Rusatom Overseas is a nuclear industry integrator for several new application areas. Evgeny Pakermanov, the head of RAOS, explains how the pandemic changed the company's activities, when the Russia’s first SMR NPP is going to start operation in Yakutia, what is the further development plan for GSPI and why some engineers will continue working from home even after all restraints are removed.
Advantages of working fr om home
— How has the pandemic affected the company’s activities?
— In different ways, the same as for many others. On the one hand, RAOS is probably one of the companies who suffered the most in terms of the promotion of Rosatom products on the global market. Generally, the construction projects are going on regardless of some possible delays, and they all go under the schedule. As for the new projects, negotiations and communications with the customers now are more complicated. Many customers put their big investment decisions on hold.
The positive thing is that during the pandemic, we have sufficiently expanded the tools we use in communication with the customers. In the past, the entire team had to go to the customer’s location for a week in order to work everything out and fix the agreements. Now, we can set up a video conference and negotiate with our partners fr om any country of the world. Fr om now on, a substantial part of such negotiations will be conducted remotely forever. It can significantly increase the effectiveness, and it gives an opportunity to involve more experts and be more flexible in terms of resources. Of course, some part of negotiations still must happen in person. This is the matter where we see certain restraints.
Nevertheless, the most important is that we have many promising projects in the new activity areas because any crisis is actually a window of opportunity.
— What activity areas do you mean?
— I mean absolutely new areas wh ere we have never been involved before. For example, the hydrogen energy or managing the implementation of big infrastructure projects in Russia, which we also have never done before. There are many interesting opportunities regarding GSPI (State Specialized Design Institute).
— SMR NPP projects?
— Yes, among others. In addition, industrial waste recycling facilities for the Federal Environmental Operator. We are already doing some work for them: all site surveys for many projects are within our scope of responsibility.
SMR NPPs: Yakutia is the first
— Will the pilot land-based small NPP be built in Yakutia?
— We have defined several sites but the pilot project will be in Yakutia.
— Why there?
— It is simple. SMR NPPs were developed mainly for remote regions not connected to the centralized power supply system. Yakutia has a huge gold field Kyuchus that is the biggest undeveloped and explored field in Russia. Gold mining is quite energy-intensive. It is impossible to deliver such enormous amount of diesel fuel there. The only efficient way is to build a small nuclear power plant.
— Nevertheless, they will need a backup power supply, right?
— Backup power supply is wh ere diesel fuel can be used, but if we build an NPP with two reactors, they will serve as a backup for each other. In other words, on the one hand, you need a constant consumer in order to build a nuclear power plant. On the other hand, the field cannot be developed unless there is a guaranteed power source in place. The Yakutian authorities are interested in having a nuclear power plant. So, we are moving forward quite fast. We have already completed site surveys. In the end on 2020, we signed an agreement with the Yakutian authorities regarding the tariff principles for electric power. I hope the project will be successfully completed on schedule.
— What other sites do you consider?
— There are several regions that show interest in land-based SMR NPPs, but this is just preliminary discussions.
— How many? Five? Seven? Ten?
— Several. There are surely five of them. It is enough for the current stage.
Regarding the pilot SMR NPP, we have already developed an organizational framework. For this purpose, the industry had to find a non-standard solution. The management team of this project will be headed by Kirill Komarov, First Deputy Director General for Corporate Development and International Business. We have built a big inter-divisional project team. It was the pandemic that helped us: we all learned how to work from home and be effective. RAOS will act as the Developer of this NPP project, while Rosenergoatom will be the Technical Customer and, later, the Operator.
— Why this is so important?
— It is important because it is a new experience for the Russian nuclear industry. We have never built a small land-based NPP. We did it in order to ensure flexibility and fast decision-making. Many works must be done in parallel in order to complete the project within the time limits that we set ourselves (commissioning in 2027). In other words, we will use a non-traditional approach not suitable for a large NPP.
The design is already under development. Now we have a new division dedicated solely to the design development of the SMR NPP and based on GSPI engineers. However, many specialists were also found on the open market. Selectively. Some specialists came from the nuclear industry, others — from outside. So, now we have a top-notch team which is flexible and universal, covering all disciplines and all specialties. Now the design development process will be centralized in one place, not divided among different departments. Today the team includes 30 people, and we are going to hire more.
Small but not simple
— How many people is needed to design a small NPP? One hundred or more?
— You cannot count this way because different stages of the project require different design resources. Now, it is the stage of Basic Design development. Of course, the Detailed Design will require more specialists, but it will be a less creative work, more routine.
When you have an approved 3D model and Basic Design, then detailed drawing is just a technical process. Now we are at the stage of creative design development. In addition, our task is not just to design an NPP, but also to sufficiently optimize the solutions offered at the conceptual stage.
I regularly meet with the design team. It is an exclusive and creative environment when many things are unknown, and these people are very inspired.
— Can you provide some examples of new ideas? Underground NPP location?
— Underground location, container-based arrangement, new materials including composite materials. We consider everything existing in the nuclear and other industries. Our intension is to build not just a small NPP for power generation, but we need a reference project to be promoted in foreign markets. On the one hand, we must meet the requirements of Russian technical supervision authorities (RosTechNadzor). On the other hand, our project must meet all major international requirements.
— First, there was a conceptual design based on our traditional approach. Now, the creative team is working on its optimization and improvement. What will be the next step? Will it be possible to immediately implement and license all innovative solutions?
— Different solutions need different procedures. Some will need a calculation to be justified. Other solutions related to new materials will require an R&D base. Eventually, we must submit documentation to the authorities in order to receive a license and, later, an operation permit.
For instance, titanium alloy products can be used for nuclear installations. However, they are currently used for marine reactors in order to ensure the required corrosion resistance. We could use such products for our land-based NPP in Russia. Unfortunately, titanium alloys are not allowed under international regulations. Clearly, we cannot change such requirements. Anyway, it would not be a fast process, for sure. In this case, considering the modular structure, we may decide to keep titanium alloys in the first phase, but for the second phase we may need to provide a rationale for a stainless steel alloys, as an example, which may easily be used in our foreign project later.
— Yakutia is a remote region. Do you have any understanding how to deliver equipment or organize construction there?
— We are working on it. There are roads. We could go by water. There are snow roads in winter that are used mainly to transport cargo. There are certain specifics, of course, but we do not see any unresolvable problems there. One of our tasks is to minimize construction works on the site considering the remote location. Maximum use of modular assemblies.
— You plan the start-up for 2027. Do you have any concerns about such a short time?
— No doubt, it is a tough schedule, but why should we be concerned? We have a work program, a schedule, clear milestones that we must complete every year. Judging by 2020, we are under the schedules regardless of the pandemic. It is a difficult but feasible task.
New life of GSPI
— Please tell us about the planned development of GSPI. Is it a key asset of RAOS?
— You can say so; GSPI is a key asset of RAOS in terms of competence, while RAOS is a key asset of GSPI. Of course, we have inspired GSPI with new life. Our active participation gave GSPI an opportunity to try new areas: medicine, industrial waste, research centers, SMR NPPs. The above is more than enough for the development of any design company.
— Speaking about medicine, do you mean the Dmitry Rogachev Center?
— Not only. Everybody is more familiar with this center, but GSPI also designed a large oncology center in Khimki. We have signed a contract for construction of a Nuclear Medicine Center in Irkutsk: Basic Design is ready and approved by the State Expertise. The design is also ready for the Nuclear Medicine Center in Barnaul.
— Why does GSPI receive such assignments?
— GSPI developed design for many complex and non-standard facilities related to nuclear technologies. It was actually a primary designer for many our industrial plants that became a center for single-industry towns. There were also facilities related to nuclear medicine. However, I would like to note the following: GSPI previously was providing only design, while now we sometimes develop design and build facilities. It means that GSPI is developing its engineering competencies.
— Are there many specialists available on the market?
— Not quite so. We have broken barriers. In the past, it was impossible to imagine that a complex nuclear facility would be designed by a designer working from home. Such situations would be impossible due to a certain conservatism. Under lockdown conditions, we had to either stop the production process or find a suitable solution, and the solution was found soon enough. The Moscow office of GSPI and all other branches switched to working from home within one month, providing remote access and necessary equipment.
— How did it look like? IT specialist went to everybody bringing and setting-up the equipment?
— Exactly. They did all that. Some people took equipment themselves. It looked like an emergency duty work. Our IT specialists were on duty 24 hours a day. They became our heroes in these difficult times.
As a result, the design division can work from home. Generally speaking, it does not matter now wh ere to hire a specialist, in what part of the country he or she will be located. We do not need to relocate them. We do not even need to give them a powerful computer, they can use their own computers to access the computer located in the office.
Office is not so important
— No turning back?
— No, I do not think so. In spite of the lifted restraints, I directly demand from the managers to keep certain percent of designer home in order to maintain and develop this competence.
— Of course, working from home all the time is a challenge because there is no more boundaries between home and office.
— It depends on the type of work and the person. We should remember that technical specialists are used to work without constant communication, focusing on specific tasks and spending time in front of computers. If there are normal conditions at home, if there are no yelling children and you do not have to fight for your computer, then working from home is quite comfortable. I must say that we do not keep anybody home against their will.
— In other words, GSPI will have a lot of remote employees in future, right?
— It is our goal. I am not ready to tell you the exact share of such employees, but it is surely an opportunity for development and quick involvement of highly qualified specialists.
— Is there a lack of any competence in GSPI?
— We are building-up our engineering expertise. Two years ago, GSPI did not provide engineering services at all. Today, we have a CNST project in Bolivia.
Initially, the project management center was arranged at RAOS. For the Bolivian project, we gathered a mixed team consisting of people from GSPI and RAOS. Then this team moved to GSPI. We did the same for another project, the Dmitry Rogachev Center. Now, the project in Irkutsk, and again we have organized a dedicated division.
Considering the fact that we have several quite big engineering projects, our task for 2021 is to establish some kind of an engineering center to implement best practices and use the available resources more efficiently.
— What about GSPI development strategy in the near future? How do you see it? Have you ever thought of merging RAOS and GSPI?
— There are many options. We are in the middle of integration process; some supporting functions have been centralized to increase efficiency, controllability and speed of decision-making. For example, RAOS has stronger international law competence just because it had more international projects and experience. There is no use for GSPI to grow this competence. GSPI, of course, is developing its design competence. We seriously focuse on design technologies. We hire new people. By the way, in this case, the pandemic was a great opportunity.