Behind the Fusion Scene: Gerald Degreef

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I am a physicist and radiation protection expert, who has spent more than 17 years in the nuclear industry in Europe, covering different functions, ranging from safety authorities to engineering companies, with on-field experiences, and in different environments, from medical applications to nuclear power plants. I am currently working for KF as a nuclear safety specialist.

Tell us about yourself. What were your interests in childhood? How did you become interested in science?
During my childhood I was already fascinated by science and astrophysics. I was so curious and wanted to know how the universe works. This is why I studied physics (geophysics, astrophysics and nuclear physics). Fusion, as the process occurring in the stars, is such an interesting phenomenon to understand and to learn as it explains how a huge part of our universe works. It is a great challenge for humanity to solve it, and to be able to deploy it here on earth.

What drew you to join KF and the fusion world from the fission world?
I was at a point I felt I had made a tour of the fission industry. If you had asked me 17 years ago to join the fusion sector, I would have said no as I would have felt frustrated not to be able to make an impact. Now that the development of fusion is accelerating and becoming a reality, I really felt that it was time to be a part of it.

While thinking about turning to fusion, I found a website about the top ten startups in fusion beginning in 2022. KF was the choice to be made. I found that the credos of the company, the values and the mission resonated with me. After I met the hiring staff, it was directly clear to me that it would be a great intellectual and human challenge to work with them. It was also a perfect opportunity to propose and use my personal experience to something new that has the potential to become a game changer and to make an important impact on society. Now it has become a reality as I have been working for KF the last six months.

What is KF doing to commercialise fusion  and what is your role in the company in shaping that goal?
KF is developing technologies that are necessary to accelerate the use of fusion energy, and to power the grid. To this effect of developing technologies and engineering services, I am here to principally take care of the safety aspects of future fusion reactors. These safety related aspects consist in analysing normal and accidental conditions of future reactors, as well as the associated radiological impact.These aspects are of paramount importance as the fusion future reactors need to be safe, reliable and be socially accepted. Hazards have to be eliminated, and for those that cannot be eliminated, they have to be mitigated as far as is reasonably achievable. I am very proud to say we are working on this, that we have developed and will continue developing engineering products on safety assessments allowing us to reach the ambitious target of supporting the development of safe fusion reactors, by helping to comply with national and international regulatory frameworks.

What current project are you working on now?
The activities within KF, as a start-up, are diverse, and in perfect balance between teamwork and personal work. At the moment, I am working on safety related aspects of an upcoming facility which will be operated in order to simulate crucial systems that will be used in future reactors. We are performing a risk analysis of this facility in order to ensure its safe use. To do this, we use existing methods when available in the literature, and develop new ones based on research and development. 

This facility is key to the development of future fusion reactors, because those are systems that have never been tested before.

I am also working with UKAEA on various projects, touching regulatory aspects, as well as more technical aspects such as waste. For regulatory aspects we anticipate the future requirements of a future operator and how it will comply with an applicable regulatory framework. Regarding waste, I manage the technical interface of the project whose objective is to evaluate new methods to decontaminate materials.

Each of these projects is important as it will allow future fusion plant operators to tackle these specific challenges of the fusion energy industry, namely respecting a dedicated regulatory framework and minimising the amount of waste.

Working at KF also means working with experts in the sector and being present on the international scene throughout meetings and conferences, presenting scientific papers, which allow you to grow your own expertise and to develop yourself.

How is the experience at KF helping you grow in skills & opportunities?
Working at KF is a rewarding experience on the technical, social and personal sides. Diving into deep technologies and the fascinating fusion world is so refreshing for someone such as me who has worked in the fission industry. I can really feel that I am growing in technical skills, thanks to other people challenging me, motivating me to deliver and perform in the best way. I am now getting more familiar with systems used in fusion, and can better grasp the safety challenges associated with them. 

Meeting people from different cultures, using different languages is enriching. When you have to use another language in order to communicate with people, the communication gets to another level and begins with a fresh start. In my humble opinion, this gives an opportunity to get to know them and their culture more deeply. It is an enriching experience to work for a JP/UK/US based company, with so many nationalities represented.

The networking opportunities are great, and also ensures technical and social development.

Your perspective for the future of fusion. What do you want to achieve,, realise in KF.
KF is definitely a key player that will help accelerate the development of fusion energy. The safety projects that we are working on are the foundation for the fusion energy developers to operate safely in the future and to achieve social acceptance. We are one of the main companies able to support this work, because KF does not only offer safety assessment engineering services but also systems of the fusion plant. These services and technologies give the company a unique position in the sector. We are already in contact with the fusion energy marketers worldwide, and have the objective to deploy systems that will help fusion developers to accelerate the developments of their concepts.

Being able to demonstrate and communicate that the use of fusion energy will be safe will also help shift the public´s mindsets from fission to fusion, as fusion is clearly safer. I am convinced that KF will be a very strong partner to developers of fusion concepts around the globe, for a safe use of fusion energy. 

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