Oct 31, 2019

Ep 216: Leon Cizelj - Head, Nuclear Engineering Department, Jožef Stefan Institute, Reactor Engineering Division

Head, Nuclear Engineering Department
Jožef Stefan Institute, Reactor Engineering Division
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Show notes

Studying crack formation (0:37)
0:37-4:52 (Leon explains how he first joined the nuclear industry. He also discusses his research focus as a PhD student.)

Q. How did you get into the nuclear space?
A. Leon Cizelj was first introduced to the nuclear industry as a Bachelor’s student in mechanical engineering when a professor took Leon to the nuclear research center to use the larger computer. He stayed in the nuclear industry despite the Chernobyl incident. Coming from a mechanical engineering background, Leon expected things to fail, so was not deterred from joining the industry after the accident. He takes a pragmatic approach, understanding that machines are not perfect.

Once in nuclear, Leon focused his PhD on finite element and the corrosion cracks in steam generators. Finite element is a way of modeling the structure of materials and predicting the formation of cracks. Steam generators in nuclear power plants are large vessels that contain two different separated liquids. Heat is transferred between the two without them ever coming into contact. The tube separating the liquids is about ¾ of an inch. While thin tubes allow for better heat transfer, they are more susceptible to cracking. Leon’s work focused on how to minimize this cracking. While other industries have similar systems for heat transfer between fluids, the nuclear industry’s perspective on failure and crack formation is much different from others.

Know How versus Know Why (4:53)
4:53-8:58 (Leon explains the nuclear culture and the difference between Know How and Know Why. He notes that nuclear safety culture can hinder learning.)

Q. How is an early engineer brought into the nuclear culture and mindset?
A. Leon believes young people simply follow the existing culture. Leon’s career is in nuclear research, allowing for more creativity than a commercial facility with many rules. This distance has enabled Leon to develop his Know How versus Know Why thesis. When we learn as young children, we first copy others. This gives us the Know How, such as following a recipe or operating a plant by following procedures. Know Why is important, though, because it gives us direction when we step away from procedures. Academia allows for experimentation, enabling people to learn from mistakes. But, the nuclear industry does not encourage learning from failure. Leon notes the safety culture aims to stop mistakes, preventing the industry from learning.

The European Nuclear Education Network (8:59)
8:59-14:15 (Leon discusses his current work and the European Nuclear Education Network.)

Q. How has your career in research and as a professor worked over the years?
A. Leon’s primary activity is running the research department. Leon also coordinates the institute’s technical support activities for the national regulator. Leon’s third role is teaching and supervising PhD students. In addition, Leon chairs the European Nuclear Education Network. The Network began in 2000 with 60 European nuclear universities. It focused on improving nuclear education to replace retiring nuclear professors and attract more students to nuclear programs. The European Nuclear Education Network enables European countries to share nuclear education ideas between states. The European Commission provides project funding. This is used to create new courses and for mobility funding, which enables students to take courses at different universities throughout Europe. While sharing facilities is great, it also means there are less nuclear research facilities throughout Europe overall.

Slovenia’s nuclear research (14:16)
14:16-18:41 (Leon explains the Jozef Stefan Institute’s research specialities. He also discusses blockers to extending Slovenia’s nuclear design research.)

Q. What is the Jozef Stefan Institute’s specialty?
A. This is a national lab created as a nuclear research facility 70 years ago. But, nuclear research only makes up about 10 percent of the Institute’s overall research today. Physics and biochemistry are the main research activities.

Because Slovenia has only 2 million people, Leon believes developing a new reactor in Slovenia would require a higher workforce than Slovenia has. However, Slovenia’s active participation in joint development projects would be a good idea in furthering Slovenia’s reactor research and development. While Slovenia could design a simple reactor without outside help, Slovenia need shareholders. Slovenia’s research funding is currently fixed and focused on supporting plant operations.

Rules versus Common Sense (18:42)
18:42-25:13 (Leon explains his Rules versus Common Sense ideology and the dangers of not understanding why rules are put in place.)

Q. Tell me about your Rules versus Common Sense ideology.
A. If one would like things to be safe, one would usually follow rules and procedures. However, rules only focus on what is known and do not outline what is unknown, which is only encountered when operators discover them. Most of the time, rules and education is sufficient. But, it is important to have someone on the team, such as a shift advisor in a nuclear power plant, who knows more about why a rule is in place in case the unknown is encountered.

Regulators run into the danger of placing too many rules. It may seem like a rule will make things safer, but new rules require more actions, which could ultimately negate the point of the rule. This presents a problem when a regulator is stuck on Know How rather than Know Why. If a smaller plant is lower risk because of its size and should logically not be subject to rules that apply to larger plants, a regulator that understands the Why of a rule should be able to understand why a large reactor rule may not apply to a small reactor. However, a regulator that does not Know Why and only Knows How may still require the small reactor to follow rules only applicable to large reactors. This can cause wasted money and time for the small reactor designers and operators, such as unnecessarily requiring 10 operators for a facility in which digital operation could suffice. It also offers the danger of falling outside of the assumptions when one only Knows How and not Why.

Achieving change with diversity and education (25:14)
25:14-33:38 (Leon discusses how mixing diverse nuclear professions could bring about change within the industry He also explains how education more members of the public can help increase societal support of nuclear.)

Q. How do you make sure change happens?
A. Keep it simple. Changing procedures is slow and one must first understand how to change procedures. Leon believes the easiest way to enact change is by mixing nuclear cultures. Regulators, operators, and academics each have different cultures. This is because they speak different languages and have different basic assumptions. For instance, the operators aim to keep machines in operation and safe. Professors, on the other hand, look at ways to destroy the machines to create solutions to weaknesses. While both aim to increase safety, the approach is opposite.

Leon aims to help academics, operators and regulators see that they all have a common goal. While diversity is great for the industry, nuclear has a difficult time embracing this diversity, which could lead to the industry’s defeat. The nuclear industry is close to having created a perfect, safe technology, but the public does not believe this. One way to approach this is to increase the number of knowledgeable people within society. Not everyone needs to be educated about nuclear, they just need to know somebody whom they trust who is knowledgeable. People tend to believe what their trusted friends say.

Reactor visits decrease fear (33:39)
33:39-38:05 (Leon explains how nuclear engineers can be ambassadors to nuclear safety by giving school children and journalists tours of the research reactor.)

Q. People may not believe nuclear engineers as ambassadors to nuclear safety, right?
A. People who enter the industry via academia are trained to Know Why prior to Know How. This created the opportunity to teach the public why nuclear is a great power source. The research institute in Slovenia allows visits from school children. Because Slovenia is so small, half of all school children visit the institute each year and 25 percent of these students are able to look into the core of the research reactor. This increases nuclear knowledge from a young age, decreasing fear. Leon has also hosted journalists at the reactor core to best educate them after Fukushima. Unfortunately, visitor centers have been shutting down due to cost. There is a pressure within the industry to push for faster, cheaper and better. The industry must think longer term, however, especially because nuclear reactors will be around for a long time.

Making nuclear as beautiful as Slovenia (38:06)
38:06-42:47 (Leon explains that although the desire to accelerate the industry is alive, the current careful culture of nuclear slows development. Leon also describes Slovenia and how he would like to see nuclear become beautiful again in the public’s eyes.)

Q. Can we think about reactors differently?
A. Yes. It requires the existence of waste management and reprocessing facilities. While we know how to deal with waste, society has yet to implement it. The desire to accelerate the industry by building rather than planning is there, but the current nuclear culture is too careful.

Leon lives close to his office in a village near the woods. While this allows him to walk in nature, he is also close to the airport and Ljubljana. Slovenia is taking environmental leadership and has the potential to become a frontrunner in technical innovation. Nuclear is the solution to our energy problems. For such a high density energy source, it produces very little waste. Leon wants to communicate these benefits to the public to make nuclear ‘beautiful’ again.

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