Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jukka Laaksonen: Rosatom has a long-term ambition to construct nuclear reactors in the USA

The Russian state-owned nuclear company Rosatom is interested in developing nuclear power plants not only in countries like Slovakia or Czech Republic but also in the USA or United Kingdom, said Finnish expert and Rosatom Overseas's vice-president Jukka Laaksonen. According to him, stress tests in the EU have helped to improve the level of safety. The interview took place in May 2012 at 7th annual meeting of European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF) in Bratislava, Slovakia.

It's been more than one year since the nuclear accident in Fukushima happened in Japan. What is your reflection of previous 15 months and how would you evaluate the consequences of this damage for nuclear industry? How did it affect Rosatom company?

First of all, we have to think about political impact. It was smaller than what was expected by the experts before the accident. We always say that an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere. It can kill the whole nuclear power globally because everybody remembers these terrible consequences. It was a surprise that only very few countries, especially Germany, made this drastic decision to give up nuclear power plants in certain time interval. In Italy it might have impacted the referendum result not to start building new nuclear power plant. We have an Italian colleague and he believes that even without Fukushima the referendum result would be the same because Italy is strongly anti-nuclear. In Switzerland they are taking some time to consider the situation. Otherwise, we have seen a very little impact and public opinion has not changed.

Do you really believe that public opinion has not changed?

Yes. The polls have shown that maybe there was a very small drop in the positive opinion among citizens but it's definitely back again. It's surprising that in many countries nowadays is public opinion more positive about nuclear use than it was before Fukushima accident. What is going on in Japan, of course this is something we have to see what happens. Now we know that there is no nuclear power in operation. The regulators and the government would start them up but local authorities are against, they are afraid. So it will certainly take some time in Japan to recover nuclear production. I believe it's just a question of time. Otherwise construction will continue as before.

Technically, positive impact of Fukushima is that there has been what we call „stress-tests“ in all countries. This has brought many new ideas of how we improve the safety in nuclear power plant. As a consequence of Fukushima, we can expect that the existing power plants will be made safer than they used to be and especially in the new plants we will take into account the less. All of this shows that the plants can still be made safer. We thought that we have already achieved an extreme and we can't do much big changes. Many ideas have been generated in these stress-tests discussions which show how we can still improve safety. This is a positive consequence.

You mentioned stress-tests in the EU countries. Some critics say it was rushed decision without much of content. What's your view?

Critique comes from people who don't understand the process at all. Everybody who was involved in the process has been very positively surprised how good the process was and how much new understanding it generated, how to harmonize the safety in EU and how to enhance the level of safety. We have now many new ideas on the table as a consequence of the stress tests. And this was actually the goal. The goal was not to demonstrate the plants are safe or not. The goal was from the very beginning when we planned these tests, to make the plants safer. Our plan is to gather new ideas and this has been very successful. So those who make critiques, I don't know what were their expectations. But the expectations of people who have been planning these tests and have been involved, they consider the results very positive.

It is still an ongoing process, isn't it?

Yes, it will continue. It generated a lot of ideas and now we have to implement them in practice.  Some ofthem have been implemented but you can't do this overnight. You need some time. If we take the Russian point of view, I'm very sorry that Russia finally decided to not participate. I personally tried to attract Russian regulators to participate and Russian industry to be with us but they said this pear review would be very difficult to process because their best experts don't speak English. This is of course true. When you look at the outcome and compare it with Russian reactors they had come out very well. That's because those ideas were emphasized in stress-tests. They have already been implemented because it's a new generation of reactors so it's not surprising that the new Russian reactors need these ideas.

You act as an expert at Rusatom Overseas, which is a company promoting the construction of Russian-designed nuclear reactors in the world.  Do you have any concrete and promising projects in western countries like U.S., Canada or Western-European ones?

Firstly, I joined Rusatom Overseas only very recently. I have my own ideas what I want to do and I have been able to start something but it will take time in any case with what we want to do. This has already been discussed with the management and they said „We want to spread the market globally“ and to those countries, a very first users of nuclear power like United Kingdom (UK) and USA. We are now going to start generic designer assessment of building nuclear reactor with UK regulators. This is something new because very strong old regulators which have now reviewed DPR that is a French power plant and they have reviewed AP 1000 which is American Westinghouse design. Now they have very good background to compare VVER reactors with those 2 other competitors. It's right time now to ask them when they are finished with those 2 projects to start the reviewing VVER plant. It is a long distance to one day start constructing Russian reactors in UK which is an open market. At least it looks like that now. Similar and even in longer term is construction of Russian reactors in the USA. I have already taken some contacts becauseI know all the top regulators who are responsible for this. I hope that within certain time we can start similar exercise also in the USA.

Ambitions in the U.S. or UK seem to be very interesting. Would you tell more about the plans in those states? How real could be the deployment of Russian nuclear technology there?

It's not unrealistic. It's not my idea, the idea was generated by Rosatom but I'm very much welcome in this because I personally know regulators working in both countries. I have an easy communication with all of them. So I think we can start real progress with both of them. Especially when we start and go ahead with the UK, it is certainly very good for the people in other European countries which are interested in VVER's. I mean specifically Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. For people of those countries it is good to know there is one strong operator in the UK which has done the review. So it gives them more firm confirmation that this is safety sign. We can have positive review in the UK and certainly we will have some remarks which is normal in such processes and then Rosatom just has to fix those points in reactors which may be under discussion. I don't expect such things. I expect that regulators in the UK will be positively surprised how well these reactors are.

What about the other European countries? There are plenty of talks about projects in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania or Turkey...

Yes, Hungary is very prospective customer for Rosatom. They know the technology already and they are fond of VVER reactors. They are certain ideas of how to help them to make these investments. Problem of Hungary at the moment is that they have shortage of investments money. There are some proposals and Rosatom can help them with this problem.

My understanding is that in Turkey is already a firm agreement between countries and the project has started. Of course the problem is that Turkey has no infrastructure. They don't have an experienced regulator and this is something we have to help Turkey with. It's also very unique project because it will be the very first time that the foreign company comes and operates the plant in one country. Usually the operator and country are responsible for safety of nuclear power on the states territory. Now we are facing situation that the operator would be Rosatom. Basically it will be Russian team which will take care of operations. This is something which has not been tested elsewhere. How can communication between Turkish regulator and Russian operating organization function. But this is a project that will go ahead.

You also asked about Poland. My impression is that they're not considering Russian reactors and also in Lithuania they have made a deal with the Japanese company. In both cases, the question is not the technology. The question is just some political tensions between those countries. It's not politically interesting for those countries to have Russian reactors. It is a bit sad but as I said it's not about technology.

Our Prime Minister Mr. Robert Fico confirmed during the opening speech at ENEF 2012 in Bratislava that the Slovak government will support the construction of new reactor in Jaslovské Bohunice site. JESS Company would use an existing infrastructure of shut-down V1 nuclear power plant. Is Rosatom interested in this project?

Yes, sure. If there'san interest on Slovak side then I'm sure Rosatom is interested as well and will help Slovakia in the same manner as Hungary. It's really generic problem how to find money for investment. If Slovakia has strong will to go ahead, Rosatom will come and help and asks concerns of technology. Technology is well known to Slovaks because they have experience from Jaslovské Bohunice. They're now constructing Mochovce and I'm sure that the same companies which are now learning in Mochovce would be ready to continue the construction of Bohunice's new reactor. The situation has not been so easy in Mochovce. I spoke yesterday with my Slovak friends who work there and they told me that the situation is like what we have seen in Western Europe: with certain period of not constructing nuclear plant, the competence has disappeared to some extent and we have to rebuild the competency. This has also been the problem with Areva that they had to re-educate the factories to make high quality. Their first factories failed and then on second term they succeeded and made good components. First pieces had to be rejected. It seem to be from what I've learned, that in Mochovce similar experience has been with Czech and Slovak companies who were very strong when they constructed Mochovce 1 and 2 and now they have to re-learn how to produce quality. They have learned and now they would be ready to construct another Russian plant in Bohunice.

You mentioned the issue of investments in nuclear industry. How would you evaluate the "mood" for investments into nuclear? What is the view of Rosatom company?

Rosatom has innovated packages. They have money in the pockets and that's the point because other companies don't have that. This is not possible in Slovakia because Bohunice 3 and 4 are owned by Enel and also Mochovce. They can't buy into this but there must be some other means. Certainly they're willing to become part owners of the facility and they are ready to invest money. So it depends on Slovak government whether Slovak government wants to have a control of the new plant, control of the new company that is building the new units in Bohunice. In that case Slovakia needs to find money which is more than 50 % of the investment cost but I'm sure that Rosatom would be interested to come with the rest that is needed. Of course, there is now Czech ownership but it may happen that Czech would rather want to put their money to Temelín and Dukovany than to Bohunice.

Formerly you worked at Finnish regulator for radiation.  Basically, you come from a public sector. Nowadays you work for private state-owned company Rosatom Overseas. What would you like to bring to the company from your former professional exprerience?

First of all, my impression is that Rosatom Overseas is not a private company. It's a government owned company but it works like a private company.  That means they can use bigger Russian resources. This is also important backbone.

As for me and what I'm bringing to the company, I know western regulators. Practically, this is a small family and all of them are like my personal friends for a long time. I know many people who to contact with and I also know what is needed to demonstrate to the customer country that the powerplant is safe enough. So this is something which I would like to promote – this safety demonstration not only by Russian experts but I want to bring this international aspect to Rosatom projects. We have international review teams so on our side I want to have some strong team, not only Russian experts but experts who have knowledge of VVER technology. That means people from these territories - Hungary, Slovakia, Czech republic or perhaps Finland and Germany. There's lot of information about VVER's also in countries of EU like United Kingdom, Germany or France. People have been working on safety of VVER reactors In Kozloduj power plant in Bulgaria or elsewhere. There is already a lot of knowledge about VVER technology among the Western European experts. I want to bring those people in the picture. We need to have very good standardof safety analyzation reports which is the basic document that is needed to licence of reactors. I want to make that of high-quality so that we can use the same safety analysis in all customer countries. So we don't have to make different package everytime.

What do you think about the view of Western-European nuclear regulatory authorities about the Russian nuclear design? Do they consider Russian technology to be safe, especially if we talk about VVER reactors - is there a mutual respect or undercover disbelief?

You said the right word – disbelief. It's rather deep rooted and it's based on experience of Chernobyl accident. I was involved in this western regulators review of new candidate countries to the EU. It was conducted in 1999 and in 2000 was the report issued. I would noticed that people from big countries like UK and France had much suspicion against VVER technology. Even if we had a task for switch-made specific assessment of VVER same visited in Slovakia and Hungary and Bulgaria. Our task for western regulators associates made a very positive assessment. It was difficult to convince top regulators who did not have that much knowledge. The whole assessment report was kind of rounded up. It was not negative of VVER's but it wasn't extremely positive either. It wasn't result of our review, it was already very firm political position that was taken in 1992, more than 10 years before Slovakia, Hungary and Czech republic joined EU. They had some ranking that wasn't based on facts. It was based just on some common beliefs of Western experts. It said that Russian designed plants like Bohunice, V1 in Jaslovske Bohunice and Kozloduj in Bulgaria, a very first generation of reactors, can't be created with reasonable investments to meet the Western European standards. That was just nonsense because Slovakia made heavy investments on Bohunice's V1. It was certainly at least as good as the old French reactors. Still, there was this suspicion. Also Slovak politicians, the same happened in Bulgaria, they made an assessment that for them it was more important to become members of EU than to keep those plants in operation So they gave up and they decided “Ok , we will close reactors as a condition to join EU.“ Perhaps it had not been necessary but they gave up too easily. My point is, it wasn't about technology problem. It was political things and I happen to know those people who in 1992 said that they these reactors are not good enough. They changed their mind later on when they learned. I don't want to name those people but they were very influential experts in Germany, France and UK. Later on, they learned to know better VVER technology and admitted that it was a mistake.

So basically, your ambition is to convince „West“ about the safety of Russian reactors. Is it right?

Yes. We have to give Russian reactors the reputation they really deserve.

Finally, only few years ago there were plenty of talks about so called renaissance of nuclear energy. In 2011 NPP in Fukushima collapsed. All-in-all, what do you expect from the future from a viewpoint of nuclear energy sector?

It won't be a big renaissance but there will be new power plants. China will continue construction. South Korea is continuing building of nuclear reactors. We have seen that United Arab Emirates started constructing four new units and they are planning already development of nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia. In the USA four units have received combined construction and operating licence. In the USA the situation is not depending on politics, it's just a business. Currently the gas prices in the US are so low it's right now difficult to motivate American regulators to make decisions for new units. We have seen that certain companies have long term vision and they see that gas prices will one day go up again. Gas is also not sustainable source of energy. There are still many applications for construction and operation of nuclear power plants by US utilities. When they get those licences they are valid for a certain time and they can make decisions later on if not immediately. As I said, now four new units are under construction in the US. Very important is what happens in UK. The expectation is that next year the first new build will start in UK. This will be followed by some others. Of course, in my own country Finland there is one nuclear power plant under construction and two new units will be started in a couple of years.

Will they have a Russian technology?

No. Finland is a big country and they need big power plants. So they are not interested in plants which Russia is supplying. They want to have bigger ones. It depends on our very special political and licencing process. First power companies need to get political decision which takes four years. When they get it, they want to build as big nuclear power plants as possible. Nuclear energy is much cheaper than anything else in Finland. If they have a licence theyask why to build 1200 MW nuclear plant when they build 1600 MW plant.So 400 MW installed capacity is a big difference as concerned to costs. That's why they are looking for bigger units.

Notice: The interview was prepared in cooperation with energia.sk's Mr. Michal Jesenič.

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