Interview of Eric Van Walle, new Head of SCK-CEN

Q1. The nuclear revival is in full swing, with some European countries reversing their nuclear phase-out policies and others expanding or opting for nuclear for the first time. Within this context, what are, in your view, the major challenges facing SCK•CEN? How do you see things evolving in the near future?

 Eric Van Walle
Eric Van Walle

As you know, we have by law a nuclear phase out scenario in Belgium that will start with the closure of the Doel I/II and Tihange I power plants in 2015. We expect, however, that Belgium too will have to renounce its phase out and that the dossier will be high on the political agenda by next year. Although SCK•CEN tries to remain objective and not to take any position on the political dimensions of this dossier, we cannot hide the fact that reversing the current policy would have a positive impact on SCK•CEN’s activities. It is clear that if a changed attitude towards nuclear were to be adopted this would

have a positive impact on R&D in the nuclear energy domain and on the educational projects that we run as part of our portfolio of activities.

Q2. As a state-run research institute, the work and objectives of SCK•CEN must, inevitably, be influenced by political change in Belgium. With elections in Belgium just around the corner, to what extent do you think that a change of government might impact upon the current work and future direction of research at SCK•CEN?

First of all SCK•CEN is not a state-run business: we are government supported and need to fulfil certain obligations that are mentioned in our statutes. These statutes are rather well-defined but also allow us to carry out other activities as long as they are related to nuclear energy matters. SCK•CEN tries to be objective in its evaluations and communications: as such we are not influenced by political change, but we can be requested to look into extra matters (or the opposite). On the other hand we have our 'own income' from extra research or service related work. Here we have much more freedom to choose the directions in which we invest our resources.

Q3. The research community in Europe is experiencing increasing competition from Eastern Europe. Is a more competitive marketplace a good thing or a bad thing for European research in general and for Belgian research in particular? Are they really competitors, or is it more a case of exploiting synergies, pooling resources and sharing experiences and expertise?

We are not afraid of competition as long as it is fair competition. At present, the competition is unfair as far as money is concerned (especially when it comes to salaries!) but we can compete because of the quality and knowledge-based contributions we can make to the projects. It is clear that many of the former Eastern European countries are improving their overall standards and exploiting synergies will become increasingly more important: this is already apparent in many European projects. So, we will have to reach agreements as how to effectively pool resources and promote complementarity.

Q4. SCK•CEN has been carrying out extensive research into the merits of Boom clay as a safe and efficient medium for the deep underground storage of radioactive waste. Do you think a European country will finally succeed in starting up a large-scale underground repository operation in the near future and isn’t Belgium playing a leading role in making this a reality one day?

Several projects are already well under way right now. In France, for example, work is ongoing 500m deep underground at the experimental gallery at Bure. However, Belgium has always had played a pioneering role in the research and development of waste disposal in clay formations and has set the standards in this area. The interest shown in this Belgian experiment is worldwide and has led to spin-offs both in the past and today (including research carried out by the IAEA and international consultancy). Will final disposal in clay ever happen? This is partly a political decision because retreated vitrified high level waste (HLW) still needs to cool down for at least 50 years before it can be put into a final repository. So, the final “reality” of Boom clay disposal may still be some years away … which does not mean that research has been finalised, on the contrary, it still keeps us busy.

Q5. The medical isotope business continues to develop largely free of the controversy, public opposition and anti-nuclear NGO focus that have traditionally accompanied the nuclear power industry. How do you see research in the medical applications of nuclear technologies progressing in the short and medium term? The medical and diagnostic business should help enhance the overall image of nuclear energy, but is this the case?

The medical radio-isotope business is an important business area for SCK•CEN in both the short and long term. There is an increasing demand for it, which will increase the capacity of our work in BR2 and help launch further research projects. We also believe that society should see in a better way the considerable healthcare benefits that can be gained from the medical isotope business. This can only be positive for the image of nuclear energy applications in general. Other applications not related to BR2 include, for example, “hadrontherapy,” which we believe might deliver increasingly important healthcare benefits in Belgium in the years to come.

SCK•CEN (Belgian Nuclear Research Centre), Mol

Q6. The continuing decline of interest among young people in studying the sciences and in pursuing a career in research is often highlighted in the media. Why do the sciences appear to be so unattractive to many young people? As a centre of excellence, SCK•CEN offers a number of education and training projects. Could you explain what the main objectives and activities of these programmes are?

Well I think this situation is now gradually changing – and for the better. The natural sciences are beginning to make a come-back after a decline that was largely 'sponsored' by the loss of interest in nuclear energy issues. SCK•CEN together with 6 Belgian universities have put in place and organise at SCK•CEN the Belgian Higher Nuclear Education Network. Its purpose is to promote continuous education and applied training in a range of nuclear physics related applications and to develop the necessary bank of skills and technical expertise required to build a platform for talented young Belgians to pursue a successful career in nuclear engineering and related fields. SCK•CEN also offers an ongoing programme of training courses and exchange programmes with young PhD scientists and physicians from eastern European and emerging countries, who work in our Mol laboratories in a range of applied fields. These reflect the importance that we attach to training, education, sharing experiences and developing synergies with other countries. They also show the international network of contacts that we have developed and emphasise our international and forward-looking approach.

Similar initiatives are also being pursued in other countries. So, the “scientific education deficit” that has been so apparent across Europe in recent years is gradually being corrected. SCK•CEN’s efforts in this area are bearing fruit. Only by refuelling interest in the natural sciences among young people through education - at all levels, from secondary schools to post-graduate university studies - can we ensure the reservoir of talent, commitment and youthful dynamism that will be needed to sustain and drive forward the nuclear revival.

Q7. SCK•CEN is involved in societal research that aims to improve dialogue and interaction with local communities and stakeholders on nuclear issues – particularly with regard to safety, waste and risk management. Could you describe briefly what this work involves and the benefits it brings? To what extent do you feel that this work enhances public perception of nuclear?

The PISA research programme that SCK•CEN is carrying out , which has concentrated on the integration into and impact upon nuclear research of social sciences and societal issues, focuses upon the involvement of key relevant actors and stakeholders - such as the local communities in Mol and Dessel- in the decision-making process relating to nuclear waste disposal. This combines risk governance approaches with enhanced dialogue.

PISA has also analysed the prevailing safety culture at our own installations, as well as liability issues linked to nuclear legislation. We also questioned our own experts and the public to learn more about risk behaviour patterns. A pre-condition for influencing public attitudes towards nuclear technology is to first gain a better insight into differing risk perceptions. This is what we aim to achieve from the Belgian version of the IRSN risk barometer survey.

Q8. The work that you carry out into ways of continually improving safety standards within the nuclear industry reflects SCK•CEN’s mission to protect mankind and the environment. It has led to a number of collaborative projects with international bodies like the IAEA and IRE (the National Institute for Radio-elements). Could you highlight one of these initiatives and explain how it has produced results?

SCK•CEN has been involved in many projects related to standardisation. It actively participates in the development of safety standards for operational NPP's through its involvement with ASTM and USNRC (Belgium follows, to a large extent, the example of US legislation). The reason for this participation is twofold: firstly, it is a statutory obligation and secondly, it also is also a way of establishing the contacts needed to obtain contractual work related to reactor safety assessments. Another example of collaboration with international bodies is the continuous and very active interaction that SCK•CEN has with the IAEA – in particular, participation in many safety related commissions, as well as several CRP (Concerted Research Projects); In addition, we have been asked by the IAEA to perform expert assignments with regards to safety and other issues.

Q9. Many of SCK•CEN’s research programmes are carried out within the framework of the EU’s 6th Framework Programme. In your opinion, what new initiatives will emerge from the 7th Framework Programme- or will it be simply a case of status quo?

We sense that the EU is putting more and more emphasis on the fact that they consider that plant owners (stakeholders, end-users) are ultimately responsible for the financial input needed to carry out their research programmes. As such, the EU concentrates more on bringing different groups together to bring about a more integrated European research scenario. In reality, we believe that FP7 will largely promote continuity with regards to existing FP6 programmes and ideas. We hope that future research projects will receive adequate funding to create the necessary basis for fully-fledged and effective research projects to emerge.

Thank you Mr. Van Walle (interview conducted by Mark O’Donovan)

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