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Leonam Guimarães



Dec 9, 2019

Ep 241: Leonam Guimarães - CEO , Eletronuclear
00:00 / 01:04
Play audio:


Brazilian Navy Nuclear Program (0:17)
0:17-9:10 (Leonam Guimarães reflects on his career in the Brazilian Navy Nuclear program)

Q: Your country has an incredible history with nuclear technology and it’s on your shoulders to make sure it’s successful.
A: Leonam Guimarães is the CEO of Electronuclear, a Brazilian electric utility company that operates three nuclear power plants. Brazil has a long history in nuclear. At the end of the Second World War, the first director of the United Nations’ Commission of Atomic Energy was a Brazilian. This organization is now IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). At the time, very few people had knowledge of the subject outside the military establishment. Nuclear power was the worst case of marketing in the world. The technology was presented to humankind at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This created a lot of negative images that are very difficult to change. Looking back at the history of mankind, man made big jumps when they found more energy that was more concentrated, starting with fire, the use of biomass. The discovery of coal brought a revolution and the discovery of oil brought another revolution. Fifty years after the discovery of oil, nuclear fission was discovered, which is ten times more dense than oil. However, this new revolution hasn’t happened yet because of the “original sin” of using the technology as a weapon.

When Leonam was very young, a nuclear physics student came to Leonam’s house selling encyclopedias. This was the first time Leonam heard about nuclear and it captured his curiosity. When he finished his engineering studies later on, Leonam was recruited to start working in the Brazilian Naval Nuclear program as an engineer, which had just gotten started in the 1980’s. The decision to build the first civilian power plant was made in the 1960’s. Construction of Angra 1 started in the 1970’s and was operational by 1985. As a Captain in the Navy, Leonam was in charge of development and the design coordination of a lead prototype for nuclear propulsion, eventually serving 25 years. Experimentation is the basis of the development of new technology and it is costly.

Brazil’s Civilian Nuclear Sector (9:10)
9:10-16:09 (The history of Brazil’s civilian nuclear sector and plans for future development)

Q: What was your role when you came to the commercial sector in 2005?
A: When Leonam Guimarães transitioned to the commercial nuclear sector in 2005, he served as Chief of Staff of the president of Electronuclear. The challenge at the time was to restart the construction of Angra 3. Construction of Angra 2 was stopped for ten years, restarting in 1997, due to financial challenges. The challenge was managing a large amount of capital over a long period of construction. The next new reactor build is considering two additional gigawatts in the Northeast region and two additional gigawatts in the Southeast region. Some areas have been identified for site selection studies. If small modular reactors (SMR) will be used, they must demonstrate that they can sustain the promise. Previously, large reactors were pursued to decrease the cost, but it must be demonstrated that smaller reactor can actually cost less. It will be easier to finance larger plants if there is strong support from the government. The environment now is completely different and big jobs are difficult, so a different strategy may be needed.

Brazil has a lot of hope that the lead prototype of the Navy is a good step in the direction of SMR’s. The developments of the Navy could be transferred directly to the civilian sector. New startup companies are developing new concepts; they are a revolution, not an evolution. They are remaking old concepts, but it is a long path to make things licensable and to create a supply chain.

Development of New Nuclear Concepts (16:09)
16:09-26:38 (Leonam addresses challenges of changing technologies and how innovation can pave the way to success)

Q: Is there a way to think about new nuclear development in terms of innovation without thinking about the core itself, but making sure construction gets done on time and on budget?
A: Challenges with reactor construction are known, but it continues to be a challenge. There are problems with costs and delays on all big projects. Going to smaller projects is rational, but it must be proven out. Demonstration in terms of licensing can be challenging for small modular reactors (SMR). Gains of scale, in terms of quantity not size, must be demonstrated. The nuclear authority is responsible for licensing of all solutions in Brazil, including the lead prototype reactor. They are created based off the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the precursor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). New concepts cannot be licensing using the same frameworks used for the big, conventional reactor technologies. In some way, all the regulatory bodies in the world are influenced by the U.S. model.

Change is natural, but the challenge is how to make it faster. Different generations must try to understand the mindset of other generations. Incentives are often used in start-ups, but it must also be used in the regulatory body as well to encourage innovation. Innovation needs a special approach; it cannot be approached with the standard models. Sometimes safety is seen in terms of hardware and equipment and software, but safety is really about the people. Investing a lot in equipment for safety means losing chances to better enhance safety on the human side. The nuclear sector has people interested in the field and more people are being educated for nuclear careers. It is an attractive field, even though there is still some fear of nuclear.

Renewables and Flexible Nuclear Energy (26:38)
26:38-34:31 (How hydroelectricity and nuclear energy can be used together to balance Brazil’s electrical system)

Q: Why is Brazil stopping at two gigawatts? It doubles today’s capacity, but why not build more?
A: To manage an electrical system, diversity is the main component in balance. Brazil cannot make a policy like France which is all nuclear. Brazil is a huge country that must look for diversity and has a road for all possible energy sources, with the exception of geothermal. The goal for nuclear energy production in Brazil is around 5-10% of the country’s energy, currently providing 2.5% of the electricity. To reach a low-carbon future, Leonam Guimarães’ dream is to have renewables and flexible nuclear energy. Brazil’s electrical system is more than 70% renewable. This consists of mostly hydro, but there is not as much room for growth in that sector, due to the topography and location of the water. However, nuclear and reservoirs can be used together to store energy, with the reservoirs acting as batteries. The value of hydro storage is growing. If flexibility is introduced to nuclear via small modular reactors (SMR) to match a variable demand, it can be the system of the future. Very few countries have the big reservoirs that Brazil has.

Fossil fuels are so valuable and useful for a lot of different uses, such as plastic production, that it doesn’t have to be used for electricity production. The climate change is happening. The degree of the influence of humans in the climate change is a big discussion, but it is clearly an important component. Clean energy is a revolution that did not happen in the 1950’s, when nuclear technology was first developed. It is not a fission revolution, but a clean energy revolution in which fission plays a big role

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