Mikhail Chudakov joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Energy on 1 February 2015. His previous post, since February 2007, was as the director of the Moscow Centre of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO).

NEI: What are the main priorities of your department?

Mikhail Chudakov: I started working in my new position on 1st February 2015 – almost one year already. One of my main priorities relates to newcomers. Now we have 441 nuclear units in operation in 30 countries and 65 units under construction in various countries. And about 30 countries have said they are considering including nuclear energy in their energy mix in future.

NEI: How do you assist the newcomer countries?

MC: We should be sure that they are making a decision with full knowledge of the need for infrastructure – special infrastructure – of operation, of construction and all other aspects of nuclear power in their country. The main goal of our infrastructure development section is to help countries understand that they are finally responsible for the safety, security and everything that can happen with a nuclear power plant. It is not just a question of a supplier providing a nuclear power plant. There are issues of legislation, public acceptance, human resources, fuel supplies, used fuel management, low and intermediate waste management, safe operation of the plant, organisation of physical protection, questions of non-proliferation, possible life-time extension and finally decommissioning.

Of course the plant vendor can organise some of the operation for a period of time, but from the very beginning the responsibility rests with the country operating the nuclear plant. This is why the question of newcomer countries is a major priority. I came here from WANO (World Association of Nuclear Operators) and there we had a slogan: ‘We are as strong as the weakest link in the chain.’

NEI: What mechanisms of support can you offer newcomers?

MC: Our main support for newcomers is through Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) missions, where groups of experts help them to identify gaps in their infrastructure. There are 19 issues and three milestone phases, which need to be considered.

The first milestone phase is that newcomers should take a knowledgeable decision and have a knowledgeable regulator and operational organisation. There should also be public acceptance and a government decision to go ahead with nuclear power. It is more difficult for a vendor if a country has a strong regulator and operational organisation. They ask a lot of difficult questions but this is good for safety.

NEI: How many INIR missions have you conducted?

MC: We have so far conducted 17 INIR missions in 13 countries, including three this year, all in Africa – in Nigeria, Morocco and Kenya. In September we reissued our Milestones document taking into account the collective experience from our missions, the lessons from Fukushima, requests from various countries, and new approaches to the construction of nuclear power such as build-own-operate, for example.

As an international organisation we are not in a position to say if a country is ready or not to introduce nuclear power but we can help by identifying the gaps that need to be addressed. We encourage countries to make public their INIR reports but so far unfortunately only four have done so. There are several reasons for this. Some countries are just not ready to construct a nuclear plant and recognise that they have large gaps. Other may have political difficulties preventing them.

NEI: How do newcomers respond to your recommendations?

MC: We are happy to help newcomer countries and, although our recommendations are not mandatory, they are treated as such by the newcomers, who take the recommendations seriously. Some countries are already constructing nuclear power plants such as the United Arab Emirates, which is building four units. Belarus is building two units. Both these countries are actively participating in our infrastructure work.

Next year [2016] the UAE has agreed to host our first INIR phase three mission – readiness to commission. They have already taken part in phase one (readiness to take a knowledgeable decision), and phase two (readiness to begin a bidding process). In 2017 UAE will be commissioning its first unit and will host our Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century.

NEI: And your other priorities?

MC: My second priority is the ageing of nuclear power plants and their decommissioning. Currently more than half of all the operating reactors are more than 30 years old and they will require life extension or decommissioning in the coming decades. Our projections show that by 2030 there will be 150GWe needing decommissioning – in fact that means more than 150 units because some of the older plants were smaller than 1000MWe.

Decommissioning is a priority because we need to be prepared for this and exchange experience with those countries already undertaking decommissioning. Already 156 units have been shut down and only about 10% of them – 17 plants – have been dismantled to greenfield status.

This is a problem and is delaying construction of new nuclear power plants. Newcomer countries are looking at this situation. We need to find a way to decommission plants quickly, effectively and at low cost.

There are also priorities in other areas. Our Nuclear Power Technology Development Section is working on small and medium/modular reactors (SMRs) for the future and our INPRO Section is working on the development of new technologies – generation IV reactors which can replace existing plants.

NEI: What do you see as the future for nuclear energy?

MC: First of all I want to say that I believe nuclear power is inevitable for the world in view of the increasing demand for energy, increasing population, and the growing need for energy security and sustainability.

In the course of our INIR mission to Nigeria, I noted that the population doubles every 20 years. Now Nigeria has 180m, in 2035 they will have more than 300m. And this is the same throughout central Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, 600m people have no access to electricity. During the Ebola outbreak medical camps were set up, but there was no electricity to run them and generators had to be brought in. In the world, 1.3bn people have no electricity and about 2.6bn still use wood for cooking and heating.

Then there is the problem of the environment and the emission of greenhouse gases. We need to use nuclear power before developing new sources of energy. Old energy sources cannot solve this problem – even renewables, which depend on the weather and have an overall capacity factor of less than 20%.

Unfortunately there is no effective storage for electricity and fluctuation in power supply are damaging to transmission grids. Then there is the question of cost, especially solar. The wind of course is cheap but solar power is everywhere subsidised by the government and it is not cheap at all. Moreover these technologies require huge areas for construction and no-one has considered the problem of decommissioning. This could cause problems, especially for solar equipment.

As for oil and gas, they won’t last forever, to say nothing of the environmental damage they cause. Nuclear power is the lowest carbon dioxide emitter currently available. There is also hydropower but that is already fully exploited, and in any case it is also not always kind to the environment. This is why nuclear power is inescapable.

NEI: What are the main problems facing nuclear development?

MC: Primarily it is public acceptance, especially after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima. There are also concerns about the health effects of radiation, although this has improved somewhat, largely as a result of better education and through special information centres. In Hungary, for example, more than 60% of the population supports nuclear power and this is reflected in a number of other countries.

NEI: But some countries have decided to phase out nuclear power

MC: Yes, we have seen that after Fukushima. But this does not solve the problem. It may then be necessary to import electricity from other countries that produce it using nuclear power plants. You can’t just stop nuclear power because it is a long, long commitment. There are issues of decommissioning and disposal of used fuel and waste. And if you stop nuclear power, the new generation of experts will not consider entering this field and the expertise will not be available to develop new nuclear plants, which are safer and more reliable. And what would happen in the event of some accident without that expertise? We must work to develop safer nuclear power, which would then bring more public acceptance.

NEI: Nuclear plants are criticized as being too expensive.

MC: Economics are a problem, but of course it depends on the country and their economic situation. Some countries have access to other sources of energy such as oil. For some, nuclear power is suitable and for others it is not. We need to look for other economic mechanisms. If the market starts charging for CO2 emissions, I think the situation will change significantly for nuclear power. Also we need to speed up construction of nuclear power plants and not permit delays of 10-15 years, which create problems for investment and the future cost of electricity.

Vendors and manufacturers have a key role here: they could create cheaper equipment by introducing modular production and even modular construction. Some new designs are already using such methods and some vendors are showing that it is possible to construct a plant in 45 months.

Now investment in the construction of a first-of-a-kind nuclear power plant is very expensive compared with a conventional nuclear or a fossil fuelled plant. And construction can take 7-8 years which creates market uncertainties for private investors. So vendors have found different ways to assist nuclear construction such as build-own-operate projects, although this is not yet proven. Some vendors are also offering loans to help to finance new plants. But, as I said, the host country must still be ultimately responsible for infrastructure and all that follows.

NEI: And other problems?

MC: Other problems relate to ageing, decommissioning and waste technologies, and we are working on it. Already, Finland and Sweden are developing deep geological repositories for used fuel. Other countries are working on new technologies, such as how to minimise used fuel and radwaste following the decommissioning of a nuclear plant. I believe all these problems will be solved because nuclear power is inevitable.

NEI: Does your department support development of new technologies?

MC: Our department is working on new technologies, including small and medium sized or modular reactors (SMRs). These can be very competitive with renewable sources of energy especially for countries with small grids. In Africa, for example, the grids vary from 500MWe in Sierra Leone to about 2000MWe in Kenya – with most between 2000 and 3000MWe. Of course these cannot take a big unit because if you shut down a 1000MWe plant it could destroy all the grid.

SMRs are also good for small isolated communities, especially in northern areas of Canada, Russia and maybe Norway and also for island communities such as Malaysia. This is why these reactors are being considered by many countries.

On paper there are already 40-45 new SMR designs, but only four are under construction in Argentina, Russia and China. Russia has the first floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) comprising two KLT-40 reactors installed on a barge which will be towed to Pevek in the Arctic northeast. Actually I was there a year ago visiting the nearby Bilibino nuclear plant (which the FNPP is intended to replace) and we could see the site where the plant will be installed. Canada and China are also working on FNPPs. They could also be useful for some companies extracting oil in far north areas. Of course the price of a kWh will be higher but these plants can be sited in areas where there is no big grid.

Mikhail Chudakov spoke to Judith Perera in Vienna in November