Nitsche to head new institute in the former East Germany

August 27, 1993

By Mike Wooldridge,

Radiochemist Heino Nitsche of the Earth Sciences Division is leaving LBL to help revitalize scientific research in a place long shrouded by the Iron Curtain. He has accepted a position as Director of the Institute of Radiochemistry at the new Rossendorf Research Center on the outskirts of Dresden in the former East Germany.

Nitsche says he hopes to establish the institute as an international leader in the study of radioactive contamination and clean up. During the Cold War, the facility served as a communist center for nuclear reactor research.

"It's really a once in a lifetime opportunity," Nitsche says. "It is rare that someone gets a chance to build a scientific institution from the ground up."

He will have a concurrent appointment at the Technical University of Dresden as a full chair professor, a position that should help him attract scientific talent to the institute.

The development of the institute is part of a massive revitalization occurring in Dresden, a city that now has the resources to pick up the pieces left by the allied bombings in World War II. "Money from West Germany is finally allowing the old city to be completely rebuilt, and there is construction everywhere," Nitsche says. "The skyline is a silhouette filled with cranes."

The (1993) move to Germany will be a return home for Nitsche, who grew up in Munich and studied at the Free University of Berlin. He came to the LBL in 1980 as a staff scientist in the Materials and Molecular Research Division. He has worked in the Earth Sciences Division since 1984.

Nitsche plans to focus research at the German Institute on the fundamental aspects of how nuclear contamination interacts with the ground and air. He says science needs a better understanding of what happens on a molecular level before governments can effectively clean up the many contaminated areas of Eastern Europe.

"There is a feeling, especially in the United States, that there ought to be immediate results, that we just need to go in there and clean it all up," he says. "The conventional way to clean up such areas has been to simply truck away the poisoned soil to waste disposal sites, or to create dams in the ground to keep contamination from spreading.

"But we have to understand the elemental processes in order to do a clean up that is cost effective. We need to know how heavy metals migrate, what makes them stick to surfaces, what makes them detach from surfaces. If we just try to clean it up without really knowing what is happening, we might end up with an even worse problem."

As for working with East German scientists, Nitsche says he believes his western perspective on scientific research will be an asset. "They are very well-trained and educated scientists over there, but they have been in isolation for a long time," Nitsche says. "Now that the west is opening up to them, they have to develop a new way of thinking. They have to learn to do science competitively. It will help if they work with people from the west."

Nitsche says he thinks a valuable resource will be his strong ties with American scientists, especially his LBL colleagues. He plans to continue his collaboration with LBL scientists David Shuh, Jerry Bucher, and Norm Edelstein, who are performing research with synchrotron radiation at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. Nitsche will also remain close to the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute for Transactinium Science, a joint venture of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UC Berkeley, and LBL.

In addition to his research on contamination transport at LBL, Nitsche has played an active role in helping to establish quality assurance guidelines on the Hill, especially in the area of radioactive handling. In 1989, he and Scott Carpenter, a scientist in his lab, created a video on safe laboratory practices that was distributed to all the divisions.

Nitsche has also been a presence in the community, periodically inviting teachers and students from Berkeley High School to his lab to teach them about research on radioactive elements.

"Heino has done a lot of good work and has sacrificed a lot for the lab. He deserves a lot of credit," says Carpenter. "Now he's going to try and rebuild East Germany. We wish him the best of luck."