“We have a huge responsibility”

Appointed by the ENSI Board in August 2019, Marc Kenzelmann has been in his new role as Director General of ENSI since 1 July 2020. In this interview, the 50-year-old talks about his new position with the Swiss nuclear regulator.

Marc Kenzelmann, ENSI Director General

Mr Kenzelmann, what particularly attracted you to the role of ENSI Director General?

For someone with my professional background and interests, I felt this was an extremely exciting opportunity and the logical progression in my professional career. I have been heavily involved with safety matters and risk management in the past, whether in my role at the Spiez Laboratory or with the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). At the SFOE I was responsible for overseeing dams, gas and oil pipelines, safeguards of nuclear materials and the Decommissioning and Waste Disposal Funds. I was also responsible for representing Swiss nuclear energy policy on the international stage as part of my SFOE role. So, you can see that there were already links to ENSI and issues that affect ENSI.

Switzerland has taken the decision to phase out nuclear energy. Why has this not deterred you?

In this particular situation, in which we are gradually phasing out nuclear energy, nuclear regulation poses an extremely interesting challenge – one that I am approaching with a great deal of respect, well aware that this is a huge responsibility. We will still need to regulate nuclear power plants for many years to come.

When Leibstadt is decommissioned in 2034, as is currently anticipated by the Decommissioning and Waste Disposal funds, for example, I shall be nearing retirement age. The Gösgen and Leibstadt nuclear power plants may also operate even longer than 60 years if the necessary investments are made in line with what we will be requiring to maintain and enhance safety. In other words, ENSI still has a whole generation of regulatory activities for operational nuclear power plants to look forward to. As a result, we have a huge responsibility: we must ensure that Swiss nuclear power plants operate in complete safety right up to their final day of operation, regardless of political or economic developments.

ENSI is often a target for criticism. Do you have to have a thick skin?

ENSI has a great deal of influence in the nuclear power sector. In practice, ENSI decides how long nuclear power plants in Switzerland can remain in operation. Given this position, it is not unusual for criticism to be levelled at us from a whole range of sources. You don’t actually need a thick skin in the face of this kind of criticism, but a transparent and professional approach. ENSI safety assessments are a complex business. We have to present the facts in such a way that they are traceable, yet technically accurate for the public and politicians to understand.
ENSI has a clear statutory mandate and we will be fulfilling this mandate as an independent and autonomous body.

You have been Director General of ENSI for four months now. What are your impressions of ENSI?

I have plenty of experience of ENSI from my previous roles and it has definitely lived up to my expectations. ENSI is a highly professional organisation which currently has 153 employees, all specialised in a wide range of fields. Thanks to their support, I have been able to get a feel for the specific issues facing ENSI over my first few months and to familiarise myself with operating procedures. It has certainly been quite an intensive time! However, I can now safely say that I’m settling in and I’m definitely in the right place.

How do you see your new role?

As Director General, it isn’t my job to tell the experts who work for me how to perform pipeline calculations and the like. The Director General’s role is specifically to create the overall conditions in which specialists can carry out their highly skilled activities.

Is ENSI equipped to handle the challenges of the future?

Yes. ENSI has the necessary skills to monitor the safety of Swiss nuclear power plants, to regulate decommissioning and dismantling operations and to provide safety support for the search for deep geological repositories. Maintaining these skills, not only within the regulatory authority, but also within the nuclear plants themselves, is a key challenge. However, we also need to make sure that nuclear issues continue to receive the necessary attention in the worlds of research and academia in Switzerland.

Are there any topics you feel are of particular importance in the near future?

Regulating the operation of nuclear power plants remains our main focus. Decommissioning and dismantling are becoming increasingly important. These operations are already underway at the Mühleberg plant. However, ENSI is already in discussions with Axpo about preparations for decommissioning the Beznau nuclear power plant.

Emergency preparedness is another important issue for the future, along with the general public’s associated concerns about radioactive radiation. There’s a lot of work to be done in this area, as shown by the way the accident at the Fukushima reactor in Japan was handled. ENSI is determined to play its part in this process.

The people of Switzerland can rest assured that ENSI will not only perform its regulatory duties to the letter over the coming years, but will do so transparently and with a real sense of commitment. To enable us to do this, we will continue to be able to rely on public trust and support from politics, federal government and the cantonal authorities.