Utilities Middle East speaks to Alexander Voronkov, CEO of ROSATOM regional office in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) about recent advancements in nuclear energy technology, its vast potential in powering economic expansion and the unique position it holds in MENA’s energy transition.
UME: Briefly tell us about Rosatom and how it has evolved over years since its formation?
Alexander: The Russian state atomic energy corporation (Rosatom) is a global technological leader and the only company in the world that has the resources and competencies to offer energy solutions across the nuclear supply chain, including assets in design, construction and operation of nuclear power plants, uranium mining, conversion and enrichment, supply of nuclear fuel, decommissioning, spent fuel storage and transportation, and safe nuclear waste disposal. The company in its current name and shape was established in late 2007. However, the Russian nuclear industry, which is currently united under the Rosatom umbrella, is 75 years old. Rosatom is among the ten biggest companies in Russia. We employ over 266 000 people at 350 enterprises. Our share in the Russian energy mix is above 20% thanks to 38 power units at 11 NPPs. It is also one of the pioneers in the global nuclear industry. The world's first nuclear power plant was built in Russia in 1954. Over the 75-year history, Russian nuclear industry enterprises have built over hundred nuclear power plant reactors in 14 countries, including Russia. Our 10-year portfolio of foreign orders includes 36 power units in 12 countries (the largest worldwide) at different implementation stages, including two major projects in MENA region: first NPPs in Egypt and Turkey. This May, we commissioned the world’s only floating nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonosov. We operate the world’s most powerful fast neutron reactor. In order to explore the Arctic we use the world’s only nuclear icebreaker fleet with the latest addition, the Arktika vessel, commissioned on October 21. Currently, Rosatom supploes 75 power units in 16 countries (incl Russia) with fuel, which constitutes every sixth power reactor in the world. It is also important to mention that we hold No. 1 place in uranium enrichment and second place in uranium deposits. Rosatom is also the world’s second company in terms of installed nuclear capacity (after EDF). Apart from nuclear power, Rosatom is also engaged in the production of equipment and isotope products for the needs of nuclear medicine, scientific research, and materials science, production of digital and various innovative products. Simply saying, we offer the full range of nuclear services and products from A to Z. The company’s strategy is to develop other low-carbon power generation projects, including in the wind generation field.
UME: How is ROSATOM helping to boost nuclear power capacity in Russia and elsewhere around the world?
Alexander: The main difference between yesterday’s Russia nuclear industry and Rosatom is that we strive to innovate and diversify using the existing skills in order to break through to other knowledge-based industries. Today, we develop 81 areas of the so-called new products and eight strategic programs (Wind Power, Composite Materials, Nuclear Medicine, Waste Management, Oil and Gas Service, Digital Products, Smart City, International Logistics). We plan to increase our revenue from new products up to 40% by 2030. We have the largest and ever-growing foreign orders portfolio. If you have a look at the IAEA PRIS database, you will see that we have been the leading country when it comes to new connections to the grid. We have managed to connect to the grid 15 units over 14 years. We do not only build the best NPPs with proven and innovative technology, we actually cooperated with our partners in all areas. Building an NPP is not enough, because you need to ensure its stable operation with good economic indicators. It is necessary to ensure seamless operation of the plant through nuclear fuel supply for the whole NPP life cycle, a comprehensive system for personnel training and solving a huge number of other issues along the way. That is why it is important to choose a vendor with the ability of solving these issues all the way. Rosatom is the only vendor in the world that provides all services and products in an NPP lifecycle. That is why countries choose us for their nuclear programs. They know that we have everything to set up nuclear industry anywhere in the world from the Arctic to Africa.
UME: What are the underlying benefits of nuclear energy compared to the traditional sources of electric power?
Alexander: Today, the demand for clean, affordable, and reliable energy is on the rise. Nuclear power plants provide the grid with what is called baseload electricity supply – a stable level of pollution-free power supply needed to meet demand, which is always there day and night, regardless of the season. Nuclear power doesn’t emit carbon dioxide during operation and currently provides about 10% of the world’s electricity. However, if we look at clean energy, nuclear is one third of all low carbon electricity in the world. Unlike other “promising” sources of energy, which would maybe help cutting emissions someday in the future, nuclear has been doing it for years. Based on the IAEA estimates, over the last 50 years, NPPs have saved the equivalent of 55 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and continue to do so with over 440 operational reactors worldwide. As one of the main sources of clean, low-carbon energy, nuclear power is indispensable in the transition to low-carbon energy of the future. It ensures stable, uninterrupted clean energy supply for the residential sector as well as for industrial facilities. In addition, nuclear reactors are important infrastructure projects and their implementation spurs development in various industries. In terms of numbers, according to our evaluation, every dollar invested in building a nuclear power plant using Russian technologies would generate an average of $ 2 in revenue for domestic enterprises, about $ 1.50 in tax revenues and about $ 4 in national GDP. The long-term use of nuclear technologies creates opportunities to improve the quality of life, because they could be used in many important areas outside energy, like medicine or agriculture. UME: How has nuclear power technology evolved over the past few years and what role is ROSATOM playing in stimulating innovation? Alexander: I think the main achievement in nuclear power over the past couple of years is the arrival of generation III+ nuclear power units with their unprecedented safety systems. Russia is at the forefront of nuclear reactor technology, which makes any Fukushima-like scenarios at its NPPs virtually impossible. Our VVER-1200 is the latest evolution in the long line of VVER (water-water energetic reactor) power units. The safety concept of modern nuclear power plants with VVER-1200 reactors is based on the revolutionary development of time-tested approaches. Compared to the previous generation, a power unit with VVER-1200 reactor has a number of features that significantly increase its economic advantages and safety. The reactor’s capacity has increased by 20%, the maintenance personnel has been reduced by 30-40%, the design life of the main equipment has been doubled reaching 60 years with the possibility of extension for another 20 years. In 2016, the first VVER-1200 unit was connected to the grid in Russia at Novovoronezh-II NPP. It was the world’s first Gen III+ unit and it meets all the international safety requirements for Gen III+ nuclear power plants. Today, there are four Gen III+ units operating in Russia with the fourth power unit at Leningrad II NPP Unit 2, which was connected to the power grid in late October. Many more are on their way. Rosatom is quite successful at exporting the technology, with multiple contracts signed for VVER-1200 based NPPs around the globe, including Turkey, Egypt, Hungary, Belarus, Finland, Bangladesh, etc (over 20 units overall).
UME: As nuclear energy gains wide adoption, how is ROSATOM helping to skill professionals in this field?
Alexander: Behind any successful project are the people, who create it. That is why the issue of human resource development is one of the most important elements in the implementation of the nuclear energy program for Rosatom. For example, according to agreements with partners from Egypt and Turkey, personnel training is an important part of project implementation, which has been defined at the initial stages of the projects. Nuclear technologies require a reliable base of skilled professionals and Rosatom is taking up a very proactive role in this field. As of 2020, 22,000 foreign students from 130 countries studied at partner universities of Rosatom. Currently there are more than 1,800 students studying in 18 universities in Russia. The undisputed leader in the training of students in the field of nuclear energy is the National Research Nuclear University "MEPhI". The university welcomes more than 300 foreign citizens for 12 educational programs annually. Rosatom and nuclear universities are actively working with universities in partner countries based on numerous memorandums of cooperation, implementing various educational initiatives. Rosatom through its Rosatom Technical Academy is also engaged in advanced training and re-training of nuclear industry personnel. Last year alone, more than 500 people were trained at the Technical Academy under the training programs for personnel of foreign nuclear power plants. Another 250 students from 43 countries participated in our special courses dedicated to nuclear infrastructure development as part of the International Atomic Energy Agency program. Rosatom will train 5,500 technical specialists for nuclear power plants in Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt and other countries in the coming years.
UME: What is your impression of the Middle East nuclear energy market and why do you think the region needs to add nuclear to its energy mix?
Alexander: Middle Eastern countries started to consider nuclear energy as an option for countries’ power grids long ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, such countries like Egypt and Turkey put NPPs on the map of nuclear power program development. Today, we see that interest in nuclear power in the MENA region has been revived. The perfect example of this trend is the UAE reaching this great milestone with the Barakah NPP Unit 1 connection to the grid earlier this year. We are already working on two major projects in the region, in Turkey and Egypt, Akkuyu and El Dabaa, respectively. Saudi Arabia is running a competitive dialogue to choose a vendor for the NPP construction in the country. The trend towards increasing the use of nuclear energy for sustainable growth in the countries of the region is quite obvious and absolutely logical. Today, the region's countries are experiencing GDP growth, population growth and an increase in living standards in most countries. Nuclear power provides a clean and reliable source of energy that stimulates the sustainable economic development and provides many new opportunities for decades: in the development of education, new technologies, new professions, new sectors of the economy, and employment. Nuclear energy can contribute to the expansion of export opportunities. Countries in the region traditionally depend on oil and gas production and exports. The use of nuclear energy will allow more hydrocarbons to be diverted for export, which will make a significant contribution to the economy of these countries, as well as reduce the risks associated with volatility in prices for fossil sources.
UME: With the Middle East stepping up adoption of solar as a cheaper source of electricity, what would make nuclear energy an attractive addition?
Alexander: Rosatom never separated nuclear power and renewable energy sources in the countries’ low-carbon transition. Our main task today is decarbonisation. Nuclear power is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to generate electricity. Nuclear power plants do not emit polluting/toxic substances or greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Moreover, if in the past nuclear energy was compared to renewable energy sources, today more and more countries are realizing gaps in this approach. We are confident that in the future energy sector, nuclear energy occupies a place ot par with renewable energy sources. They should complement each other, not compete against each other. This is the only way the global community can reach climate goals. The experience of certain European countries shows us that transition to the renewables only and removing nuclear from the grid can cause electricity price hikes and volatility on the energy market. Moreover, you need a stable baseload energy source for uninterrupted electricity consumption. Massive power outages across countries implementing such energy turns could be prevented only thanks to the operation of more fossil-based plants, which means increase in CO2 emissions and harming population and the environment. The future of the energy sector lies in a diversified balance of low-carbon technologies that ensure affordability, security of supply and minimal environmental impact. This is why Rosatom has invested in wind energy. JSC NovaWind, wind energy division of Rosatom, is engaged in consolidating the efforts of the State Corporation in this area of the electric power industry. We have already completed the construction of the first wind farm “The Adygea” wind farm that is the most powerful operating wind farm in the country at the moment, with a total capacity of 150 MW. UME: Do you think there is enough sensitisation about nuclear energy and how is ROSATOM enabling a change in public perception? Alexander: Public acceptance is essential for the successful implementation of nuclear projects. That’s why an effective communication system that will inform the population and key stakeholders about nuclear energy and the project, must be put in place at the early stage of its implementation. It would help busting myths and stereotypes about nuclear energy that are dominant in many countries, and thus win public trust. In Russia, thanks to our constant efforts the level of nuclear support is extremely high, reaching 75%. We have accumulated many years of experience in this area, applying the best international practices and offering our help to provide all possible support in efforts to increase public acceptance of nuclear energy and inform the population about its benefits. All fears and concerns about nuclear energy are usually associated with the lack of sufficient knowledge among the population and, as a result, a lot of myths and prejudices. Therefore, our efforts are primarily aimed at bringing the truth about nuclear area and significance of nuclear projects for the future of the country by applying all possible formats. In particular, this includes the use of various tools aimed at different target audiences: organizing press tours, conducting educational seminars for the public, building an information center on atomic energy, working with local and national media. In Russia, we have observed an interesting trend in public opinion: the closer people live to an NPP the more they are likely to trust in nuclear power. This is because they have first-hand experience and facts at their disposal, because they work there or because they know someone, who works there and can see the economic and social benefits for themselves. NPPs in Russia play a pivotal role in providing jobs, higher than average salaries and are actively engaged in giving back to their host communities through supporting education, sports and culture. This is reflected in some of the public acceptance figures we are seeing. For example, in the city of Novovoronezh, hosting the innovative Gen3+ nuclear power unit, the level of support for nuclear energy exceeds 90%.
UME: How much success have you registered in the Middle East so far and what is your outlook for the next few years?
Alexander: Rosatom is proud of the long-term successful history of nuclear cooperation with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Starting from the 1960s, the first small research reactors based on Russian technologies with a capacity of up to 5MW were built in a number of countries. These research reactors were the cornerstones for the development of a future peaceful atomic program allowing for research of nuclear technologies, personnel training, materials science, isotope products for industrial needs, and nuclear medicine. We have trained many nuclear professionals from these countries. MENA is one of our priority regions today. We are currently implementing two large nuclear power plant projects in Turkey and Egypt. Both NPPs, El Dabaa NPP in Egypt and Akkuyu NPP in Turkey, will consist of four power units based on VVER-1200 reactors - the same type of reactor that is operated in Russia and will be installed at our nuclear power plants in Hungary, Finland, Belarus, Bangladesh and others countries.
In addition to these projects, we are participating in a competitive dialogue for the right to build a nuclear power plant in Saudi Arabia. We are cooperating with other countries of the region. Rosatom and the UAE Atomic Energy Corporation have been successfully cooperating for many years in the field of the nuclear fuel cycle, and more recently, in October last year, the parties renewed the Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy. We are open for cooperation with all countries of the region. At the same time, I would like to emphasize that Rosatom is not only building nuclear power plants. We are a full-cycle company and provide services in the field of nuclear energy from A to Z. In addition, Rosatom offers services and solutions in the field of non-energy nuclear technologies, including nuclear medicine, desalination technologies, radiation technologies for use in agriculture and industry, research reactors, small modular reactors etc. Our approach is to share our expertise and help partners at all stages of implementation of their peaceful nuclear power programs.
UME: Where do you see the future of nuclear energy in the next five years in terms of technology advancement and adoption?
Alexander: We see two key trends in the development of nuclear power in the mid-term. That is small modular reactors and closure of fuel cycle. New trend in nuclear power industry are small nuclear reactors, which attract the attention of government officials, regulators and energy leaders as a potential addition to the nation’s energy mix. The commissioning of the floating NPP “Akademik Lomonosov” earlier this year demonstrates the unique possibilities of using floating power units in remote areas isolated from the power grid or in places hard to access by land. This mobile reactor was designed to supply electricity, thermal power, and even desalinated water to coastal or isolated territories, as well as to industrial offshore units. Simultaneously with the construction of the floating NPP, we work on the latest RITM series reactors – our flagship solution in the field of low-power technologies. Such power plants can be used in both land-based and floating versions, both for generating electricity and heat, as well as for desalination of sea water and cooling. With regard to the future of nuclear energy, we are convinced that it cannot be separated from fast neutron reactors and closed nuclear fuel cycle. The most important thing about fast reactors is that they could generate more fissile material than consumed. Russia is the world’s only country to operate commercial BN-600 and BN-800 at Beloyarsk NPP with MOX, the nuclear fuel made from reprocessed plutonium and uranium. In this way, we are working to make nuclear energy waste-free and practically renewable.