. Do you plan to increase the visibility of nuclear associations, societies, NGOs and pro-nuclear initiatives at the Glasgow summit next year?

Although nuclear energy has been present in the COP negotiations since the beginning, I would agree that, historically, our visibility and impact have been underwhelming at best. I think it is fabulous to see these newer initiatives helping to increase the visibility of nuclear energy and highlighting its important role in achieving the objectives of the COP conferences. Too often the huge contribution that nuclear energy has already made in avoiding global greenhouse gas emissions, and the role it needs to play in the future to meet the Paris Agreement goals, is under-represented at these meetings.

I think that as policymakers become more pragmatic and realistic when assessing the available options moving forward, we will see greater recognition of the contribution that nuclear energy makes to fighting climate change and to meeting the essential need for clean, reliable and affordable electricity. That is something that World Nuclear Association will be working towards and I am sure will be the goal of the many other organizations, NGOs and individuals supporting nuclear energy who intend to engage in the Glasgow COP 26 event. On our side, we are already working on the Association’s strategy to support governments and decision makers with factual information about nuclear energy as they prepare for this critical event.

What can be the global contribution of nuclear power to comply with the Paris Agreement and how can we make it happen?

Nuclear energy is already making a huge contribution to meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Between 1971 and 2018 nuclear generation avoided the emission of more than 74 Gt of carbon, second only to the 98 Gt avoided by hydropower. In comparison, all other forms of low-carbon generation have jointly avoided only 15 Gt of carbon emissions.

Personally, I find quite concerning that the share of electricity generation from low-carbon energy sources has barely changed since the start of the 21st century. Despite the huge visibility and global investment in renewable energy, the reality is that we are more or less exactly where we were in 2000. If we are to be successful in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement there must be a very substantial increase in nuclear generation, as part of an overall decarbonization of electricity generation.

The global nuclear industry has set a Harmony goal, where nuclear energy would meet 25 % of the world’s electricity demand before 2050, as part of a low-carbon generation mix. This would require the construction of around 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity.

We are seeing organizations like the International Energy Agency increasingly recognize the importance of nuclear energy for achieving net-zero carbon emissions. The recent IPCC 1.5 oC report included a major expansion of nuclear energy in their most practical mitigation scenarios.

Unfortunately, this will not happen without the appropriate support from governments. We need clear and stable policy frameworks. We need the right financial mechanisms to encourage investment in large, capital-intensive projects such as nuclear power plants and we need markets that recognize the value of reliable low-carbon dispatchable generation.

Climate change is not the only subject that merits to be addressed. What role can nuclear power play in overcoming energy poverty and spur economic development in poorer countries?

Access to affordable and clean energy is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, energy is an underlying need to meet many of the other UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, there are still nearly a billion people around the world with no access to electricity, and many more with inadequate supplies. This leaves the world’s poorest without dependable access to health, education and economic development, disproportionately impacting girls and women in particular.

It is not only individuals that need electricity. Without access to a dependable and cost-effective electricity supply a nation’s industry and economy cannot flourish.

The current scarcity mindset that dominates the decarbonization discussions is also putting a lot of pressure on emerging countries to almost have to choose between their own economic development and meeting climate change goals. I have an abundance mindset: I think that the use of nuclear energy can provide these countries with the reliable, clean and affordable energy they need to develop sustainably.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that the investment required for emerging countries to utilize nuclear energy can be a challenge. That is why we believe more must be done by national and international development banks to facilitate the development of nuclear energy in emerging countries.

For those countries that can invest in new nuclear generation, the construction and operation of those plants can be an engine for economic growth, attracting investment into communities hosting nuclear plants, and providing many thousands of employment opportunities during construction, and hundreds of highly skilled jobs over the lifetime of the nuclear plant. Large scale infrastructure projects such as nuclear energy have historically helped galvanize major local socio-economic growth.

When we look at so called nuclear newcomer countries e.g. in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, what is the greatest challenge? To build up know-how, create a regulatory and supervisory framework or to finance the jump to nuclear?

What proves to be the most challenging issue will depend on the specific circumstance of each newcomer country. For some countries in the Middle East financing new nuclear build may prove less challenging for example.

At present, we have countries such as the UAE, Turkey, Belarus and Bangladesh in the process of building and starting up their first reactors. This gives other countries looking to introduce nuclear generation to meet their clean energy needs the opportunity to learn from this current wave of new entrant countries, find out what proved to be most challenging, and how these issues were overcome.

World Nuclear Association is working with some newcomer countries, offering the experience and the expertise afforded by our members to help them kick-start their efforts to initiate nuclear energy programs.

Currently we are seeing some Gen IV projects being pushed by start-ups such as sodium and molten salt reactors in North America or the Russian lead-cooled project BREST-300 while France shelved the ASTRID project in favor of advanced reprocessing including of used MOX-fuel, China and Japan are pursuing high temperature concepts. Which of these technologies would you guess will be first to materialize commercially and when?

I am incredibly excited at the range of possibilities these developments and many more will offer. Looking to which may come first, the HTR-PM high temperature gas-cooled pebble bed reactor, currently under construction in China, is likely to be the first of these generation of reactors to start supplying electricity to the grid. The two modules in this reactor will then be the basis for an integrated six-module version, the HTR-PM600, which will supply both electricity and heat.

Other reactors, particularly those using more novel technologies, may take longer to reach commercialization. Startups are using innovation to take advantage of the excellence and the know-how accumulated in the nuclear community for decades, bringing advances in many areas. We are seeing a broad range of reactor designs set to reach the pilot stage, ranging in size from a few megawatts up to well over a gigawatt. Some are based on a downscaling of existing LWRs, whilst others are completely new concepts, aimed at both electricity production and a wider range of applications.

And we should not forget advances in fuel technologies, such as the development of accident-tolerant fuels and high-assay low enrichment fuels, that have the potential to bring benefits to both existing and future reactors.

Looking at the broad picture of decarbonization and energy transformation, what roles do you see for nuclear including sectors beyond electricity generation?

Nuclear energy has the potential to contribute a lot more than just electricity generation. Almost uniquely among low-carbon energy sources, nuclear energy can supply heat as well as electricity. This can be in the form of district heating, something that is already carried out with a number of PWRs today. Advanced nuclear reactors could be used to produce high temperature process heat to replace fossil fuel use today. This could help decarbonize all kinds of industrial applications, including the production of synthetic fuels and hydrogen.

Whether through high-temperature processes, or through electrolysis, nuclear reactors could power the production of hydrogen on a massive scale. Hydrogen has the potential to replace natural gas in many settings. It can be produced at times of excess electricity capacity for energy storage. Hydrogen also has transport applications through the use of hydrogen fuel cells.

Nuclear generation has direct transport applications through the supply of electricity for charging batteries for the growing number of electric vehicles. Nuclear’s reliable baseload supply is particularly well suited to overnight charging, where other low-carbon options, such as solar, are not available. With governments hastening the end of new sales of petrol and diesel cars the switch to electric vehicles will happen at a much faster rate than we might have imagined only a few years ago. This will undoubtedly increase the demand for electricity worldwide, and that increased demand must be met by low-carbon options such as nuclear for full decarbonization to be realized.

Moving forward, we see much more coupling between the various energy sectors: electricity, transportation, heating and cooling, industry, etc. This complex picture, in which effective markets and systems reliability will be difficult to achieve, will become even more challenging with the increasing presence of a new player: the prosumer. We see the balanced production of both electricity and heat as an excellent opportunity to integrate nuclear energy into these future energy markets, to enhance its business case and to provide even more flexibility to the overall energy system.

As a global organization, do you see more movement towards nuclear by governments and private players or more away from it globally?

I am convinced that there must be a major global expansion of nuclear energy if there is going to be any chance of delivering clean and affordable energy to all corners of the world. I am also convinced that this is a truth that is becoming increasingly apparent to governments around the world.

We have seen nuclear generation increase worldwide every year over the last seven years – though with the contraction of the global economy over the last year, it is likely that overall generation will fall in 2020. Throughout this pandemic, I think that governments will have been struck by the resilience of nuclear generation, and its ability to provide grid flexibility as well as the other benefits it brings.

More countries are looking to nuclear energy to meet their clean energy needs. In 2020 we have seen Belarus and the UAE start their first nuclear reactors. The first reactors in Turkey and Bangladesh are under construction. Plans to start construction are well developed in Egypt, and countries such as Poland have clear plans to introduce nuclear generation in the coming years.

These new entrant countries are joining countries such as Russia and China that are continuing to expand their nuclear generation capacity. By the end of the 2020s China will become the world’s leading country in terms of nuclear power capacity.

The UK has recently reaffirmed its intention to use both new large reactors and small modular reactors in its path to net-zero emissions. The US and Canada are both making major efforts to bring forward SMR reactors to commercialization.

Governments around the world are looking to ensure that the global recovery from this current pandemic generates jobs, reinvigorates economies and builds a cleaner, more sustainable future. Nuclear energy can deliver on all these objectives, and that is a truth that more and more governments are recognizing.

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