Reflections: From the first Strategic Leadership Academy's fellows

17 March 2022

In July 2021, World Nuclear University launched a two-week virtual course, the Strategic Leadership Academy (SLA), designed to equip the next generation of nuclear leaders with the technical knowledge and leadership skills to prepare nuclear power plants for long-term operation (LTO).

There were more than 40 speakers during the two week academy (Image: WNU)

Thirty two participants from 18 countries attended the new course, which included lectures from industry-leading speakers and mentored group work on real-life issues such as staffing strategies, operational focus, outage optimisation, and performance improvement.

At the end of the two weeks, each group presented an LTO strategy to a review panel of high-level stakeholders including Sama Bilbao y León, director general of World Nuclear Association; Ingemar Engkvist, CEO of World Association of Nuclear Operators; Wei Huang, director of division of planning, information and knowledge management at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and Philippe Guiberteau, special adviser for technology policy activities at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.

Working Group Five’s strategy was selected as the winning proposal by the review panel. Now, a few months later, the group’s mentor, Brian Molloy, former head of management and human resources at the Department of Nuclear Energy at the IAEA, asked its members to reflect on their experience at the Academy, and for their predictions for the future of the nuclear industry.

Brian Molloy: What were some of the elements of the Academy that made it a unique learning experience?

Mbet Akpanowo, assistant general manager, Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority: The breakout group sessions were a key aspect of the virtual SLA; in fact, it was the working group sessions that brought to bear the lessons learned during the lecture and plenary sessions, testing the analytical and problem-solving prowess of team members. Vital lessons were learned here, including team building, goal-setting, problem-solving, leadership, timeliness, communication, and many more. The virtual nature of the Academy came with its uniqueness, but this did not diminish the overall lessons and with the coordination of the sessions largely seamless I hardly even noticed that it was a virtual event.

Jean-Francois Valery, back-end sales VP, Orano: The SLA provided us with a great opportunity to exchange experience and learning, because of the diversity of the participants - with people taking part coming from a wide variety of different companies, organisations and countries. It was also amazing to see how fast the group became productive despite the remote sessions, time difference and professional experience range. One of the key points I guess of such success for the group is the fact that everyone attended the SLA with the same motivation - to share and learn. And at some point, it is also a key point for LTO projects - all members of the project must share the same objectives/motivation from the beginning to get good results.

Derek Cappon, health physicist, McMaster University: The opportunity to meet and work with fellows from around the globe was an incredibly valuable experience. The diversity of our group: ethnocultural, gender and varied professional backgrounds, was our strength. I believe this was key to our success, not only in our LTO vision and presentation, but also to our personal development as nuclear leaders. This was a brand new experience for everyone involved. I believe the main advantage of the virtual format was accessibility. Delegates who may not have been able to attend an in-person session otherwise, whether due to cost of accommodation, personal commitments/circumstances or other, were able to attend the Academy and participate fully in the experience.

There were of course challenges inherent to the virtual format as well. Because there was no direct contact between delegates and time spent together was limited due to time-zone constraints, there was not the same opportunity for socialising that would occur in an in-person session. Interpersonal bonds formed during this academy therefore may not have been as strong as otherwise could have been.

Giovanna Giovanardi, operation and marketing directorate, Eletronuclear: The training allowed a high degree of self-knowledge and, in doing so, identified the strengths and areas or behaviours that could be improved, in addition to providing the tools to carry out such improvements. This meant that when I returned to work, it helped me to see how we can develop managerial skills and be more collaborative with co-workers so that the whole team can develop continuously and in their own time and specificity.

And, in addition, the content of the experts' presentations showed me that the work we are doing to strengthen the nuclear sector is more than necessary and beneficial to society.

Jessica White-Horton, R&D staff, Oak Ridge National Laboratory: I learned so much about LTO from the programme, in particular that, while the life of a nuclear power plant is finite, there are several proactive steps that would boost the likelihood for a licence renewal to extend LTO. We learned that it was imperative to be proactive during the early and middle lifetime of the reactor in order to have a compelling argument for renewal.  Based on our own work experiences and internal culture, we ascertained that by creating a healthy working culture by emphasising the importance of the employees, they will become the company’s ambassadors and strongest advocates.

On a personal note, I also learned a great amount about some of the other facets of nuclear power plants from my teammates. I feel that my biggest takeaway about LTO is that allthough extending the life of a mature and established facility will take time and effort, the costs and timelines are shorter than new construction. So, in the long run, a long (or extended) LTO is both cost-effective and economical.

Venko Stoev, chief specialist personal planning, Kozloduy NPP: My three leadership conclusions from the academy are that, firstly, leadership is vital to success, but to be a good leader you must be willing to take on great responsibility. This is especially true when it comes to nuclear energy, where leaders must personally commit to nuclear safety as the highest priority. A clear vision and deep understanding of values, patterns of behaviour and strategies for achieving excellent results are a must for leaders working on long-term operation projects.

Secondly, good communication is essential to effective leadership. In order to have sustainable results, we need to look at communication as a process that requires constant care, because it concerns relationships between people, and they are always unique and dynamic.

Thirdly, to be a good leader of others, first you must be a good leader to yourself. You need to learn how to regularly and objectively evaluate yourself and constantly improve in order to maximise your competencies. In this way, you can be an example of the change you want to happen in those around you.

Brian Molloy: So, with all that we have learned, how do you think the future looks for nuclear?

Giovanna Giovanardi: During the presentations and studies carried out we saw, for example, that for plants in the LTO period, the operating cost becomes much more competitive, and you still have all the advantages that a nuclear plant can bring to the energy matrix for a safe source, independent of climatic factors and crucial in decarbonisation. It is essential at this moment that society is encouraged and informed about all the advantages of nuclear energy, in order to prevent the fear of the unknown from guiding choices during the important moment of energy transition that the world is going through.

Princewill Okpala, senior principal engineer - SMR Turbine Island Lead, Assystem Energy & Infrastructure: The importance of nuclear power in helping mitigate net-zero carbon emission targets cannot be overstated. It has meant nuclear energy has generated increased interest from traditional nuclear power countries in advanced nations, and an increased drive and interest from emerging and developing countries. Due to the increasing interest in the deployment of nuclear power programmes around the globe, the technologies supporting such requirements have steadily evolved over the years.

Where do we go from here with nuclear? I believe that the interest in nuclear energy with the steadily increasing requirements around the world has brought about questions about how we deploy nuclear power for future requirements.

This requirement does not just secure a steady source of power, but it is also an important solution in combating climate change. These benefits mean that there are opportunities for nuclear, and it is worth exploring the benefits of the range of nuclear deployment solutions. And as such, the future of nuclear power is bright.