Nuclear at a crossroads2 February 2021
Nuclear Engineering International sits down to interview Sama Bilbao y Leon, the newly appointed director general of the World Nuclear Association, exploring Sama’s background, her vision for the global nuclear industry and the challenges that lie ahead
Thank you, Sama, for taking the time to chat with me. Let me start by discussing your background: what made you choose nuclear as a profession?
I always wanted to be an engineer. Growing up, I often helped my dad work on the family car. If something did not seem to be quite right, and there was a need for someone to fix it, it has always been in my nature to try and be that person. Studying engineering, therefore, seemed a natural choice for me.
At the same time, I have always been interested in energy. I studied Energy Technologies Engineering at the Polytechnical University of Madrid in Spain, and when we started to cover nuclear energy it captured my imagination. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to pursue a PhD in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduation, I have enjoyed an exciting career covering many aspects of the nuclear sector: industry, academia, international organisations — and throughout I have had the great luck of being exposed to inspiring mentors and fabulous colleagues.
Nuclear, climate, decarbonisation. Three words many of us in the nuclear industry hear every day. What is your thinking on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead?
We’ve been talking about climate change and the key role of nuclear power in the decarbonisation of electricity for a long time. But if we want to truly reach net-zero carbon, it is crucial that we go beyond electricity, and look towards the decarbonisation of energy as a whole.
As energy sectors become more coupled with the growth of electric cars, or the production of hydrogen with electricity, I think that there are enormous opportunities for nuclear energy to contribute even more. Nuclear energy is the only low-carbon energy source that produces both electricity and heat. As such, nuclear power is very well-suited to help decarbonise sectors which are hard to abate — be it industry, domestic heating and cooling, or transport.
Furthermore, producing both electricity and heat can substantially improve the nuclear business case, help nuclear energy better integrate with the energy systems of the future and be an even better source of flexibility for the system.
It goes beyond decarbonisation. We often speak about energy and climate change with a scarcity mentality: according to some, the only path forward involves using less energy and radically changing our lifestyle.
This may be okay in developed countries where we already enjoy high standards of living, but in many countries in the world, people do not have a ‘belt’ that they can tighten. For these countries, economic development and raising the quality of life of their citizens are much more urgent priorities than climate change, and to address those, they need energy.
The good news, in my mind, is that nuclear energy can help with both: I choose to have an abundance mindset. Nuclear energy can generate large amounts of dispatchable low-carbon energy to help countries achieve their desired levels of development. In that sense, nuclear energy could be a huge contributor to meeting the UN sustainable development goals — most of which ultimately require access to plentiful affordable clean energy.
However, nuclear energy is at a crossroads. The next few years will be critical. The global nuclear industry is doing a good job rebuilding infrastructure and supply chains. Now there is a need for society, decision-makers, and the financial community to recognise the important role of nuclear energy and support it with appropriate policies and financial frameworks.
This support should come soon, or I am afraid it may be too late. It would be shameful if we allowed the nuclear infrastructures and know-how to weaken to the point where it would be difficult and costly to rebuild them.
In my opinion, it is immoral to deprive future generations of the opportunity to choose nuclear energy, and I truly think they will blame us if we allow this to happen.
How do we get there? What role do you see for the World Nuclear Association?
In Western countries, the nuclear sector is learning from recent projects. Budgets and schedules are getting closer to where they need to be. Projects in Russia, China and Asia are actually going very well. But we still need to get better when it comes to delivering on our promises... particularly when it comes to SMRs and advanced reactors. I think the industry needs to successfully deploy some examples of these newer technologies relatively quickly to be taken seriously.
Nuclear projects are not that different from other large-scale infrastructure projects, and our industry has many similarities with other complex industries such as aerospace or the pharmaceutical industry. I really think that the nuclear industry isn’t as unique as we sometimes like to think. This sense of uniqueness sometimes stops us from being more innovative or trying new things. For example, I look in awe at the pharmaceutical industry which, when faced with the pandemic, has been able to realign itself and bring together research, regulators and supply chains towards the fast development and deployment of a COVID vaccine.
I would like to help bring forward this same sense of urgency and can-do attitude to the nuclear community.
I truly think that the global nuclear sector can streamline the way we design, license, and deploy new nuclear reactors.
The World Nuclear Association is in a perfect position to bring together the global nuclear industry and help build effective collaborations. After all, we all want the same: to build nuclear reactors of all sizes around the world, and see nuclear energy taking the role that it deserves in the energy mix of the future and the clean energy conversations.
The fact that the World Nuclear Association represents more than 180 members from all around the world, and all sectors of the nuclear industry, gives us the authority to bring the nuclear point of view to new audiences. The Association is superbly placed to highlight the importance about nuclear to policymakers and the finance community so that they can make decisions based on the best information available.
It is said that a nuclear industry problem is its obsession with talking about safety. What are your thoughts on this?
We speak too much about it. We obviously shouldn’t be complacent, but I think we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Ultimately, nuclear power plants are built to generate much needed electricity in a cost-effective manner — safety is a given, not a goal. The problem is that placing the spotlight on safety is harming the nuclear industry by potentially undermining the adoption of nuclear energy globally.
As we design and build the nuclear reactors of the future, we need to merge our accumulated know-how with innovative ideas to improve the cost and the constructability of newer reactors and to adapt them to exciting new applications.
Communication is also a recurrent issue in the nuclear conversation. What is your take on it?
Although the nuclear community has become much more proactive and effective at communicating, we still have much to do when it comes to communication and perception. In many ways, the nuclear narrative is still dictated by those that oppose nuclear energy — we are still spending too much time talking about safety, waste, and radiation. Equally, the nuclear community still tends to talk quite a bit to ourselves.
We need to reach new audiences and build coalitions with unexpected stakeholders. Although it still doesn’t happen enough, I see more and more colleagues from the environmental, financial and policymaking communities being vocal and positive about nuclear. We need to capitalise on these interactions and develop new ones.
I think that the COVID crisis has given us new opportunities to reach new audiences and to present the nuclear message in more effective ways.
Although we all hope to return to a quasi-normal life very soon, we need to take all we have learned during this pandemic and expand and enhance our communication efforts.
Image: Sama Bilbao y Leon, director general of the World Nuclear Association