Contrary to popular belief, Nuclear Energy is the cleanest and safest form of producing electricity. However, nuclear power plants take a longer time to construct and deliver.
Vighnesh S. Candassamy, our next pathbreaker, works as Systems Engineer at Seaborg Technologies (Copenhagen), a startup that designs and develops Floating Nuclear Power Plants (FNPPs) powered by MSR (Molten Salt Reactors) technology.
Vighnesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his bachelor’s thesis in the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant on designing a re-engineered safety system, that bolstered his career aspirations in nuclear energy.
For students, clean energy comes in several forms and nuclear energy is one of them !
Vighnesh, Your background?
I am from Puducherry, India – A small Union territory in South India. I did my schooling at Petit Seminaire Higher Secondary School in Puducherry. My father is an HR professional, and my Mother is a teacher. I grew up in a middle-class household. As a single child, my parents were overprotective and didn’t let me enjoy any outdoor extracurricular activities till the end of high school. I enjoyed painting and drawing but nothing crazy.
I was an above-average student in class, as I had no real cause or motivation to be the best in anything. Also, I had varied interests, including archaeology, plants and genetics. I was a curious child and wanted to be a jack of all trades, but I had no one to guide me towards my interests. Further, my odd interests were quickly curtailed by the societal pressure of choosing engineering or a doctor as my profession.
What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?
I did a Bachelor of Technology in Chemical Engineering at SASTRA University, Tamil Nadu, India. I chose Chemical Engineering by pure chance as I was left with few options during my counselling and selection of courses. However, fortunately, I liked chemical engineering as it is a generic discipline of engineering that can be applied in any industry.
Following my bachelor’s in 2016, I pursued a master’s in Nuclear Energy at the University of Paris Saclay in France, which was fully funded by my INDEX scholarship. In contrast to choosing my bachelor’s, I had a clear vision to pursue a specialization in nuclear engineering as I wanted to become a nuclear engineer. Further, I completed my MBA from Liverpool Business School – Liverpool John Moores University through online education in 2023. The choice of doing an MBA was evident due to the nature of my work to understand business concepts and how business management’s fundamentals influence product development.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My self-realization during my bachelor’s on what to do with my life was the primary influence. I realized that I would be happy doing anything in good faith for my career that would benefit society. Due to the robustness of chemical engineering, I could move to any industry I wanted. However, my primary options were to innovate in Agriculture, Clean Water and Clean Energy. I felt the energy industry was something I could work onto start with.
Subsequently, I self-taught myself different forms of energy and production methods. While learning about different forms of producing energy, I stumbled upon a Youtube video about an advanced nuclear startup in 2013 that led me to a career in nuclear engineering. I quickly understood that I needed to pursue a master’s to specialize in nuclear engineering. One part of the path was to consolidate where I wanted to do the master’s program, and the other was building my CV towards achieving it.
To consolidate the country, I listed the countries with a predominant nuclear program and, eventually, appropriate nuclear specializations. To build my CV, I did online courses and training in Coursera to understand nuclear engineering fundamentals. Further, I got an opportunity to do a two-week onsite visit training called CONCEPT at Madras Atomic Power Station in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. Finally, I did my bachelor’s thesis in Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant on designing safety systems.
Thus, in consolidating my path for my career, I explored lots of knowledge about nuclear energy by meeting people, listening to lectures, debates, and so on, which acted as a self-sustaining chain of triggers to reinforce my career aspirations in nuclear energy.
How did you plan to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
Planning my career path was not straightforward. While doing my master’s was the first step, my next goal was to pursue a career in advanced nuclear development in developing Generation IV (Gen IV) reactors. There are typically 6 Gen IV concepts and I was interested specifically with the Molten Salt Reactors-MSR technology. However, there were only a few early-stage startups at that time, and there were no promising career opportunities.
As a part of my two-year master’s program, I had to do an internship each year. I did both the internships at Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Orsay, France. The first internship involved using radiolysis to produce quantum dots. Quantum dots are nano semiconductors that are primarily used in solar panels, detectors and wide range of electronics. Quantum dots require high temperature chemical reactions between chemicals to produce them, which makes the process energy intensive and complicated. However, inducing radiation into such chemicals can enable the quantum dot reaction at room temperature through a process called radiolysis, thus making the process far more simplistic and energy efficient.
However, by the end of my second year, I pushed myself for an internship in molten salt experimentation to learn about MSRs. The internship primarily focused on stabilizing nuclear waste in molten salt. Molten salts are nothing but salts heated to higher temperature which turns them into liquid as the name implies. When salts are melted to molten state, they tend to have different physical and chemical properties which are still unexplored in the field of science. As far my internship, I worked with molten salt that combines sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide which have good properties of stabilizing different elements in the nuclear waste into oxide forms. The same principle can be extended to other waste management applications including electronic waste.
Following my thesis, there was no opportunity for me to pursue a PhD in MSRs due to unfortunate circumstances. However, my supervisor (of my master’s thesis) taught me the following,
“Vighnesh, I know that you want to work in MSRs. Having worked in the R&D of MSRs for many decades, I haven’t seen any rapid industrial or technological developments. Try to start your career in the conventional nuclear industry and learn all the aspects of the industry. There will be a time when Gen IV companies will start to rise, and if you are still passionate about MSRs by then, you can pick one of the companies and work for them. Applying better industrial knowledge can bring more value to the projects”.
Thus, I started my career journey in Assystem, France. Assystem is primarily a Technical Support Organization for many stakeholders in the French and international nuclear industry. I was fortunate to work under a fantastic manager who understood my eagerness to learn, and deployed me onto various internal and external projects. There were times when I was working in parallel on multiple projects simultaneously. The scope of these projects varied greatly, including
- Design & Systems Engineering: Developing a standardized valve design across different systems in a nuclear power plant which reduces costs, maintenance issues and noncompliance issues.
- Digitalization: Working with different teams to understand the opportunities and problems in their respective nuclear projects and enabling digital product development (typically software) to address the issues.
- Licensing: Worked in preparing site specification requirements for regulatory site license application in regards to a new nuclear project in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
- Instrumentation and Control configuration: Worked on configuration Instrumentation and Control system for the Hinkley Point C power plant in the United Kingdom.
Subsequently, I learned to understand multiple stakeholders’ expectations from a nuclear project and thus honed my problem-solving skills. I worked there for nearly three years and eventually felt confident I could bring value to any Gen IV reactor project.
Consequently, I applied to Seaborg Technologies in Denmark, which was designing and developing Floating Nuclear Power Plants (FNPPs) powered by MSR technology. The project is interesting in the Gen IV technology space as the challenge of designing a moving power plant brings in new gaps in capabilities from licensing to product development. I joined as a Systems Engineer to work across the overall product development process and transversely integrate all the stakeholders.
How did you get your first break?
Getting my first break was challenging due to the requirement to speak French to get a job in France. Hence, I have had to think on my feet to impress the interviewers that I have sufficient knowledge of French and am working on improving it. However, I wasn’t having much success in converting my interviews into a job. Regardless, I had a Ukrainian friend from my master’s program who referred me to Assytem, where I got my first job. I am still grateful for him and try my best to do the same for others searching for jobs.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: One of my career’s primary challenges was figuring out how to network with professionals. It was tough at the beginning of my career as I was an introvert. However, I had to do it out of necessity in order to get my first job. Hence, I started going to multiple recruitment and professional events to start talking to employers. After every event, I tried to reassess how well I engaged with people and tried to improve my communication skills. The process took a while, but eventually, I got good at it and still do it to hone my communication and engagement skills.
Challenge 2: Another challenge was learning to leave my comfort zone. When I moved from Assystem, a big enterprise, to a startup like Seaborg technologies, many of my colleagues were surprised by my decision. Personally, for me, it was difficult, as my risk tolerance eventually was low after I got my first job. However, my rekindled passion towards my goal eventually convinced me to leave my comfort zone and take the risk. I am grateful today that I decided because it increased my risk tolerance substantially and gave me the confidence to take risks in the future.
Where do you work now?
As explained earlier, I work as a Systems Engineer at Seaborg Technologies. To provide a preview of the scope of my job, generally, our education system provides us with the problem, and we are trained to be solution finders. However, in the real world, especially in product development, we need to find and define the problem before solving it. Systems Engineering is an approach or thought process to define the problem so that the specialists can develop solutions.
Tell us about your current role
Thus, my main scope of the job can be defined by three questions I need to find the answers for,
- How to build the right product?
- How to build the product right?
- How to build the product fast?
To detail my responsibilities, I must work transversely to engage internal and external stakeholders to understand their expectations for the product. Further, I should be able to flag specific value expectations from a holistic point of view considering legal, licensing, technological barriers and so on. Hence being a generalist is vital as it helps me to understand multiple perspectives. It includes understanding the technology, business, legal aspects, investments, project timeline, etc.
The primary responsibility is defining the requirements and the problem space appropriately for the technical organization developing the product. Subsequently, the job also involves aligning with the product development team to verify and validate if the product is developed as per the requirements and can be delivered in the specified timeframe.
What is a typical day like?
Hence, every day is unique in terms of workflow and activities, which requires me to be flexible in adapting to multiple product development responsibilities. Along with the workflow, the startup environment demands more responsibility and accountability from my deliverables. While it seems exhaustive and demanding, that’s the part which makes me love my job as a new challenge is bestowed upon me every day.
How does your work benefit society?
Contrary to popular belief, Nuclear energy is the cleanest and safest form of producing electricity. However, nuclear power plants take a longer time to construct and deliver. This, in turn, increases the project’s cost, making it unappealing for customers. Making nuclear power plants scalable with faster deployment can really solve such issues. Our company is currently working on addressing such issues through development of Floating nuclear Power Plants that can be easily constructed in shipyards and delivered on similar timescales of delivering ships. MSR technology really fits well within the concept of a floating power plant as they don’t require large containments and redundant safety systems to demonstrate safety as they have multiple inherent safety characteristics. Thus, the product can help solve climate change by decarbonizing the electrical grids faster and cheaper.
Tell us an example of a specific outstanding work you did that is very close to you!
While I have a lot of unique industrial projects, the memorable one was my bachelor thesis, where I reverse-engineered a safety system in the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. In Nuclear power plants safety systems are key in maintaining the safe state of the plant during severe accidents. Such safety systems are expected to be passive, meaning they require no human interaction to start and operate). One such safety system that the Kudankulam nuclear Power Plant had is the Passive Heat Removal System to cool the reactor during severe accidents. The project involved primarily on reverse engineering the system.
Reverse engineering always teaches you a lot about the thought process of the actual developers of engineering systems.
The best part of the project was that I could achieve much closer results to the existing system by just using rudimentary formulas derived from engineering fundamentals. It made me realize the power of understanding and reinforcing fundamentals to become a trained engineer. Further, I was grateful to be awarded 2nd prize for the best design project by the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers for my thesis.
What is Your advice to students based on your experience?
Focus on yourself and try to understand what you would like to do. Time spent on self-realization is essential to pursue a great career path and avoid heaps of mishaps in your future.
Currently, the plan is to continue my path in advanced nuclear technologies. There is still a lot of knowledge to be acquired and mastered. From a career perspective, I want to evolve as a leader and lead teams across multiple projects.vcx