Tero Varjoranta: "People here are the best"
12 January 2012 | Tero Varjoranta, Director of the Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology in the IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy, will leave the IAEA in mid-January. In this interview, he shares some of his thoughts and impressions about the 18 months he spent at the Agency.
Q: Mr. Varjoranta, you will assume an important position in your home country Finland. What is awaiting you?
On February 1, I will become the Director General of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) which is the national regulator for nuclear safety, radiation safety, R&D work related to radiobiology and non-ionizing radiation, export/import controls, safeguards issues and war against terrorism issues. STUK is also responsible for nuclear emergency preparedness of the country. Public information and involvement are also an important aspect. It will be a very busy, very interesting and very challenging job.
Q: Will your work be very different to what you are doing now?
The scope will be larger, certainly; also, I will be dealing more with reactor safety; and my work will involve non-ionizing radiation, in other words what kind of health risks, for example, mobile phones, power lines, lasers, micro waves and solariums might cause. So these are the main differences.
Q: What would you consider as main achievements and highlights during your term at the IAEA?
First of all, the scope of this Division is very broad. I think it is one of the broadest in the Agency because it covers the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from the very beginning, i.e. uranium mining, to the very end, which is final disposal of waste. We also address issues of current reactors and fuel cycles of future reactors, including waste issues. And we cover the whole spectrum of research reactors – everything from new research reactors to better utilization of the current research reactors, and molybdenum production for medical purposes.
What I am most proud of is how well we got our work done as a team, as the entire Division. The working environment has been inspiring for all of us. We have done a lot of work, not because of the work itself, but because it’s been fascinating.
Then the Fukushima accident happened, and it was so good to see how dedicated and motivated our experts were in tackling those problems and trying to help to the best of their abilities without any counting of hours. So there were lots of activities, team spirit and commitment to the work. I think that has been a major achievement, and I am most proud of it.
Q: You just mentioned the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. How did you experience this situation?
In my previous working life in Finland I was trained for emergency center activities for 20 years, so my training kicked in when the accident occurred.
The first thing was that we identified personal skills of the experts in our Division that could be used. Then we started to help analyse and understand the situation. We were involved heavily in the IAEA Emergency Centre activities. Addressing the phase of the spent fuel was quite a new thing for some people, because spent fuel is often considered as “the guy who has retired”, so it’s just “waste”. But this is absolutely not the case. If spent fuel is not cooled, you can end up with accident scenarios that are even worse than severe reactor accidents. So we were looking at these issues very carefully and analysed the situation and tried to help in that respect.
Then came the remediation mission to Japan and that was interesting work too. We had an excellent cross-departmental team, as well as outside experts who had been working with Chernobyl, and also experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who played an important role in the team.
It was very rewarding to see that everybody was working for one and only purpose, demonstrating a real one-house approach. I was very proud of that. Of course when you work in different cultures, it is also a challenge to understand the different aspects of the cultures, so this was interesting for me.
Q: What was your role in the mission to Japan?
I was responsible for the team on the Agency’s side. The mission team leader was Juan Carlos Lentijo, the Director General of the Spanish radiation safety authority. He is very knowledgeable on radiation safety issues. But there were lots of questions and interest in Agency activities in Japan, so my job was to be the deputy team leader in the mission and be responsible for all questions related to the Agency. It was then also my responsibility to facilitate the process of preparing the summary report and the final report.
Q: In your opinion, in which direction will nuclear energy be going, post-Fukushima?
Globally, the major drivers are exactly the same as they were before the accident. That has not changed. As long as the world population is growing, more energy and electricity are needed; that is just a simple fact. And the other fact is that the world is urbanizing and industrialising all the time, which means there is a need for more energy and electricity. Concerns about the climate have not disappeared anywhere; the rising and volatile prices of energy have not changed anywhere.
Fukushima has basically caused a slowdown, or delay, for a certain period of time, say one to two years; but definitely it has not stopped the expansion of nuclear power programmes. I think most of the expansion will happen in Asia – in China, India, Korea and also in Russia. Interest in the Gulf region remains very high. I expect that after two years, the development is going to continue, slightly slower by, say, 7 or 8 per cent, but it’s going to continue.
Q: Let’s take a look into the future of the NEFW Division; do you have any comments on that?
Now is the time to start delivering on the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety. Plans, rules and regulations are important and needed but in the end, technologies must be improved, human errors must be avoided and designs of the plants’ systems and components must be improved.
So the key is to improve technology and human expert delivery. That is the strength of this Division. I expect that in the Agency’s structure, the role of the Division as a technology deliverer will be stronger and more needed than before. This Division is well equipped in terms of experts and their knowledge and motivation to handle the challenges. I definitely think that this Division deserves a very good manager to take the group up to where it can make the best contributions.
Q: A final question of a more personal nature: what will you miss most when you leave the Agency and Vienna?
I will be missing the people, my colleagues, and the spirit that we have had. I will try to create the same kind of spirit in my new job. People here are the best, and it is just unbelievable how much talent there is and how willingly they are ready to contribute. The key challenge for the management is to let this happen.
Vienna is a very nice and good place for a foreigner to live. The cultural life is so rich, with art and music, and it is an international city. I never felt strange here, coming from Finland, because a lot of people come from somewhere else. What I also liked a lot is that there is so much sunshine in Vienna in comparison to where I am going now!
Q: When will we see you again at the Agency?
I am happy to say that my first visit to Vienna will be already in March. There are close connections between STUK and the IAEA. My predecessor has been very active in dealing with the Agency, and I will continue this practice.
By Elisabeth Dyck, Department of Nuclear Energy