“It’s a big deal“

Dr. Christoph Pohl, Head of Nuclear Technology at TÜV rheinland. Dr. Christoph Pohl, Head of Nuclear Technology at TÜV rheinland. Dr. Christoph Pohl, Head of Nuclear Technology at TÜV rheinland.

4 Questions for: Dr. Christoph Pohl

Working in the field of nuclear technology, Dr. Christoph Pohl and colleagues from the fields of radiation protection and material testing and the Mol Research Center in Belgium are all running their projects to ensure that the test reactors ITER and Wendelstein 7-X are operated safely. The team is doing a lot of pioneering work.

ITER and Wendelstein 7-X are major facilities when it comes to researching nuclear fusion in Europe. What does TÜV Rheinland actually do there?

Dr. Christoph Pohl: Dr. Christoph Pohl: We have many different tasks. For ITER, we act as technical service providers to the international operating consortium. We test the material that comes into contact with the plasma and free neutrons in the reactor core. We observe its behavior before and after the neutron bombardment, comparing it to nonirradiated fuel elements. We assist with material selection and quality assurance. For Wendelstein 7-X, we act as experts on behalf of the licensing authority – the Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In this capacity, we tested radiation protection for the granting of the operating license.

Nuclear fusion reactors are labs - how do you verify safety there?

This is a major problem. Many of the components and structures – and the facility as a whole – are already unique, and are developed and constructed precisely and specifically for research purposes. So – in that respect – we are doing a lot of pioneering work, too. We are part of the research team at ITER: when we bombard materials with neutrons, we are testing whether theoretical predictions about material behavior are true. It helps that we are required to demonstrate material resistance for this experimental purpose only. This is not to be compared with a type examination for market approval of a standard product. Our focus was completely different for the Wendelstein 7-X operating license. We don’t test individual parts – we test whether the whole facility is safe for people and the environment in terms of radiation protection. There are no compromises here, either. Researchers are not concerned with these boundary conditions, but – as experts working for the licensing authority – we definitely are. Science needs to take its cue from us and not the other way round.

Are there standards that you can apply?

There are national and international regulations for building and operating nuclear facilities that we can selectively use for guidance. A lot can be transferred from radiation protection, ranging from permitted radiation doses to waste water treatment. But – unlike nuclear power plants – nuclear fusion doesn’t produce any highly radioactive transuranics or fission products. We have very precise knowledge of how people and the environment are to be protected to the latest standards of science and technology. There are no special regulations for fusion facilities yet – but this is being worked on.

What is it like for you to be involved in a technology that is as trailblazing as nuclear fusion?

It’s really a big deal. In physical terms, the idea of nuclear fusion sounds easy, but technical implementation is actually highly complex. Development takes decades, advancing step by step – but sometimes falling behind or veering off the main approach. Always having to face new challenges also satisfies my enquiring mind. People from all over the world work on the reactors – nuclear fusion is an international project. The fact that the European Atomic Energy Community, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, India and the USA are working closely together on ITER to achieve a shared goal is an amazing thing.

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Picture Credtis: © TÜV Rheinland