Interview: Atomstroyexport's Shmatko

By BEN LANDO, UPI Energy Correspondent   |   Nov. 10, 2006 at 10:09 PM
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MOSCOW, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Russia, always a leader in nuclear energy development, plans to continue its trek into foreign -- and often controversial -- nuclear development, with an eye on countries unable to build and bring a plant online itself.

Atomstroyexport, Moscow's nuclear export arm, is building one reactor in Iran, two reactors each in China and India, and recently announced winning a tender for a dual-reactor plant in Bulgaria.

"It's not a secret that over the last two or three years, things have changed dramatically in regards to the future of atomic energy," Sergey Shmatko, president of Atomstroyexport, told United Press International in an exclusive interview from the company's Moscow headquarters.

"Suddenly there was a lot of countries that have popped up that weren't considered prospective in atomic energy. For example, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Chile, Argentina -- today each of the countries that are more or less stable are starting to think about getting involved in the atomic technology race," he said, adding in the years since the Chernobyl accident stalled nuclear development, safety has been increased while the main alternative to nuclear energy, fossil fuels, are much more expensive.

"Even the environmentalists talk about it," he said.

"We're talking about solutions in deficiencies in energy. The industrial alternative of atomic energy, there is none," saying renewable energy sources can't produce the power output nuclear plants can.

Sixteen percent of the world's power comes from 440 commercial reactors in 31 countries, according to the World Nuclear Association. Thirty more are being built now and another 55 are being considered. Even the United States, home of 103 running reactors, which hasn't licensed a new one since 1978, may see nuclear energy grow from the 20 percent share it holds now.

Dale Klein, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Oct. 6 he expects more than 30 applications for new reactors in the next couple of years.

Atomstroyexport, which reconstructs and builds new nuclear plants around the world, won't be a major investor, said Shmatko.

"Our current projects are much better than those that are even being offered in the United States right now. I can't say that going into the United States market would be excellent economically, or we'd make a lot of money from that. I can't say that."

Shmatko said Atomstroyexport may be involved on a secondary level, such as a subcontractor, but its focus will be in countries with high energy needs, such as the developing world, as well as countries like India and China which have some, but not all, of the nuclear technology needed to come online.

The Obninsk reactor produced the world's first nuclear electricity in 1954 and Russia has maintained status as a nuclear energy -- as well as weapons -- power ever since. It plans to heavily invest in its domestic sector, spending $54 billion to upgrade and expand from the current 15.6 percent of power the industry serves the state to 25 percent by 2030.

Ninety percent of Russia's nuclear industry profits are made from exports, according to the Russian news and information agency, RIA Novosti.

The tender in Bulgaria is "a new stage for our company," Shmatko said, relatively free from direct control of Moscow and able to strike deals as the business model dictates. He called it a "Bulgarian project in Bulgaria. A European project," not Russian, promising to work with European Union officials when Bulgaria is admitted next year.

But politics are heavy in their deals, despite the attempts to steer clear, Shmatko says. The Bushehr reactor in Iran is in the cross-hairs as Tehran tries to persuade the U.N. Security Council its nuclear program -- which includes uranium enrichment -- is for civilian energy only. Under the current contract with Atomstroyexport, all spent fuel, which could be processed for weapons, would return to Russia.

"We understand this project is first of all political and not commercial," Shmatko said. He insists the company will abide by Russian Federation and international standards to guard against proliferation.

North Korea is also not on the horizon of Atomstroyexport. "We're working a lot in Southeast Asia," Shmatko said, including the China project and talks with Vietnam and South Korea. "We have no contacts whatsoever with North Korea."

Within the next two years there may be no more Atomstroyexport, at least not as its known now.

"There is a government plan in regards to this, creating a single company that will work with all companies that are working with atomic energy for civilian use," Shmatko said. "Beginning with uranium fuel, building atomic stations, engineering, exploiting, integration, all of that. That will be one company."

President Vladimir Putin is urging the State Duma to pass legislation allowing for Atomprom to be formed. It will be controlled by the state, with Russia's nuclear-field companies tucked into a corporate-like structure and allowed to work with private companies.

"And we are planning on being part of that one company, which will be realizing all of the industrial atomic power for Russia and abroad," Shmatko said.


(UPI Energy Correspondent Ben Lando was in Russia as a guest of the Russian news and information agency, RIA Novosti.)


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