An interview with Thomas Branche
Thomas Branche, what is your trajectory?
I graduated from the Polytechnic School then from the prestigious corps known as the State Engineers of Mines. At the end of my studies, I did my final internship at Total, in the internal auditing service, to discover the energy sector. This experience motivated me to pursue working in this sector. I started my career working for the state and, in continuity, at the Ministry of Energy. There, I drafted a report on the choice of public politics concerning the electric mix. In 2005, I presented my candidacy to be the main representative of the state for the public debate on the Flamanville EPR nuclear power plant. At that time I still didn’t have much experience, but my managers trusted me. Then, still working for the state, I worked on nuclear in France and cooperation with other countries, notably ‘new entrants to the nuclear scene.’ It was especially interesting that the state play an important role. In 2011, I started as Assistant Director, in charge of energy at the office of the Minister of Industry, Éric Besson.
In 2012, at the end of my missions with the state, I chose to discover the corporate world. My experiences had taught me that France had a need for strong enterprises to develop internationally. And Assystem, an ambitious company with bursting potential, convinced me to join their team!
Why did you choose to work in nuclear?
I didn’t originally choose nuclear in particular. When I appeared to represent the state on the debate of the Flamanville 3 EPR, it was because the experience interested me. I then continued progressively because the subjects are complex and inspiring.
On the other hand, I’m convinced that, without nuclear energy, we wouldn’t be able to obtain our objective (maximum 2 degrees more in 2050) in the fight against global warming. Nuclear alone is not responsible, but nuclear is indispensable. This technology is part of the future and to not count on that would be an error.
It’s a sector in which public opinion is very divided…
Polls show that the opinion of French people is fairly constant in duration, with a slightly larger leaning towards favorable than unfavorable. Logically, after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, the proportion of people with unfavorable opinions increased significantly. But two years after, public opinion has returned to its original level and stabilized. That being, in the last ten years, the percentage of people without an opinion has decreased. In fact, the more time passes, the more people express themselves about nuclear.
The nuclear subject has known two important evolutions, in the media and politically. These last ten years, energy has become a major subject: nuclear has occupied a place each year as one of the increasingly important topics in the press. Before, it rarely appeared in current affairs. In France, nuclear has even become a political question, which is very significant for the sector. For 50 years, political lines didn’t change; the pro-nuclear parties stayed favorable and vice-versa. But during the 2012 presidential campaign, the historical consensus that existed on the subject evolved. Since then, nuclear has been at the heart of political debates.
But then, how do you convince people that nuclear is a good solution?
There is no simple message. Furthermore, many shortcuts could lead to regrettable mistakes.
For example, it is false to say that nuclear is not dangerous. Nuclear energy is an industry, and all industries carry risks, even if, in our case, there is a very strong notion of security all around. The sector is globally very high performing in terms of mastering risks. That does not mean that catastrophes cannot happen. All industries must face this fact. But nuclear is a step of continual progress which is very beneficial for the environment, despite the possibility of accidents. And this is more than other sectors.
It is also false to say that nuclear is the solution: it is not the only one. Most people deduct that there is nothing besides nuclear. Economically and technically, all-nuclear would be nonsense, no matter the country. That said, saying that nuclear is part of the solution is perfectly fine with me.
The energy sector is a field of constraints. All countries agree that an energy policy must involve three criteria: availability, environmental respect and cost. The questions of availability and cost are relatively easy to manage. The point of the environment, less so, because there is not a consensus on its signification. What do we mean by environment? Saving the climate? Fine particles? Preservation of nature?
In terms of the environment, what role will nuclear play?
For me, the most important subject is the question of global warming. The problem is far from being simply ecological, even if the destruction on the environment is undeniable. The main consequences will also be economic and above all, humanitarian: destruction of large-scale coastal infrastructure, massive population displacement, risks of conflict for territories with essential resources such as water. In this context, nuclear is part of the solution.
In terms of carbon-free electricity, our only solutions are nuclear, wind and solar. Hydroelectricity is almost fully saturated everywhere in the world. Wind and solar are the technologies of the future, but the sun and wind can’t be monitored. This problem is manageable in itself. However, in the measure where production must adapt to demand, it is indispensable to create efficient energy storage systems if we wish to eventually exclusively use our technology. Today, these systems are not ready.
The idea of ‘completely-renewable’ is based on the theory that large-scale energy storage will work and could be deployed to the masses at a low cost, which is anything but proven. We can’t base a strategy of fighting against climate change on such a bet- it would be irresponsible! Moreover, if this theory turns out to be false (which I hope is not the case), the only means of regaining the urgently-needed power in the networks would be to turn to thermal energy production systems, which, in terms of climate protection, is not good.
In my opinion, nuclear must be part of the solution, because without it the strategy of fighting against climate change is not resilient. Nuclear is not a choice made by the heart but rather one of reason. The existence of our nuclear park is justified, even if the current reasons are different than those which prompted its creation 40 years ago. At the time, the park was created to solve energy-dependency issues in France. Today, we are equally as concerned with the environmental impact of our electricity production.
Of course, but we often hear it said that ‘the real problem of nuclear is the waste…’
And it is so false! This problem is mastered by the technical plan. Recycling has been functioning for years, and we have effective and secure solutions for all the waste of several decades. The subject which remains is its definitive management, which is to say more than 50 years down the road. The French nuclear industry chose the geological storage solution; the geological layers being stable and hermetic over a long duration. It’s an environment which is measured, studied, and mastered. The thing remaining is the installation: the Cigeo project is under preparation. To the question of why didn’t we do anything earlier? I would reply, why do anything earlier? There was no need. We need time to rechill the waste packages before storing them definitively. Now we need them so let’s do it.
How does Assystem position itself in the nuclear market?
First off, I remind you that Assystem’s activities span several industrial sectors, such as aerospace, automobiles, energy and infrastructures. At the heart of these different sectors, nuclear plays a key role for Assystem for several reasons: because historically Assystem has been working in nuclear for 50 years, because the perspectives of developing in nuclear are important and because Assystem occupies a leading place in the nuclear industry. We are actually the 1st leading European engineering company, and the 4th worldwide, according to the ENR 150.
We wish to continue positioning ourselves in the French nuclear industry, domestically and abroad, and equally in other sectors in order to continue developing our expertise.
In this frame, we lead actions showing our skills (structuring our design offices, developing our methodologies…). We’re also signing more and more important EPCm contracts which are both windows and laboratories for the evolution of our know-how. And we are proceeding with reinforcements and acquisitions internationally, notably in the Middle East.
How do you see the future of nuclear?
The realities vary greatly between countries.
Besides Germany, where the Fukushima accident led to the passing of an act which reflected already changing sentiment, no nuclear program has been stopped definitively. But Fukushima has led to a slowdown of nuclear development.
Big countries like China, India, Russia, and the US have nuclear programs and are continuing in this direction. The slowdown of investments in nuclear in the US is above all due to the very low price of shale gas, and not specifically to Fukushima. Numerous other countries count sustainably on nuclear to meet part of their needs, with very different ambitions, depending mainly on their size and the size of their population.
China is the country which is building the most and which wants to construct more. This is easily understood considering the electricity production of the country several years ago and the growth of demand. For China, nuclear is a pragmatic choice amongst others. Chinese invest in all technologies which correspond to their needs. They must replace their oldest infrastructures and create new ones to meet the growing need, leading to a construction boom.
New countries also wish to enter into the nuclear industry. The UAE, for example, has 4 reactors under construction and wishes to create more. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have programs or ambitions for programs on which they are waiting to make a final policy decision. Another case, South Africa, already has 2 reactors and is on the verge of starting new construction. And I would also cite our neighbor, the UK, which has an ambitious program within which building reactors is underway.
How do you prepare your development to accompany these projects ?
We prepare by investing in the methodologies and skills, which implies strong HR policies of mobility and construction. We invest internationally; we position ourselves in a certain number of countries and develop partnerships.
For the past several years, we have been investing in the UK, where Assystem is already a prominent player. We also positioned ourselves in the Arabian Gulf, with a base in Dubai. We have many discussions with international buyers, with eventual partnerships in mind. For example, in 2011, we created the Nuclear Assystem Atkins Alliance which serves as a solid foundation for our development in the UAE. It’s through these exchanges and further discussions that we are ready to work together.
What message do you have for the Young Generation?
I have two. The first: be proud of what you do.
The next twenty years will be the most exciting since the start of the nuclear industry. These will be the years of renewal. In the decades to come, we will have many debates, much new construction, a lot of maintenance, and a lot of decommissioning. All these events will take place in parallel in a number of countries, even more than 50 years ago.
Our predecessors, who built the nuclear park twenty, thirty, even forty years ago, congratulate themselves and they are right to do so. In the same vein, today’s youth will be able to look at the park in several decades, say ‘I was there, I contributed’ and take much pride from it. And they will be right to do so! In spite of what is sometimes said, nuclear is and will remain a very big industrial success in France.
My second message contains two words: perseverance and responsibility.
Today, we are present during the growing politicization of the energy question. Don’t allow yourselves to become polluted by the debates. Even in a political debate poorly maintained for years, the physical and mathematic reality will prevail in the end. Around true crisis periods, the political words will recede and leave the space for technical fundamentals.
The nuclear industry is not anodyne. You have, we have, a daily responsibility in our work, but also outside because you represent the sector. Share your advice and your knowledge fairly. There is no sense in saying ‘nuclear is better than everything’ or ‘all nuclear projects are good.’ Don’t become indoctrinated! It’s a promising sector, but like all industrial sectors, it carries unfortunate projects. Be conscientious of its strong points and its weaknesses, without putting down other solutions. Never forget to do your part. It’s an asset for the new generation.