“Nuclear knowledge is one of mankind’s major achievements”
Leon Cizelj is a Professor in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Ljubljana, and Head of the Reactor Engineering Department at the Jožef Stefan Institute, both in Slovenia. He has authored and co-authored over 880 publications related with nuclear energy. As teaching professor, he actively contributes to the knowledge transfer between generations and strongly advocates for the appeal of nuclear science and technology. The president of the European Nuclear Society in this interview with the Spanish Nuclear Forum he considers that the time has come for all nuclear stakeholders to follow the common goal of preserving, maintaining and further develop nuclear technology for present and future generations.
In January of this year, you became President of the European Nuclear Society (ENS). What goals and projects are you developing with your team?
Nuclear knowledge is one of mankind’s major achievements. It has made many significant contributions to sciences and technologies beyond reliable, affordable and clean nuclear power. Examples include diagnostics through imaging and a variety of therapies in medicine, sterilization in food processing, diagnostics in industry, forensics, archaeology and geology, among others. We believe that the time has come for all nuclear stakeholders to establish and follow a common strategic goal: to preserve, maintain and further develop this valuable knowledge and its technologies for present and future generations.
“The time has come for all nuclear stakeholders to establish and follow a common strategic goal: to preserve, maintain and further develop this valuable knowledge and its technologies for present and future generations”
You have over 12,000 associate members from the fields of research, science, academics and industry. What does the ENS offer its members?
The ENS is the largest society for nuclear science, research and industry in Europe. As a learned society, we bring together nuclear societies and professionals in Europe, facilitating their exchange of knowledge and experience about peaceful use of nuclear science and technologies in conferences, webinars and other events organized by the ENS. All members of national societies affiliated with the ENS automatically become members.
“The European Nuclear Society is the largest society for nuclear science, research and industry in Europe”
And what does it offer society in general?
Some examples that immediately come to mind include position papers developed by the High Scientific Council, such as the use of nuclear in space and opportunities for nuclear on hydrogen production. The ENS also actively supported and explained the benefits of including nuclear power in the European Clean Energy Taxonomy to the European Commission and members of the European Parliament. A fund to support the Ukrainian nuclear workers has been established together with the American Nuclear Society (ANS). This fund is still open for donations. We also worked with journalists to explain the risks related to the military activities at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. In a nutshell, we offer credible and science-based information and explanations.
At your organization, with headquarters in Brussels, you also bring together young nuclear supporters from all over Europe. What is the strength and impulse of young people defending this technology?
There is a Slovenian proverb that says na mladih svet stoji, “the world rests on young people.” The ENS is lucky to have a very strong Young Generation Network (YGN), including [the Spanish branch] Jóvenes Nucleares. Our younger colleagues are very active in many different activities, from explaining nuclear to the public, especially children and students, to serious lobbying at the UN Climate Change Conferences, as an integral part of the global Nuclear for Climate movement. A stronger empowerment of the YGN in the decision-making processes would, in my view, bring many benefits to the nuclear industry and nuclear technologies.
“A stronger empowerment of the Young Generation Network in the decision-making processes would bring many benefits to the nuclear industry and technologies”
You are a founding member of the Nuclear Society in Slovenia, where you live and work. What activities do you carry out in this association?
The daily life and activities of the Slovenian Nuclear Society are in the very capable hands of younger colleagues. I do try to help mainly through enabling contacts and cooperation with my large network of international friends and peers.
Slovenia has a reactor that generates nearly 37% of the country’s electricity. Are there plans to build new reactors?
We are seriously discussing the construction of a second unit at the Krško nuclear power plant and a new research reactor. I do hope that these discussions will gain more support from political decision makers in the very near future.
“In Slovenia we are seriously discussing the construction of a second unit at the Krško nuclear power plant and a new research reactor”
You hold a Ph. D. in Physics. How did you start your professional career in the nuclear field?
In 1986, during my final year studying mechanical engineering, nuclear power received a lot of public attention because of the accident in Chernobyl. It was a combination of my curiosity and the proactivity of my supervisor at the university, who enabled me to develop my B.Sc. thesis with the Reactor Engineering Division of the Jožef Stefan Institute. I am still a member, and the head of the Reactor Engineering Division.
What is a normal day for you between your classes as nuclear technology professor and your position at the Jožef Stefan Institute, as well as other positions such as president of nuclear professionals in Europe?
My typical day would involve a lot of discussions with colleagues and students as well as a lot of reading and editing. I would also like to have more time for research and writing. Perhaps there will be more opportunities for this in the future.
My international activities, divided in nearly equal parts in international research projects as well as networking in professional and scientific societies, also require a lot of travel. In 2022 and before COVID 19, my schedule included 20-25 annual trips abroad. During the COVID 19 pandemic I spoke to Slovenian journalists on a daily basis, since my team did the epidemic modelling and prediction for Slovenia.
"General opinion on nuclear energy in the European Union has been improving in the last ten years"
Do you believe that general opinion on nuclear energy has improved in the past few years?
I would agree that general opinion on nuclear energy in the European Union has been very slowly but steadily improving in the last ten years or so. In my opinion, the main reason for these very slow improvements is fear of nuclear weapons, something that was deeply ingrained in people during the cold war, then nurtured and expanded to everything nuclear by many politicians. The war in Ukraine, although it is very tragic, has exposed many of the bad strategic decisions regarding energy supply in the past. These decisions were, to a large degree, also fuelled and reinforced by nuclear fear.
“I would expect decisions to expand nuclear power in many European countries in the near future”
The enormous dependence of the European energy system on fossil fuels from Russia and the imminent threat of energy shortages has already led to serious reconsiderations of the advantages of nuclear energy in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and, last, but not least, Sweden, who in the past had decided to give up nuclear energy. I would expect decisions to expand nuclear power in many European countries in the near future. The inclusion of nuclear in the European Clean Energy Taxonomy will help to secure, at least, a part of the capital needed for that at reasonable cost.
What about in other parts of the world?
The developing world appears to need much more energy than what is available to them today. These countries, especially China and India, will rely more and more on nuclear, simply because nuclear power offers the most efficient use of land and materials out of all large scale, all-weather and zero-carbon sources available today.
“Nuclear power offers the most efficient use of land and materials out of all large scale, all-weather and zero-carbon sources available today”
The ENS website says that “the applications of nuclear technology are varied, useful and present in any moment of our life.” Do you believe that the benefits of nuclear technology have not been properly conveyed?
The excellent reliability, safety and resilience of nuclear power is the result of decades of excellent technical work of operators, regulators and researchers. I would hope that this technical and scientific excellency will continue to receive appropriate attention in the future. I would also hope that the outreach of the nuclear community to other communities will be much stronger than it was in the past. Direct communication of credible information on social networks, such as the Spanish nuclear Twitter stars Manuel Fernández Ordoñez and Alfredo García, gives hope that the benefits of nuclear technologies can be properly conveyed to the public.