As part of our May special on nuclear power (fission), I spoke (on the phone, lockdown oblige) with Alix de la Giraudière, Director of Marketing and Innovation, and Thibaut Gain, Technical Advisor, both of whom work for Framatome, on the subject of the future of nuclear power. A very interesting interview, from which I keep the following ideas:
- In the West, the current outlook for the sector is not growth-oriented;
- The reorganization of Framatome gives it a unique position among Western players;
- Nuclear power has the opportunity to reinvent itself through two major areas of breakthrough innovation.
Current Context: Nuclear’s Outlook is Uncertain
The principle guiding the entire nuclear industry is that of carbon neutrality by 2050. This principle is the basis for maintaining or extending the life of existing nuclear power plants. However, this principle meets political resistance in the form the anti-nuclear movement, according to which nuclear technology contradicts sustainable development and the environment. France is thus moving towards a reduction in the share of nuclear power in electricity production (from 75% to 50% by 2035) and towards the decommissioning of 14 reactors by 2035.
In Europe, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium have decided to exit nuclear power. The Nordic countries, initially of the same mind as these Germanic countries, have in recent years adopted a more open attitude to nuclear power; the Greta Thunberg phenomenon can be seen as an expression of this attitude. England has launched the construction of two EPR reactors (Hinkley Point C project), following a change in energy policy initiated around 2010 to correct the effects of capacity underinvestment resulting from earlier market reforms of the energy system. Apart from France and Finland, it is the only European country committed to this technology. Central European countries are planning to extend the life of their existing fleets, and are maintaining projects for new power plants, smaller in size than EPRs. The Germanic view according to which nuclear power is set to decline in Europe in favor of renewables and combined cycle power plants, which are considered more economically competitive, easier to manage, and more respectful of sustainable development, should, therefore, be seriously qualified.
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The picture is quite similar in the USA, with, moreover, a lower value placed on the objective of carbon neutrality. “In the USA, oil is king and can chose his leaders, his battles, and call the shots on the world economy,” according to Alix de la Giraudière.
In Russia, the prospects for nuclear power are much more positive, although limited by the level of economic activity. In China, there is a combination of interest in nuclear power and sufficient economic resources to launch new large-scale projects. There are also other countries, such as India and the United Arab Emirates, that share a similar outlook.
Framatome’s positioning: supplier of choice for major power providers
Framatome has a long history, but has just undergone major restructuring. In terms of capabilities, the restructuring removed the company’s internal reactor design division. This major change now enables it to diversify its efforts, previously focused on the EPR, and to reaffirm its position as a universal supplier vis-à-vis all other designers, constructors, and operators in the global marketplace.
The company’s activities focus on the following areas of activity:
- Services to the installed base,
- Control Command,
- Projects and Components,
This presence across the entire nuclear equipment supply value chain gives Framatome a unique position as a “supplier of choice” in the West, and perhaps beyond.
Framatome’s positioning now places it in a market that includes companies such as Doosan, Babcock, and Rolls Royce.
Three axes of innovation: get ready to be surprised (in a good way!)
Framatome’s innovation strategy is based on three pillars:
Incremental innovation is driven by the business units and operations. It concerns in particular new digital tools, as well as the development of efficient security solutions.
The development of new digital tools for the control command function reveals that the digital transformation does not impact nuclear power in the same way as other sectors. The construction of the digital value proposition must take into account unique safety constraints, in particular in terms of reaction time. For example, the regulatory authorities in Finland and England have demanded that the EPRs whose development they supervise have digital control coupled with an analog supersystem, in order to protect against the consequences of any computer malfunction.
Innovation in the medium term
This last point leads to medium-term innovation topics related to cybersecurity. The digitalization of industrial assets means the risk of a cyber attack on these same assets, either to obtain ransom or to inflict damage. The recent acquisition of FoxGuard by Framatome shows that this is a major issue. Will the killer app of the industrial Internet come be cybersecurity solutions from the nuclear power sector? Thibaut Gain explains that Framatome is able to position itself as a supplier of solutions for other manufacturers:
A cracking column getting hacked would involve a loss of tens of millions of euros for the operator. We have the means to evaluate systems in real-time so that they can react to such attacks. So there’s a real market here.
Long-term innovation (technologies that will be mature in 15-25 years)
But there’s more. In the long term, new nuclear power is conceived at Framatome along two lines of breakthrough. On the one hand, small modular reactors (SMRs). On the other hand, new usage case reactors.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)
The SMR axis has in fact been known for a long time but has taken a while to get recognition in France because of the priority given to the EPR. But things have changed, and the CEA and EDF have now entered the fray with the Nuward project.
New Use Reactors
The axis of the new usage case reactors is much less well known. The challenge is to move away from the restrictive framework of electricity generation, and to open up to innovative industrial uses, stimulated by the imperative of carbon neutrality. A real “breakthrough in terms of industrial thinking” according to Alix de la Giraudière. The nuclear power of tomorrow, where everything remains to be invented and done.