"We can't survive without nuclear energy"
"We can't survive without nuclear energy". Gabriele Voight is a German engineer with over 40 years of experience in the nuclear sector. She was chosen three years ago to lead Women in Nuclear global (WiN), an international association that brings together professional women in the field of ionizing radiation. We interviewed her just before the start of the annual WiN conference, held this year in Madrid.
"WiN Spain suggested Madrid and it was very well received"
Why did WiN global choose Madrid to celebrate this conference?
Every year, WiN global holds an annual conference where we combine scientific conferences and others addressing female issues. Every year it is held in a new location. We try to have a good mix in distribution. After Asia it was time for Europe again. WiN Spain suggested Madrid and it was very well received because a lot of our members come from European countries. Also, I know that there is a vivid life in nuclear science in Spain because I used to work with Ciemat and the Barcelona University. This is how the decision was made.
What are your goals and expectations for this congress?
It is always an opportunity for networking of women. This time we are also running a mentoring program which will now be part of all our meetings, because we want to promote young women specifically to start a career in the nuclear field.
For this, these young women need a mentor, they need roles models and, in WiN, we have a very large amount of highly experienced women who are also in a top level position. We need to engage with the young people because we want equal chances. There is another goal: to promote nuclear for a better life. I'm convinced we cannot survive without nuclear energy because it is part of the energy solution to combat clime change. There are also many applications of nuclear science: therapy, diagnostics, agriculture... people normally don't know about these other applications, they just relate nuclear energy with Chernobyl or Fukushima and forget all the positive aspects. Our missions in WiN global are to communicate positive aspects of nuclear sciences and promote women to pursue careers in the nuclear field up to the top.
"We need to promote young girls to study and become interested in natural sciences"
Can you tell us about the rates of the women in the nuclear sector?
In average it's still a male dominated field. From my experience, when I was studying in my former institute I was the only woman. Nowadays the percentage is still between 10 to 20%, and this is even lower in nuclear power plants. But there is a strong impetus now to increase these numbers. WiN global is working on it too. In Vienna schools we organize a science fair where students can present little projects, and there is a special prize for the best female contribution.
We also need family-friendly work places, not to have meetings in the evening or until late, to have different kindergartens inside to bring your child in and pick them up. We need to promote young girls to study and become interested in natural sciences. It will take a couple of years to change minds and also to change society.
Are you familiar with the Spanish nuclear sector?
'm aware about the reactors you are running. There were also problems regarding extension life and, of course, with public perception. It is an issue in almost every European country and I'm convinced it will take a long time to change the perception of nuclear. In Germany they cut down on all the nuclear power plants.
On the other hand, we want to have electric cars. Where does the electricity come from? Nobody talks about the waste you have with solar sources, for example. I think that in a healthy environment, if you want to combat change, we need this mix. I think in Spain nuclear will probably be more accepted. You have strong safety, a strong security. Nuclear is actually a reference for safety and security. You need a good communication strategy and women can play an important role here.
"Nuclear is part of the mix"
How does Germany face the future in 2022 with no nuclear power plants?
In Germany, at the moment, they are cutting down. They are closing or even dismantling reactors, but that is a political decision based on public pressure. As I said, as soon as there is a deficiency in electricity or the prices go up –because alternative energies they don't come from nothing, they cost a lot of money and the price will dictate– we will see how they can compensate with wind, solar and hydraulic energy. Still, nuclear is part of the mix.
What is the role of nuclear energy in the warming climate change?
The role of nuclear is very important, it's one of the energies produced with no carbon emissions. We need to avoid carbon emissions and reduce. It's really frightening what we are doing to our environment, and nuclear is part of the solution. With nuclear you can reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.
What will be the future of nuclear energy?
In my opinion, the future of nuclear energy is in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). I attended a conference in Vancouver, and the Canadians have already six prototypes of small and medium reactors. They are mobile and contained and you can transport them from one place to the other. I think the future will go to these smaller reactors. But our running reactors should continue until their expected life is over, and after wards you need to look for management and decommissioning. Even when you don't have any power plants you still need educated experts to do the decommissioning, the environmental management and the monitoring. You will still need human resources.