“Nuclear power offers certain advantages, such as production stability”
Juan José Gómez Cadenas is a physicist, communicator and writer. He considers that “knowledge is freedom” and firmly believes that “it is necessary to invest in science in a sustained and coherent way.” He also considers that “we need intelligent programs to capture talent, and we also need to eliminate the infinite bureaucratic obstacles that researchers must face”.
In this interview we will talk about his book “The Nuclear Environmentalist,” published ten years ago, as well as other topics such as the NEXT project he leads at the Canfranc Underground Laboratory. He sees nuclear development happening mainly in China and other Asian countries, and believes that “nuclear power offers certain advantages, such as production stability.”
In your Twitter account you say you have been supporting the efforts to stop the pandemic. How did you do this, and how was your experience of this situation?
In several ways. As a scientist I have two different paths of involvement. On one hand, I participate in the development of new high-sensibility sensors to detect viruses (not just SARS-COV-2, but of course with more emphasis on it); that could eventually be used for massive tests, for instance in airports. These sensors are based on physical-chemical techniques. Very soon we will be designing a “net” to capture the virus, which consists of a surface functionalized with antibodies or specific proteins. We would then saturate the trapped viruses with antibodies doped with fluorophore that we can light up. This would allow us to count the viruses one by one. All this work comes from the cooperation of my center, the Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC), the University of the Basque Country, the Material Physics Center in Donostia and other leading-edge centers in the Basque Country such as Biogune, as well as several hospitals. We have obtained significant funding from the Guipúzcoa Provincial Council to take on this project.
I am also involved in statistical and numerical analysis studies of the evolution of the pandemic, in cooperation with scientists from the Universities of Valencia and Santiago.
As a communicator, I have written a full series of articles in JotDown, which will soon be presented in a small book.
More than ever, this crisis has proven the importance of health professionals, scientists, research and development. What is your opinion on this, and how do you think we can boost R&D&I whilst also putting a stop to the talent drain?
First of all by investing in science in a sustainable and coherent way, both in applied and fundamental sciences. Pedro Miguel Echenique, president of the Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC), holds that we must not distinguish between applied and basic science but between good and bad science.
We also need to have smart talent recruiting programs and eliminate the infinite bureaucratic obstacles that researchers must face.
"We need to have smart talent recruiting programs and eliminate the infinite bureaucratic obstacles that researchers must face".
A good example of this, in my opinion, is the sustained investment in Science that Euskadi has been providing for over a decade, and especially the enormous success of the Ikerbasque Program, which allows the Basque Country to attract and keep talent. I myself am an example of this. Over two years ago I decided to “sign up” into DIPC as an Ikerbasque professor, because I considered that supporting research in Euskadi and especially in the DIPC was worth the effort. I believe I did not go wrong. So far, results have been extraordinary. It is worth to mention that the scientific director at Ikerbasque, Fernando Cossío, is a first-rate scientist with whom I have established an intense cooperation (we just published an article on Nature Magazine, codirecting a superb interdisciplinary team at the Basque Country, including the essential cooperation of Pablo Artal and J. M. Bueno from the University of Murcia). This is a good example of a front-line scientist involved in an institution that is dedicated to supporting I&D&I.
You lead the NEXT experiment at the Canfranc Underground Laboratory. What is this project about?
We know the universe is almost exclusively composed of matter. However, the large explosion that started it must have created equal amounts of antimatter. What happened to it? One possible mechanism points out to the existence of particles –known as “majorana” – that are capable of disintegrating both into matter and antimatter, and which have the peculiarity that they slightly favour disintegration into matter. These particles could have introduced a small excess of quarks and leptons in respect to their antiparticles. The result of this small excess would have been the universe we live in.
It is possible to prove that a neutrino is its own antiparticle, by observing a rare type of nuclear process called double beta disintegration without neutrinos (bb0nu). This process can take place in some rare isotopes such as Xenon-136. The NEXT experiment at the Canfranc Underground Laboratory seeks these disintegrations with high-precision gas cameras.
What results and goals are you pursuing with this experiment, and how many people and countries are implied?
We wish to observe the bb0nu disintegration of a Xe-136 atom, which results in the production of an ion doubly charged with Ba-136 and two electrons:
Xe à Ba2+ + 2e
Up to now, NEXT has focused on identifying the two electrons whose observation provides a clear sign of the disintegration. We recently proved that the Ba2+ atom can also be identified (Nature Magazine, doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2431-5). We have all the necessar yelements to make a discovery, but now we must build a bigger version of the detector that incorporates the technological advances we made in the past decade. I reckon we will need ten more years... and lots of luck.
As well as physicist you are a communicator and a writer. What do you want to achieve by transmitting your knowledge?
Knowledge is freedom. In fact, all repressive societies have tried to keep their subjects ignorant. Knowledge is also a window to wonderment (the universe is marvelous) and to gratitude (he or she who knows understands the enormous fortune it means to be here and now).
“Knowledge is freedom. It is a window to wonderment and gratitude."
Is it precisely the transmission of knowledge, dissemination and information that is lacking in order to understand nuclear power?
Partly. Nuclear power has a complex story that has always been associated to military interests and to “the interests of the powerful nuclear industry”. For many decades it has become a clear target, the “classic enemy” of environmental organizations, which have agendas with active campaigns against it. It is not easy to stand against this agenda.
In 2010 your published “The Nuclear Environmentalist” (Springer). What led you to publish it and what did you wish to transmit?
At that time I was quite obsessed with the problem of how to reduce society’s dependency on fossil fuels. Reflecting on this topic led me to think that nuclear power could contribute to an alternative mix that would of course also include renewable energy. Nuclear power offers certain advantages, such as stability of production, which can make up for the variability of renewables.
“I wrote 'The Nuclear Environmentalist' at a time when I was quite obsessed with the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels."
As a physicist, what would you say about the operation of nuclear power plants and their safety?
I already covered this in “The Nuclear Environmentalist”. The safety of nuclear power plants is based firstly on physical mechanisms and secondly on a highly rigorous regulation (and its application). On the other hand, every accident associated with nuclear power is amplified to disproportionate heights.
“Every accident associated with nuclear power is amplified to disproportionate heights".
The case of Fukushima is a paradigm. It was a catastrophe [the earthquake and resulting tsunami] that must have taken one hundred thousand human lives. The nuclear accident had practically no victims, but the (negative) media impact was enormous. To some extent, Fukushima proved that a nuclear technology that is already a bit old-fashioned could fail under extreme conditions. But the media hysteria does not tolerate any failure of nuclear power. And there is no fail-safe technology. If people refused to fly every time there is an airplane accident, civil aviation would not exist. Something similar is happening to nuclear power.
How do you see the future of nuclear power in Spain and in the world?
I see that it is going downhill in Europe and the United States, while in China and other Asian countries it stays on or is increasing. I do not have a clear vision of the future. It might largely depend on Chinese politics and the results of nuclear power in that country.
Would you like to add anything else and share with our readers some of the activities you like to do in your free time?
It is now Sunday morning, and as soon as we finish this interview I’m going to swim two or three kilometers in the sea with the swimming club I belong to. My hobbies are simple: sports (swimming, running), chess, good books, family, friends. I do not have much free time, but I make the most of it. I consider myself very lucky and I am grateful.