Note: This post was written last week, I am now on Day 10 in Zurich, Switzerland- expect a post on the European Nuclear Society’s PIME Communications Conference later this week.
I’ve been here in Germany for less than a week and my first impression can be summed up in one word, “Orderly.”
My half-German, engineer husband is flourishing! He loves structure and I think this experience has felt like coming home for him. However the artist and entrepreneur in me is struggling with all of this order. I am somehow still not adjusted to the new time zone and am struggling with the language barrier, the cold, the train schedule (which is ALWAYS on time- so weird!), the TV, the cell phone, the dishwasher- pretty much everything. I’ve honestly never felt more American- and out of place- than I have this week!
Thank goodness my first site visit was yesterday and I got to spend some time with the amazing people at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT)- and it felt like a much-needed coming home experience for me. What can I say- nuclear people are my people.
When I was planning the tourist project one of my favorite nuclear people, Todd Allen- the Deputy Director at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), suggested that I visit KIT and connected me to Concetta Fazio, who generously arranged my visit and a talk for the “Nuklear” department. (Thank you, Todd and Concetta!)
Concetta is the Coordinator of the The European Energy Research Alliance Joint Program on Nuclear Materials– an effort by the European Union to support fundamental science research, with the objective to “reduce nuclear waste”. Research facilities are some of the best places to tour because there are a lot of different projects going on, and there are educators who are happy and willing to explain things- and KIT did not disappoint.
Concetta greeted me upon my arrival and we went to lunch. She shared with me that in light of Germany’s nuclear phase out there is a feeling of disappointment among nuclear professionals. However, they have quickly adapted their research and educational programs to reflect the reality that over the course of the next decade there will be a significant need for nuclear professionals in decommissioning and waste management. I am a big proponent of finding opportunity in difficult situations, so this attitude impressed me very much.
Before my talk I took a tour of the KArlsruhe Liquid LAboratory (KALLA), KIT’s liquid metal facility to perform basic experiments in support to the development of Accelerator Driven System (ADS). This huge device is basically a liquid metal loop where scientists can learn about the different ways that materials and coolants react under different conditions. The implications of this research have far reaching applications including safety of advanced systems to address waste issues. As I mentioned previously, it looks like much of this research could ultimately be applied to waste management, which interestingly may make Germany a technological leader after all- just not in the area that many local nuclear professionals would have preferred.
Something I didn’t realize when scheduling my talk was that the date I requested was actually the date after Fasching, the German equivalent of Carnival or Mardi Gras, as well as a holiday for students. Concetta warned me upon my arrival that we might not have a very good turn out at my talk since this week coincides with a skiing holiday. To my surprise the talk was packed. This was probably due to numerous influences, Concetta’s very proactive outreach for the talk being primary, but perhaps also because there is a real need for dialogue in the German nuclear sector as they redefine their role in the global community.
During my talk I attempted to share the way that I frame nuclear energy in outreach, namely as a central solution to many different challenges. The nuclear industry and our technologies can sometimes seem to exist in isolation, and showing the ways that these technologies are connected to people’s everyday lives has been one of the most successful frameworks I have found. I hope that the importance of creating context for communicating about nuclear energy was not lost in translation, since those are quite subtle shifts in presentation and something that people don’t always grasp even when we speak the same language. Based on some of the feedback I’ve received via email from attendees makes me think that I did get the message across to some key members of audience who are active in outreach. I was please by both the turn out and the many questions I received after the talk.
After my talk I was able to tour the COSTA, a testing facility where they put liquid metal coolants through different conditions to identify structural materials limits for the ADS described above. Alfons Weinburger was my guide and shared his thoughts on the importance of the research happening at KIT, especially the role of this facility of determining the safe operating conditions for different structural materials that will likely be applied to lead and salt cooled systems. For instance currently this facility is working to identify the conditions in which cladding starts to corrode, as well as ways to mitigate corrosion with a technology called GESA, which adds a protective coating to the exterior cladding. This research is relevant for Accelerator Driven Systems (ADS) that utilize liquid metal coolants.
Much of the buzz and excitement in the nuclear industry surrounds Generation IV reactors currently being developed in China, France and the U.S. (among others), however Germany may also continue to fill a role in advancing nuclear technologies on the global stage. One of the big challenges in moving nuclear technologies forward if management of legacy waste from research and development programs around the world– which is often cited by nuclear opponents as proof of the industry’s inability handle nuclear materials responsibly. We also have many countries, including the U.S., which have not found long-term solutions for managing spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors- another oft-cited issue by detractors.
As Germany develops advanced waste management technique and sets the standards for safely decommissioning older plants and research sites on a large scale, we may see other countries move forward with new nuclear technologies more confidently with the knowledge that they can transition away from older technologies.
Resolving the waste issues associated with earlier technologies is an important step towards showing that we are responsible and accountable, and ready for another generation of nuclear reactors worldwide. The French and Finnish have already made great strides in closing the fuel cycle and Germany may be next.
If any country is capable of solving issues related to nuclear decommissioning and waste in a quick, orderly and replicable fashion it’s Germany. Replacing nuclear plants with renewable sources is the much larger challenge- but KIT is on the job for that grand experiment as well.