Yolanda Benito
Featured voices - December 19, 2023

Yolanda Benito

General Director of CIEMAT

"The window to act against climate change is getting smaller"

The Center for Energy, Environmental, and Technological Research (CIEMAT) is a Spanish public research organization focused on energy and environmental issues, affiliated with the   Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities. Yolanda Benito, who has worked in CIEMAT since 1989, was appointed General Director in 2022. With a Ph.D. in Chemical Sciences and a Master's Degree in Leadership and Public Management, as well as extensive experience in environmental issues, she emphasizes the need to act "quickly and decisively against climate change" in this interview with Foro Nuclear, highlighting "the relevant role of CIEMAT in the challenges presented by energy and the environment."

You know CIEMAT well, having worked there since 1989. Could you share the key moments in your career that led to your current position as General Director?

I started my scientific journey at University and from there I worked in other technological centers before joining CIEMAT as a researcher in different positions. I also spent some time working at the Ministry of Science and Innovation and, after a while, returned to CIEMAT as Director of the Environmental Department until I was appointed General Director, a position that I accepted with enthusiasm and eagerness.

Do you think working in this organization for over three decades helps you understand and lead it better?

Precisely because I know it so well, it was clear to me that we needed to modernize and update the center. This involves identifying the major challenges in R&D and technology that society truly needs and Europe is demanding. One of the goals is to have a strategy for the coming years that includes what we will work on, for whom, how we will engage, and how we will modernize infrastructure. This plan also outlines what we need to do to face the challenges in energy, the environment, and many technological aspects where CIEMAT plays a relevant role.

Yolanda Benito

I understand that promoting awareness of what the Center does is also one of your objectives.

Yes, of course. We are strengthening our outreach and communication efforts. We need to adapt, be more present on social media, reach out to young people and schools, and make it clear that society will benefit from the developments we are working on.

"The world of research has always been difficult, but also very rewarding and motivating"

Speaking of young people and your beginnings, do we know how to retain talent and support researchers?

The world of research has always been hard from a professional standpoint. It is personally rewarding and motivating for those of us dedicated to it, but there is still room for improvement in social recognition. We need society to understand that science must exist and is relevant.

What CIEMAT projects would you like to highlight?

To be fair to all the work being done at CIEMAT, I would like to highlight initiatives from various fields. In the field of knowledge and innovation we are carrying out very important work in medical innovation, advanced therapies for rare diseases and projects involving particle physics and accelerators, as well as our transnational efforts in medical physics.

In the energy field, I want to point out our projects in hybridization and hydrogen technologies, and regarding fusion, our relevant role in the development of this future energy source.

"CIEMAT plays a significant role in the development of fusion as an energy source"

In environmental matters, I would point out everything related to climate change and air quality, which have effects on ecosystems, as well as our participation in expeditions to Antarctica.

In the fission field, our role is fundamental for the Spanish nuclear sector and organizations like Enresa [National Radioactive Waste Company] or the Nuclear Safety Council, as we are drivers and transmitters of technology. Our role in Europe regarding fission is and continues to be very important.

How many professionals work at this Center?

Currently, around 1,200 people work at CIEMAT in various locations. The largest one is in Madrid, but we are also present in Almería, Soria, Barcelona...

You mentioned work and research in the fission field. Could be more specific?

Fission is one of the fields where CIEMAT has accumulated significant experience and plays a relevant role nationally and internationally. The nuclear fission department works on various aspects, such as nuclear safety with advanced models.

"Fission is one of the fields where CIEMAT has accumulated significant experience and plays a relevant role nationally and internationally"

We are working on technologically advanced fuels, as well as light water and liquid metal reactors. Many of these approaches are related to the new developments in Small Modular Reactors (SMR), a project in which we are active and interested in participating. Regarding waste, we have units working on the characterization of low and medium-activity waste and on the behavior and storage of high-level waste in collaboration with Enresa, the CSN, and European projects through Euratom.

Yolanda Benito

You are an expert in climate change after holding positions in the National Climate Council, representing the nation at climate summits, and assuming responsibilities in environmental areas. In your opinion, what progress has been made, and what still needs to be done on climate issues?

There has certainly been progress, but, to be honest, not at the speed we should have made it. Currently, one of the most significant challenges is that by 2050, we need to achieve a carbon-neutral economy, which requires changes and investments in both public and private sectors.

"We have made progress on climate issues, but not at the speed we should have"

We need to work in the areas of energy, transportation, land use, and, of course, emissions trading. Scientists have been warning for many years that if we do not meet certain commitments, things will become complicated, so we need to act quickly and we need to act now. The window for taking action is closing, and it is getting smaller.

Do you think climate urgency has led many countries to embrace nuclear energy?

In addition to historically nuclear countries like France and the United Kingdom, there are some countries with no previous nuclear tradition, such as Poland and Italy, which are currently considering it, whereas other countries have changed their closure schedules, like Belgium and the Netherlands.

"Nuclear energy can be an alternative to meet decarbonization commitments"

“En ciencia siempre hay que tener una visión de futuro”

I believe that the energy situation of each country is different because each country has its resources, geographical situation, politics, etc. Indeed, in the short and medium term, nuclear energy can be an alternative to meet decarbonization commitments. But this is something outlined in the energy plans of each country. In the case of Spain, our situation is what we currently have.

"In science, you always need to have a vision for the future"

What about fusion?

We are experiencing a moment of total expansion in fusion. I have had the privilege of harvesting the results of thirty years of CIEMAT's work since it decided to embrace fusion energy. It was not easy, but it was achieved with the foresight that you always need to have in science. This has allowed Spain, mainly through CIEMAT, to be perfectly positioned for all the challenges that fusion energy presents.

"Spain is well positioned for the challenges of fusion energy"

We are present in international experiments, and currently the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities is strongly supporting everything related to fusion.

Why do you think fusion is more accepted than fission?

Because right now fusion seems to be a good thing, wheras fission not so much. It has to do with many aspects, but communication is fundamental. Perhaps at the moment we are living an era of more open information, and knowledge always brings peace of mind. I think fusion is being explained very well, while fission was not explained so well back in the day. It is also true that the problems fission encountered  generated some alarm in public opinion. Fusion, however, is still under investigation, and the public cannot perceive any risk because nothing is yet operational.

Would you like to add anything?

I would like to emphasize the role of CIEMAT. We are a very important organization with many ongoing projects and initiatives in the fields of energy and the environment, and in technological issues related to innovation and knowledge. Additionally, we have a distinctive role in our approach to the industrial field. Our developments and support in the industrial field are significant, and I believe this has allowed our industry to be competitive at the European level. This is something we are truly proud of.

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