Insights from the NEST Framework: A chat with Vera Verkhoturova
Ensuring nuclear skills and education is an increasingly important challenge for NEA member countries, all of which need new generations of scientists and engineers for the continued safe and efficient use of nuclear technologies for a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical purposes. In this context, the NEA Nuclear Education, Skills and Technology (NEST) Framework was launched in 2019 with the collective effort of ten NEA member countries in order to build up skills vital for the future of the nuclear sector through multilateral co-operation.
The NEST irradiate graphite (i-Graphite) Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) project, in collaboration with, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, as well as several other external organisations, addresses the challenge of i-graphite, including characterisation, decontamination and disposal of radioactive waste. Conducted at Tomsk Polytechnic University on behalf of ROSATOM, the project uses specially‑manufactured equipment for i‑graphite remote sampling, graphite incineration facilities and radioactive waste repository mock‑up models for investigation of geological barriers.
The NEA spoke with Professor Vera Verkhoturova, leader of the NEST i-graphite RWM project, about the NEST Framework and its objectives.
Tell us about the NEST i-graphite Radioactive Waste Management project: what are the key challenges the project aims to address in the nuclear energy field and what is the goal of this project?
Many NEA member countries are looking at high-level radioactive waste management solutions, as well as long-term options for radioactive waste disposal. Along with the decommissioning of old nuclear facilities, a large volume of low and intermediate level waste requires efficient tools for waste minimisation, such as decontamination and clearance.
The goal of this project is to transfer knowledge in i-graphite radioactive waste management to the next generation of experts and to offer them an overview of nuclear decommissioning. In doing so, the NEST i-graphite RWM project will strengthen nuclear education programmes in co-operation with the industry specialised in i-graphite RWM and decommissioning.
Can you elaborate on the training activities for the NEST Fellows participating in this project?
Training is provided in some of the main areas of radioactive waste management, including the qualification of decommissioning process, the treatment and conditioning of irradiated graphite, the graphite characterisation and near surface disposal.
Each of these topics covers a specific scientific and practical activity. The NEST Fellows can select their area of interest and gain practical experience and skills. Universities, industrial partners and regulators work together to select, supervise and assist the Fellows so that they can get the most out of their experience.
What makes a good candidate for the NEST Fellowship in this project?
The NEST i-graphite RWM project accepts applications from undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as young professionals from participating organisations. Candidates should also have a background in either nuclear physics and technology, chemistry technology, robotics, process modelling, environmental engineering, materials science, project management or similar fields. We will invite 30 Fellows to join this two-year NEST i-graphite RWM project.
What led you to get involved in NEST? What have you gained from this experience?
Over the past decade, the nuclear community has observed several global challenges to the future of the nuclear energy industry.
The declining interest in nuclear education among young people coupled with a decrease in educational opportunities due to the retirement of professors has shrunk our pool of students. As innovation progresses, knowledge transfer has become increasingly complex, which eventually jeopardises our capacity to train skilled professionals to replace retiring experts. Eventually, these trends could compromise our ability to make good decisions in the field and to invest in innovative methods and technologies.
In this regard, the co-operation between the academia and the industry has mutual benefits. As a representative of the academic community, I take pride in the high quality training we give our students and their successful employment.
I hope that the Fellows will benefit from increased networking and co-operation between the academic institutions, research centres and the industry. I also personally hope that this project will show the importance of decommissioning issues to young generation
The NEST Framework gives us a unique opportunity to share best practices in co-operation strategies in research and training of young professionals, and I am proud to contribute to NEST’s development.
Retaining talent in nuclear energy careers is a critical component for nuclear development. From your experience, how can we make careers in this field more attractive?
When designing international nuclear education programmes, it is necessary to take into account several global trends of the last decade that pose a serious challenge to this field. These include declining interest in nuclear education among young people as well as the challenge of transferring knowledge and experience to young professionals by retired nuclear experts.
Knowledge transmission has become an important strategic component, especially for countries that are yet to develop their full nuclear capabilities. Consequently, universities are now playing a leading role in the knowledge economy and they are the key players in promoting interactions between academia and the industry, training skilled professionals capable to respond to current and future needs, and providing a favourable environment for innovation.
Fostering the next generation of leaders and professionals in the nuclear energy field requires new methods and approaches in addressing knowledge transfer. In this context, national and international co-operation between all nuclear actors is essential to create favourable conditions for nuclear education and vocational training.
How has the pandemic affected the project? What have you learned from the experience?
The pandemic had negative and positive consequences for universities. On one hand, it stopped or delayed many international in-person activities such as the NEST Fellowships. On the other hand, the pandemic provided a great learning opportunity to develop and implement virtual training. For example, our university has developed virtual technical tours of our nuclear facility. We also have developed virtual interactive laboratory internships with real-time participation, similar to computer games. In this regard, the pandemic fostered our creativity to make a better use of digital technologies.
What new projects would you like to see NEST develop?
I would like to see NEST projects with greater focus on collaboration between industry and academic community in training young professionals for the nuclear energy field. I also consider projects dedicated to gender balance in nuclear industry to be of high importance.