By Sofia Strodt
The EU made 2022 the “European Year of Youth” and is following on with 2023 as the “European Year of Skills.” In that spirit, Horizon Magazine talked to two young Europeans working in the field of nuclear energy as the New Year gets under way.
Roberta Cirillo, European Nuclear Education Network
When still only in elementary school, Roberta Cirillo knew she wanted to work in science.
Driven by curiosity, Cirillo pursued this goal with such determination that, by the age of 25, she had decided to become a nuclear engineer.
Now 37, the Italian native is one of the few women working in the nuclear sector.
Women make up less than a quarter of the worldwide workforce in the field, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which says a bigger female presence is needed to enhance diversity and competitiveness.
As a Brussels-based project manager and communications officer at the European Nuclear Education Network (ENEN), Cirillo is able to help a new generation of young people including women succeed in the sector.
‘We have a lot of seasoned professionals who sooner or later are going to retire,’ she said. ‘That’s why we need the young generation to step in.’
Beyond the energy industry, nuclear technology is critical in many disciplines ranging from healthcare to artwork appraisal.
‘You never get bored in this field because there are so many applications of nuclear,’ Cirillo said.
Nonetheless, public concerns about nuclear risks persist. The unease, according to Cirillo, stems from the technology’s complexity and a handful of past accidents at sites around the world.
‘That’s why we must also educate the general public,’ she said.
With this in mind, Cirillo decided after more than five years of working as a researcher in cryogenics – a branch of physics dealing with very low temperatures – to take on her current role at ENEN educating people about the potential of nuclear technology.
‘I’m a talkative person and need to be in touch with other people,’ she said.
At ENEN, which is the largest network for education and training in the nuclear field in Europe, Cirillo manages EU-funded projects, organises events and leads communication activities to help attract and retain talented youth.
She says the most difficult part of her job is balancing it with recreational activities.
‘I tend to be a perfectionist and feel very committed to my job because I love it so much, but I sometimes have to remind myself that I’m human and not a cyborg,’ she said with a smile.
To relax, she likes to go on long walks in Brussels – ‘but only if it doesn’t rain.’
Her advice to young people is to be inquisitive.
‘Never be afraid to ask about things you don’t know, you could be surprised by what you might find,’ she said. ‘Curiosity should never be tamed but encouraged.’
Dario Cruz, FuseNet
Dario Cruz has travelled widely using a passion for nuclear science as his compass.
Cruz’s work in the nuclear field has taken him to around 20 countries, mainly in Europe such as France, Germany, Italy and Finland but also Russia and Japan.
The executive officer at FuseNet, a nuclear-education platform, Cruz was born in Colombia, lived for seven years in Spain’s capital Madrid and is currently based in the Dutch city of Eindhoven.
During studies in Italy for a bachelor’s degree in physics, Cruz became interested in nuclear fusion.
He then joined an Erasmus Mundus master’s programme in nuclear fusion science and engineering at Ghent University before eventually enrolling for a doctoral degree in fusion material research from the Madrid-based Centre for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research (CIEMAT). Cruz is due to earn his PhD in 2023.
Nuclear fusion, according to the IAEA, could generate four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than regular power plants and nearly 4 million times more than burning oil or coal.
The technology, however, is still in development. The France-based international ITER project, the world’s largest fusion experiment, aims to prove the feasibility of the technology as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy.
‘Scientists are pretty much trying to reproduce a sun on earth,’ said Cruz, who is 40. ‘Nuclear fusion is the future of the nuclear sector.’
A main advantage of this type of energy is safety, he said, because fusion would rule out any repeat of past nuclear accidents.
Also, neither uranium nor plutonium is used in fusion, meaning waste would break down in approximately 100 years rather than the thousands of years for conventional atomic waste.
Cruz decided that he wanted to use his expertise to educate the next generation of scientists.
FuseNet, which he leads, focuses on students from primary school all the way up to PhD level.
‘There has to be a proper knowledge transfer so new generations will know how to work at the facilities we are currently building,’ Cruz said. ‘This is what’s going to power the future.’
Cruz, who in his free time likes to go to the gym, swim and play tennis, hails the international character of nuclear work and the cross-border opportunities it offers.
‘The possibility to work abroad and collaborate with people from various backgrounds is something I appreciate very much,’ he said. ‘This exchange within the nuclear field is something very valuable.’
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.