Building culture to fight climate change

Bharath Nangia headshot, President & CEO, Nuclear Promise X
Images: Nuclear Promise X

Lowering cost and tightening schedule on big nuclear projects isn’t just good for shareholder returns; it could be the linchpin to ensuring the world can meet its net zero goals. Nuclear Promise X President/CEO, and UNENE M.Eng. graduate, Bharath Nangia tells us why nuclear efficiency is so important to fighting climate change, and explains the vital role of collaboration.

By Jacquie Hoornweg, Executive Director
Brilliant Energy Institute, Ontario Tech University

MARCH 15, 2022 – It was 2021, so Bharath Nangia was talking to his audience over a virtual platform, which might seem a bit ironic (at least from a pre-2020 perspective) given his topic was culture.

But, like so much else, culture has had to adapt to pandemic realities. And, if like Nangia, your expertise is innovation culture, adapting to the added complexity of COVID is just one more part in the mix.

Nangia was delivering the keynote for the University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering (UNENE) Annual R&D Workshop, where industry, academia and government come together to share the latest trends, accomplishments and forecasts across the nuclear industry and within UNENE-member universities.

As the opening day keynote speaker, Nangia was an ideal fit being both a UNENE M.Eng. graduate and president of Nuclear Promise X (NPX), a nuclear start-up that, since its 2018 inception, has leveraged its innovation prowess to surpass the 100-employee mark and complete several major projects on behalf of industry clients.

You can find Nangia’s talk in its entirety here, in which (spoiler alert), he offered three key takeaways for building innovation culture:

  • Define your purpose;
  • Challenge the status quo; and
  • Have fun! Culture goes beyond work.

More on those and their application to nuclear in a moment. First, a bit about how Nangia, still several years shy of his 40th birthday, came to co-found a nuclear innovation company.

Born in India, Nangia came to Canada to study automotive engineering at the University of Windsor, graduating in 2007. His dream career involved car engines, not nuclear plants but fate had other plans. A downturn in the automotive sector, in his last year of university, pushed him to a co-op term at Nuclear Safety Solutions where he brought his mechanical engineering talents to bear on technology studies for Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Darlington new build and refurbishment projects.

In the decade that followed, while the auto industry re-invented itself with restructuring, robotics, artificial intelligence and a pivot to electrification, Nangia continued his nuclear career with NSS (which was bought out by AMEC Foster Wheeler in 2005, in turn acquired by Kinectrics in 2017). Within a year, the company stationed him on-site at Bruce Power and later at Darlington, where his passion for cars was replaced with nuclear engineering.

“It started with a six-month rotation at Bruce Power (on Bruce Power Units 1 & 2 refurbishment), which I ended up doing for about six years because I loved it,” says Nagia. “I loved being at site; I wanted to be where the projects are happening, in the field… once at site, you can just put on your hard hat to go in the plant to see the thing you’re talking about; nothing comes close to that.”

Within months of returning to the Toronto AMEC office, Nangia was deployed back into the field, this time to Darlington for the refurbishment project.

As he took on progressive positions at AMEC, increasingly in management roles, Nangia recognized the value of expanding his industry-specific knowledge and decided to pursue the part-time Master of Engineering program through UNENE.

“I was getting more and more of that strategic leadership experience on the job while I was moving away from the design engineering work I started with, so that was what I saw as my gap,” says Nangia.

“UNENE is so well suited for people in the industry… You take courses on the weekend and work at your pace. It had the right mix of discipline and flexibility, so people working, especially in outages, were able to keep up with it.” The course also provided an excellent opportunity to network and form relationships with people across the industry from a diversity of companies, something you can’t always get on the job, he adds.

The UNENE MEng. took about three years to complete through weekend classes taught at the Durham College Whitby campus (currently the program is delivered online due to the pandemic).

Nangia says the program has helped him significantly.

“Today’s leaders have to work at both the highest level and the most detailed level. You have to be comfortable at both and that is what the UNENE program allowed me to do. It gave me the technical basis but on the softer side, it gave me a whole lot of confidence.”

With his masters completed and ever-increasing in-field experience, Nangia found himself connecting the theory and practice. The time working on Bruce Power Unit 1 and 2 refurbishments and then at Darlington had helped him identify the industry’s strengths and its limitations.

“I noticed we haven’t fundamentally changed how we do work as an industry, whether it’s how we manage projects, how we plan work, how we do design, engineering, construction, maintenance, operations. But what was different was we had a few more large projects coming up and this time we started hearing the terminology of off-ramps.”

There was a real risk that if the nuclear industry could not stick its cost and schedule early on, subsequent unit refurbishments would not move forward.

“The question was, ‘If nuclear is such a great tool to fight the climate crisis, how do we make sure we don’t get in our own way and trigger these off ramps?’ It required a fundamental rethink on how we do work and plan work and probably the single most effective tool was innovation,” he says.

In nuclear, conservative thinking is valued. There is a natural resistance, even fear, to changing tried and true processes and, often, with good reason. You don’t freelance in nuclear.

However, there is a saying that if you are not moving forward, you are falling back. If nuclear is going to assert itself into its necessary role within the clean energy systems of the future, staying still was not an option, says Nangia.

“There’s a safe way to make change and we realized, we can either wait to be disrupted as an industry, wait for someone else to come and make change, or — and we landed on the last option — we can be that change.”

Nangia says, he and his NPX co-founders also recognized that a start-up may be an easier place to jump-start change than working from within established organizations. A company was born.

With their first contract out of the gate from Bruce Power, NPX had an opportunity to prove their theory, in a big way. The challenge: Shave six months off critical path for each unit; no small feat but a tremendous opportunity for pay back.

“At about $1 million a day, times 180 days, times five units, that’s a big return,” says Nangia.

When they succeeded, which they did, the win was not NPX’s alone. They had worked with 12 other companies on the project. In addition to the promised result, the participating companies achieved something else, the confidence that comes from doing something differently and seeing it work.

“Now everybody wants to talk about innovation and everybody wants to talk about change and I love it because we don’t view it as competitors competing. As an industry we’re innovating and that’s best for everybody.”

At the heart of that innovation is culture, says Nangia.

“At NPX, more than anything else, more than technologies, more than procedures, we’ve focussed on culture, and we will continue to focus on culture.” Which brings us full circle back to Nangia’s keynote and his three key ingredients for driving an innovation culture.

Define your purpose

Nangia: The purpose is to limit global warming to no more than 1.5oC: Nuclear has a vital role to play in the clean energy systems of the future but it will only be successful with continual performance improvements.

Challenge the status quo

Nangia: The nuclear industry has developed excellent processes but cannot be complacent. NPX is working with collaborators and clients to improve results such as reduced time, cost and dose using an innovation culture that leverages new technologies, analytics and machine learning.

Have fun! Culture goes beyond the work

Nangia: The NPX team uses its talents, working with industries and community partners, to create products and services useful to people’s lives in other applications, from 3-D printed prosthetics to social and educational programming to an app that helps with vaccine distribution.

Culture, and collaboration, is at the heart of it all, says Nangia.

“Worldwide we’re going to be building 12 times the current power supply in the next decade,” says Nangia. “We’ll need all the help we can get, all the people we can get. So, if you think ‘it’s not about competing with somebody on 2021 financial results; (rather) it’s about collaborating so that by the 2030s, we have more nuclear energy in Canada on track to meeting our CO2 targets;’ that changes your perspective.”