The Russian invasion has inflicted colossal losses on the Ukrainian energy industry, putting it on the brink of risks it had never seen. About 4% of generating capacities were destroyed amid hostilities, while another 35% are located in temporarily occupied territories. The most resonant and threatening development so far has been the seizure by the Russians of Ukraine’s Zaporizhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, generating 6,000 MW (43% of the total capacity of all of the country’s NPPs). Everyone was shocked by the nuclear terrorism that the occupiers resorted to, turning an operating nuclear plant into a military base, endangering the lives and safety of millions across the continent. And this is undoubtedly a black "milestone" in recent world history.
What should the international community do to prevent a nuclear disaster? How can the further development of nuclear energy be ensured in Ukraine in the post-war period and what is the role of international partners in this regard? Dr. Chris Singh, CEO Holtec International, a U.S.-based company which had completed the construction of the Centralized Storage Facility for spent nuclear fuel in Chornobyl on the eve of the war, sat down with Ukrinform to address these and other issues. Our interlocutor did not hold back in his assessment of conduct of international terrorist Vladimir Putin, who, for the sake of satisfying his sick ambitions, put the world on the verge of an actual nuclear disaster. And this, in our opinion, says a lot about the current moods prevailing in the international professional community.
Holtec International has been a major U.S. nuclear company present in Ukraine for almost 20 years, implementing two major projects focused on energy security, diversification, and economic savings. Dr. Singh, given how closely you’re familiar with Ukraine, could you please share your views on Russia’s conduct in our country?
That's a massive question. Let me tell you in simple words about Russia's conduct, I would say more particularly Mr. Putin's conduct, because Russia is controlled by one man. And what he decides is what happens in that country. Mr. Putin’s behavior – as he directs his army – is beyond and it is barbarically on a colossal scale. The whole world is seeing what Mr. Putin is doing in Ukraine. You look at Adolf Hitler's playbook, it is precisely the same situation. People who pay attention to history know, Hitler attacked the Sudetenland of then Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, claiming that there were Germans living there and he had the right to take over the country. And when Hitler did that, the whole world simply watched and did nothing.
Now, compare that to what happened in Crimea. The world watched when the Ukrainian peninsula was invaded and taken over by Mr. Putin. And only when he finally attacked Ukraine on the full scale, that's when the West woke up and realized that this man is a monster and he had to be contained. And a monster of this magnitude has to be confronted and eventually defeated. The world would not be a peaceful place until this “vampire” is eliminated from power. Talking about vampire by the way, now I understand his ex-wife, who said that “vampire” must be Mr. Putin’s zodiac sign. I am quoting you from a recently published book. So, therefore we admire the Ukrainian people, your heroism for standing up to this barbarian, and we applaud the leadership of your country, who confront this evil head on.
Do you think the international support to Ukraine in the country’s darkest hour has been adequate?
I personally don't think it has been adequate and let me tell you why. Ukraine would have been the third largest nuclear power if it had not given up its nuclear weapons in 1994 under the security guarantee signed by the USA, Russia, and Britain. I guess, this guarantee was supposed to be from these powers to ensure that Ukraine's sovereignty will be honored and safeguarded.So when one of the guarantors attacked your country violating their their commitment to the agreement, the rest of the world had to rise up and immediately stop Russia's actions back in 2014. Because it was a direct violation of a solemn commitment given to a young country in 1994 and unfortunately that did not happen.
More recently the response from the West is acceptable but could be and need to be stronger. The country needs long-range artillery, artillery that has longer range than the HIMARS that the U.S. has provided to the Ukrainian military. Ukraine has to be able to take them out on Russian territory. Otherwise it looks as if Russians are using the sanctuary of their territory to wage war in Ukraine, and that should be eliminated.
The U.S. has artillery with range of 250 miles (HIMARS has range of 50 miles). If Ukrainian Army has these weapons then they can hit places where they congregate lots of their military and also take out ammunition depots, rail roads, and all that helps Russians wage the war. That’s why your country needs better, intelligent weapons and as soon as possible. This war can only be concluded by destroying enemy’s infrastructure. And after that Russia will not be able to continue the war.
Ukraine’s nuclear energy sector plays an important role in the country’s national security Dr. Singh, as the CEO of an international nuclear energy company, do you believe that Ukraine made a strong case to the world to act forcefully to protect Ukraine’s nuclear facilities from the continuing Russian threat?
I think so. I think President Zelensky and the Government of Ukraine have been extremely effective in communicating to the world the information on the case of occupying the Zaporizhzhia NPP and the Chornobyl NPP as well as the future consequences, no question.
Energoatom and Holtec were in the process of jointly implementing extensive activities prior to the Russian invasion. Dr. Singh, can you comment on Holtec’s role in supporting Energoatom, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We have been in Ukraine since 2003, and we stand with the Ukrainian people. Our main customer has been Energoatom, and we are deeply committed to the nuclear program in Ukraine. We have had an extremely cordial relationship over all these years. And since February 24, 2022, as the country has fallen under Russian aggression, we have continued to provide critical support to the Ukrainian company. E.g.we had millions of dollars worth of equipment to hand over to Energoatom but that was off loaded in Turkey as it could not enter the Black Sea due to the Russian assault on Ukraine. We successfully delivered this equipment to Energoatom after a long journey through Poland with additional shipping, transit, and insurance costs.
We are continuing to support Energoatom so that the country can ensure to continue to operate its nuclear power plants and store its used fuel at its nuclear plants as the Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility, which Energoatom has built with our assistance is too close to the Belarussian border. At this time, alternatives have to be made available at the Rivne, South Ukraine, and Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plants for the storage of some used fuel until the hostilities end.
Recently, Energoatom has signed agreement with Westinghouse for construction of AP1000 reactors. Also, there have been commitments to diversify the nuclear energy sector of Ukraine and set targets for carbon free projects. What should the world, especially the West, do to help Ukraine’s Energy sector?
Well, that is a very good question. It is known, Ukraine's energy is supplied a little over 50% by the Ukrainian NPPs, and to increase the energy output at the NPPs, it is necessary to replace the power units built back in the Soviet times. They pollute the environment, so it's in the interest of the world to help Ukraine to transit to clean nuclear energy. And, definitely, that will require a lot of money, a lot of support.
The Westinghouse project, AP1000 is a very good idea. We should support it and the West should support it.
But also we should go further and look to help Ukraine build a large number of small modular reactors across the country so the country eliminates dependence on fossil fuels.
Currently, 15 nuclear power units are operating in Ukraine. All of them were designed in Soviet times, and most of them had been built before Ukraine gained independence. The service life of the power units is running out, and soon, they will have to be decommissioned. Dr. Singh, are any discussions with Ukraine being held on cooperation in this area?
So far we haven not had detailed discussions, but we will. We plan to have discussions with Energoatom to perhaps launch a program of life extension. And that will make the plants run safe for 20 more years by appropriate equipment and system upgrade.Surely, all this requires money. You can assume that each plant would require a billion dollars to give additional 20 years service life.
I call upon the West to provide such funds to Ukraine so the utility Energoatom can begin all necessary work in this field.
Until Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine, no nuclear power plant has ever been attacked, overrun, and occupied by an invading army. What impact can this have on the global nuclear security and what conclusions should the world draw as regards nuclear regulation?
Well, the invasion and occupation of the Zaporizhia NPP is a new milestone in human history. It is extremely dangerous. The amount of nuclear fuel that is at that site is enormous. A military strike on the facility would have enormous safety consequences for the whole world. To preclude this, the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia should be further extended, and every country in the world should refuse to trade with Russia. Because this occupation of a nuclear plant, a deliberate move to create a massive nuclear accident has to be opposed by the rest of the world. I think the United Nations should declare Russia an outlaw state. The IAEA of course has been taking good measures as they can, but the effort I don't believe has been strong enough to isolate and punish Russia.
It is known that Holtec successfully completed the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Interim Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility, including ongoing assistance to Energoatom for the final commissioning of Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. Dr. Singh, what are your views on the important safety issues that need to be addressed at Chornobyl in the wake of recent events given the long-term Holtec engagement at Chornobyl?
We have built a dry storage facility at the Chornobyl NPP. But the transfer of fuel to the facility is not complete yet.
At the present time, the quantity of fuel that is relatively in the unprotected state, is enormous. And it's in buildings that are way past their design life. It has to be moved to dry storage as quickly as possible.
If that site were struck with artillery that Russia uses, it would be a catastrophic accident. And the victims would be of course not only the Ukrainian nation, but also Belarus, which is right there geographically. So I think it's in Russia's interest to agree that they will demilitarize the region around Chornobyl as well as not to attempt to move their troops across the border in Belarus It will help move safely the fuel to the constructed storage.
Also, right now Ukraine has not completed the acquisition of the technology to store any fuel that may have been damaged in the reactor, normal damage in the operations. That is called damaged fuel and such a type of substances needs special storage facilities that currently are not available in Ukraine. Therefore the West should provide Ukraine the aid to get the facility to store the damaged fuel which is currently in wet storage at the site. Until that fuel is also removed, that facility will continue to be vulnerable to military or other terrorist attacks.
One of the two Holtec's important project in Ukraine is the construction of the Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility for domestic Nuclear Power Plants with VVER-type reactors (CSFSF). Dr. Singh, could you please provide us an overview of its benefits and implementation progress?
One of the benefits of the Central Storage Facility, that is near the Belarus border in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, is that this facility will eliminate roughly $200 million a year of expenditure that Ukraine has been paying Russia to store the fuel on their territory.This facility makes it possible to save 100% of the resource. Thus, Ukraine will spend only $35 million a year in domestic costs to keep the facility running so that of course, is a financial benefit.The other benefit of the facility is that at the present time the spent fuel is shipped in obsolete and dangerous transport casks of Russian design. Now the fuel will be transported using state-of-the-art transport casks that can withstand the impact.
For example, if a car traveling at 60 miles an hour had an impact with rigid wall, then the cask would remain intact and sealed. They are so safe that, if dropped deliberately from the height of, let’s say, 20 m, there will be no release of radioactivity and that’s how safe these new transport casks are that we have provided to Ukraine. I could tell you a lot of things about them. But let me put it short: they are the safest canisters conceived by humans that are used any place in the world. So it is safety and security of people of Ukraine and security of safety of the environment and commercial benefit.
The Government of Ukraine and specifically Energoatom have started to sever ties with Russia for all cooperation such as supply of spare parts for operations and routine maintenance of its nuclear reactors. This requires alternatives and calls for urgent actions as Ukraine’s domestic production facilities have been severely impacted due to Russian aggression. Dr. Singh, please share your thoughts on how this important and urgent issue can be addressed.
I suggest that Energoatom undertake a program of reverse engineering. What does it mean? So if a product is not available from the original supplier then you have another company that will reverse engineer the design and provide you the needed spare parts. Holtec provides this service to its customers. We have many companies who go broke, they go bankrupt and they were suppliers of equipment or parts to the existing nuclear plants, and when that happens, our customer would come to us and we would reverse engineer and provide the item. Reverse engineering provides information related to the technical details of equipment, components, and parts and through analysis of their structure, function, and operation.
Previously, Holtec International offered the Ukrainian government a solution for the construction of a high-level vitrified waste storage facility. Dr. Singh, what is the current situation in that regard?
Well, the the Ukrainian Government has not quite moved in that area. I am not so sure how much vitrified waste will come back from Russia. See the waste is in Russia.But anyway, Ukraine needs a vitrified waste facility, we certainly can do that for the country. We have the proven technology to provide that solution and that Energoatom and Ukrainian Government know it that Holtec is ready to help them if necessary.
Previously, Minister of Energy Herman Halushchenko stated that Ukraine would build a spent fuel storage facility, similar to the on-site one at the Zaporizhia NPP, within a year. Is Holtec collaborating with Ukraine in this area?
Yes, we are. We are developing it. We are helping Energoatom develop what we call on site storage facility. Holtec and Energoatom have worked jointly to identify the required processes for the on-site storage of the used fuel by using the already licensed storage casks similar to what is done in the United States. These on-site storage facilities can be rapidly setup by repurposing the equipment Holtec has already supplied for use at the plants instead of the Central Storage Facility. Since this equipment is already approved by the nuclear regulator, safety will be ensured for the on-site storage as well while minimizing costs.
Holtec International is known on the world stage for the development of its Small Modular Rector – SMR-160. What is so unique about them? Is there any perspective to construct such reactors in Ukraine?
The small modular reactors is the modern technology, which is most suitable for Ukraine. And here is the reason why. The plant does not require any pumps and motors for safety function. it was them, which has been a major problem in nuclear plants. Just recall the Fukushima case.That is one big reason we recommend our reactor to your country. The other reason is that SMR-160 can be deployed anywhere in your country. It can be deployed next to the Dnipro River where many Ukrainian nuclear plants are today or it could be deployed in the middle of a cornfield or a sunflower field. Because for cooling any power plant requires in case of SMR 160 you can use air as the cooling media.
And just to conclude, the SMR-160 is so safe that if terrorists were to take control of the control room, they would not be able to blow up the plant, but only shut it down. Putin's most trained KGB agents would not be able to cause an accident. That's why we recommend SMR 160 to your country.
How rapidly can the manufacturing (localization) of small modular reactors for NPPs be launched in post-war Ukraine?
For the past several years, our goal has been to establish a manufacturing center in Ukraine to supply your country's needs and also regional needs such as nuclear plants in Poland, Romania, you know your surrounding Eastern European region.That is why we want to build a manufacturing plant in Ukraine, the most modern plant that will manufacture the SMR-160 components.
That's our goal. We hope that the West provides the economic assistance to Ukraine to make this happen.
What impact have the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis made to the SMRs in Ukraine and around the world?
Well, the war in Ukraine is changing the energy equation around the world.
You know that Your country faces a significant problem with availability of natural gas to heat your homes and businesses. You cannot, like any country in the world rely on Russia as a dependable supplier of fossil energy as Russia uses its fossil fuels as a weapon against countries that it does not like or opposes its expansionist policies.
So Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, every part of the world is looking how to free themselves of Russian blackmail. It has rearranged priorities. I think there will be a huge push to build nuclear plants. Hopefully, our SMR-160 plants and particularly in your country.
I think, Ukraine can use over a hundred of SMR-160 plants all over the country to eliminate fossil need on coal, oil, and gas.
And by the way, nuclear plants can be used to heat homes also. We have a district heating technology called “HI-HEAT”, which makes it possible to Store excessive energy for future use. It means nuclear plants can be used as a source of energy to heat homes.
Dr. Singh, could you please elaborate more on HI-HEAT? Is it possible to implement it in Ukraine?
Yes, we actually developed HI-HEAT inspired by Ukraine's needs. We saw what's happening in Ukraine, the loss of gas and your heating needs facing the winter. So we have developed this technology. It stores “excess energy” from nuclear plants at night when the demand is low. Then that energy in the form of steam will provide district heating24 hours during winter months.
We are providing for implementation of the technology in Ukraine. Because the time is so short and building a full-fledged manufacturing plant takes long, so we will use the existing manufacturing capabilities in the country to manufacture the HI-HEAT systems in the short term. And if the demand continues to be strong, then we may put up our own manufacturing facility. But one way or the other, Holtec wants to provide you the HI-HEAT systems, so people in the winter have heat without relying on Russian natural gas.
What other joint projects do Holtec and the Ukrainian side, including Energoatom, are currently collaborating on?
We have a firm belief that after this period of crisis is over and Energoatom has returned to normal operations, they don't have foreign troops on their nuclear plants complex, after things have returned to normal, then we will begin to discuss projects like the life extension, SMR-160, HI-HEAT, i.e. all that can help Ukraine. We will also work with Western agencies to help Ukraine receive the necessary funds so the work can be done.
And now to wrap this up, please tell us about Holtec’s prospects. What technologies is Holtec developing that may help Ukraine in the future?
The most important technology is our SMR-160 which you as a country with a significant fossil energy generation need to transition to a clean nuclear plant industry. So, your nuclear infrastructure expansion in the country is perspective.This is also relates to the HI-HEAT system, which will allow you to reduce consumption of natural gas to heat your homes and businesses. We will continue to provide material support technologies to Energoatom to manage its used nuclear fuel.
And by far, the most important item is making sure that we develop a strong manufacturing base for nuclear components in your country. It is extremely important. If you don't have the nuclear industry infrastructure, then your trained engineers will leave the country. It will not let you develop, and the country will not be able to meet your future goals.
I mentioned to President Zelensky when I met him last December that he was losing engineers. They were going to Russia for jobs because there weren't enough jobs in Ukraine. So we have to reverse that trend. We have to make sure the jobs are created in Ukraine and engineers, your technical people, they stay in Ukraine, and they are not forced to go overseas to Poland or other places. And that is a necessity that transcends everything else. You have to preserve your technical resource pool. And we are committed to helping you do that. We have an organization currently in Ukraine and we hope to build on that organization to employ your people. So the country can remain technically strong and able to look after its future.