„Everything must be done to ensure that nuclear facilities are not the subject of military conflicts.“

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, GRS has been working with Ukrainian partners to strengthen the security of nuclear facilities in the country. The projects are funded by the German Federal Foreign Office (AA). In our interview, Dr Stephan Theimer, who heads one of these projects, talks about the challenges that the war poses for day-to-day work, what the current situation means for the security of the facilities, and what he would like to see in future cooperation.


We have been working together with our partners from Ukraine for many years. How did you experience the Russian invasion of Ukraine in this context? Did you contact the project partners directly?

When the news of the Russian attack reached me, I was travelling in Germany on business. At first I wasn't sure whether I should take it at face value, as there had been so much speculation the days before. And somehow I didn't want to believe it either, or hoped that it hadn't happened.

We then immediately contacted our Ukrainian partners. We have a number of colleagues in the department, some of whom have been involved in projects with Ukraine for decades and speak fluent Russian and some Ukrainian; we tried to contact them directly. First of all, we had to hope that our acquaintances and their families were not directly affected by the war.

The situation was particularly uncertain at the beginning and, above all, very confusing. Unfortunately, we couldn't do much more than express our sympathy and offer our help.


What changes have resulted from this new situation with regard to the project?

After the initial agitation and unrest, we identified a number of immediate measures that we, I think it's fair to say, made available to our partners in Ukraine quickly and unbureaucratically. On the one hand, the Federal Foreign Office has performed some veritable feats and provided very swift and needs-based support. On the other hand, our partners from industry, who have been running our projects in Ukraine with a high level of personal commitment since 2015, immediately brought in aid and organised and financed transports.

If you take a more general look at the whole situation, we are dealing with an entirely new dimension of threats in terms of nuclear safety and therefore also in our area of expertise (i.e. security) that were simply not on the table before: Until the attacks on the Chernobyl and Zaporizhia nuclear power plants (NPPs) and their occupation by the Russian army, a direct military threat to a plant had never been assumed in expert circles - and this of course also exceeds what securing the plant in the classic sense is even capable of achieving.


Has this traditional understanding of security changed with the start of the war?

Where do I start? First of all, Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014, when Crimea was occupied in violation of international law. Since then, questions about the physical protection of NPPs have become increasingly important in Ukraine.

That was also when our actual project work with the Federal Foreign Office and Ukraine began. With the start of the invasion in 2022, these questions have of course become more pressing, and you have to weigh them up: What effort can and do I want to put into securing a facility? And where do I reach the limits of my security options? To put it bluntly: If the enemy rolls up with an army and tanks, video surveillance won't help me anymore; they don't care that they can be seen. And I can't secure all critical infrastructure facilities like Fort Knox.

According to international recommendations, there is a three-pronged approach to security: detect - delay - respond. Due to the new situations, we are experiencing a shift from a more monitoring focus (detect) to a more active, more robust focus (delay and respond).

In general, the aim is to be able to quickly adapt security measures in an increasingly dynamic world and thus react flexibly to any threats. We try to think "out of the box", e.g. in which industrial sectors are there similar framework conditions and requirements and how are they managed there?

In addition, since the beginning of the war, we have seen ourselves more than ever as part of the bigger picture and are also intensifying our international contacts and cooperation. This enables us to develop solutions together with our Ukrainian partners on the one hand and on the other hand to fulfil the extraordinarily high information needs of our main customer, the Federal Foreign Office.


Let's come back to the project: Part of your work is "acceptance testing on site". What does this mean in concrete terms and what alternatives are you using since this is not possible for the time being due to the war?

Dr. Stephan Theimer during an acceptance test

Final acceptance is usually carried out at the respective sites. Our guard cabins are a good example: We check whether the guard booths arrive in the same condition as we accepted them at the factory and whether all documents and certificates are complete.

Ideally, the cabins are set up on site and integrated into the existing security system. One of us was then present at the on-site acceptance test. 

There are many small steps to be taken before successful final acceptance. These include various contract drafts and drawings, design approvals, shop acceptance tests in Germany, transport registrations and, of course, the transport itself. Essentially, nothing has changed regarding these activities.

Regarding transport to Ukraine, we work with companies with whom we have built up a very trusting relationship over the years. The same of course also applies to our Ukrainian colleagues, and this has enabled us to develop routines that allow us to have the final acceptance carried out and documented exclusively by our Ukrainian partners.

The final step, the implementation in the local security system, is the responsibility of our local partners anyway. From this point of view, we are less actively involved in just one step of the process. In my opinion, the biggest disadvantage is that the absence of travelling means that project discussions and on-site inspections no longer take place - this direct personal exchange was extremely valuable for both sides.


How has project work changed as a result of the war? Were there or are there any war-related obstacles?

During the first two months, communication was very limited and unreliable. For example, the internet connection was frequently interrupted. Even though the situation has stabilised in the meantime, we are still confronted with such problems: Last April, for example, an important conference was held virtually. Despite several power failures during the conference, manifested through participants' dark tiles in the video conferencing software, the internet connection was stable and the content was reliably transmitted. I was deeply impressed by this from both an organisational and a human point of view: The way in which the Ukrainian speakers delivered professionally under these extreme conditions was worthy of all honour.

In this respect, the protective measures associated with the coronavirus pandemic also had their positive side in terms of project processes: From spring 2020 onwards, we had to get creative in order to handle certain project workflows and processes remotely. Since the start of the pandemic, we have unfortunately only been able to make one trip to Ukraine before the war broke out.

Added to this is the justifiably high demand for information from our customer, which I have already mentioned. Of course, this also has an impact on project work: Very often we receive enquiries, not only from the AA, which need to be answered quickly and in detail. The pure project processes themselves have proven their worth, but due to the new threat situation, we also have to scrutinise and evaluate the corresponding security measures. In some cases, adjustments are necessary and we have to bring new partners "into the team". This requires a great deal of administrative and cross-departmental coordination. I think that we at GRS have done and continue to do a really good job, not least thanks to our interdisciplinary structure and expertise.


With all the turbulent events since the start of the war, is there one thing from the last few months that has stuck in your memory in particular?

Good question, and I'll say this much in advance: Last year was very busy and full of new lessons learned. If someone had told me in January 2022 how the following two years would turn out, I would probably have said they were mad.

During a shop acceptance test at one of our German industrial partners, I was particularly impressed when an employee approached our Ukrainian partners, invited them to dinner and thanked them profusely. The background: After the war began, a relative of his wife was supposed to come to Germany from the Ukraine. However, the transport had to take place with her lying down and there was only a short time window for the "evacuation" due to the war. Thanks to the dedicated efforts and relationships of the Ukrainian partners, the relative was initially relocated and then brought to Germany. Such tangible personal happy endings give me goose bumps. And it shows that our work is not a matter of "fire and forget" projects, but that partnerships and friendships grow here that go beyond everyday work.


And looking to the future: What do you wish for your project?

The ambitious goal, apart from the project, is and remains peace and a return to pre-war conditions, even if we unfortunately have no direct influence on this. As far as our work is concerned, I am convinced that everything must be done to ensure that nuclear facilities are not the subject of military conflict.

But I am also a realist: "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst". We must not close our eyes. That's what our Ukrainian partners show us each and every day.