Back to list

The contribution we’re making to society is improving all the time

Gerhard Wotawa’s calculations became headline news overnight following the Fukushima reactor disaster in Fukushima. Here he talks about the benefits of Earth observation systems, and his experiences of the media.

From 2000 to 2009, you were an Atmospheric Science Officer at the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), at its head office in Vienna. What is the organisation there to achieve, and what was your role there?

Wotawa: The Test Ban Treaty, although it was concluded back in the 1990s, has not come into force to date, because it still needs to be ratified in many countries – including the USA, which is refusing to do so. The Treaty bans nuclear testing in all media, i.e. the atmosphere, underground and obviously also in space. An international monitoring system has developed in the intervening years to enable us to keep a check on activities of this nature. The vast majority of this is actually already in place, measuring levels of radiation and radioactivity in the atmosphere and seismic waves. The data are collected at a centre in Vienna, and are confidential. That’s also why the organisation is not so well-known. The organisation did get a bit better-known thanks to Fukushima, however, because its data proved to be very interesting and the Japanese came up with very little in those first few weeks. During the nine years I was at the CTBTO, I played a part in developing this data centre.

How many monitoring stations do you have around the world?

Wotawa: Around 80 are eventually due to be built worldwide to measure radioactivity, over 60 of which are already up and running. The remaining 20 or so are more complicated, because they’re located in the Antarctic or partially in countries which don’t have a positive stance towards the Treaty. In principle, though, everything’s in place; all that’s still missing is ratification by the US and China.

You’re now the coordinator of GEO Österreich. What’s being done there exactly?

Wotawa: Essentially, GEO is like a voluntary association of countries which have said they’d like to work together to develop GEOSS. ‘GEOSS’ stands for ‘Global Earth Observation System of Systems’, and is obviously dominated by the countries which also have satellite programmes. Here in Austria, we’re more likely to set up in situ observations, of course.

You had a real presence in the world media in 2011, in the aftermath of Fukushima. What exactly were you monitoring at the time?

Gerhard WotawaWotawa: When the nuclear reactor disaster happened at Fukushima due to the earthquake and the tsunami, the state of scientific knowledge was relatively poor. Based on the disaster scenario, we had been expecting something really terrible to have happened at Fukushima, because the reactors had gone without any cooling whatsoever for days on end, which always leads to problems, as we all know, due to the decay heat. But very little was actually made public. I knew from the CTBTO data, which in principle are confidential, so I just rang the Foreign Ministry and asked whether we could use them, and make them public. The head of the Disarmament Section of the Foreign Ministry, who was responsible, also worked at the CTBTO. He said to me: “Yes, you’re actually right, we’ve got to do this.” Then we studied the data, and calculated and publicised how much radioactivity had been released from this reactor – which was nothing like as bad as expected, as it turned out. We were the first people to do this. Five minutes later I had Japanese television on the phone, and CNN wanting an interview, which was another new experience. It was actually quite fun at the time.

Shortly after Fukushima, a comparison appeared on Spiegel Online – with a German scientist and yourself offering opinions on what had happened.  He said Fukushima was worse than Chernobyl, and you said it wasn’t yet as bad as that. How does it look today, with the benefit of hindsight?

Wotawa: Well, you could say we were both right. You always have to distinguish between different types of reactor in these cases. Some materials leak very easily, others do so to a moderate extent, while some find it very difficult indeed to escape. At Chernobyl, there was an explosion, so the reactor had no containment either. The radioactive material was simply standing there in a hall. When the explosion happened, it blew off the roof of that hall, and everything inside was released. That’s why absolutely everything – from highly volatile materials through to plutonium – leaked at Chernobyl. At Fukushima, all the highly volatile material leaked out. Since three reactors were still operating, however, it was all three times as bad – in relation to these volatile substances. Of the substances that produce the most damaging effects on our health, however, which essentially means caesium in terms of long-term effects, and iodine for the first 20 days or so, less was released than at Chernobyl. I already knew that at the time, which is also why I formulated it that way. You could put it this way: measured in terms of highly volatile material, Fukushima was certainly worse than Chernobyl. On the other hand, however, the long-term effects will be more limited than they were in Ukraine. The area subjected to heavy radiation was far smaller at Fukushima.

Which also had to do with the direction the wind was blowing…

Wotawa: … and the nature of the leakage. You have to try and imagine: the Chernobyl situation really was an accident, where a reactor standing in a hall exploded and tore a gaping hole in that hall. Material from the reactor landed on the roof. In Japan, meanwhile, the reactor was in a state of good containment, and still in a robust container. It did blow a hole in that, of course, but only in part, so less volatile material escaped into the environment.

The ZAMG (‘Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik’ or ‘Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics’) also operates an internal project, Environmental Emergency Response System Austria. What’s the purpose of the project?

Wotawa: We have various departments and models available to us to deal with different types of emergencies and accidents. The list is considerably longer than just Fukushima, of course; there was also the volcanic eruption in Iceland the year before that, and shortly afterwards the forest fires in Moscow, when questions were also raised regarding levels of radioactivity in the air. There was also the incident with the red mud in Hungary. On all these things, we realised we were going to have to react on an ad hoc basis. The project is trying to filter out whether we can standardise this system of models to some extent, and arrive at unified strategies so we don’t have to reconsider every single time what needs to be done, what can be done, what stakeholders want from us, and so on. It’s a technical project, but also one about the emergency preparedness of our organisation as a whole. In other words, just how ready are we to deal with accidents and emergencies?

How important is the time factor here? If an accident happens somewhere, do you have to jump out of bed and drive to work in the middle of the night to deal with it?

Wotawa: Sort of, although I’m not so sure I drove to the office in my pyjamas in the case of Fukushima. But the time factor is important, yes. When I was working at the CTBTO, nuclear tests were also held in North Korea, in 2006 and 2009. It was a secret action, but we had to report in member states, and something had to happen very quickly. What I did learn there was that everything that happens has to be helpful. It’s no good just delivering total nonsense. It has to be something that really addresses the problems. The second thing is that it has to be fast. And the third thing I’ve learnt is that the information has to be neutral. Simply casting others as the villains doesn’t help. It’s also particularly important that you don’t criticise other organisations or countries. In situations like this, this is a bad strategy, in my opinion. What you do a year down the line is something else. But while the situation is actually critical, you should be delivering helpful information.

How does that help?

Wotawa: In the case of this emergency, for example, we never said anything critical of Japan. This turned out to be a positive strategy, for example, because we then got information from the Japanese Embassy here in Vienna. They thanked us at the time for doing what we do, because they were happy any country other than them was doing anything. If we had gone out and said, “They’ve not given us any information, they’re evil and bad,” they would never have told us anything. So those are the lessons I draw from the experience. In the case of the volcanic eruption, too, how would it have helped to have said: “Austro Control is making a total mess of this,” or words to that effect. Firstly, it’s just not true; and secondly, all it would have done was create a running battle between them and us.

So you always try to retain some balance in these cases?

Wotawa: Yes, of course. When the journalists come here, stick a microphone in your face, and say: “They’re all idiots, don’t you think?” you just have to say, “No, that’s not true.” That might mean I don’t make the headlines on the early evening news, sure, but the midnight news is more than good enough for me, thanks very much.

What’s the practical benefit of this monitoring? How can you adapt to disasters of this nature?

Wotawa: Well, you can only adapt to a certain extent, because the next disaster is always different to the last. But what’s important is to ask yourself – and this happens very quickly in these disaster situations –  ”What contribution am I making here?” What can we do to provide an ‘add-on’, if you like, to what others are doing. At Fukushima, it was exactly this connection to the CTBTO data, where I’m the expert, because everything’s so confidential. That led to a situation whereby the Japanese coughed up their data, analyses and assessments, after which other countries did so too. In the case of the volcanic eruption, though, it was actually a domestic Austrian matter at the time. We saw at the time that in contrast to flight safety, we have models we can use to track the volcanic ash in the air and make forecasts, which can provide the basis for planning. And at the time, Austria reopened its airspace one or two days earlier than Germany. I don’t know how much money Austria saved itself, but it’s probably something like our annual budget – if not more.

There was a conflict at the time, because the airlines were complaining that the airspace had been closed for too long. Do you come under real pressure in cases like this?

Wotawa: I really couldn’t care less what they say. I totally understand why they’re doing so – airlines just want to fly. On the other hand, there are procedures for dealing with volcanic ash. And those procedures were implemented correctly at that time. The only problem was that it wasn’t known whether there was a ‘tolerance factor’, i.e. could the aircraft withstand the ash or not? The issue was discussed afterwards, and now we’re a bit wiser, so we can say: “OK, let’s equip the system with a tolerance factor.” At the time, of course, that wasn’t possible.

Do you have a wish of the politicians, something “we need to be doing more here”?

Wotawa: Politicians are usually in the difficult position of having to say “What are the rules?” What are the procedures? In the case of volcanic ash, we can tell you, as technical people, what we are able to calculate. We can say what we can measure. And we – well, not myself or the ZAMG, but others – can tell them what aircraft engines can tolerate and keep working. But the final decision always has to be taken by a politician, of course, when he says: “OK, we’re going to do things this way or that.” The only thing I would like personally is for these decisions to be left as far as possible at a technical level, so we stick to information produced at technical level. With political decisions, our problem is that the environment does not obey political realities. It obeys its own, quite different, realities instead. That’s in marked contrast to the economy, where a politician can always say: ”We don’t want such and such, and we’re stopping it right now.” But the environment doesn’t stick to what politicians tell it to. So it would be great if politicians could continue listening to the technical input – once it has been weighted and correctly assessed, of course.

If you had the chance to focus public attention on just one statement, what would that statement be?

Wotawa: The level of benefit to society is playing an increasingly important role at the moment. In the past, many processes of a scientific and technical nature were based on little more than, “I want to know this, I want to measure it, and I want to carry out analyses.” Back then questions such as “What good does it do society?” and “What does it do for the economy?” were hardly ever asked. Those questions are becoming more and more important, however, and the contribution we’re making to society is improving all the time. Science and technology are well on the way to becoming democratised.


Gerhard Wotawa is a coordinator of GEO Österreich at the ZAMG, or Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.