"Not to push,
but to pull!"

Dramatic transformation: The workforce is expected to use its expertise to dismantle its workplace and sell the resulting materials as reusables or dispose of them as waste. Nikolaus Valerius, Chief Technology Officer of RWE Nuclear GmbH and Member of the Executive Board, Nuclear at RWE Power AG, is turning this into a formula for success.


Companies guiding successful transformations: Nikolaus Valerius, CTO of RWE Nuclear GmbH and Member of the Executive Board, Nuclear at RWE Power AG, explains in this interview how his company accomplished the transition from energy provider to dismantling specialist.RWE AG

What was the goal of the transformation at RWE Nuclear?

To change from an ener­gy provider into a com­pa­ny that dis­man­tles power sta­tions. Dis­man­tling our plants so noth­ing is left but green fields yields mate­ri­als that can be fed back into a con­ven­tion­al use cycle. You can do that with around 95 per­cent of a plan­t’s mate­ri­als. Around 2 per­cent are pack­aged in the req­ui­site ways and hand­ed over to the Ger­man gov­ern­ment for inter­me­di­ate and then final stor­age. Of spe­cial note here is that we’re doing two things at once, because while we’re dis­man­tling we also have to keep pro­duc­ing power, like in Lin­gen until the end of 2022 or in Gun­drem­min­gen where we did so until 2021.

What are the main changes for the employees?

For large parts of the work­force every­thing has changed—except their employ­ment con­tracts. We launched this trans­for­ma­tion sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly in 2018. We began by bring­ing around 15 employ­ees on board, from Lower Sax­ony to Bavaria. Then we start­ed the “Wir in Nuclear” (“we in nuclear”) pro­gram with the aim of tak­ing every­one along on the trans­for­ma­tion jour­ney. Right from the start, we also and espe­cial­ly worked on our cor­po­rate cul­ture. Addi­tion­al steps includ­ed insti­tut­ing new process­es, a new con­trol sys­tem, and a new struc­ture to han­dle the dis­man­tling work. We imme­di­ate­ly set up a team whose job it is to sell the mate­ri­als we get from the dis­man­tling process, like con­crete, syn­thet­ics, and metals.

How did your company's employees react to the upcoming changes? Did different levels of the hierarchy respond differently? And did everyone feel they were included?

While top man­agers joined in very quick­ly, a num­ber of mid-level man­agers need­ed a clos­er look at our ideas. Some of our col­leagues were not exact­ly over­joyed at the changes, and were con­cerned they would suf­fer loss­es on an indi­vid­ual level. On the other hand, many employ­ees like tech­ni­cal and trade spe­cial­ists shift­ed rel­a­tive­ly quick­ly to the idea of becom­ing a dis­man­tling com­pa­ny. A con­cep­tu­al approach proved to be help­ful. Lead­er­ship per­son­nel has to explain the solid logic behind the change in pre­cise detail. The more the work­force can under­stand and assim­i­late that, the faster the trans­for­ma­tion can pro­ceed. In our case, under­stand­ing was fol­lowed by enthu­si­asm. And the desire to be part of it.

RWE Nuclear: Dismantling as a Business Model

Dismantling at Gundremmingen: the Block B generator at the former nuclear power station is removed (July 2021). Its job was to convert the turbine's kinetic energy into electrical energy.RWE AG
In 2018, the nuclear power business of the RWE Group was consolidated into RWE Nuclear GmbH (around 1,300 employees). Over recent years the company has evolved from being solely a power provider—still running only its Lingen plant until the end of 2022—into a complex, highly specialized business that handles the post-operations, decommissioning, and dismantling of nuclear power stations, recycles the resulting materials, and correctly packages radioactive waste. Porsche Consulting was commissioned as an advisory partner in 2018. "Change management is an integral part of the transformation at RWE Nuclear," says Stephan Rühl, Head of the Energy sector at Porsche Consulting. The two companies worked together to develop an "integrated dismantling process" that forms the basis for the organization's operations and controls. Similar to the automotive industry, small units of work are done at specified intervals—comparable to an assembly line. Individual actions are coordinated and interlinked. The material gained from this process, which includes cables, cladding, and pipes as well as larger components, is sorted by its properties and then dismantled to enable decontamination and authorization to leave the controlled area in transport boxes. The result is an industrial sequence of standardized processes that assigns all residual substances to specified material flows. The company has built special facilities to process and treat materials at its Lingen, Biblis, and Gundremmingen sites. In Rühl's words, "The transformation of RWE Nuclear is a fantastic example of successful change thanks to the astute leadership of its management."

How did you view your own role in the transformation, and what part did you play in conveying it?

If con­vic­tion and enthu­si­asm are what you’re after, you have to start with your­self. And that includes under­stand­ing the sit­u­a­tion, for­mu­lat­ing the goal, and chart­ing a new course—from the per­spec­tive of both the com­pa­ny and the employ­ees. That’s not some­thing you do alone. It’s just as cru­cial to bring direct lead­er­ship on board as it is to take a pro­gram or project approach to reach employ­ees from all cor­ners and lev­els of the hier­ar­chy. You want a coali­tion of con­struc­tive crit­ics and ded­i­cat­ed back­ers! So that’s the way we orga­nized the work, and we cre­at­ed forums for dis­cus­sion and input. When I took on this job in 2017, I was helped by hav­ing begun my career in the nuclear ener­gy sec­tor and spend­ing the first three years learn­ing the craft, so to speak. Knowl­edge of the indus­try also made it eas­i­er to ana­lyze, to per­suade peo­ple, and to com­mu­ni­cate in cred­i­ble ways. I lis­tened, explained, and tried to moti­vate. If you need com­pli­cat­ed argu­ments to explain a new process or struc­ture, it means you haven’t grasped it fully your­self yet. Or con­verse­ly: if it’s clear, it gets sim­ple. And then every­one under­stands it! My aim and my role are to have lead­ers con­vince and moti­vate employ­ees. Not to push them in a cer­tain direc­tion but rather to pull them and bring them to where they are them­selves. Lead­er­ship means lead­ing the way.

What else is important for a transformation to be successful? Did you change existing guidelines, indicators, and incentive systems?

We work with clear lan­guage and goals, whether it’s a short‑, medium‑, or long-term con­text. In 2021, we want­ed to dis­man­tle and recy­cle around 3,600 tons of mate­r­i­al, and we man­aged an impres­sive 4,500. In 2022 we’re aim­ing for 6,000 tons. We show the employ­ees our progress on a week­ly basis. And our per­for­mance incen­tives don’t exclude any­one. After two years it’s abun­dant­ly clear that we’re seri­ous, and did­n’t just go “leap­ing onto a band­wag­on.” That’s anoth­er rea­son the employ­ees are pulling togeth­er. But noth­ing is per­fect, of course. Not every­one feels accom­mo­dat­ed all the time, not every­thing runs smooth­ly with­out excep­tion, and we don’t always meet all our goals. There are “gaps to tar­get,” in other words. But we’re spot­ting these dis­crep­an­cies faster and work­ing to solve them.

Components removed from the Gundremmingen dismantling site are transported in special containers for further treatment.RWE AG

Has the change meant having to alter traditional forms of collaboration?

Yes, total­ly. Here’s one exam­ple: there used to be the headquarters—the main office. It han­dled a lot of the man­age­ment, rules, and direc­tives. This office was far removed from the work­ers at the power sta­tions. Now we’re bet­ter orga­nized. Our indi­vid­ual plants are always the cen­ters of our oper­a­tions, and the orga­ni­za­tion in Essen is set up to pro­vide the sites with exper­tise and sup­port to reach our shared goals. Cross-site groups of experts are in charge of spe­cif­ic issues and make deci­sions that we carry out every­where. Yet each group is also respon­si­ble for a spe­cif­ic port­fo­lio. That’s very valu­able, because for key ques­tions we need the full range of power and know-how from all our people.

A transformation means that employees need new types of knowledge. How did you develop these skills?

One impor­tant fac­tor is the cross-site trans­fer of ideas and exper­tise we just men­tioned. Col­leagues from the Gun­drem­min­gen site observed the dis­man­tling process­es at the Mül­heim-Kär­lich, Bib­lis, and Lin­gen sta­tions. Instead of focus­ing only on one’s own site—as was pre­vi­ous­ly the case—we’ve replaced this typ­i­cal silo think­ing with a “we process.” All the employ­ees are now pur­su­ing one and the same goal. Our own spe­cial­ly insti­tut­ed dis­man­tling acad­e­my is a good tool for impart­ing knowl­edge, as are online-based train­ing pro­grams. We also get all man­ner of use­ful knowl­edge from the mar­ket, like from sup­pli­ers. The dis­man­tling sim­u­la­tor that we devel­oped our­selves is also help­ful in train­ing and qual­i­fy­ing peo­ple for new tasks. Every employ­ee stud­ies our inte­grat­ed dis­man­tling process for two days in the course of a sim­u­la­tion. That also encour­ages peo­ple to come up with new ideas and innovations.

From energy plant to dismantling site: a steam converter is lifted from the former Lingen nuclear power station (October 2021).RWE AG

What was an especially key factor in the success of this transformation?

Our trans­for­ma­tion isn’t fin­ished; the real dis­man­tling work is only begin­ning. Togeth­er with the employ­ees we’ve laid a robust foun­da­tion for it. And the trans­for­ma­tion does­n’t stop with our own team. Sup­pli­ers, audi­tors, pub­lic authorities—they’re all inte­grat­ed into a process we’re ulti­mate­ly dri­ving and coor­di­nat­ing. It has run smooth­ly thus far because we’ve com­mu­ni­cat­ed a coher­ent idea clear­ly and made strate­gic lead­er­ship a core part of our cor­po­rate cul­ture. Lead­er­ship per­son­nel has to orga­nize the work such that employ­ees can do what they’re good at. Then you’ll also get good results.


Nikolaus Valerius, born in 1970, studied mechanical engineering with a specialization in design technology at the University of Kaiserslautern in southwestern Germany. In 1995, the young engineer started his career at RWE Energie as a trainee for the Mülheim-Kärlich power station. From 1998 to 2000 he worked as a maintenance engineer at RWE's Frimmersdorf power station.  He transferred to RWE Power, where he served as a project construction engineer for gas and steam turbines until 2002, then as an assistant to the executive board member in charge of power stations and renewable energy, and finally as director of the Lingen gas-fired power station. He subsequently held two positions in the Netherlands: managing director of generation at Essent NV/RWE from 2011 to 2013 and managing director/division head for RWE Generation SE Benelux. From October 2015 to fall 2017 he was the managing director/division head for hard coal, gas, and biomass power stations in Central Europe for RWE Generation. In September 2017 he joined the board of RWE Power AG with responsibility for the nuclear energy division as of January 1, 2018, when he also became Chief Technology Officer for RWE Nuclear GmbH.
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