Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Warsaw, Poland to visit the Swierk National Centre for Nuclear Research. My host and guide was Ludwik Dobrzynski the director of the educational outreach program at the Centre, as well as a professor of Physics and member of the UNSCEAR Committee on the effects of ionizing radiation.
Poland is highly reliant on coal, but in 2005 decided to build 2 nuclear plants to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels as well as their carbon emissions. The plants are scheduled to go into operation in 2025. As you might imagine, the folks at the Swierk Centre are quite excited. For me, it was a nice change of pace to visit a country that is moving forward with nuclear technology rather than backwards.
As Poland begins construction and management of their first commercial nuclear reactors, this facility and it’s people will undoubtedly play a major role. The government run Swierk Research Centre has an exceptional educational outreach center as well as a research reactor and medical isotope facility. As Ludwik ensured me, there will not be a workforce shortage when it comes to the new facility. In no small part due to the Sweirk Centre, Poland is ready for it’s first commercial nuclear plant.
I have three big takeaways from this visit that I want to share:
1) As a member of the UNSCEAR committee, Ludwik expressed his interest in improving the communications efforts regarding radiation. A notoriously difficult subject, it is nonetheless extremely important that the most recent science is considered in both regulation and public discourse. The discrepancies between the regulatory model of Linear No Threshold (LNT) and the observed public heath impacts of radiation exposure suggest there may be better ways to align the science and regulation. If low doses of radiation are significantly less harmful than LNT suggests, there is a risk of using limited resources irresponsibly- for instance spending somewhere in the ballpark of $2 billion to prevent a theoretical single death from radiation vs. using that funding to provide thousands of people with critical medical care and clean water. This is a subject that I tend to leave to the experts, but I was glad to hear about Ludwik’s effort to improve communications on the subject of radiation.
2) I was surprised to find such an exemplary public education center in a country without a commercial nuclear reactor (yet)! The Marie Curie Research Reactor on the campus is a frequent field trip destination and therefore the educational center next-door hosts between 6,000 and 7,000 students annually. You know that a display is effective when it makes sense, despite not being able to read the language!! Specifically I was very impressed with the displays about waste management (see slideshow for visuals). Seeing the containers and graphics about storage really demystifies the whole waste management process.
3) Lastly, I toured the Polatom medical isotope lab on the Sweirk campus. It was my first time visiting a medical isotope facility and I was blown away! The Marie Curie research reactor is utilized to make approximately 70 different medical isotopes, and they have the technical capacity to grow that number considerably. Seeing this facility really drove home just how effective we humans are at utilizing the beneficial aspects of the atom- as well as how excellent we are at safely transporting nuclear materials. Day in and day out this facility delivers life saving diagnostic tools and medicine to the citizens of Poland as well as surrounding countries. There are only a very few facilities capable of making these important isotopes and fission plays a central role in that process.
Having worked in a children’s oncology unit during the 2009 medical isotope shortage, visiting this facility was incredibly meaningful, although I fear I may have embarrassed some of the workers with my vocal praise of their work. I am quite sure that most all people, at least in the developed world, have personally benefited from nuclear medicine many times over. In terms of educational outreach I cannot over-stress that these technologies are not possible without nuclear fission.
Please take a moment to click through the slideshow to see some of the great displays and facilities at Swierk. To Ludwik and the staff of the Centre- thank you all so much for hosting me! I absolutely loved seeing my family’s homeland (and the homeland of Marie Curie) and learning about Poland’s ambitious nuclear plans!