oude hippie bij classic car
Bert Wolterbeek plans to give old furniture a new life. (Photo: Irene van Kessel)

Just when Bert Wolterbeek, Director of the Reactor Institute Delft, is retiring, nuclear energy is the focus of attention and the renovation of the reactor is almost done.

Lees in het Nederlands

He arrived at the Reactor Institute Delft in 1978 as a biology student from Utrecht University to measure the transport of essential metals in live plants using radio isotopes. After that, Bert Wolterbeek never left. He did his doctoral research at TU Delft in conjunction with Utrecht University, set up and led an air pollution study, and trained a group on nuclear medicine and a group on industrial isotopes. After that he headed the Radiochemistry Department and was asked to be its Director in 2012. “If you stick around long enough, you’ll end up anywhere,” he says, putting his career in perspective. “As I was doing so many different things here, I never felt the need to leave.”

The Netherlands plans to build two more nuclear power stations. What are your thoughts on this as the former Director of the RID?
“As a university institution, we should look at these plans critically. We need to think about new ways to build inherently safe and more efficient reactors. In the Netherlands we are also concerned about expertise in radiation safety and the expertise that we need to start a nuclear reactor. That expertise has disappeared over the years, partly because nuclear energy was not an issue of importance to society.”

Are you seeing more students joining the course?
“Yes, we see a growing interest among students. The Reactor Physics programme used to attract five students and this has gone up to 40. The demand for graduation places is higher than what we can offer. Students realise that they can have a career in nuclear energy. The building of Pallas (the production reactor for medical isotopes in Petten, Eds.) and the planned additional nuclear power stations have attracted much interest in knowledge about nuclear power and in the knowledge infrastructure. We are now at the centre of this. It is a very exciting time. Actually, it’s a shame to leave now.”

You have been in charge here for 10 years. Were there any highlights?
“I think it is a good thing that we went deep into molten salt reactors, ran extensive simulations and cooperated internationally. It is also good that we exerted pressure to retain the nuclear knowledge infrastructure. We are the measuring bar for everything society needs in the area of nuclear energy. This Institute has deserved this position.”

‘The reactor is ready for the cold core’

I expected you to mention Oyster, the EUR 100 million for materials research using cold neutrons.
“You asked for highlights, not subjects. If you look at Oyster (Optimised Yield for Science, Technology and Education of Radiation, Eds.), I can pick out a few aspects. One is incorporating the cold neutron source next to the reactor core and updating the instruments that use the cold neutron source. Another is the organisation so that we can handle the work once everything starts. We are completely ready. The reactor is ready for the cold neutron source, the cooling unit has been installed in a separate building, and the pipes and interfaces are laid out and connected.”

It's just the cold neutron source that’s missing. Which you rejected twice.
“It is a complicated three layered object the size of a football. It contains one litre of liquid hydrogen surrounded by liquid helium and a layer of vacuum. Welding those three layers is problematic. Up to now, the product did not meet the required specifications for the maximum leakage into the vacuum. This puts the cooling system under more strain than it has been designed for. The requirements could not be met by the manufacturer and this caused a lot of delays. The idea now is that the cold neutron source will be delivered at the end of March. Fingers crossed.”

We hope for the best. And something else, your working week has changed from seven to zero days. What is on your agenda for next week?
“As a Professor of Radiochemistry, I am interested in medical subjects and have a background in biology. I am in all sorts of medical groups about research programmes, and am on the Programme Board of HollandPTC (proton and therapy centre, Eds.).”

‘I do enjoy working on research ideas’

That sounds like work.
“I won’t join boards anymore, but I do enjoy working on research ideas. I am now working on arranging my hospitality statement. That will enable me to come and work here for about one day a week.”

You also have a classic Chevrolet.
“Yes, and it still works. But for me things should not only be for fun, they need to have a function too. I enjoy working with old furniture. I believe that if it is worthwhile, you should reuse things. I recently made the moustache and goatee of Frank Zappa on a round table with coloured beer bottle tops. It was well jointed and cast in epoxy resin. I would like do more of this kind of work. I sometimes need to collect stuff for it, and I do so in style in my old Chevy.”

Do you feel more like a biologist or a technician?
“I would rather not talk about being a technician or a biologist, but whether you are driven by a particular technology or by a problem that you want to solve. I am more problem-driven. I want to work on a problem for which you may need to develop technology. This is in contrast to technology where you continue developing something in the hope that there will be a problem that you can use it for.”

So you would rather take on a situation and look for what it needs?
“Yes. I always say to students that they should go home and explain what they do here. If they can explain it at home, I am happy as it shows that I have someone here who knows why they are doing something. Equally, I always say to PhD candidates that if they are in a lab using a pipette, they should know which chapter that droplet will end up in.”

  • Prof. Theun Baller (65) will temporarily fill the position of Director of the Reactor Institute. Baller went through an induction period over the last six months after having stepped down from his work as Dean of the Faculty of 3mE after 10 years.
  • A year ago, Delta wrote about the reopening of the research reactor after a renovation and modifications for the cold neutron source. Delta also reported on the European development of a molten salt thorium reactor called Samofar.