Interview: Bechtel's Tokpinar on TerraPower, Advanced Nuclear

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Site work in Wyoming for TerraPower’s planned inaugural Natrium plant being overseen by Bechtel.
Photo Credit: Bechtel

Last week Ahmet Tokpinar, Bechtel's head of nuclear operations, spoke with Energy Intelligence's Phil Chaffee about the company's role in AP1000 nuclear newbuilds. In the second half of Tokpinar's Aug. 10 interview below, he discusses Bechtel's work in the advanced nuclear space.

Q: For the past two years you've worked with technology developer TerraPower on the Natrium sodium fast reactor. Do you foresee a role on the Natrium similar to what you propose for AP1000 projects, as an integrator and EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) contractor all wrapped together?

A: Well we are their EPC contractor. We're already working with them in that role. It's the second year of our joint execution, but we've been working with TerraPower for longer than that. We have a very good complementary skill set and they're an excellent company, very innovative. Our skill set of more experienced EPC brings very complementary skills of innovation and experience.

We're extremely excited about what we're doing with them. We'll build the demonstration unit in Wyoming. We have recently completed all the site investigation work — the geotech work we completed about a month ago. That's a good example of how we are setting our integrated EPC tools to make that project a success. And it will be.

Q: How are you thinking about the first-of-a-kind challenges there?

A: Every component of that project has been proven somewhere before. It's not about whether the technology will work or not. It's first-of-a-kind because you're designing something from scratch, but you're utilizing proven concepts.

I don't think it's a big challenge. We're gonna test the supply chain in the US. I think there's normal learning that will occur, but I don't expect this project to be anywhere near what other technologies have gone through. Because there's quite a bit of lessons learned on how to approach these developments, the better tools, the modeling. There's a far better process as you go through the design challenges than before.

The biggest lessons learned, I can tell you Phil, is that a lot of these reactor concepts in the beginning never involved an EPC contractor like us that looked at constructability: whether it makes sense, how you build what you're designing.

The advantage that we bring in with TerraPower is that we're there with them. We're designing some parts, they're designing others. But we are looking at every piece, whether it can be built in a practical way, so that we don't have any issues when we're at the site, pointing fingers and saying 'You can't build this, it's too congested, it's too tight, there's not enough margin.'

Q: Beyond TerraPower and Westinghouse, do you envision partnering with any other companies in the newbuild space?

A: We're in discussions with others. We've tried to pick players from different categories of nuclear — large, small, advanced. So we have some discussions for small modular reactors — I'm not at liberty to have that discussion with you now — but I think it's going to be a mix of different technologies. We are almost always technology neutral. But when we see a technology that makes sense and is better than its peers and competitors we don't shy away.

Q: Obviously, you're not naming names, but I am curious. As a reporter, it's very hard for me to evaluate which technologies and companies are most serious out of the dozens or even hundreds of SMR advanced reactor vendors that put out bullish statements and very slick PowerPoint presentations. How do you evaluate these firms and decide which are most serious, and which are most ready to be commercial?

A: We have a process through which we evaluate every single reactor technology out there. We rank them. We look at their technical feasibility, we look at their cost feasibility — whether you can build it or not. And we have discussions with them periodically, we look at the journals and at the available information.

So we have our own assessment from the perspective of an EPC, not an owner-operator. We look at the teams, we look at different aspects of development, and the funding they have, because at the end of the day the funding is very important. You may have the best technology but if you're always worried who's providing the next year's funding you're going to lag behind. So we look at the funding, who are their financial backers? Are they credible? Are they gonna be around in two years?

There's a lot of practice and we have our favorites. And if we want to have a closer relationship, sometimes we approach them. And quite frankly, the Natrium TerraPower design was at the top of our list. We knew the company well, we were helping them for 4-5 years, and we told them that we wanted to partner with them. So that's how our relationship grew even stronger and bigger, with the ARDP [the US Department of Energy's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program] application we jointly submitted.

There are a lot of players. There's a lot of hype. We know what we think is achievable, and when we find good fits, we have a discussion.

Q: Following up on that, you talk about going into each space in nuclear. Does that include fusion? Is that something you're looking at too?

A: We are. We're not active, because it's very limited what we can contribute today. They need to prove their physics. But there are a few companies that we meet on an annual basis and have discussions with. One out of the US, one out of the UK, and one just reached out to us. So we do talk to them.

I think it's going to happen. I'm not a physicist, so I couldn't tell you when. But there's so much money coming in. And in our experience, if you throw enough money, you solve the problem. They — the fusion projects — have some challenges, but there are a couple of very good companies, with very smart people, and with really good financial backing.

Q: But the point at which you want to become involved is once they've solved the fundamental physics, and they're looking much more to commercial design?

A: Exactly. Because we couldn't help them with the physics, we couldn't help them with their demonstration fusion reactor.

If they can have a sustainable energy — when they're getting more energy out then they're putting in, and they can maintain that on a continuous basis — around that time, you're going to have a discussion over 'How do you capture that heat?' Because that's another challenge that hasn't been solved. How do you transfer the heat for power generation? That's where we come in and design a power plant around the fusion reactor.

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