Bismark Tyobeka

Chief Executive Officer

National Nuclear Regulator

May 3, 2021

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Ep 305: Bismark Tyobeka - Chief Executive Officer, National Nuclear Regulator
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Bret Kugelmass
So, we're here today with Dr. Bismark Tyobeka, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Nuclear Regulator, and I have to say, I can't tell you how excited I am to have someone in your position, who's come from a physics background and can explain to us his whole journey of how he got here. So Dr. Tyobeka, please, welcome to Titans of Nuclear.

Bismark Tyobeka
Thank you very much for having me, Bret. It's good to be here.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. So please tell me your journey. First, where'd you grow up? What town? What was it like?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, I was born in a village in the North West Province of South Africa. And my hometown really is what's called Rustenburg. It is one of the places that are very rich in platinum in the world. That's the Platinum Belt. So, my village is northeast of Rustenburg. So, that's where I was born and I grew up and took up my high school there in physics.

Bret Kugelmass
Was that area rich in engineering because of the industry that was involved? Did most the people who work there have a sense of heavy machinery and what goes into all that?

Bismark Tyobeka
No, actually, no, because, if you recall, those were the days of the apartheid system in South Africa. So most black people during that time were just there to provide labor to the platinum mines and most of this stuff would be shipped to bigger cities and then exported to other countries for further refining and processing. So, by and large, most of our parents worked in the mines those days were laborers in the mines.

Bret Kugelmass
Wow. So how did you get involved in a love for science?

Bismark Tyobeka
When I was still in the primary school, I used to have this school principal who was the one who was teaching us. At that time, it was called general science. He had this fascinating experiments, simple experiments, such as demonstrating conduction and convection, expansion of metals and the contraction of metals. Simple things like showing you how water can be in three phases: gas, liquid, and vapor. So that fascinated me quite a bit and I thought that there is even more exciting experiments that one would see if you continue this route in your school career. I certainly jump jumped into the bandwagon at the time.

Bret Kugelmass
Amazing. So, something about it just clicked for you.

Bismark Tyobeka
Yes, indeed.

Bret Kugelmass
And then, as you get deeper into physics and you learned about the different spaces, where did your interests go from there?

Bismark Tyobeka
You see, as we got deeper into physics, now, in high school, you had physics divided into two, the physical side, it was called physical science. But in it, you had a physics part and the chemistry side, I was more fascinated by the chemistry side, but still loved physics also. So when I went to university, I took up a Bachelor's degree in physics and chemistry, majored in both physics and chemistry and education, because I was also fascinated by teaching the sciences. I took a degree that had both physics, chemistry and education as majors. That took me four years to finish. As I went deeper into the different facets of physics, different facets of chemistry, I was completely undecided, on what to do or what not to do when I went deep into my graduate studies.

Bret Kugelmass
So what helped you figure it out?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, there was a gentleman at that time who was a very renowned medical physicist in our country. And he was one of the few black - well, at that time, he was the only one I knew who was black - so, he visited the university and he had this idea of starting a new Master's program called the Master's in Applied Radiation Science and Technology. Now, that, of course, had a lot of nuclear stuff in it. You had to learn your biology, you had to do some radiochemistry, you had to do some accelerative physics, you had to do nuclear physics itself. Plus, of course, I had had my taste of nuclear and atomic physics in my undergraduate when I was doing my Bachelor's degree. So ultimately, I got excited by this because I was fascinated by the study of atoms and the nucleus. And, of course, the proverbial story about nuclear bombs and all that, I thought, maybe this is something that one can pursue and see how interesting it becomes as you go deeper into it. So, I decided that when I finished my Bachelor's degree, I was going to be joining that master's program. We were the second cohort that took that program, so it was still very brand new. Most importantly, there was a lot of industry interest in this new program, because at that time his mantra was that we need to create a critical mass of skills in nuclear science and technology. Even though the country did not have an undergraduate studies in nuclear, that degree was broad enough to give everybody a head start to decide where you'd like to see yourself in the nuclear field. One of the modules in that master's program was reactor physics, which I found more and more interesting than the rest of them. I decided, well, I'm gonna follow this route and I'm going to write my- so it was a two year program and the first year is coursework. The second year you need to choose a research project and must be attached to some industry so that you could be supervised by experienced industrial partners to the university. I chose reactor physics. The good thing about that, we have a sprawling nuclear complex in this country called Necsa, the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, which had a lot of experience to be a reactor physicist, but of course, those days, it was all white people and they were not used to having black students. So we were the first cohort to be admitted to be supervised by this gentleman and I must say, it was a complex relationship, but we ended up getting along very well.

Bret Kugelmass
A complex relationship. Would you mind kind of tapping into that a little bit deeper to help us understand what are some of the nuances?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, first and foremost, today, the facility itself was a highly secured facility. If you think Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States, for example, or Idaho National Laboratory in the United States, you think something of that nature, but what made this even more complex, was the fact that it was the hub of the manufacturing of South Africa's historical nuclear weapons. If you knew that, but South Africa had nuclear weapons.

Bret Kugelmass
Can you actually maybe take a small detour and teach us a little bit about the history of nuclear in South Africa? I mean, I know that they're probably maybe the only country that went from having nuclear weapons to giving them up. Is that right?

Bismark Tyobeka
That's correct. We're the only country in the world to date that has voluntarily decided to dismantle our nuclear weapons. What happens is that South Africa, has a long, long history in nuclear. In fact, it starts as far back as 1948, when this Atomic Energy Board called the AEB, was formed at that time, and it was formed with the idea of self-determination. The government at the time, the apartheid government, decided that the world's- they were under heavy sanctions. And they decided that we need to invest on our own initiatives, to build our own know how, and out of that was born the Necsa site, but this site progressively was built until - they even commissioned the SAFARI reactor, the research reactor that we still have in South Africa - I think it was in 1965, that they built this reactor. So it's quite old. But it's amongst the best utilized research reactors in the world, because it puts South Africa as the second biggest producer of medical radioisotopes because of this facility. You can tell that it means we have quite a huge repository of knowledge in the field of nuclear science and technology, in running research reactors, in the design of fuel, because we have our own fuel fabrication facility, on site, and so on, and so on. So, out of that was born this interest to start now spreading that know-how to the younger generation. At the time when the democratic changes came in the country, some of us had to be put in there so that we could learn how nuclear works, because you see, government also worried that we are technically still in a racial war with white people in this country those days. So, the government was worried that, well, if you don't have black people knowing exactly what is going on in that complex, we might as well shut it down, because they may use- you know, it might be used to subvert government, because there was this thing of nuclear weapons. But President Mandela, in those days, decided it was time to dismantle these, and, of course, to support the IAEA Atoms for Peace initiatives. I must also add that South Africa was the founding member in 1957, during the apartheid system, they were the founding members of the IAEA. So we've come a long, long way with the international nuclear community.

Bret Kugelmass
Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility? It seems to me like you played a very critical role, almost like the future of nuclear was, as you being one of the first generations being integrated into that complex, that it was almost your responsibility to be successful, to take leadership, otherwise, the country might lose the technology altogether. Did you have a sense of that in your younger days when you were in that program?

Bismark Tyobeka
Yes, indeed. You see, the gentleman who mentored us preached that to us on a daily basis, that the technology of nuclear power in this country is in your hands. We have a tool, a twin unit, a nuclear power station here called the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant, and it was unheard of, of course, those days to get even closer to those facilities. So we had to go to the site of Koeberg and end at the visitor center where they would show us the video of how a nuclear power plant works and so on. Meanwhile, the nuclear power plant is just across the fence from where we were. So yeah, we felt that edge and that determination to succeed so that, ultimately, we are the ones on the other side of that as controlling things, you know.

Bret Kugelmass
But how did that make you feel personally? Did you feel like it was a lot of responsibility? And did it make you nervous or anxious? Or did you feel excited by the opportunity?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, it was a mix, it was a mixture of feelings. First, excited, because you felt like you've been put into a position that none of your fellow brothers have ever been exposed to before, here to study this complex technology. In fact, when we were chatting to friends, and they ask us, You are doing a Master's degree, what is that? What are you doing in what area? And I would say, Oh, in applied radiation science, they would say, Radiation? So, is this about bombs and so on? So, you felt immediately superior to disguise it as far as the understanding of complex issues was considered. So, that was also fascinating. But also there was this fear of the responsibility placed on you. It meant that you dare not fail. That alone also was causing a lot of stress that you have to make sure that you succeed at all costs.

Bret Kugelmass
Yes. So, what was success for you? How did your journey proceed as you continued your career?

Bismark Tyobeka
When I completed that Master's degree, fortunately for me, that is when they have just started the pebble bed modular reactor project. I remember one gentleman coming from Eskom - which is our utility company, and that is the one that owns the nuclear power plants in this country and they were the owners of the PBMR technology at that time, also still are - so he came and he said, I'm looking for four people that I can sponsor to study nuclear engineering. Now, that to me was like, wow, nuclear engineering. Never heard of that. I know, nuclear physics, I know nuclear reactor physics. But nuclear engineering, no, I haven't, and I know of no school in this country that will teach you that. He said, Yeah, precisely. That's why we need to interview you and look at your grades so that you are able to be admitted to a school overseas. He mentioned MIT and I had never heard of MIT at that time. So I went out - Google was still the new thing at the time, I went and googled, I think - not even Google, I think it was Yahoo at the time - did a Yahoo search, and I found MIT and immediately I was very excited. I realized, Oh, nuclear engineering, there are many universities in the states that teaches it, in Germany, you have it, in France, and so on. But of course the constraint was that you needed to find a university in the English speaking world that would admit you. So, I was successful. I was interviewed and was successful for that bursary, and was consequently then onboarded as a PBMR company employee or slash, you could say, bursary, was called a scholarship, scholarship holder. I was given the liberty to look for universities and decide which one I wanted to go to. So I first applied to the University of Stuttgart, in Germany. And why? Because the pebble bed modular reactor design originated from Germany, and I thought it would be best to go get it from where it was cooked. But that didn't go well. First, the language was very difficult. And secondly, of course, the professor who handled my application felt very strongly that I did not have some foundation to make it at the University of Stuttgart. I was quite pained by that.

Bret Kugelmass
Wow.

Bismark Tyobeka
But once I decided that, you see, I needed to prove him wrong. Yeah. So, I looked for universities in the United States and the first one I came across was the University of Tennessee. I had discussions with some professors there, then Ohio State University, discussions with professors there, and then Penn State and University of Michigan. But I decided on Penn State, because first, there was one of my- who later on became my friends, was South African, who also by chance, was doing her Master's degree in nuclear engineering, so she encouraged me to come. And the professor there was quite happy with her performance, so therefore, he said, Now, if you think this gentleman would make it, I will happily admit him, because he meets our requirements. And then, of course, I joined Penn State, and the rest is history. I completed my Master's program there, fascinated by how the American system worked. And I did not imagine that as a Master's student that I would have such intensive coursework, more like an undergraduate. But I found it very important and very embracing for me, because I did not have the strong foundation. So a lot of coursework was important for me, even though I was already at an advanced degree level. And that helped me a lot. And finally, I wrote my Master's thesis on high temperature reactors, which is the pebble bed reactor. And of course, the agreement with my employer was that you are going to make sure that whatever you studied there is very much aligned to what we do here. So how I managed to come up with my Master's thesis, which looked really into the safety, how you model the safety, and you analyze the safety of high temperature reactors of the pebble bed type.

Bret Kugelmass
I want to ask you about that, just a comment first. I mean, I just think it's so amazing, the story that you told, and I think it shows a lot about your character, just the ability to face adversity, have someone strike you down almost and say, Oh, no, you're not good enough to come here. And your immediate reaction is not to put your tail between your legs and go home, your immediate reaction is, Oh, I'm going to show him and then succeed in another avenue. That is the sign of the true champions of our world. It's like a classic Greek story, almost, it's always the same thing.

Bismark Tyobeka
Indeed, and Bret, if you if you tend to know, it happened that during my journey as a graduate student in the United States, I came across this very same Professor in a number of conferences overseas and I was presenting conference papers in the same conference room where he was sitting and listening to me, trying to be smart, asking me difficult questions, and I gave him the right answers.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, that must have felt good. So, tell me, since this was the focus of your Master's thesis, maybe you can describe a little bit how the safety considerations change from a high temperature gas reactors, such as the pebble bed reactor, from the existing industry, which I believe the Koeberg is a PWR reactor.

Bismark Tyobeka
Yes, thank you very much for the question. Now, first, we must remember the design itself. The pebble bed reactor, the fuel is one of the mainstays of safety in a pebble bed reactor, because the fuel is designed in such a way that you have the pebbles, but inside the pebbles is embedded fuel kernels of uranium dioxide surrounded by a number of layers of silicon carbide and pyrolytic carbon and so on. That stuff is so hard and it can withstand very, very high temperatures. Now, that alone is equivalent to multiple barriers in a PWR, because the temperatures, in fact, in my analysis, we could simulate accidents that would raise the core temperature up to 2100 degrees Celsius, but you still could not cause core melt, you would perhaps damage a little bit of fuel, some few kernels, but you would not cause any fuel melt from those studies that were done.

Bret Kugelmass
And that comes from the properties of graphite, which is essentially just carbon and carbon can withstand very high temperatures?

Bismark Tyobeka
That is very correct, plus you have graphite reactors in the design of the fuel is not only the fuel itself, but this fuel is encapsulated inside graphite blocks that are quite thick. So the chances of radioactive gases being released from that set up are quite diminished. Of course, it relied on natural heat removal mechanisms such as convection, conduction and radiation. So you did not have to have a lot of forced heat removal from the from the system, you did not have to rely on engineered systems to remove the heat in case of an accident, it will just, over a number of days, remove the heat slowly. And I remember one of the simulations I did at that time was to simulate a depressurized lost of forced cooling accident in a pebble bed core. Once you run that simulation, you could watch your temperatures going very high and within 72, within a few, hours, it comes down slowly, because the core is beginning to cool itself. After about 72 hours, the power is back to zero, you are actually now waiting for the core to cool itself. What they were saying is that, at that time, there is very little human intervention if an accident happens in a high temperature reactor plant, than in PWRs.

Bret Kugelmass
I think it's a key insight. It seems like that's a key insight, remove the human from the system, it seems that humans are subject to mistakes. And if you can design a system to behave in a predictable manner without humans, then you have a more predictable net outcome of safety.

Bismark Tyobeka
That is correct. I think that was the major consideration. But that designed through simply the physics, the physics.

Bret Kugelmass
It's elegant.

Bismark Tyobeka
It's about heat removal and heat transferred.

Bret Kugelmass
Yes. I love it. So, okay, so you developed an expertise in this space, there was a company and there was a broader effort in the country to try to commercialize this technology, correct?

Bismark Tyobeka
Yes.

Bret Kugelmass
And, what happened?

Bismark Tyobeka
So, we worked on this, but unfortunately, like any first-of-the-kind, there were many changes in the design as we went. No, let's optimize this. Let's optimize that. Oh, you know, scientists and engineers, if you put them together, and they think there is a bottomless pit of money to keep chopping and changing, they will never get things done.

Bret Kugelmass
It's a classic problem.

Bismark Tyobeka
They ultimately decided that you guys have not decided on what you want, we do not have money for this and therefore we will have to suspend this. So, that was unfortunately an effort that had to be shelved after so many people had been sent overseas to learn. We even at that time had ordered the pressure vessel for this reactor. It was ordered from Spain, it was shipped to South Africa, but by the time it got here, Government had said, Sorry, we're stopping. So yeah, that was the unfortunate.

Bret Kugelmass
I hate that. And that's a common problem, I feel. I'm a mechanical engineer. My friends are mostly engineers. I feel like we know this, we know it's a problem that we have, that we love to optimize, will over-optimize, we'll keep going back and say, Oh, if we could tweak this and make this a little bit better, and it almost takes a certain level of discipline, and I don't know what to do about it. Do you have an idea? Is it that you just bring in a disciplinarian to come in and just yell at the engineers and say, No, you have to make decisions?

Bismark Tyobeka
I think engineers and scientists do not make good project managers. At least I say, historically. You will see when you read my CV that, realizing that when I was at Penn State, I decided to enroll with a Colorado Technical University for a Master's degree in project management, because I realized that you can be a very good scientist or a good engineer. The thing is, you get fascinated by small things, as you say, Is this optimal, you have no sense of-

Bret Kugelmass
-the big picture.

Bismark Tyobeka
-you know, the costs, you don't care about those things, you just keep going. And project management brings to bear those principles that you need, first and foremost, to plan your project so that you have the start and finish point. You must not fall into the critical path., so that we cannot keep tweaking what is supposedly on the critical path, because it blocks everything. You can play around with other things, but make sure that what's on the critical path is not hampered with. Therefore, proper planning is important. Then you need to be cognizant of the cost, because time is money. So the more you spend time on the project, the more it will cost invariably. Then, what's the point of the project quality? But of course, as you can imagine, scientists and engineers are sticklers for quality. But the problem is that we don't care about the cost and the time, we want the best quality out of it, which can actually be the disadvantage to the disadvantage of cost, and of time, and ultimately cost.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, god, you're so right. And just hearing you say it is almost like painful. It's like cringe worthy, because there are so many projects that are amazing technologies, especially just in the nuclear sector alone, that if if they had learned those lessons, the lessons that you're espousing now, that we could have this magical array of new technologies in front of us and see this variety across the landscape of different ways that nuclear energy could manifest itself. But instead, we're like struggling to move things forward in the industry.

Bismark Tyobeka
Indeed, that is the big problem. But I think with time, and it's happening now, I think people are beginning to realize that we need to move with speed and agility to ensure that we do not miss the opportunities.

Bret Kugelmass
Yes. Okay. So tell me, how did you come into the role that you're in today?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, the day the I finished my PhD, I came back to the to the PBMR, but at that time, it was already faltering in terms of funding by government. And I have opportunities. I have just been interviewed for a position in Lynchburg, Virginia, by Areva, as the nuclear engineer in one of the plants, in fact, it was not a plant, it was in their offices, the regional offices in Lynchburg. And then I decided, Okay, let me go back home. So I did not tell them, I'm not taking the offer. I came back home, I said, let them give me some time to think about it. Got here, and at that same time, I was also interviewed by the IAEA, and they were looking for a technical lead for gas-cooled reactors, gas-cooled reactor technology development in the nuclear power division. So, I had to make a decision to say, do I stay in the US? Or do I come back home, or to either change the landscape and go to Europe? So I decided to take the IAEA offer, precisely because I felt I lived in North America and I needed to work for a different landscape with even more diversity. So the IAEA, as you would know, is made up of almost 200 member states, you have 4000 plus staff members, from all kinds of cultural and religious and whatever backgrounds you can think about. So, I started there. I had a very, very good time there, in as far as the job is concerned, I worked for five years and eight months. And this opportunity came. I always felt that, ultimately, in the final analysis, I needed to come home and be seen to be contributing back to what the country gave me.

Bret Kugelmass
Especially given how you started, where you had this mission of leadership for your country at the very beginning of your career. It's almost like a perfect story. Once again, everything that you're saying sounds like a like a Greek myth, where you go out to explore the world. And then you come back with these new experiences and these new learnings and having had all of these adventures, and then you come back home and take up the mantle of almost what you were, dare I say, predestined to do?

Bismark Tyobeka
One thing that helped me a lot, also, was that when I was a student at the University here, I was a student leader for quite a number of years. So, I was involved in student leadership. In fact, I was the president of the Student Representative Council. I was the vice president for some time also. And I was also starting from the science faculty was the president of the Science Students Council. My leadership skills have been honed, right from my undergraduate years and before I even left the country, so I always had that zeal to put myself in the forefront and say, Okay, if no one can do it, I'll do it. When the opportunity came for Head of the nuclear regulator here, I said, I think I can do it and I'm going to give it my best. I was interviewed by video conference, sitting in Vienna. It took inordinately long for them to come back to me. And one day I had gone for vacation with my wife to Mykonos in Greece, one of the Greek islands. I received a call from the chairman of the board of the NRA said, Well, I'm happy to inform you that the minister has decided that we appoint you for the position. So, we hope you accept our offer. I said, Well, I'm on holiday now, so, that gives me even good reason to celebrate.

Bret Kugelmass
That's awesome. And part of the part of the skills that you had acquired that made you specifically qualified, when you were working at the IAEA, you specialized in the gas-cooled technology, but was it specifically safety concerns around that as well? Because the regulator is mostly about the safety of nuclear energy, did you pick up those skill sets in this international landscape, as well, at the IAEA?

Bismark Tyobeka
Yes, indeed. What I liked about the IAEA is that it is a very broad organization. When I went for the gas-cooled reactor unit there, I had a friend of mine - and I believe you interviewed her, Sama Bilboa-

Bret Kugelmass
-oh, she's coming up, she's gonna be on the show. I've met her many times. She's a delight. But she'll be on the show soon, I promise.

Bismark Tyobeka
Sama was the head of the water-cooled reactors technologies. And I was gas-cooled reactors. We were constantly working together, and there was another friend of ours from Indonesia, leading the small modular reactors. So you see, you had exposure to this plethora of technologies and all kinds of things about them: economics, environmental issues about them, maintainability, license ability, safety, proliferation issues about these designs, so it broadens your horizon. So you don't just talk about high temperature gas-cooled reactors, you can sit in a discussion panel and talk about small modular reactors, because, after all, the high temperature gas-cooled reactors is part of small modular reactors. So, you immediately become interested in all issues that affects more modular reactors that are not gas-cooled, for example, the light water, the cold ones, or the fast reactor SMRs, but additionally, now, it forces you to collaborate with your counterparts in the Safety Department, they have a huge department of nuclear safety, because they come and ask you, So this nuclear reactor design that you are touting, what do you think are the licensability issues? And then I say, why do we think it's licensable because of this, or this or this, and then they start to raise their safety issues. And then you begin to be engrossed in that kind of a back and forth. So, it forces you to know both design issues, operations issues, and of course, invariably, safety issues.

Bret Kugelmass
I feel like having the wide array of technologies in those discussions almost allows you to gain a better perspective, even on the technology that you are focused on, because it's almost not until you get to compare and contrast and see different temperatures and different materials and different pressures, and how these systems interact in other systems and to see the challenges there, then you get to then take those learnings and think, Oh, how can I apply them to this technology, and almost anticipate what might be some of the concerns before the technology is even manifested in real life?

Bismark Tyobeka
Oh, of course, exactly. Before you think you are ready to sell it to the world, you get challenged about aspects of it. Then you go back, because the IAEA had what we called a CRP, collaborative research project. So, also part of my job was to get in touch with member states that were interested in the technology, put them together, we define the particular area that we think needs further federal research and development in the technology itself ,and then we put a little bit of funding into it. They go into their web and then they come back, present the results, and we decide what is the consensus on this, and then we'll publish the results in what we call the tech docs. We look, for example, at things like fuel designs. Do we continue the uranium oxide fuels? Or what do we do? Do we want to go thorium fuels? Do we want to go plutonium, to burn plutonium in high temperature reactors? The Russians had this idea that there's so much of plutonium lying around and we can come up with a design called the deep burn concept, which is basically using the high temperature reactor to burn plutonium. Now you're reducing the waste volumes from plutonium, so that it doesn't fall into the hands of the bad guys, but still we are using that to produce electricity.

Bret Kugelmass
Amazing.

Bismark Tyobeka
Those kinds of ideas were floated around, and you could really, really get into interesting discussions. Ultimately, we would give them two years, three years to come with results after your research. And then we discuss and say, Okay, this is the consensus, then we publish this so that member states can then decide, ah, no this problem has been sorted, we can go ahead and select this technology for deployment, for example.

Bret Kugelmass
Cool, that is just so cool. So when you come back to the regulator, and now you've got this wide variety of experiences that prepares you for potential applicants, what does that look like? South Africa, I mean, they've already shown technical leadership, both in building a fully functioning commercial water based reactor, but also experimenting in different types of technologies, like the pebble bed. Now, what's happening? Are there potential new technologies, the next generation of nuclear technologies that are going to be coming to your desk to evaluate?

Bismark Tyobeka
Yeah, it's interesting times. In 2019, government decided to publish what was called to the IRP, Integrated Resource Plan for electricity. Now, that is a blueprint that tells you between now and 2030, what kinds of generation sources are going to contribute to the generation of electricity. Given the fact that you have a PWR whose life comes to an end in some time 2024, government have to decide on what's the future for nuclear. So first, Eskom has - the utility, the owner of the plant - has expressed the will to extend the life of the Koeberg nuclear power plant. Now, that on its own is a huge undertaking by them, but it is also a huge regulatory project for us. We need to ensure that everything is still fit for purpose, which is not need to be replaced safely. We have to make sure that quality in whatever new components that are being brought in for refurbishment, is up to speed with international standards. There's a lot, by the way, nowadays, of counterfeit items entering the nuclear market.

Bret Kugelmass
I don't know that.

Bismark Tyobeka
In Korea, there was the wires.

Bret Kugelmass
I heard about the wires in Korea, big mistake.

Bismark Tyobeka
Now, because the nuclear supply chain is quite tight, there may be a temptation for people to cut corners as far as quality is concerned. So, it is always the concern of the regulator to make sure that when we embark on this process of extending the life of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant, we do it safely and securely. We make sure that they do it safely and securely. That is one big chunk of work. But if they get that right, in other words, if they ultimately convince us with their safety case, to give them a license, that means we'll extend the life of Koeberg by another 20 years.

Bret Kugelmass
Great.

Bismark Tyobeka
Now, over and above that, government has determined - well, almost about to determine - that they will be 2,500 megawatts from new nuclear, and that must start before 2030. In fact, the recent publication is that, by 2026 I think, we must start working, or 2023, we must start working towards that goal. In other words, selecting the technology and making all the preparatory plans so that come 2023, we either have to have one of those plants ready to connect to the grid, or just about to.

Bret Kugelmass
Does it have to be a government run initiative or are private vendors allowed to come forth and say, I'll supply 100 megawatts, I'll supply a gigawatt, I'll supply 500 megawatts, and different technologies come in to put together that 2,500?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, in South Africa, here nuclear is 100% government. But we are actually, by the way doing what we are saying by what we call the independent power producers. That is for everything else, but nuclear. So, nuclear is still 100% in the hands of government. But it's interesting that you asked that question, because the Minister of Energy was asked recently in Parliament in the media conference, So, where do you think the money will come from to build this, because the country faces a number of social economic challenges? And the minister said, No, we're not going to rule out private funds, private sector funds being injected into the project, so that a private company can also have shareholding in that nuclear project, but ultimately, government must be the majority shareholder. Now, I found that to be a very, very important shift in attitude turning in, you can say in policy to say that lets the people that can afford to invest, invest, but still maintain the majority shareholding. That way a nuclear power plant is what is more viable than expecting government to invest alone.

Bret Kugelmass
And then, how does it look from a regulatory perspective? Your guys' approach? Is it technology agnostic? Do you have a risk graded approach, do you have a performance based? What are the ways that you analyze a new reactor that might come in front of you?

Bismark Tyobeka
From first principles, we have regulations that are technology neutral. So in other words, if you come with a BWR, or a PWR, or a PBMR, our first tier of documents, which are regulations, would almost immediately accommodate that as long as you satisfy those requirements. A tier lower than that begins to guide you to the specifics. That's why we call them regulatory guides. So, if it is a high temperature reactor, we'll have specific guides for that. If it is an SMR traveling wave reactor, for example, we will have specific guides for that. Mostly, we are a non-prescriptive regulator, mostly performance-based. But there are a few areas where we may want to be prescriptive.

Bret Kugelmass
And are those guides hard and fast rules or is it that maybe the guide for the PBMR imagined a 100 megawatt PBMR, but someone brings to you a 10 megawatt PBMR. And so, the guide maybe doesn't make as much sense. Are they flexible in that way?

Bismark Tyobeka
Exactly. They are flexible. That's why I always say, they provide enough envelope for you to to play within, as long as you know where your boundaries are and the limits are satisfied. You can, as you say, instead of coming strict with 100, because we said 100 megawatts limit, we say, No, we'll actually give ourself a margin and make it a seventy-five megawatts unit. It will fit nicely within the envelope that we provide in our guides. The guides are exactly that, to guide you, not to prescribe to you.

Bret Kugelmass
Is your staff equipped and excited to license a first-of-a-kind? Or do they prefer that it be modeled in a different environment first?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, since 2008, before I came here, and during the advent of wanting to license the pebble bed reactor itself, the regulatory framework in this house have gone through a lot of revamping. We have benchmarked with international peers, we have almost reimagined most of our regulations to match the international safety standards, and we have developed a lot of regulatory guides over the years. We have developed a lot of the position papers, for example, on issues such as digital I&C nuclear power plants, severe accident management and nuclear power plants in light of the Fukushima accident, and so on. We we have prepared our regulatory framework for any eventuality of government's decision on a new technology. Now, coupled to that, of course, it's not only about the regulatory framework, it's about the expertise you see. So we have we have a young regulator with young people, probably our average age of staff here is less than 50 years, and that tells you we are quite young, maybe in the-

Bret Kugelmass
-in the nuclear sector, yeah.

Bismark Tyobeka
So we have exposed many of our staff members to many, many training opportunities, international exchange visits with other regulatory bodies. When I joined here, I think we had bilateral agreements with about four or five countries, but now we are probably going around nine or 10. We have since added countries such as Finland, which were not very well known in as far as the expertise nuclear is concerned. But we know that Finland, the STUK regulator today is the one that is now ultimately proud to say they are giving the license to operate to the alternative to a nuclear power plant, the Areva plant that has taken ages to finish in Finland. That experience is invaluable. And we start to form a cooperation and bilateral agreement with them to share those experiences. We continue to be very good friends with the French regulator, ASN, because, of course, we are currently running a French plant, French design. This is a Framatome plant that we're running. And so we continue to get regulatory experience feedback from them. Then the United States, of course, the biggest regulator in the world, the US NRC also are very close friends, whenever we think there are issues to compare notes, we think of them, we think of the French, we think of the British. So that also has helped a lot in relatively in a short space of time, increasing our expertise in preparing ourselves for ultimately handling any application that may arise for the nuclear build.

Bret Kugelmass
Amazing. So the answer is yes. So if someone came to you with a first-of-a-kind, you'd say yes, we can do this. And if we need a little bit of help, we'll call on one of our bilateral agreements and pull in some extra expertise.

Bismark Tyobeka
Indeed, including the IAEA, of course.

Bret Kugelmass
Yes, of course. And is there a sense of South Africa being a hub of expertise for the whole Southern African continent? Are there other countries around that say, We want nuclear energy too, we don't have the infrastructure in place, but will you, the South African regulator, license on our behalf, let's say Tanzania or something, and be our de facto regulator? Is that a possibility as well?

Bismark Tyobeka
Well, to start with, the regulatory authority is a sovereign authority. You cannot license for another country. But there exist cases where countries enter into agreements to say, We will use your regulations to license our power plant, because we think your regulations are mature. But of course, if they do, they have a duty to align those regulations with the local domestic law, because regulations are a subset of legislation. You need to ensure that there are other superior laws such as your nuclear law and the Constitution of your country are not inconsistent with our regulation. So, it is your duty to align those, but I don't encourage it. I think government must take ownership of the legal framework right from the nuclear law to the regulations and guides, but under circumstances that can be justified, maybe, a proper process needs to be followed so that, to then align, we can assist. You can then align with your local domestic laws. It has been done in Belarus, Belarussians have used the Russian regulations to license their Russian design and they are almost at the stage of commissioning, even, so many people operating. Bangladesh has done the same thing. They bought the Russian design, they didn't have the regulations, their job is more difficult because they don't speak Russian. Whereas Belarus, they understand the language. I always talk to my Bangladeshi friends that the regulator, called BAERA, and they always expressed this frustration to me that government was too quick to push this, now we have a problem because we need to move fast on adapting regulation regulations to our local conditions, then it is not an easy job, especially given the huge differences in the language. So yes, it can be done. But there are many, many problems with it, but it can happen.

Bret Kugelmass
That sounds like you have a lot of insight into this space. Do you continue to keep in touch with your international colleagues across the world? I know you mentioned the bilateral agreements. But are there other opportunities? I mean, obviously, prior to COVID, but now also that COVID is ending, where you get to engage with your international counterparts?

Bismark Tyobeka
I do, in fact, I am involved in a number of expert groups in the globally. I am a member of so called INSAG, International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group, which is a group that advises the IAEA Director General on all nuclear safety issues, globally. I'm part of that. We hold meetings every April and every October. We will soon have, I think end of May, we'll have our meeting. I'm also a member of the MDEP, which is the Multinational Design Evaluation Program, which is made up of about 11, or 14 countries - I think 14 countries - that are looking into the advanced designs currently under construction, such as the AP-1000, the EPR, the Chinese Hualong reactor, the Korean 1400, and so on. That enables us to be able to look into the issues of maybe finding ways to standardize our approaches around a particular design. For example, if you have the UK, Argentina, South Africa, aspiring to build the Chinese Hualong design, then within the MDEP group, we have sub groups, even technical teams that look into design specific issues, so that they can formulate certain positions on those issues, and release what we call position papers that can be adopted by all those countries that want to build that reactor, and somehow put it into your regulations and your guides. And then it would make it easy for the vendor of that particular design, to sell their data in those countries, because all the issues are almost understood. But it is equally understood by those countries that want to build it. So I am part of that in MDEP. And I also am the chairman of the Regulatory Cooperation Forum, which has grown now to, I think, 15 members, mostly made up of countries that are planning to build nuclear power plants, and countries that are very experienced in regulating nuclear power plants. We call them provider countries and recipient countries. So would have, for example, recipient countries, we'll have Morocco, we have Ghana, you have Nigeria, you have Belarus itself. You have Bangladesh, you have Sudan, you have Poland, you have Vietnam. And then we also have those that have experienced countries such as the US, the UK, Finland, the Russian Federation, and the UK, and so on. It is that group that, under the auspices of the IAEA, of course, I chair that group, which is they have real time exchange of experience in safety issues in licensing issues, in a way, the big boys helping their younger brothers to pick up quickly in developing the nuclear safety and security frameworks. That's what we're doing.

Bret Kugelmass
That's amazing. As you talk about this, you know, what it made me think of like the International Space Station, where they're all of these countries, and the scientific, the best scientific minds are getting together and working with each other, and making the world a more collaborative place. One thing that I've gotten to love about this project and exploring the leaders of the nuclear industry, is to get exposure to the world and to get exposure to people working across country borders with each other for a common purpose, a common understanding, and it just makes me feel like a utopia is possible. Like when you see in Star Trek, in the future, when all of the countries of the world get together for scientific exploration. And we all feel like a common people and we put our differences aside, nuclear kind of gives me a window into that and wondering if you feel the same way.

Bismark Tyobeka
I do. I do. It's amazing how, for example, you can have in the RCF, the Russian Federation, working very, very closely with the US to help Belarus build a successful nuclear program. In the same environment, you have Iran, for example, as a member state of the IAEA that is working very closely with us in the RCF, working with the European Union, to assist Iran to making sure that its nuclear power program, the peaceful nuclear power program, is successful in a way that they can operate the reactor safely. So it it breaks borders somehow, as much as sometimes it builds borders again when issues of nuclear weapons are being discussed, but we're not for nuclear weapons. We are for nuclear for peaceful uses. And that's what we're strongly promoting, nuclear safety and nuclear security worldwide.

Bret Kugelmass
Dr. Bismark Tyobeka, can't end on a better note than that. Thank you so much for this conversation, for your insight, for your leadership, for being an ambassador. You're an ambassador for your country and for the entire sector. So, I just can't thank you enough. It's been an awesome conversation.

Bismark Tyobeka
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity. I really enjoyed it. And I've really enjoyed watching your other guests in the program and I look forward to listening to other guests that are coming, my friend Sama Bilboa, and I will surely be watching that.

Bret Kugelmass
Awesome. All right.

Bismark Tyobeka
Thank you.

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