Darwin Meets Einstein

Recently Frans W. Saris sent me some excerpts from his book, Darwin Meets Einstein: On the Meaning of Science, (Saris, 2009) published by Amsterdam University Press. Frans Saris is atomic and nuclear physicist and science writer in the Netherlands, and has contributed to the Dutch literary journal 'De Gids'. From 1972 - 1980 he worked part time at the Chalk River Nuclear Labs in Ontario Canada; and was Chairman of the board on the Energy-research Center of the Netherlands (ECN) 1996 - 2002. Saris is a great story-teller, and his experiences and insights into the nuclear energy industry chart the ethical dilemmas and curious friendships between people in industry, academia and activism which help us to understand the subtleties of the cultures of behaviour around the nuclear.

Suddenly the alarm went off. Everybody froze and looked at the red blinking lights above the gates. Two officers in white uniforms walked past the crowd towards Roger, who stood somewhat silly under the lights. With their detectors they skimmed his clothes and took him inside. The lights went off and at ease we shuffled through the gates. In the bus I heard this was not the first time Roger had made the alarm go off. The health surveyors already had taken him apart earlier. He had had to take his clothes off layer after layer, but no radiation was detected on his clothes or on his hands. Yet the alarm went off as soon as he stepped in front of the monitor. So he also had to take off his underwear and give it to them, but again no radiation was detected. When he stood naked in front of the health surveyors and they skimmed the detector over his body it turned out his penis was contaminated with radioactivity. Roger worked in the plutonium laboratory at the institute where I worked as a young postdoc. He was world-famous for his knowledge and notorious for his negligence. At the end of the day before he left the lab he had not washed his hands and had not monitored them. Apparently he went to the toilet with radioactive contamination on his hands. After he urinated he did wash his hands, but in the meantime his penis was already contaminated. This goes to show that nuclear scientists must wash their hands before and after they go to the toilet."
(Saris, 2009, p55)

"Jaap was right
The last time I met Jaap Rodenburg was at a reception in the queue of people waiting to congratulate the new Professor of Wind Energy at the Technical University Delft. In the reception book Jaap wrote ‘Greenpeace’ below his name, therefore I wrote ‘Energy-research Centre the Netherlands (ECN)’ below my name. I liked the look of that so brotherly together on the same page. At meetings of the energy world Jaap and I looked for each other to argue about the same subject all the time. Jaap always wanted to be right, me too of course, and I most preferred to be granted right by him. This had been so since the hearing in Parliament on the reprocessing of nuclear fuel from the Netherlands. There I defended the position that reprocessing was best, but Jaap stole the show. He did not speak personally but gave his time to people who lived next to La Haque, Sellafield and Dounray, people who told terrible stories of the consequences of leaks and contaminations caused by these reprocessing plants. Especially Dounray was blamed and I took it personally as the ECN has a reprocessing contract with them in connection with the production of Molybdenum 99, a radioactive isotope with which at least five million patients in European hospitals are diagnosed each year. Mo99 is a fission product produced in the nuclear reactor in Petten (the Netherlands) that is separated from other fission products via chemical processing, after which the irradiated uranium targets are sent to Dounray for reprocessing. A nice example of recycling and an important medical application, what could Greenpeace have against that? Jaap Rodenburg’s criticism was heavy and well presented, with a great feel for drama. One citizen of Dounray came to tell us that the reprocessing plant was an old-fashioned mess. There was a serious shortage of trained personnel, they did not live up to the safety rules, at some places they had dumped so much radioactive waste that it had become critical and had exploded, and a castle in the neighbourhood, once a tourist attraction, is now so contaminated that it is closed to the public. ‘How can you do business with such a company?’ one Member of Parliament asked me. I answered that Dounray was part of the UKAEA and stood under international surveillance by the IAEA in Vienna and as long as Dounray had a license I had no reason to doubt the quality of their reprocessing facility, and that recycling of radioactive fission material should be better for the environment than using new Uranium all the time. Moreover, stopping the production of radio-isotopes would have serious consequences for at least five million patients in Europe alone. Apparently the minister was convinced. But not Jaap Rodenburg and that I did not understand. Until last month when the news came: the UKAEA had ordered an audit at Dounray. The official findings were that they do not live up to the safety rules and that they cannot possibly fulfil their license, which as a result has been taken away. Jaap was right, but now I cannot grant him this because Jaap is no more. In the reception book of the professor in Delft my name is written below Jaap Rodenburg, Greenpeace."
(Saris, 2009, p72-3)

Frans continued in his email: "In the summer of 2001 I discovered that our nuclear research and consultancy group in Petten had secretly initiated the building of their own reprocessing plant, because the highly enriched uranium remnants from the Mo99 production could not be sent to Dounray anymore. Issues of environmental impact and the non-proliferation treaty were waved aside by referring to the medical applications. I could block this development in time, but only after seeking the support from ECN’s Supervisory Board. On a winter night in December 2001 there was a power failure in North Holland, where Petten is located. The nuclear reactor is a research reactor, not a power reactor; it needs electricity to operate, for instance to pump cooling water. The reactor has a back-up cooling system to prevent meltdown of the core in case of a power failure. But this evening the back-up cooling system failed to come into action and the operators did not know what to do. There is an extra safety system by convection cooling for which the operators had to open a valve, but the control room was dark. When they reached for a torch that should have been there, it had been taken away by a colleague to work under his car. Trying their luck the operators put the valve of the convection cooling in what they thought was the ‘open’ position. But then the lights came back on and the operators discovered they had actually closed the back-up convection cooling system. Had the power failure lasted longer it would have meant meltdown and a major disaster. When I learned about this some months later – they thought they could keep it secret – I did not think I could take responsibility any longer and I resigned from the ECN."

Frans's accounts remind us that there will always be human error, that materials are fallible, that everything decays. He was unable to participate in the Nuclear Culture Roundtable at Z33, so instead I have published his words here.