Waste Strategy, Political Will Can Make New Nuclear Power ThriveBy Cas Biekmann | Thu, 05/27/2021 - 11:18
Q: Where does Tecnatom see the biggest opportunities in the Mexican market?
A: Tecnatom has been operating since the 1960s when a group was created to support Spain’s main nuclear producers, such as Iberdrola and Endesa. However, Tecnatom is fully independent from the company that created it. It is divided into four main departments: The first area is involved in inspections and maintenance for the nuclear sector. The second focuses on audits, training using simulators and establishing procedures. The third area focuses on technology and its integration through customized software solutions. Finally, the company has a division focused mostly on the aerospace and automotive industries that uses robotic tech to inspect crucial components that must remain free of defects.
In the Mexican market, we mainly identify opportunities in our oldest sector: nuclear energy. Work on CFE’s Laguna Verde power plant remains part of our core business. CFE will most likely construct a couple of small nuclear power plants but this will depend on how the government prioritizes the reorientation of the energy sector. Even without an increase in nuclear production, this technology will remain a key business for us. If CFE decides to stop nuclear production entirely, it will need to shut down Laguna Verde, which would take at least 10 years. During this period, the power plant would need to be decommissioned in various steps. This is also an interesting business opportunity for us, since two nuclear plants are undergoing this process in Spain.
Secondly, we see opportunities with private power producers such as Mitsui and Iberdrola. Tecnatom believes it has a solution that can provide value by optimizing their assets or via virtual training using state-of-the-art 3D and VR technology. This allows users to see intricate components in all their detail. We are releasing a solution called SOUL, Smart Open Universe of Learning. It is more than simple e-learning. It includes training courses and videos but also 3D resources and simulators geared toward operations, finance and even leadership. Furthermore, we promote our solutions to CFE’s power generation arm outside of the nuclear energy area. In terms of production and maintenance, the state utility regularly has many issues to solve.
Q: What is a main gap Tecnatom has encountered in training and how can its technology help overcome this?
A: Let us take Laguna Verde as an example. The fact that it has been operating since the early 90s means it is now experiencing a human resources problem: the people who have been operating the plant all these years are about to retire. One of our approaches is to provide training courses, both presential and online, with the goal of preparing new staff to work in the plant. In Spain, Tecnatom created an institution for higher learning that prepares chief engineers and operators over a three- to five-year period to operate power plants. We pick top students from Spanish universities and offer them jobs related to learning about nuclear technology and its operation. When a company, in Spain or elsewhere, calls us, we provide this talent for them. Many countries have their own nuclear technology, so understanding the differences between them and the different skills that are required as a result is important. For Mexico, the fact that Laguna Verde is state-owned makes this approach through a form of joint venture somewhat difficult.
Q: Why should the Mexican government consider smaller nuclear power capacity and how could it be implemented successfully?
A: Tracking the nuclear sector worldwide, the canceled Horizon Nuclear Power program in Gloucester, UK, stands out. An issue of finite resources was one of the main reasons for the cancellation. It would have been a massive power plant but it was abandoned because of its costs. This demonstrates that in the current environment, huge power plants like that are not viable. Nuclear energy is, therefore, moving toward the development of small, modular reactors, which allow you to add more reactors depending on the power needed and the budget available. A government project in Baja California might materialize based on this technology. I believe it would prove beneficial to begin with a small reactor and possibly expand from there as much as they need to. To make this a success, the government needs to be convinced that this is a solid technology that can produce energy. People around the world tend to be afraid of nuclear energy because of past events like those in Fukushima and Chernobyl. However, the nuclear energy environment has not been sitting still and has created better procedures and regulations to implement projects and produce power.
It is also key to address radioactive waste. For instance, Laguna Verde relies on technology stemming from the 1970s. All the waste produced over time is still located there. However, solar and wind power plants produce waste as well. Completely clean energy, therefore, simply does not exist. In the end, there will be waste and how you deal with it matters. Mexico is concerned about its radioactive waste because the country is not as prepared as Spain or the US to handle such waste. In short, to make this potential project a success, nuclear energy needs to be firmly considered on the political agenda and an adequate local waste management strategy is crucial.
Q: How does Tecnatom add value for companies operating power plants outside of nuclear energy?
A: Tecnatom also provides similar training and operational tools for private power producers outside of nuclear energy. For instance, we have a monitoring room in Spain with which we track the operation of all combined cycle power plants for Iberdrola. We have three people working 365 days a year there. If something happens, we immediately notify the company how much they are losing in capacity and how they can improve this. We are also developing an educational program to certify combined cycle operators and chief engineers. This will be released very soon. Furthermore, Tecnatom can provide its monitoring solutions for all sorts of power plants, including wind and solar. Because we are focused on how the energy itself is produced and how this affects different variables in the process, Tecnatom’s asset management tool is optimally programmed to make companies more efficient. In this regard, the company is focusing on increasing the number of local power producers in its portfolio. Downtime is costly for power producers, so we believe we can add a great deal of value by preventing such issues through the use of our tools.
Tecnatom is an engineering company that provides services to the nuclear, aviation, railway, renewables and oil and gas sectors through inspection and structural integrity services, training of operational personnel via the use of full-scope simulators and plant operation support engineering.