Tom Samson: building on the shoulders of giants
After the oil shocks of the 1970s one Scottish university created a course to prepare engineers to work with all kinds of energy technology. After a 25-year international tour of mainly fossil fuels, one of its graduates returned to the UK to maintain nuclear in its mix. Now, as Interim CEO of the SMR Consortium led by Rolls-Royce, Tom Samson wants nuclear to complete the country’s industrial strategy.
Entering higher education, Tom’s decision to study Energy Engineering at Edinburgh Napier University instead of economics or accounting was pragmatic: “Very simplistically – we are always going to need energy, if anything we will need more of it.” But he was absolutely right: global energy consumption has grown more than 50% during Tom’s 30-year journey through the energy sector, the bulk of which was spent in a variety of overseas roles predominantly in the Middle East.
It wasn’t his first experience of nuclear in 2012 when Tom was asked by the CEO of Enec, Mohamed Al Hammadi, to help him establish a licensable nuclear operator for the UAE nuclear project. As a graduate engineer for GEC Alstom Tom had followed a chartered process of mentoring which took in three months working on the auxiliary steam system for a new nuclear unit at Daya Bay in China back in 1991. “The scale of Daya Bay had been impressive,” Tom says, “and Abu Dhabi was exciting because there was no question mark over whether we should or shouldn’t build nuclear – it was clear: We are. And we are going to deliver it. Everything is in place and we’re going to spend tens of billions to make it happen because we need to cut emissions, to create jobs, and to diversify away from oil.” Working with Al Hammadi, Tom said he was “proud to have been part of such a world leading nuclear programme which in the past decade has demonstrated that new nuclear can be delivered successfully on time.” The country has loaded fuel on the first nuclear unit at Barakah and is completing the construction of the fourth unit bringing the total new nuclear capacity to 5400 MWe.
A similar clarity of long-term purpose infuses Tom’s current role, Interim CEO of the Rolls-Royce UK SMR Consortium. Having recently made the commitment to achieve a net-zero carbon emission energy system by 2050 Britain will need “30-60 GWe of new zero carbon capacity, which should be firm,” says Tom, and because no other technology currently that fits the bill, “We can take as read that 30-60 GW of nuclear is needed by 2050, and anywhere in that range is huge compared to where we are today.” His numbers are confirmed by the scope of modelling in reports by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and the Energy Systems Catapult.
Facing a national engineering challenge which involves enormous spending, “It is incumbent on industry to max that transition impact on the UK economy, to benefit jobs, industry, supply chain and society,” he says. In the last few years the emergence of this SMR concept as a largely British nuclear power plant design makes it possible to maximise UK skills and supply chain in a more profound way than Tom’s previous work as CEO of NuGen, which was an overseas investment in an overseas design.
As leader of the consortium, “it’s a unique mission for Rolls-Royce to pull people together,” from the other consortium partners, Assystem, Atkins, BAM Nuttall, Laing O’Rourke, National Nuclear Laboratory, Nuclear AMRC, Jacobs and The Welding Institute. “But the scale and importance of the programme enables that,” he says, “We are working on a shared purpose and part of a bigger outcome. “The challenging part is how to define a sustainable path forward because that is a function of the external landscape. We need to deploy the project and create an offering for the UK landscape and hopefully globally. And the exciting part is thinking about the post-COVID-19 world –how we respond to impacts is very important.”
“A programme like SMR offers tremendous potential across UK, particularly across the north of the country,” and Tom hopes his case to government for post-COVD-19 stimulus investment has made that clear to decision makers “The industrialisation offered by SMR is huge and could become a near-term opportunity,” he says, “The right signals for a fleet would enable us to bring forward work on factories for assembly and at sites by three to four years to begin today. The need to transition to low-carbon has not gone away during COVID-19. In fact, everything will now be looked at through a lens of low-carbon.”
“The current nuclear fleet has served us well for these past 50-60 years but most of it has, or is about to, reach the end of its life and yet most of the new capacity that has been built in the UK in the past 15 years has been intermittent renewables, we may be standing on the shoulders of giants but we need to rebuild now if we are to rely upon non-intermittent clean energy for the next 50+ years.”
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