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'Nuclear energy is perfectly environmentally friendly'

As Japan restarted some of its nuclear reactors amid mass protests, questions about the safety and future of the nuclear energy continue to swirl. But according to the head of the Russian state nuclear agency, the industry is only set to grow.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, Germany announced it was going to go ‘nuclear free’ by 2022, relying exclusively on solar and other renewable energy sources for its needs. However, Sergey Kirienko, head of Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom, says the nuclear energy industry is far from decline despite the recent downturn. He shared his assessment of nuclear energy investment in an exclusive RT interview.

Russia Today: It’s been a little over a year since the Fukushima tragedy in Japan. During this period, we have seen quite a few countries give up on nuclear energy. For example, Germany has already closed down eight reactors and is planning to shut them all down by 2022. Do you think this marks a fundamental shift in the global nuclear industry?

Sergey Kirienko: One year ago, we were pessimistic, expecting the number of contracts and the industry in general to reduce by half. Over the past year, the global nuclear energy market has shrunk by as little as 10 percent, not more.

What accounts for the reduction is European dynamics, Germany in particular, and Japan’s suspension of its nuclear activities. In the aftermath of Fukushima, many countries launched new nuclear programs instead of shrinking the ones they already had. This mostly relates to the developing world; but for the first time in many years, the countries that have issued licenses to build new nuclear facilities include the US, which last did it some two decades ago.There is also the UK: very conservative and cautious in terms of security, they still endorsed a program to build up to 20 nuclear facilities after the Fukushima disaster.

So the global 10-percent reduction is not that dramatic. Also remember that some countries have old power plants and in the coming ten to fifteen years they will need to take them out of operation. To maintain the nuclear share in the energy balance, by 2030 they will need to build some 320 to 350 reactor units, experts say. This is a really ambitious plan. In fact, we expected the market to shrink by 50 percent last year, assuming that as market leaders we would experience a 30-percent downturn. But in reality our contracts have doubled!

RT:So does that mean the 10-percent decrease actually plays into Russia’s hands?

SK: You know, I wouldn’t put it that way. A declining market never fares well for anybody as it increases competition. It is tougher requirements that have played into our hands rather than the 10 percent decrease. Over the last year, people have figured out for themselves what happened at Fukushima, and they’ve realized that there is no irreparable defect with nuclear energy systems.

In April, the Japanese government allowed me to visit the Fukushima power plant. What impressed me most were not the four crippled units, but rather the two undamaged ones. Few journalists ever mention that Fukushima Daiichi has six reactor units, not four, but nothing happened to the other two.

What is of vital difference is that while the first four units have their emergency diesel generators in the basement, where they were simply flooded, the generators for units 5 and 6 are located above the units. That’s it.

Therefore, the principal conclusion is that there is a feasible solution. However, what the Fukushima tragedy has taught us is that experience is extremely important, and so is an opportunity to physically try out and test new technical solutions.

RT:You believe that technological progress can ensure that safe nuclear energy? So what’s your reaction to environmental activists who vehemently oppose nuclear energy?

SK: Nuclear energy is perfectly environmentally friendly, much more so than all the other types of power generation, such as thermal energy, for example. In fact, it would be more precise to consider nuclear power “alternative energy,” right there with wind power, solar energy and hydraulic power engineering. It does not produce greenhouse gases as such, period. When a nuclear power plant is running normally, its impact on the environment equals zero.

I actually think that all this fuss about the hazards of nuclear energy was our own fault: we used to withhold technical information on nuclear power plants. And when there is no reliable information, that’s when myths emerge.

RT:In fact, even the Japanese withheld relevant information on Fukushima in the first days of the tragedy…

SK: And I think this was an extraordinary blunder on their part – them trying to filter the information they were providing to the world. They are still paying a price for this mistake in terms of their domestic public opinion.

RT:Considering the kind of technical solutions you have just described, how would you account for Germany’s decision to shut down all of its nuclear plants? Was this a decision driven by political pressure?

SK: It was certainly politics. I respect the German government’s decision, because I see this as a choice made by a sovereign nation. That said, we had a roundtable discussion yesterday, which was attended by the Turkish Energy Minister, Mr. Yildiz. He asked a brilliant question. He said, “Colleagues, if you believe that your nuclear power plants are unsafe, you should shut them down right now. When you say they are unsafe but you will shut them down after 2020 – how are you going to get by with vulnerable nuclear facilities for 10 more years? And if they are safe enough to last until 2020, why shut them down at that point?” So, sure it was politics.

RT:You’re saying that Germany is the only European country that’s ready to give up nuclear energy. But other countries such as Italy, Norway and Greece are also opposing nuclear energy…

SK: Norway had decided to make a shift toward renewable energy prior to the Fukushima disaster. Italy abandoned nuclear energy back in the 1980’s, and there've been no recent developments in this regard. Therefore, to be realistic, it is indeed Germany who has given up on nuclear energy, and that is of course a serious decision. Germany is a country that used to get 32 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. Now they’ve indeed decided to abandon it, and that’s a fact. Japan has also put a freeze on most of its nuclear facilities. However, last week they decided to end the freeze and they are about to launch their first two reactor units.

With that in the background, 31 countries have decided either to go on with developing their nuclear energy systems or even to build nuclear facilities for the first time. What we see is strong differentiation, i.e. there will be countries actively developing their nuclear energy programs, like Turkey, which is planning to build some 30 reactor units; China with 74 units; South Africa has just decided to build about ten units; England is planning to build up to 20 units.

So, each country will make its own decisions. As for their rationale, there are several aspects. First of all, it’s about expertise. You need to have more knowledge on nuclear energy, and you need the technologies. Germany, for one, can’t build a nuclear power plant anymore. If they decided to build one now, they’d have to outsource construction to us, or the French, or the Americans. German industries have been out of the business for nearly 25 years, and they have lost it. So number one is know-how.

Secondly, it’s about whether a country can afford developing renewable energy or shale gas. Germany is a rich economy. They have already estimated the prospective costs of abandoning nuclear energy, and they can probably afford it. But we also know many governments who say, “We’re not rich enough to finance alternative energy research. Lack of access to affordable energy is a major impediment for our economic growth. We need to pay wages, we need to create jobs, and we cannot afford investing in wind energy or solar energy for decades on end.”

RT:In Great Britain and the USA, it’s private companies that own nuclear facilities. This isn’t currently the case in Russia, but President Putin, in his pre-election manifesto, said there were plans to privatize Rosatom.

SK: Not Rosatom. Let’s not forget that Rosatom is primarily an element in this country’s nuclear defense capabilities. I know our policy makers’ outlook on this issue, and I’m sure Rosatom will never be privatized, because some of its industries cater to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Such things are not for sale.

RT:What is it, then?

SK: Some projects related to the civilian part of the nuclear industry are already open to private capital, including foreign interests. There are already quite a few private investors involved in uranium mining. Besides, we have been mining uranium not only in Russia for a long time now. You’ve mentioned the United States – well, we’re the largest owner of uranium deposits on US territory. Rosatom owns 20 percent of America’s uranium reserves. We are presently mining in the state of Wyoming, for example. This is something you probably couldn’t imagine some 3 or 4 years ago. Today, it’s reality.

We own a controlling stake in Uranium One, the world’s largest corporate owner and miner of uranium resources. Forty-nine percent of the company is owned by several thousand private investors. Another area where we’ve opened up is the construction of new nuclear facilities. We have a similar situation in mechanical engineering. We don’t own 100 percent of our hardware producing companies anymore, and we intend to reduce our respective stakes to 51 percent. And in the long term, once there is perfectly free competition in the industry, I think we would be able to sell all those industrial assets altogether. But as far as knowledge and technology are concerned, the government should retain a controlling stake. As for nuclear defense-related assets, the state shall keep not just a controlling stake but 100 percent ownership of them, forever. There is simply no other way.