Sama Bilbao y León: a woman who fixes things

January 3, 2020

“If I didn’t think that nuclear energy was important for the future of humanity I would have quit already and decided to do something else,” declares Sama Bilbao y León, head of the division of nuclear technology development and economics at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.

My contention is that economics is the biggest problem nuclear energy faces right now. We, the nuclear community, really need to get our act together. The ball is in our court as far as I am concerned. There are opportunities for policymakers, market designers, financiers and others to support the nuclear sector,  but first of all the ball is in our court: we need to show that we can build nuclear power plants on time and on budget.”

Based at the NEA’s Paris offices, Spanish-born Sama’s department of ten looks at longer-term strategic topics . “The division works in the nexus between technology, innovation, economics and policy,” she says happily, considering the whole range of things that are rounded into the division. “We are looking ahead, scanning the horizon, seeing what others are doing and what they aren’t doing, and how those topics will have an impact on nuclear.”

This inspires the best from its ten or so staff members, some of whom bring great expertise in the subject matter, while some more junior member add new points of view and new experiences that open new paths. “It fosters creativity – thinking outside of the box and seeing where there are new things that we may need to consider.”

A similar kind of open-minded exploration and mentoring environment shaped Sama at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with her PhD advisor, Professor Emeritus Michael Corradini. “I think because he is so diverse and so full of ideas… he is always learning new things, new combinations and seeing how they fit together, if they fit together… When I grow up, I want to be like him.”

Under Corradini, Sama’s doctorate was in nuclear thermal hydraulics and this took her to work on nuclear safety methods development for Dominion, the Virginia-based utility which runs six large water-cooled reactors producing enough power for 2 million homes.

“Some people think working for a utility is not very exciting,” says Sama. “Of course, it is mainly calculations and churning reports, summarising them and so on. But for me it was fascinating… sometimes there was an issue at the power plant and they would call and ask, ‘we need to know whether we can operate while we repair this pump; do we still meet our tech specs?’ We would do all the calculations and tell them. When you go home at night, with the plant still running, you know everybody has cheap, reliable and clean power tonight thanks to your work and you have a great sense of accomplishment.”

A bigger problem with a bigger solution soon presented itself at Dominion. Although Virginia had plenty of nuclear jobs, there were no nuclear engineering academic programs offered in the state. Young nuclear engineers would join the company and move to Virginia from universities from all over the US to work on its nuclear power plants. But after a few years many of them would return to their home state to settle down. There was a problem with retention, and the visionary solution came from Sama’s boss, Kerry Basehore, then Director of Nuclear Analysis and Fuels: Virginia needed its own nuclear engineering program to develop home-grown nuclear engineers! And just like that, Sama was sent to Virginia Commonwealth University to see about it.

That was the beginning of an eight-year chapter of Sama’s life. “I was not an academic and never thought I wanted to be one,” she says, yet that didn’t stop her from transferring to the university to head the new programme, helping set the curriculum, securing accreditations, hiring faculty, recruiting students, writing research proposals and mentoring students – carrying on the inspiration of Corradini. “I have realised I really love mentoring the students and junior professionals – you see them grow and succeed over time and you feel incredibly proud. There are no words to explain that.”

Now, with a primary focus on fixing nuclear’s economic issues, Sama is taking in the wider view with a very diverse team she is building at the NEA. “We need to take a step back and look at nuclear a new ways and look at how we design markets in ways that will still result in reliable electricity, cost effective economics and environmentally benign generation.” But this wide, diverse and long-term view is complemented by the tight focus of OECD NEA’s influence. “NEA has very direct interaction with policymakers and I can see how our work makes a difference.”

Sama was interviewed by Jeremy Gordon for Thomas Thor Associates.

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