Some Of AERB’s Earlier Activities: Interview With Nobel Laureate Professor Roald Hoffmann


I enjoyed some very memorable moments on January 1, 1998, the day I met with Professor Roald Hoffmann (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1981) and spent a few hours with him. He came to India to receive the Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Award and to attend the 85th session of the Indian Science Congress held from January 3 to 7, 1998 at Hyderabad. 

Professor P Rama Rao, then Chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was the General President of the 85th session of the Science Congress. He suggested that besides the administrative officials who look after the general arrangements, a scientist might go to the airport to receive Professor Hoffmann. Dr Rao assigned me that role. 

Weather gods messed up at the last minute. January season is notorious for the dense foggy days in Delhi. Because of the disruption, the air controllers diverted a few international flights to Bombay. Since I knew this information in advance, I could reach the airport a few minutes before the arrival of the flight. 

I faced a serious issue. How to identify our guest of honour in the crowd? I had with me an old photograph of Professor Hoffmann. Frankly, it was not useful. The badly needed help came from an Air India official. He located our guest in the aircraft and accompanied him to the arrival hall. 

My anxiety was unwanted. Air India had separately made excellent arrangements to receive their distinguished guest. The traditional welcome included garlanding, photo shoot and other formalities. Later, Professor Hoffmann told me that Air India gave him a memorable send off at New York as well.

Professor Hoffmann wore the simplest dress; he had a backpack. He was very concerned as there was some delay in locating his brief case which contained the sets of slides for the lectures he was scheduled to give.

If my memory serves me right, the first “scientific” discussion we had was on having a unique electronic tag on the luggage, which will respond when you press a tiny remote to identify it on the conveyer belt possibly from among the many lookalikes! 

 I travelled with him to The Centaur Hotel.  His flight to Bangalore was at 10:30 hrs. I volunteered to meet with him at the hotel later in the morning. When I returned, he was ready for an interview I requested. 

Areas covered 

He covered many important areas such as management of insoluble public perception problems, nuclear waste management, need for open system, environmental advantage, need to involve well informed environmental scientists in regulatory organisations among others in the development of nuclear power. He felt that the main reason for lack of growth in nuclear power is economic. I was surprised to learn of his belief that the US made a mistake in allowing the nuclear industry to go private. According to him people mistrust private industry.

When I asked him whether it is because of profit motive, he agreed. “In away private industry may cut corners to make profit. I prefer that the operation of nuclear power plants to be totally in public hands”, he asserted.

At the very outset, I told Professor Hoffmann that AERB then published a quarterly newsletter which is sent without charge mostly to universities and institutions carrying out research and development and to a few individuals. I was keen to seek his views on nuclear power and related subjects as the readers would value his views. AERB News letter Vol11 No1 1998 published the full interview. I   thought it is appropriate to publish extracts of the interview as the issues we discussed then are equally relevant today as they were 25 years ago

Extracts from the Interview

KSP: Professor Hoffmann, In USA, over 100 nuclear power plants are operating. The estimates by the US Nuclear Energy Institute indicate that there is appreciable increase in the capacity factor of nuclear power stations on an average during the past several years. There is also a claim that these improvements are achieved by the measures taken by the nuclear industry after the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power station. Still there is a feeling that nuclear power is on the decline in US. Is it true?

Lack of growth of nuclear power

Hoffmann: It is true that there is no further growth of nuclear power in USA. Some people mistrust nuclear power. Rightly or wrongly, many people perceive that nuclear power production is not under control.

However, I do not think that any of these are the real reasons for the lack of growth of nuclear power. In my view, the main reason is economic. The petroleum lobby exerts tremendous pressure. Because of this lobbying, the price of petroleum products is unrealistically low.

Nuclear energy cannot compete in the open market in that sort of atmosphere.

The academic community is divided on their views on nuclear power. Most of them know that nuclear power is safe. They also know that the fear of environmental degradation due to nuclear power is misplaced, though they have some concern about nuclear waste management. By and large, scientists are pretty well happy with the environmental aspects of nuclear power, but are not so much aware of the economic aspects.

Need to correct public perception

KSP: You mentioned that there is a notion among public that nuclear industry is not under control. In what way this perception can be corrected?

Hoffmann: People are not aware of the strict training programmes instituted by those who operate nuclear power reactors. They are also not aware of the quality control procedures in place. The nuclear industry should strive hard to publicize the information about these activities.

I feel that in a way the perception problem is somewhat insoluble. Though accidents are very rare, the public concern is genuine, as the risk involved is immense in case an accident occurs. Risk perception is not the same thing as risk assessment.

KSP: Is it true that opposition to nuclear power is partly due to the anti establishment attitude of section of the public?

Hoffmann: Yes, there is some truth in it. When people are well off as in some of the European countries they find some new things to worry about!

KSP: It is said that giving public all the information is probably the best way to correct the imbalance, is that really so? There is also a feeling that giving more information by itself may not help. Though the informed person may be little more informed. It may probably sensitize groups of individuals and also make them more concerned.

Hoffmann: – I am for a very open system. In this respect, NASA did a very good job. They were very sensitive to public opinion. The public will accept risky activities. If they are told openly of the risks. A very open system is always better. I am in favour of talking to people and informing them. This is precisely what NASA did. Still, Space has a romance of its own, not like nuclear power.

Ways and means communicate

KSP: Generally, scientists are not good communicators. Nuclear scientists are not different. Do you have any views on the way scientists should communicate?

Hoffmann: Television is a good medium. I feel that there should be good TV programmes on basic science. 

KSP: The staff of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board participated in some TV programmes, mainly in form of discussions. Don’t you agree that science programme have great disadvantage?

Hoffmann: Well, they cannot obviously compete with entertainment programmes!

KSP: In the Kyoto conference a few pro-nuclear industrial fora promoted the virtues of nuclear power as a clean source of power which doe not emit green house gases. Do you think this approach is appropriate?

Environmental advantages of nuclear power

Hoff: I feel that the information on environmental advantages of nuclear power is new. The enhanced greenhouse effect due to fuel combustion is established. Exhaust from automobiles and gas emission from fossil fuel plants are clearly visible. People are used to burning things, so the notion of emission of carbon dioxide is accepted. People relate drought, flood and climatic disasters to green house effect. People can be easily sensitized to issues of climatic changes. So nuclear power protagonists can have a natural alliance with informed environmentalists.

Nuclear waste management

KSP – What do you think are the other concerns of people in regard to nuclear power?

Hoff:  Waste management is an important issue. The public is concerned about waster. I am concerned about waster, both industrial and nuclear. Of course, it is the military nuclear wastes, accumulated over the past few decades which create the greatest problem.

There should be a long term programme for waste management. This is one area in USA, where the local, state level influences matter. Not in my Backyard (NIMBY) is currently the prevalent policy.

As for industrial wastes, heavy metal pollution is very important; Organics and plastics are biodegradable over a period of a few hundreds of years.

KSP: In the case of nuclear wastes also, barring some transuranics, the major part of the radioactivity comes from radio-nuclides such as Cesium-137 and Strontium-90. Just as plastics are biodegradable over a few centuries, these fission products decay to negligible values in a few hundred years. As a matter of fact, you will agree that much of the industrial wastes including heavy metals remain toxic forever and as such should belong to a different class of waste materials. For instance, enormous quantities of mercury are released from coal power stations. What do you think is the ultimate solution of radioactive waste management?

Hoff – In may view, vitrification, followed by storage in geological formations is the solution for radioactive waste. One has to find out geological formations where the vitrified waste can be stored indefinitely. There are many, uncertainties in regard to such geological sites.

KSP – Any general comments about nuclear industry in US?

Private nuclear power industry, a mistake

Hoff – I personally believe that we made a mistake in US. We allowed the nuclear industry to go private. People mistrust private industry.

KSP – Is it because of profit motive?

Hoff – Yes, in a way, private industry may cut corners to make profit. I prefer that the operation of nuclear power plants to be totally in public hands.

KSP – Post Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the regulatory mechanisms got strengthened. Don’t you think that self regulation is better than the imposed regulation?

Hoff – Yes, self regulation has merits, but in my view, there should be separate regulatory control, totally independent, even when the Government operates nuclear power plants. Regulation and control should be separated from operation. I also strongly feel that in regulatory organizations there is a need to involve well informed environmental scientists. 

Renewable sources of power

KSP – What is your view about the renewable sources of power?

Hoff – I am convinced that renewable have vital role to play. Hundred years from now, petroleum will be exhausted. Eventually, we will have to come back to solar and nuclear energy sources. They are cleaner. Solar is already used significantly in passive heating. There is also scope for large area solar energy collectors. Solar photo-voltaic technology and technological developments in electronics are related. In my opinion, solar energy development will come supported or not as an unplanned fringe benefit of the development of electronics industry! 

KSP – Do you agree that the renewable excluding hydropower is unlikely to make a significant contribution to electric power generation due to various reasons?

Hoff – Solar is already making its contribution in small ways, say for instance, passive methods, hot water heaters, solar calculators. Solar power is currently expensive. But I believe that in a few years from now solar and nuclear will become competitive.

KSP – Professor Hoffmann, I am very grateful to you for sparing your valuable time for this informative interview.

Life of Prof Hoffmann: a brief History

Professor Hoffmann was born to Clara Rosen, a school teacher and Hillel Safran, a civil engineer on July 18, 1937 in Zloczow, Poland. Russians occupied that region from the beginning of World War II to June 1941.What followed was a life of misery and penury. The Safrans were Jewish. When German army arrived, they drove the Safran family initially to a ghetto and later to a labour camp. In 1943, Hillel Safran could smuggle the boy and his mother out of the camp. They lived in a school house attic in a Ukranian village for the rest of the war. They had to hide as the German army was everywhere. The elder Safran stayed back in the labour camp and was executed by the Nazis. The Red Army liberated Hoffmann and his mother in June 1944. Later, he could attend the school at Krakow. His mother married Paul Hoffmann while they were at Krakow. Hoffmanns lived in displaced persons’ camps at Austria and Germany for the next three years. The family immigrated to the USA when Roald was 12 years old. English was the sixth language he studied! 

A brief note by him describing his life, the trials and tribulations he suffered, his achievements and the speech he delivered while receiving the Nobel Prize appears here.

Dr. K S Parthasarathy is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Strategic Planning Group, Department of Atomic Energy, Mumbai. Dr. K S Parthasarathy is available at [email protected]

Dr. K S Parthasarathy

Dr. K S Parthasarathy is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Strategic Planning Group, Department of Atomic Energy, Mumbai. Dr. K S Parthasarathy may be contacted at [email protected]

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