"Spain must reconsider the nuclear shutdown"
Francisco Martín is a Mining Engineer with extensive experience in multinational companies in top management positions in energy projects and industrial plants. He is currently president of Virlab, a company that specializes in conducting vibration and shock tests for all types of equipment. At the Asteasu facilities, located between San Sebastián and Tolosa, numerous vibration and shock tests have been performed since the beginning of the company's operations, for sectors such as nuclear, railway, wind power, automotive and more.
In this interview he assures that Virlab is currently experiencing a consolidation of its activity, with a growth plan underway. Regarding nuclear energy, he trusts that Spain will reconsider the decision not to proceed with the closure of nuclear power plants.
What services does Virlab (Urbar Group) to the nuclear industry?
Virlab was founded in 1977 as part of the Urbar Ingenieros Group, a company specialized in industrial applications of vibration. During the execution of the National Electric Plan, which included the construction of several nuclear power plants, there was a need to supply seismic-class units. At that time no laboratory in Spain was equipped with the necessary biaxial or triaxial tables to sismically qualify equipment for nuclear power plants, and Urbar designed the first model. Since then, the laboratory conducts seismic qualification tests for all Spanish nuclear power plants. Since then we have diversified our activity into other sectors such as railway, wind power, automotive and military industry.
"We have been conducting seismic qualification tests for all Spanish nuclear power plants for over four decades"
Therefore, we have more than four decades of experience providing services to the nuclear seismic sector, with tests for nuclear power plants around the world.
At the Virlab laboratory we test components, equipment and electrical, mechanical and instrumentation systems that, due to their use, may be subject to compliance with specific regulations under seismic, vibration, or shock conditions.
These tests are essential for the safety classification of electrical equipment and systems in the event of a seismic event, and they include crucial equipment needed for emergency reactor shutdown, isolating the containment building or cooling the reactor core.
What exactly is a testing laboratory?
Virlab is a testing laboratory credited by the National Accreditation Entity (ENAC), and approved by the Supplier Evaluation Group of Spanish Nuclear Power Plants.
The industrial sectors we operate in are required to provide a certain quality level in their products. To demonstrate this level they need an objective certification, and so they reach out to external laboratories such as ours, which is accredited, to conduct the necessary tests that will guarantee this quality.
Virlab is an independent laboratory with the experience, resources, work systems and methods that guarantee the reliability of results, and thus it is accredited by ENAC.
“Virlab is an independent laboratory with the necessary experience, resources, work system and qualified professionals, accredited by ENAC"
Thus, a testing laboratory like us consists of a human team comprising qualified and experienced personnel. This team applies valid and appropriate methods and procedures for assessment, ensuring the traceability of measurements and calibrations to international standards.
What type of clients do you work for?
Since we have capacity to carry out the complete trial preparation with mechanization resources, we can work for all types of equipment manufacturers that may potentially be subject to the criteria indicated in seismic standards. This includes electrical equipment such as panels, transformers or cabinets and mechanical equipment such as ducts, gates, pumps, valves, etc.
“We can work for all types of equipment manufacturers that may potentially be subject to the criteria indicated in seismic standards"
Furthermore, our laboratory has other strengths that our clients appreciate. It is not only about the extensive accumulated experience but also about the fast response to equipment incidents that may require on-site repair or even a contribution of ideas to reinforce parts that may have been damaged during the tests.
What type of professionals work in your company?
The Virlab workforce is composed of specialized personnel with a mix of youth and experience. We have a team of engineers with very specific training in vibration analysis, a group of assemblers with expertise in boilermaking and welding for test preparation, and a technical office consisting of project planners for the elaboration of the reports corresponding to each test.
“At the company we have a team of engineers with very specific training in vibration analysis"
We are committed to the continuous training of our team and the improvement of our material resources. Consequently, we are currently in the process of installing two new large-size unaxial platforms.
What do the simulations you perform for the resistance of equipment at nuclear power plants to earthquakes or airplane accidents consist of?
Our biaxial tables allow us to reproduce the effects of an earthquake on the tested equipment. This is mainly applicable to two important areas: on one hand, the nuclear seismic sector, where we simulate on our tables the resistance of the equipment that is installed in a power generation plant against possible events such as earthquakes or airplane accidents.
"The biaxial tables we work with allow us to reproduce the effects of an earthquake on the tested equipment"
But this is also applicable to the non-nuclear seismic sector, since, using our experience, we have developed our own testing methods based on the accredited standards and complemented with the spectra and parameters obtained from the most commonly used codes and standards.
In recent years, how much and in what manner has technology advanced to guarantee the safety of nuclear sites?
Regarding the protocols related to seismic risk, in the post-Fukushima years, we have seen a recalculation of the seismic design levels of the critical systems at nuclear power plants. This has made it necessary to "retest" these critical equipment with the new enhanced levels. We have also seen the creation of new emergency diesel groups - which Virlab also tests for their qualification - and also the construction of new buildings at nuclear power plants, such as the Alternative Emergency Control Centers (CAGE).
How do you see the future of nuclear energy in our country?
In the words of Ignacio Araluce, President of Foro Nuclear, "numbers have no ideology." Nuclear energy produces more electricity than any other energy source, and it does so while emitting fewer greenhouse gases than any other. In addition to this, it is more reliable, works longer and is as safe as renewable energy. Therefore, an energy transition cannot be understood without the contribution of nuclear energy to an energy mix based on renewable energies.
And at an international level?
At an international level there is proof that, except for isolated cases with difficult explanation such as that of Germany, nuclear energy is flourishing in most countries around us, and we understand that it has a very interesting future.
In fact, new business opportunities for Virlab in the nuclear seismic sector involve investing in new technologies such as Small Modular Reactors (SMR), investing in life extension for existing nuclear power plants and the construction of new plants.
“Nuclear power has a very interesting future”
Virlab also works for nuclear power plants outside of Spain. Given the strength of the nuclear sector in France, we have established a joint venture there with an engineering company that performs vibration analysis by calculation. This way, we can offer our French clients a comprehensive service.
How is the Spanish nuclear industry considered beyond our frontiers?
During the construction stage of the current reactors, the Spanish nuclear industry put together a group of highly qualified companies and professionals that are highly regarded in both Europe and America. They are present in almost all global nuclear programs.
The nearly 30,000 jobs generated by the nuclear sector in Spain are high quality and stable, with continuous training. And, as we can see in the international fora in which Spanish nuclear companies participate (the most recent one, for instance, was the World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris last December), the Spanish industry enjoys broad international recognition.
“The Spanish nuclear professionals and industry enjoy broad international recognition"
What are your future plans for the company, and in what new markets and countries do you wish to be present?
We are currently investing in new tables with a large size ( 4 x 3 ) and capacity (10 t) at our laboratory in Asteasu (Guipúzcoa). We have the necessary infrastructure to become a European benchmark in vibration analysis in other driving sectors of the economy, as interesting as the offshore wind or the railway markets.
What motivated you to become members of Foro Nuclear?
At Foro Nuclear, production companies, equipment manufacturers and service providers find the right environment to comment, debate and defend nuclear power as a source of non-polluting and future energy for our country.