Reactor physicist passionate about pedagogy and nuclear safety

​Every summer holiday when he was on a caravanning holiday with his parents, he successfully lobbied for a visit to a nuclear power plant. He managed to secure a placement to do his national service at Chalmers: a civilian service position on a reactor research project. 

Physics professor Christophe Demazière became fascinated with nuclear power early on in life. 

It all started with a summer holiday book. ​

​​As a child he attended a music school in a French town near Lille and liked to play the clarinet. At the end of the academic year all the pupils received a book as a summer present. The one that ended up in the hands of 10-year-old Christophe Demazière was somewhat unexpected: a detailed and illustrated book of facts about nuclear power.

“I suspect that they were leftover books or ones that they weren’t able to sell, but I became totally fascinated. Just think that so much energy can come from virtually nothing! I wanted to learn to master the technology. My parents probably weren’t very interested in the subject, but they took me to many different visitors’ centres at nuclear power plants during my childhood,” says Demazière over a cup of coffee in his kitchen in his house in Stenungsund.

It’s been about 35 years since he received that book, and he has lived in France, the Netherlands and Sweden. In that time, he earned a PhD in reactor physics at Chalmers, met his wife on a badminton course, fathered three children, moved to Stenungsund and became a professor. Yet it only takes him less than a minute to find the book on a shelf in the basement. Smiling broadly, he returns to the kitchen. He leafs through the book, shows me pictures and educational illustrations. 

A field that evokes strong reactions

When he started studying reactor physics at university, he didn’t think that the subject was controversial. In his professional life, however, he soon became aware of the many challenges involved in researching within a field that evokes such strong reactions. 

“In Sweden, politics is very polarised, and there are no nuances in debate in society, despite the fact that we are living in an age when we really need to produce electricity in a fossil-free way. I find that it is extremely difficult to discuss that we need a combination of various types of energy that don’t pollute the environment.”

When Demazière is asked what he works with, his answer never goes unnoticed. 

“I am often met with scepticism and sometimes complete silence. I sometimes don’t want reactions and I avoid the subject; I just say that I’m a professor of physics.” 

He points out that Sweden would not have been able to achieve such a degree of fossil-free electricity production without nuclear power, which accounts for about 40% of Sweden’s energy consumption. He also highlights the important contribution of hydropower to environmentally friendly electricity. He likes to talk about how nuclear power can be developed to become even safer and how it should be possible to make nuclear waste less harmful. 

“The more we can check and prevent problems, the lower the risks will be. In addition, nuclear power does not have a long history and a great deal has yet to be developed. Simply shutting down the nuclear power plants means discarding both valuable energy and knowledge. We have developed a complete industry – from uranium mining, construction and operation, to waste management and decommissioning – that works very well in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way. It is currently not possible to replace nuclear power as baseload power with different renewable energy. So, should we buy coal or natural gas instead? Why should we replace something that works well with something that doesn’t? In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, there is nothing to gain by replacing nuclear power with different renewable energy because nuclear power does not emit CO2 during operation. Simply shutting down nuclear reactors prematurely is an incorrect prioritisation in our society...”

Increased operational safety is a key issue

The phone rings and he excuses himself. It is a representative from the European Commission seeking answers to a number of questions about the EU-funded research project called Cortex. The goal of the project is to be able identify anomalies in nuclear reactors during operation at an early stage. The EU programme Horizon 2020 is investing a total of SEK 48 million in the project over four years. Demazière is leading Cortex, which is coordinated from the Department of Physics at Chalmers. Now it’s time to submit a report for the first 18 months, and several questions need answering. 

The extensive EU funding was a key acknowledgement that the work that Demazière and his colleagues do really is in demand, even though many financiers are reluctant to invest in nuclear safety research. In Europe there are many old reactors, and increased operational safety is a key issue. The methods that the researchers are working with can be used in today’s reactors and those of the future. 

A number of new nuclear power plants are currently being built – not least in Asia and the Middle East. 

“Many want to invest in constructing nuclear power, but there is often a lack of sufficient knowledge in the nuclear-emerging countries that are building nuclear power plants. And knowledge cannot simply be bought. Intensive training initiatives are under way through experts travelling to various locations to provide training, or giving distance courses.” 

Training is an area that Demazière is passionate about. At present he is working on an application that aims to boost the level of knowledge about nuclear energy in both the academic world and industry. In his own teaching he likes to work with both distance teaching and innovative educational methods such as flipped classroom and active learning. This means that the students access some of the teaching materials in advance, so that the lesson time can be devoted to dialogue, discussion and reflection instead of a monologue by the teacher.

Pedagogy in different ways

Demazière doesn’t only hone his teaching skills at work, but also in his family life. On the noticeboard at home in the kitchen, various small signs display upcoming events and who will do what. The youngest two of the family’s three children were born with chromosomal abnormalities entailing that they need a great deal of help in everyday life.

“They have an intellectual disability with autism and are not in good health. Our son has heart defects and has undergone two extensive operations; our youngest daughter has breathing difficulties, apnoea and has also undergone several surgical procedures. Our eldest daughter is our only healthy child. The children therefore need a great deal of support from us parents. I work from home as much as I can, so that I can look after my children when they are not at the school for pupils with learning disabilities, at preschool, at the leisure-time centre or when they are asleep. Minimising my commuting between Stenungsund and Gothenburg enables me to work much more efficiently. It’s a major challenge to find time for everything, both professionally and for my family...”

He feels that his family has received good support in Stenungsund, where there is a school for pupils with learning disabilities that the family is very happy with. They also receive respite care one night per fortnight, when their youngest children sleep at a short-term residential care home. Once a year they receive respite for five consecutive days so that they can do something together with their eldest daughter. 

“At first, we were hesitant about leaving the children, but it works well. They are with trained staff and are the sole focus of their attention. Here at home we have to do so many other things, too. In a family you naturally must cook, do laundry and take care of everything else that forms part of day-to-day life...”

The best country in the world

To replenish their energy levels, the family spend a lot of time in nature and like to cycle to the sea. The Tjörnbron Bridge and the glittering water are visible from their living room. 

“The sea is incredibly important, and it’s fantastic to live so close to it. There was a time when I thought that Aix-en-Provence was the most beautiful place in the world, with its proximity to both the sea and mountains. After a while in Sweden it felt stressful to be there with many cars and people who don’t care about nature and the environment. Now I think that this is the place to live in. Sweden is probably the best country in the world if you have a family. Yet I think a lot about the future for our children. Will society be there for them when we are no longer there and able to help them? I really hope so.” 

More about Christophe Demazière

Born: In Lille, France, 21 March 1973. 
Lives: In a house in Stenungsund.
Family: Wife, an 11-year-old daughter, a 9-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter.  
Job: Professor of physics at Chalmers. He also leads the European collaboration project Cortex, which aims to early detect anomalies in nuclear reactors during operation. 

Career in brief: MSc in Engineering from HEI – Hautes Études d’Ingénieur in Lille. Continued his studies in Aix-en-Provence/Marseille, where he focused on nuclear power research. He also had a work placement at the nearby nuclear research centre CEA Cadarache for a few months. The centre collaborated with Chalmers and was looking for a doctoral student at that time. Demazière was due to do his national service and received the go-ahead to take up an 18-month civilian service position at Chalmers. He was subsequently taken on as a doctoral student and gained his PhD in reactor physics in 2002. Apart from a few months as a postdoc researcher at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, he has researched and worked at Chalmers since 1998. He was promoted to the position of associate professor in 2006 and professor in 2011. Today Demazière heads the group of researchers called DREAM, which stands for Deterministic reactor modelling. 

Leisure: “I used to spend an enormous amount of time windsurfing, but all my stuff is just lying in the garage nowadays because I don’t have much time to myself. To keep fit, I try to go running and get to the gym once a week when the rest of my family is asleep. Together we spend a lot of time in nature, cycling and by the sea. And we grow some of our own food at home: potatoes, radishes, carrots, rhubarb, tomatoes and chives. My wife does most of this gardening work, but I also help out.” 

Favourite place for inspiration: “The sea! It’s fantastic to live so close to the sea, and it’s one of the reasons why we moved to Stenungsund. Although I miss windsurfing. It’s fantastic to be ON the water and without an engine. It’s completely silent and natural – at the same time that you’re doing a sporting activity. I’ve tried a sailing boat instead, but that doesn’t give me the same contact with the water at all.”

Most proud of: “My children and my family.”  

Motivation: “To try to give my children the best future possible. In my research, my motivation is that there is constantly the possibility of doing something better – to develop things further.” 

First memory of physics: “When I received a book about nuclear power as a summer present from the music school. I was about 10 years old and thought that it was incredibly exciting. My father and I have visited many nuclear power plants over the years, and my mother has probably also occasionally joined us. They weren’t particularly interested, but when we went on caravanning holidays in the summer, we always spent a week somewhere near a nuclear power plant.”

Best thing about being a researcher: “The best thing is that you constantly need to find new research questions and new methods to use in dealing with them. ‘Normal operations’ are virtually non-existent here; there are always challenges to tackle. The academic freedom is also a key aspect, in other words, that you yourself decide how to define and solve the research questions. However, this freedom is very limited due to the constant need to sell in your ideas in order to fund the research.” 

Challenges of the job: “It is a major challenge to get society to understand the importance of researching nuclear power – and it is difficult to obtain funding. I constantly have to counteract preconceptions and lack of knowledge.”  

Dream for the future: “In terms of my job, I’m hoping for more stability as regards funding, so that we can make nuclear reactors and final storage of nuclear waste even safer. There is always more to develop and improve. In the bigger picture, I dream of a society that is sufficiently open and accepting – and in which everyone has a place. I think that our education system could be much better in that respect. I’m working actively on developing new educational methods that benefit all students – not just the best students.”


Text: Mia Halleröd Palmgren, mia.hallerodpalmgren@chalmers.se
Photos: Henrik Sandsjö (image 1) and Mia Halleröd Palmgren (image 2)


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Published: Mon 21 Oct 2019.