Thomas Branche

Vice President, Engineering

Assystem

December 22, 2021

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Ep 346: Thomas Branche - Vice President, Engineering, Assystem
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Jadwiga Najder
Thomas Branche, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Assystem, welcome to Titans of Nuclear.

Thomas Branche
Thank you.

Jadwiga Najder
And we like to start our interviews with a little bit of context. How did it happen that you ended up being in nuclear?

Thomas Branche
In fact, when I was a student, I was an engineer. I was mostly specialized in mathematics and I didn't really know what to do. And in fact, through the first internships I did as a student, the second one, I happened to do it in Total, at Total. And now I have the feeling that dealing with energy - meaning energy issues, security of supply, finance, finance, environmental subjects, geopolitics - was interesting and was unique to me. Then I said, Okay, let's work in energy. I happened to start my career as a public servant working for the French Ministry for Energy. First of all, I started working on the energy mix, so I was the guy preparing a report about what the energy mix in terms of power should look like 10 or 15 years ahead. And then working there in the French Ministry for Energy, my second step was to be involved in the public debate on energy and infrastructure projects in France as the representative of the French government in France. Then I became the Head of Nuclear in the Ministry for Energy, which was not planned, but it happened like that. And it was thrilling because it was the key subject, I mean, for the future in energy.

Jadwiga Najder
In France it's three quarters of energy.

Thomas Branche
Absolutely. And with a strong rule of the French states, for instance, transition. The job was fantastic. The subject was definitely of interest. And then from one job to another I happened to spend most of my time working in nuclear.

Jadwiga Najder
Okay, so as you said, you started as a public servant, but right now you're the industrial guy in not a public company. The first question: what is the added value of having a career that way, starting as a public servant then going to the industry?

Thomas Branche
Just on the personal aspect, I mean, both sides are very interesting, because energy is neither 100% public nor 100% private. It is political, for very good reasons, so they are very thrilling services to tackle as a public servant. And then when you on the other side of the table, it is good to understand what is at stake, how the politicians- and see what they have to taken into account because they are facing a huge responsibility. I mean, it could be the other way also. Could be starting in the private sector and then going to the public sector.

Jadwiga Najder
This is the more common version of a public career, public private, right?

Thomas Branche
In France, we are a bit special on that. I mean, we have some specific… , also some engineers who have stopped working for the French State and then will have the opportunity to spend all their career there or to join some private companies. So it happens like that most of the time. Your friends are the ones who want to work on both sides of the table.

Jadwiga Najder
Okay, great. So you have quite several years already in Assystem as different positions in the executive side. Could you tell us more about this? What was your career in the company?

Thomas Branche
Sure. We celebrate my 10 years within Assystem in 2022. I joined in 2012 and I was the head of the nuclear activities in France, so all the engineering activities we got for the French facilities. So I did this and that's how I learned. In fact, my job was in Assystem because before that there was good excellence. And then I traveled. We moved to Dubai. I was the head of the Middle East activities for Assystem, so it was pretty new. And it was not only nuclear. It was mainly not nuclear, actually. Part of the activities were nuclear, but the strategy of a system is to enter into countries which start up activities or which are considering launching nuclear programs, which is the case- which was the case with Saudi Arabia. So we entered to Saudi Arabia a long time before they were launching a nuclear program so we are developing engineering activities there. As such, I've been in that in case there will be a nuclear program, fortunately, for us, which happened. And then I started spending three, four years on countless activities. I was in charge of what we called the energy transition infrastructure activities, which was basically the non-nuclear business and which, for Assystem, was, in fact, how do we use the knowledge that we are gaining in nuclear so as to leverage it in other sectors, because nuclear is a very interesting sector. It is incorporating standards with company norms. And so when you are used to working in nuclear, you can sell the kind of infrastructures, long term infrastructure, like transportation infrastructures, like pool infrastructures, like water defense infrastructures, for example, where you can use part of the knowledge you have.

Jadwiga Najder
But is it- does it mean that you want to- because there's energy transition and infrastructure together. So you're going towards a decarbonizing infrastructure, making it more sustainable?

Thomas Branche
Absolutely. The cornerstone of Assystem is the energy transition. What does it mean energy transition for Assystem? It is as much decarbonized electricity as possible and as much decarbonized hydrogen as possible. Decarbonized electricity, the main subject is nuclear. We are absolutely convinced that we need a lot of new nuclear for the long run, so we are- it's been 55 years. We are solving the nuclear industry and we can keep on for decades and decades, if not centuries, to support nuclear. And at the same time… also total decarbonize the energy programs, like renewable programs, like the development of the grid, which is also supporting the development of nuclear and decarbonized hydrogen. Because I mean, decarbonized hydrogen will be needed, at least in industry, so as to replace all the uses and decarbonized will require a lot of decarbonized electricity, meaning a lot of nuclear.

Jadwiga Najder
Exactly, it sounds to be a very vast portfolio that you have in Assystem. It sounds to me so comprehensive that it will go all the way to how to make those different sources of energy or storage work together.

Thomas Branche
Yes, this is what we are working on actually. Let's take an example out of France. We can discuss about France later. But for example, we want to interact with an external source to sell them the potential startup of the nuclear program. And we had discussions and we are the first mission regarding nuclear. And at the same time, to support the nuclear program, they were looking at the development and upgrading of those who agreed. So we became in charge of the upgrading of the grid in Uzbekistan. Then, doing that, we became in charge of supporting the development of power plants, renewable power plants. We are working - starting to work also I mean - discussing strongly on the nuclear program in Uzbekistan, because all of this goes together. We are definitely trying to drive and we also our job is also to leak nuclear electricity education, because both sides need each other.

Jadwiga Najder
This is so interesting, because even though you did not plan to do certain activities, I can imagine by proving your professionalism in one sector and by proving that you are able to have certain creativity - for example, okay, I will maybe not be able to advance, but let me see what I can do in a different site. This adaptability, I think, is the key of not only Assystem, but many, many companies that are working in here. We need to do such a different- such a vast array of services that it is impossible to only focus on the type of services-

Thomas Branche
It's totally true, because I mean within the nuclear industry, we've been convinced for a long time that our activities are beneficial to the general economy or the general sustainable development. But now, what we've see and what is changing, especially with the climate change, is that it is clear that all the scenarios take with them the strong development of electricity, because the carbon fuels, we have to stop using the carbon fuels. And there are not several options. It's electricity, some hydrogen, but didn't produce through electricity. So in fact, it is electricity and electricity it is decarbonized electricity. So nuclear, it will not be a bit faster for universities will not be 100% of nuclear to the most. What will be the levers exactly depends on the countries. We will see, but both will be massively different. If they are not developed, we will fight politically.

Jadwiga Najder
We have no choice.

Thomas Branche
It's a shock. So having said that, nuclear, I mean, you can serve the developments of so many countries facing totally different issues. If you look at the Western countries and these countries' industry, there's- most of them, not all of them, but most of them are already have a strong nuclear. There are other countries who are starting who are going to nuclear and they have to be completely different. And you have other ones where the electricity demand is already going up and up and up and up. And their subject is how do I make sure that when my people are wanting electricity, they have it. And nuclear has showed up to that and was very logical, but then surely with smaller size reactors, given the needs of some regions, depending on the grid. So you can after that, in nuclear, also has to adapt to the fact that it should become one of the ways to produce hydrogen. And it is a change, because the nuclear, some of them will need to be adapted in some years right from now so as to use the heat coming out of the nuclear, so as to collect heat in the steam so as to connect directly to some hydrogen plants, which we need some modifications. So yes, we have to be adaptive and we have to be joined in a changing world. And I mean, some years ago, there were very few countries - some in Asia and some in Middle East - who are saying we have to push nuclear. Now we see a complete change, so now everybody's asking, Why can't you do more? But it's okay. I mean, we have to be faster.

Jadwiga Najder
Maybe answer the question, what if a country is not interested in nuclear, just wanting to use renewables? With all your experience, with all your- the analyses you made during this 10 years in Assystem and also in this position, do you see any light in the tunnel? Or no? Not to point any fingers to Germany...

Thomas Branche
I mean, the question is always this one. It is, at this stage, impossible to prove that the scenario based 100% on renewables will work. The conditions of success are identified. There are a lot. Today, we cannot say there is a green light in front of each of them. We are talking about the storage to deal with the intermittency of these energy sources. This certainly is coming depending on the country, but Germany, which is the same for France, where do we do that? Because it takes a lot of space. It's not the same when you have strong, but in Europe, we don't have enough space. We have space in the sea. Okay, but on the ground, we have very strong limitations and geo positions are growing and growing. So I'm not saying that we should not develop renewables, but there are limitations. Today, it is more than a risky bet to say that the strategy will be to pursue the renewables. And I'm not speaking about the financial, even from the financial, but-

Jadwiga Najder
I am also talking more about technical.

Thomas Branche
-it's a big risk also, but even just so as to have the electricity, wow, it's a massive risk. But no one can prove that it's not gonna work, but it should be the other way. I mean, when you're talking about supplying electricity and energy to a country, you should be sure it's going to work. So if you want to be sure, you cannot if you want to decarbonize your electricity meter. If you say in 20 years and 30 years away from now I use no gas, no fuel, no coal, you have to go to nuclear. I mean, this is facts. Unless you do that, all the people in your country are going to stop traveling, are going to take all of their decisions to limit the use of energy they are doing. Just not really what is happening right now, because humanity is about how do we use energy? And how do we make more, what is so interesting in life. So there are countries who have taken choices, not to use nuclear. On the short term, they might - for some of them - reduce their CO2 emissions, because they have a lot of coal or replacing coal by gas. Okay. But no way, no way they can meet their CO2 goals by 2050 without nuclear. But we will see.

Jadwiga Najder
So we know already that in order to decarbonize successfully, we need a share of nuclear. But it seems to me that wanting to extend the nuclear output and working in the nuclear industry always is somehow linked to this problem of communication, public information that is available, education. What is the role of Assystem and in Europe in general, what is the role of private companies in facilitating this?

Thomas Branche
This is one of the most important questions. In fact, all the information is available, but because they are available, they are industry. So it means that it's the question- your question is about the companies. It's about me, you, and everybody. What do we do when we speak with other people? Because when companies are speaking, it is always suspect. I mean, okay, companies speak so as to make more money. I mean, there is a suspicion there.

Jadwiga Najder
It has become a challenge to-

Thomas Branche
I mean, I'm not against companies making profits. On this matter, it is about science, about education, and about understanding the challenges. Let's take an example of a discussion I had this week with a journalist who was asking me, Do you think that decarbonized hydrogen will be competitive? My answer was, I don't think it is the right question.

Jadwiga Najder
We need it.

Thomas Branche
We need decarbonized hydrogen. We have no change.

Jadwiga Najder
So everything will be more expensive than it is now.

Thomas Branche
The question is decarbonized hydrogen competitive with hydrogen produced through fossil fuels and contributing to the CO2 emissions, right? Maybe yes, but it's not sure. But anyway, we will stop hydrogen produced by fossil fuels. It will be stopped. When exactly, we don't know, but it will stop. And we will need to decarbonize hydrogen and yes, it will be competitive, meaning even if the price increases a bit and the economy will survive. We have to do it. We have to do it in the most competitive way. But it's this way that the people need to understand like are there risks to nuclear. Yes, they are. But the question is, Okay, we have the certainty of the risk of climate change and the impacts that are massive and that are just difficult to imagine, even if we have the elements. I mean, it's almost inconceivable. And when you- the question is, what do you prefer? Because, yes, there are some drawbacks to nuclear, but this is beyond our control. When you look at the contribution of nuclear since its inception, I mean, if you compare it to other industries, the fatalities, the pollution is one of the lowest of industries worldwide. These are facts, not an opinion. These are facts. And for sure, I mean as in any industry, there will be some difficulties. We don't know that. There will be some. Year after year the difficulties, the impacts are smaller, but it will never be zero and never be able to say zero, absolute zero. But if don't go to nuclear, we are certain of terminal catastrophes. Then if you discuss this way-

Jadwiga Najder
Condition zero. Conditions zero is we resign from producing CO2. Let's see what we can do.

Thomas Branche
Exactly. I mean, okay, if where- exactly where it makes sense. I mean, someone right now is saying, I'm not in favor of nuclear. If this person says I'm not into reducing the CO2 emissions, okay. I mean, I understand the logics, but I don't share the position. But I understand. If someone says, I'm an activist fighting climate change and I'm against nuclear, I'm a bit lost honestly. I see that guy or the lady should say, Okay, let's use nuclear. let's work on the pain points and stuff. Sure, but we need it, we desperately need it.

Jadwiga Najder
And now your position is changing very soon. It will be rather on the engineering side. Tell us some examples of what does Assystem do? Not only- because I know you mostly from the services point of view. I am a consultant myself to work as an engineer in consultancy. I know many consultants from Assystem. But I'm sure there are also some projects that are yours, that you create yourself.

Thomas Branche
In fact, we are a services company. Sorry to say that, but we have two big pillars, one which is engineering - which is basically about project management and performing all the studies, either from the very upfront of the projects or in the end of the project - and also construction management, so making the projects concrete. Could you see the first part of the contribution of a system and we work on old type of nuclear projects, whether these are new proto projects in reactors all around the world. A few in France, UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. We also work on R&D facilities. We are the EPC contractors for EDF, for example.

Jadwiga Najder
EPC?

Thomas Branche
EPC: engineering, procurement and construction management. We work also on a lot of cycle projects, where we need to do nuclear fuels or related to the disposal of the waste, just in a nutshell. And at the same time, we offer digital services. Maybe this is my answer to your question, because these are projects. An initiative that we have launched, we have been convinced for many years that the evolution of engineering was to use the digital tools to better deliver the projects. So we have developed a lot of skills, so as to better deliver engineering. And once we have said that, now that we are really doing it for years and years, we are able also to offer digital services without engineering services. So let's say a company - and this is based on initiatives of a system, we have invested a lot - and now if a consumer or customer is saying, Okay, I want to change the way I perform my projects, I want to use digital solutions. So this customer is looking at the market, what are the solutions delivered by software developers and these kind of companies. But this company might be a bit close like, Hey, what should I select? How should I integrate it into my IT systems? How does it work with my operations? How we might use it? This is where we've gone like, You could do that, we can show that. We can integrate it for you. We can train your guys. So you see the evolution that we have. And this was a decision made by Assystem. It was not originally requested by our customers. Now it's becoming a request, but we launched it two years ago.

Jadwiga Najder
Any companies?

Thomas Branche
Yes, currently with EDF. EDF has taken the decision to implement the PLM solution, so project lifecycle management solution. They have chosen to work with… But these two companies are not completely used to working with each other, even if they've been knowing each other for a long time. And so they need a sub party who is able to connect those solutions or systems so as to make sure that everything is working the best way and this is where we bring our talent.

Jadwiga Najder
The digitalization is a big topic right now, not only in terms of delivering services, but also to change all the way of working, of the works done in work culture. And how does Assystem adjust to this digitalization of the workstyle internally?

Thomas Branche
That's a common subject. Now, first of all, we have four pillars in digital. One pillar is the systems engineering, so how do we in nuclear projects, how do we move from a culture of development based on the disciplines to a culture based on the requirements of two subjects. And how do we make sure that from the very beginning until the end, we make sure that the requirements are always met and that this is developed at the different levels that we are able to prove it to the safety authorities. And for that, we need systems engineering and we need digital. We need to detail softwares. We need platforms, we need to work on this and to have this speaking with each other. So we have- we are using it on all projects. So now when we develop a project, we use systems engineering. We have invested in specially trained engineers. We will not pretend that we have completed the fastest transition, but we have made huge improvements. So this is the first step. The second step for us is data science. Data science we are, in fact, we are using digital so as to save time and so as to, in fact, identify the difficulties in the project. Let's say two examples in nuclear, one when you're facing a nuclear project or a maintenance project. In fact, the key question is, Where do I start? Where do I have nuclear contamination? What is- how has such equipment been used? That's really not on the paper, because the papers, they are always a bit rushed. So we have to be sure, to be as accurate as possible. Because if we have all the data, then the engineering is not easy, but we can manage. If you don't know where you start from, it's really complicated. So we use data science for that. We also use data science in the delivery of the projects, because when we come from the engineering, we identify clashes, thanks to data science and thanks to systems engineering between two parts of the project that are being developed that, in fact, have interfaces. And digitalization helps us a lot. Same subject for construction. What's one of the issues and when you have construction manager or when you have a commissioning engineers is they need to check that it is performed as it should be. And what does it mean as it should be? So meaning they need to have all the requirements with them. And if there were some evolutions done the day before, they need to have them. Thanks to digital, you can have them, because if you're gonna do that as a digital-

Jadwiga Najder
Then everybody has it.

Thomas Branche
Yeah, it's like, it's almost like- and so we are developing solutions for that. And now our engineers worked out for me construction management and commissioning activities, they are using digital for that. So this is the way I mean, for the real world we are changing. And apart from that, we are also using digital for trainings, for meetings, for the customer relationship management. It's not really genuine, but it's really a lot of value, but it's never simple.

Jadwiga Najder
It will never finish.

Thomas Branche
I don't think so.

Jadwiga Najder
We are in this transition. You used the word to manage energy transition. Right now I can imagine-

Thomas Branche
This is because nuclear is in a position.

Jadwiga Najder
It cannot be different. So since you're in this transition period between the positions right now and your work in the process of energy transition and the infrastructure as a Senior Vice President right now in engineering, can you tell us what is your agenda for the future? You don't need to disclose any secrets. Just really what do you wish to change? Or what do you wish to continue in your company with the power?

Thomas Branche
I wish to continue what we have been doing, because we have been into developing nuclear and also enhanced transition to the topic of energy transition and nuclear. So, there is no change from this point of view. What we try to do is to keep on building on what has been built for 55 years now. We have become over the last years a real international engineering company, so we are working not in each of the countries of the world, but now in another country. So this is the next step. I mean, I think we will see massive investments in… in the coming years and decades. The main task is let's be not only as a system, let's be successful in the efficiency of this decarbonized developers, which means that the question for us is what is the contribution of this? And so it is what we are working on is the teams. How can we better serve the projects? And how can we make them faster, cheaper? This is our job.

Jadwiga Najder
Optimization.

Thomas Branche
Optimization. I mean, we are not the ones deciding the project. It's not our job. But it's our responsibility to contribute to the government to improve performance being let's prove to the safety of society that it is fine. Let's deliver faster on site. I mean we have to make sure that the components are available, the parts are available, and so on and so on. There are different ways for us to do that. Using digital as we discussed so as to prove a lot of systems to speed up the processes or the procedures. How does a system take more risk responsibility than before? How are we clearly identified on some nuclear plants where we say, Okay, we are responsible for this part and we will do it you can rely on us. We will do it, we will deliver. And your trusted partners focus on this part of the plants. So these are subjects we are we are working on together. And, of course, speeding up planning capabilities, because, in general, we need more and more people. The needs are growing, so we need to be better. We also need to be much bigger. We are now 70,500 roughly now. How do we become 10,000, then more? And as fast as possible, because the project nuclear industry, not only the nuclear industry, are looking for breaks. So we have to have as much brains and efficient brains as possible, working not only as individuals, but as teams as a group. The key stuff is in this for the ones who are seeing this video and would like to participate, this will be it.

Jadwiga Najder
Great. We are here at the World Nuclear Exhibition where all the companies that matter and that could participate - unfortunately, COVID certainly - and our presence, and I can imagine that this is a huge playground for us to look for new partnerships and still keep the relationships on. What would you like to see in the nuclear industry in the future? And how does this vision of what you see here with so many exhibitors and so many different companies fit your vision for the future? And what should be maybe changed? Not only in the industry, but also in the environment that it works in?

Thomas Branche
That's a very good question… These kind of opportunities are fantastic. Everybody's happy, everybody's there. We're working with each other. I mean, of course, the business discussions we had that they were impressive and very predictive. What we need, maybe, is to keep on working on our image outside, so as to have more and more people willing to join us. The needs of the projects out there, there will be more and more. So now we need people who are willing to serve this industry, be proud of serving it and willing to join this fight, because nothing will ever be finished. But I mean, we see opinions are evolving in a positive way from our point of view. But I think that's the key subject as industry. And then I mean, we have to do evolution of the business relationship so as to be more performant all together. But I think that as an industry altogether, let's have as many people as possible joining this industry. And at the same time, let's have us convince the politicians that they have to provide us long term vision. And then we grow the vision when other people join.

Jadwiga Najder
Thanks very much. Thanks for an amazing conversation. And I wish you all the best of luck for this remaining hours of World Nuclear Exhibition.

Thomas Branche
Thank you very much.

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