Preserving and developing Germany's nuclear expertise

26 May 2017

Despite Germany choosing to phase out its use of nuclear energy, the country must not lose its nuclear expertise, research and industry, writes Ralf Güldner.

Nuclear expertise is important for research, for industry but above all for the state itself. Many people may simply not be aware of this.

The topic of preserving and building up nuclear expertise by shifting operational responsibility to federally-owned companies will gain relevance particularly in the waste management sector. Taking into account all the authorities and public companies that operate in this sector, we could soon be talking about up to 4000 employees. Together with the civil servants and government employees in other areas of nuclear technology, in expert appraisal and in research, it may be assumed that in the future at least a sixth of the more than 30,000 employees in the industry will be assigned to the public sector.

In the long term, this will require appropriate training of skilled staff and targeted human resources planning. It can only be successful if there are positive prospects for young people whose employers would like to win over for the important work ahead. It also needs to include appropriate public discussion of the subject.

The question of expertise covers the whole range of scientific and technical knowledge relating to nuclear technology: basic nuclear research, reactor safety research, radiochemistry, radiological protection, nuclear applications in medicine, industry and agriculture, to give just a few examples.

Let's take reactor safety research which is closely linked to the operation of nuclear power plants. Reactor development in particular is now subject to the accusation of being redundant; sometimes it is regarded as outmoded or even illegitimate. Nuclear safety research, however, forms the basis for expertise in safety issues in which Germany has stated its intention to play a long-term role and exert its influence. If we want to continue participating in the international discussion of safety standards, then continuity in safety research is absolutely essential.

Our nuclear expertise, however, can only develop in collaboration with scientifically attractive partners in other countries. Winning them over for this purpose requires appropriate facilities and experts who are able add scientific value. This applies to all topics, especially innovation and new design concepts. After all, we need to be able knowledgeably to have a say too. Consider, for example, a development in fuel assemblies. In the long run, scepticism about research or even a ban on research has never done an industrialised country any good.

In practice, however, we see that teaching and research are being thinned out, that university chairs are not being refilled and, under political pressure or for image reasons and in the spirit of anticipatory obedience, whole institutes are withdrawing from those areas that are not assigned to waste management or dismantling.

Centre of Expertise for Nuclear Safety?

The question here is: what can we do? On the one hand, the Federal Government wants and needs to access the appropriate expertise and it also has the funds for this. On the other hand, many federal state governments want nothing more to do with the subject and are thus shaping the orientation of universities and research institutes.

The solution might lie in a new Centre of Expertise for Nuclear Safety where current issues could be dealt with without the burden of past conflicts. Here, it may be possible to pool capacities, to network research, state and industry and to create an attractive hub for our international collaboration. A new start such as this might provide young people who want to become involved in nuclear technology with credibly fascinating tasks, good prospects, respect and appreciation. Perhaps such a project would not require a very broad general consensus but rather a viable coalition of people with insight.

Nuclear energy - long-term reality in Europe

Insight also includes the realisation that other countries are not following our path. Now, after many years of delay, the new construction projects of Olkiluoto and Flamanville have reached preparation for commissioning and are no longer merely a mirage.

The Hinkley Point C project has received its first partial permit. By the way, all four reactors will be constructed using instrumentation and control equipment made in Germany. In the UK, in addition to the EPR by Areva, the AP1000 by Westinghouse has also completed the Generic Design Assessment and the ABWR by Hitachi will follow by the end of the year.

Things are also happening east of Germany: a few months ago unit 1 of the Novovoronezh II nuclear power plant went online – with German instrumentation and control equipment and a planned operating period up to 2077. Unit 1 of the Leningrad II nuclear power plant, which is set to replace the old Chernobyl-type plants, is in start-up commissioning.

Construction of the first nuclear power plant in Belarus is scheduled and the projects in Paks and Hanhikivi are also being pushed forward consistently. Our Czech partners also have expansion plans, not least with a view to preventing CO2. There will be no shortage of interested parties as no less than six reactor suppliers have already expressed an interest.

In Poland, the site selection process for the first nuclear power plant is progressing.

If safety is also going to be a concern for us in the coming decades then it must be Germany's goal to count permanently as a partner in safety with recognised expertise. However, the repetition of demands for phase-out is not sufficient; what is needed in fact is a constructive attitude.

Nuclear technology for industry and science

Let's not forget that Germany will also benefit from nuclear technology in many respects and in the long term. The research reactors in Munich, Berlin and Mainz are not only used for basic research, they also do a great deal for applied research and industrial development. They are also indispensable for direct applications in industry and medicine. Nuclear technology is also found elsewhere: such as in non-destructive material testing, plant breeding, in medical diagnosis and therapy. Nuclear technology is directly linked to our status as a country of science and technology.

And let's not forget economic value creation. Many internationally recognised nuclear technology companies are both important employers and taxpayers. This industrial value chain made up of manufacturers, suppliers and service providers also requires nuclear expertise, especially in safety engineering. Germany has a good reputation in this field and German products and services related to nuclear safety are in great demand. Obstructing export will not increase nuclear safety for Germany, for our neighbours or for the world. And vital expertise can only develop while it's in use, i.e. in industry, and therefore in the medium term largely in exports.

This also applies to companies involved in the fuel cycle in Germany which are now frequently becoming the target of political debate. These facilities are explicitly excluded from the phase-out of nuclear energy use and we reject any efforts to expand the phase-out. The Federal Government may rightly say that uranium enrichment and fuel assembly manufacturing in Germany as centres of expertise. When it comes to using the expertise of these companies for operational and waste management safety, for the subject of non-proliferation and for security-policy risk assessments, then it is not so distant. In this field too, Germany would like to have its own knowledge and it's the same here as with reactor safety. Those who want to perfect the phase-out will also perfect the loss of expertise. This cannot and must not be our aim.

Ralf Güldner

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Ralf Güldner is president of the German Atomic Forum (DAtF).

This article is an extract from Ralf Güldner's opening speech at the 48th Annual Meeting on Nuclear Technology (ANMT 2017), Berlin, 16-17 May 2017.