Insights from the NEST Framework: A chat with Lea Zimmermann, NEST Fellow
Lea Zimmermann spent six months at the Paul Scherrer Institute in 2019 working with the NEST-HYMERES project under the mentorship of Dr Ralf Kapulla.
Ensuring nuclear skills and education is an increasingly important challenge for NEA member countries, all of which need new generations of scientists and engineers for the continued safe and efficient use of nuclear technologies for a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical purposes. In this context, the NEA Nuclear Education, Skills and Technology (NEST) Framework was launched in 2019 with the collective effort of ten NEA member countries in order to build up skills vital for the future of the nuclear sector through multilateral co-operation.
The NEST-HYMERES Project, conducted at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland alongside the NEA Joint Project Hydrogen containment experiments for reactor safety (HYMERES), addresses safety-relevant phenomena in nuclear reactor containments during accidents. Led by Professor Andreas Pautz, the project provides NEST Fellows with hands-on training opportunities during the experimental test campaigns carried out at the PSI Multipurpose Integral Test Facility for LWR Safety Investigations (PANDA) facility, one of the most advanced containment test facilities worldwide. In parallel, it also aims at developing exploratory research projects under the guidance of experts at other NEST participating organisations.
The NEA spoke with Lea Zimmermann on her experience as a NEST Fellow with the HYMERES Project.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your experience as a young professional in the nuclear sector?
Nuclear engineering is fascinating and rather complex. It’s a very attractive field with many opportunities. During my graduate studies, I carried out a six-month NEST Fellowship at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland. The fellowship gave me the chance to glance into the world of nuclear research, which was an interesting experience for me. However, it has shown me that my passion for research is not strong enough to pursue an academic career.
So, I have pursued my career in the nuclear field not in research but in the industry. Currently I work at the Gösgen Nuclear Power Plant in Switzerland, where I am responsible for fuel assembly fabrication. This involves manufacturing surveillances for the plant’s core components (fuel and control rod assemblies) at our suppliers’ site, as well as conducting on-site entry inspections at the plant.
Could you elaborate more about your NEST Fellowship? How do you think the experience contributed to your nuclear knowledge and skills development?
I worked at the PSI Multipurpose Integral Test Facility for LWR Safety Investigations (PANDA) from February to August 2019. During this time, I was able to learn a great deal from my supervisor Dr Ralf Kapulla who has extensive experience and knowledge of particle image velocimetry (PIV) . I had the chance to experience different aspects of experimental work, such as literature research, theoretical analysis, planning, conducting and analysing experiments.
As I could learn and benefit from the many years of experience Dr Kapulla has in experimental research, the relationship with my supervisor was of great importance for my thesis. I could feel that he was very passionate about his research and motivated to pass on his experience, which was very inspiring for me.
What do you think about the future of nuclear as an entry-level professional? What should the sector do to attract more young talents?
The nuclear industry does not have the best image and is probably not listed under the most attractive fields to work. It has an “old-fashioned” image, at least in Switzerland. This may be true for some parts, but certainly not everywhere. The nuclear industry must start to improve its reputation in order to become attractive and modern employees. This is the key to attract young talent.
Furthermore, it is important to pass on the knowledge of the past generation to young professionals to assure and further improve the safety of our present reactors. Next to this, it is important to develop new, innovative and competitive nuclear technologies for future reactors.
People often ask me why I decided to work in the nuclear field, as they believe it has no future. The unknown future of nuclear energy in Switzerland has not prevented me from studying nuclear engineering as it is a very interesting and fascinating topic. I have not regretted my studies and we will see what the future brings.
Would you recommend the NEST Fellowships to other early career individuals in STEM?
I recommend that early career professionals participate in the NEST projects. The NEST Fellowship can be a good start into your career as a researcher. It gives you the opportunity to start to build up your network and to connect with researchers and fellows from other universities sharing the same interests.