NucNet interviews André Versteegh
After a long and distinguished career in the nuclear sector, most notably at the Dutch Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG), André Versteegh has retired. However, André, who is well-known to many readers, remains very active in the nuclear world. He is currently President of NucNet. In this interview André stresses the importance of good communications to the future prosperity of the nuclear research community and gives his personal view of what the future holds.
ENS NEWS would like to thank NucNet for allowing its readers to listen to what André has to say:
Nuclear Industry Needs To Give ‘Open, Reliable Answers’
Comment & People
Andre Versteegh, former director of the Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG: www.nrg.eu) and current president of NucNet, talks about the importance of transparency in the nuclear industry and the significance of the planned new Pallas research reactor at Petten in the Netherlands.
NucNet – How do you assess the importance of good communications within the civil nuclear industry, and how important will this become in the future?
Versteegh – It is essential. Of course in the past it was always important, but even more so in the future with the nuclear renaissance. It is clear there is a renaissance going on, so we have to be careful with our communication… It is vital that there are no miscommunications on safety and security issues in the nuclear industry.
NucNet – Do you feel this has been neglected in the past? Was communications not given sufficient attention by the nuclear industry or by utilities?
Versteegh – This was one of the reasons NucNet was founded 20 years ago. The nuclear industry was a closed community more or less. One was afraid to talk about it… when something happened, the public wasn’t told exactly what went wrong and what the consequences were, if there were any. The nuclear industry had a bad image and we are still suffering from that. It takes a long time to win trust from the public, and this can in turn be lost very, very quickly. This was one of the reasons NucNet was established.
At that time, when something happened in a nuclear power plant, both domestically and internationally, the media would start to ask questions immediately. If an incident occurs in a nuclear power plant, we need open, accurate and reliable answers straight away. We need this to prevent misinformation being circulated, misinformation which will be harmful to the industry. Then came the idea to have a network of reliable informants and correspondents around the world… to prevent miscommunications around the world, and it has worked very well.
NucNet – The public can also consult an industry-specific service such as NucNet. To what extent has the public benefitted from the service?
Versteegh – In the beginning, the idea was for NucNet to be an association of nuclear correspondents and nuclear communication professionals who maintained a fast and reliable flow of information. They would be able to respond to questions or incidents in their own countries, and the information is reliable because it has been fully checked and verified. Then answers can be given to the public. That was the original idea. But incidents don’t happen every day, so NucNet started to provide additional, normal news, 24 hours a day and only with reliable, verified information. The advantage of NucNet was and always will be that the information is reliable, because on the internet the information is sometimes far from reliable.
NucNet – After Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, was there a great deal of resistance within the industry to becoming more open?
Versteegh – The industry was afraid that in reporting a small incident, there would be enormous criticism in the media. They thought it would be better not to say anything, and then there would be no risk. It takes time on both sides to have the trust and confidence that when something is published in the media it accurately reflects what has been said or what has happened. But this takes time, and even now some sections of the media overplay and exaggerate even very small incidents. EDF was one of the first utilities to put everything on the table, and at first it was taken to the cleaners by some journalists, but now they are used to it. So even though it is still not ideal, the openness has improved.
NucNet – What could the industry do better?
Versteegh – I think it is a case of pressing on with good communications and working towards transparency even if something negative occurs. We need to remember that the nuclear industry is very difficult for the public to understand. It is difficult for them to judge if something is a small incident or something important. That’s why the INES scale was created: to make it easier to understand the problem. It is often difficult to explain that an incident is only an incident and not a safety problem… and that you are recording it because you can learn from it. It’s still difficult to give a clear message to the public, but of course the INES scale helps with that.
I think it’s very important that NucNet is renewing itself and evolving. With the internet, things are changing all the time, the flow of information is faster, and NucNet has adapted to that. Another part of the service was the launch of the SMS alert service this year. This means if we need to get a message out quickly, we can do it with a text message.
NucNet has always been a news network, but was originally a European Nuclear Society initiative, and started life as an ENS project which got larger and larger. It was then decided to separate it from ENS so now they are two distinct organisations with separate identities. In addition to providing reliable information, an asset which other institutes and news agencies don’t have, the idea of a trustworthy network of professionals is central to NucNet.
NucNet – You have recently retired. Are you still maintaining your links with the nuclear energy industry?
Versteegh – Yes. I continue to do a number of things. One is communications, which I find extremely important. Another, which is equally important, is working towards the recruitment of new people in the industry, and towards improved infrastructure in research and development. The nuclear industry is in the ascendancy now, and we need new people to educate and train, and we need new facilities where we can do this. Nuclear R&D infrastructure is old all over the world, with most of the reactors in Europe in particular being more than 50 years old. The facilities were all from the 60s, so for the renaissance of nuclear energy, we need new people and new R&D infrastructure.
NucNet – Has the gap between retirees and the employment of new young professionals been overstated? Is it as big a crisis as people are suggesting?
Versteegh – It obviously differs from country to country. It used to be very difficult to attract young people, but this has changed. Forty years ago, you had to be on a waiting list to study nuclear engineering, and now once again, more students are applying for places every year. When you have good facilities and a good environment, people want to study in this field.
NucNet – What challenges – in your role at NRG – have you faced in attracting young people to the industry?
Versteegh – It used to be very hard, but it is easier now because people can see they have a future in the industry, that it is becoming a booming business and that people are talking about it. But we need the infrastructure and so we are delighted that the new European research reactor Pallas is going ahead, and that we will have new facilities, research and designs. For attracting new people to the industry this is very effective.
The nuclear industry must be given a new image. It is not just a question of constructing new power plants… the working environment must be right. Pallas is an excellent example of the new dynamics in the nuclear sector. And it is equally attractive for nuclear medicine.
Nuclear is energy, but it is also medicine, environment and science. This is how I place nuclear… within a broader framework. This way, the image of nuclear becomes much more appealing. Energy is of course important, but other items are just as important and can improve the industry’s image.