President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Kovalchuk, five years have passed now since we reorganised the Kurchatov Institute as a research centre. I want to talk with you about the results this has brought the institute’s well-known and respected team, the successes and achievements, as you see them, including what has been achieved through using this new model, and the areas you think will be most promising and of greatest interest over the coming period.
I see you have something with you here. You have something to show me?
Director of the National Research Centre Kurchatov Institute Mikhail Kovalchuk: Yes, I should probably start with this.
Mr President, as you know, the institute used to be known as the Nuclear Energy Institute, and nuclear technology is our primary area of work. The institute works actively and in close contact with Rosatom [State Nuclear Energy Corporation], and serves as research supervisor and sets the ideas and directions in a whole range of important new fields.
I have several important points to note. This image illustrates it very well: here we have the Arctic, and here we have the Arctic Circle, not far from Murmansk. You see what we had 10 years ago, when you signed the document on starting a comprehensive programme of environmental work to clean up radioactive waste in the Arctic.
This really is a tremendous undertaking. Over these past years, this vast area has been transformed into a unique centre for treating and storing radioactive waste. Seventy-four units from nuclear submarines are now in long-term storage here. They are closely monitored and go through treatment, and so on.
Moving on, we built a whole new facility here to treat solid waste. In other words, objects that were contaminated by radiation go through a full treatment process and then are put into storage. This is a huge volume. I can tell you that this is a truly unique facility. It has an enormous amount of knowhow, refines the concepts, has its own research leadership, and designs the methods and technology for deactivation and all the other processes. Really, we have established a big environmental centre in the Arctic, enabling us, in accordance with your decisions, to advance nuclear technology and nuclear energy beyond the Arctic Circle to develop the Arctic. We have established a centre that really is one of a kind.
The Kurchatov Institute created this facility, and we have now handed its operation over to SevRAO [Northern Federal Enterprise for Radioactive Waste Management], which is part of Rosatom. Rosatom is now running the facility, but the theory behind it is ours.
Vladimir Putin: How many people work here?
Mikhail Kovalchuk: I think there will probably be around 100 people. At the moment, there are several dozen people there.
There is a lot of work today related to support for nuclear energy facilities. This is important work, but essentially, it is routine business, and we, as a research organisation, are interested in new fields, new activities. As far as these innovations go, let me note first of all that nuclear energy is working now on a completely new principle based on direct conversion [of nuclear energy into electricity]. This opens up new possibilities for naval development, and it also offers the chance to create new autonomous nuclear-powered devices to provide energy supplies for advancing offshore work and, given our country’s vast territory, provide new possibilities for local energy supply.
This technology has already been designed and tested. The base was put in place several decades ago and we have put it all through experimental operation and produced completely stable and steady results. Other important projects underway include development of a floating nuclear power plant. This was a vision we had that we worked on at the purely research level for many years, but today it is taking on real form.
I could say a lot more about nuclear energy activities, but let me end here and move on to thermonuclear fusion. This is promising future energy technology based not on splitting the nucleus, but on fusion of light nuclei. It was the Kurchatov Institute that first proposed the idea of thermonuclear fusion using a tokamak.
The second very important area related to traditional nuclear energy is mega-installations. Mega-installations are highly complex and very costly instruments that cost billions of dollars and are used to develop technology, materials and so on. They include fast-neutron reactors, synchrotrons, accelerators, and tokamaks. Each country seeks to possess these things in order to demonstrate their high-tech prowess and innovation policy, and the countries that have built these devices form an elite club. Only a few countries belong to this club, and Russia has always been one of the leaders here.
When perestroika began, we went through tough times, and we started looking abroad then and became an integral part of all the big international projects. In Europe, CERN (a well-known centre with which we work actively) is now developing an international thermonuclear reactor near Nice at a cost of more than $10 billion, and two powerful devices: the European x-ray free electron laser (XFEL) and a new accelerator complex in Germany. Russia, for the first time, is a full-fledged equal participant in all of these projects, and in half of the projects, the laser and the tokomak, for example, we are the ones generating the ideas and setting the course. Essentially, the world is developing our Soviet and Russian ideas and vision.
We also supply technology; for example, we are supplying high conductive cable, which only we could make, for the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project. Finally, and also very important, we are fully equal financial participants too, and we and Germany are key players in some projects, with up to 80 percent participation.
Vladimir Putin: Germany’s government also places great importance on this. I discussed it with the Chancellor. She is a physicist herself and is therefore very interested in this work.
Mikhail Kovalchuk: I remember that the XFEL project was launched with your active support. I note that we have very close contacts with the international science community and are an integral part of the global science landscape. The picture would be unthinkable without us, and we have a great interest in this work. It was an important development though that, in accordance with your decisions, we turned our attention to work here in Russia too and began working on mega-installations here in our own country. Two-and-a-half years ago, we gave new life to the PIK [High-Beam Reactor] project at our site in Gatchina. This is the world’s most powerful high-beam reactor, and we are now on schedule in our work here. I hope that everything we planned two and a half years ago will start operation. This will create unique new opportunities and is already drawing tremendous interest from around the world.
Vladimir Putin: By the way, has the merging of the facilities at Gatchina produced the hoped-for results?
Mikhail Kovalchuk: Yes, it certainly has. The important thing is that we now have full coordination of our four institutes that you merged as a pilot project. They are working synchronously now. We no longer have domestic competition, nor do we have competition on the market abroad. On the contrary, we act in unified fashion now and share a common programme approved by the Government. This was clearly a major step and very important measure that has taken our research to a qualitatively new level.
To finish with the international side of our activities, I would say that we became an integral part of work there, which is very important, and have now come back here. There is tremendous interest from abroad now. In order to keep developing this coordination, we have established an international council on research policy at the Kurchatov Institute, with everyone participating, from the Americans to the Japanese and the directors of all the major European and world centres. We meet twice a year and discuss our general opportunities for cooperation.
We have now started making use of experience we built up with the world, especially with Europe, in our work with the BRICS countries. We recently signed an agreement on developing a common research infrastructure for mega-installations with the BRICS countries and a second such agreement with the CIS.
You probably remember that during the Soviet years, on the initiative of Igor Kurchatov, nuclear centres were established in nearly all of the republics, and there are still people and the research base there today. We are therefore reviving this network now, redeveloping this research infrastructure, and I think that if we unite work within the Eurasian Economic Union, CIS and BRICS, we could then develop new areas together, in cooperation with Europe.
Finally, we take part in ITER and contribute substantial funds and technology, but we are one of the few countries among the eight participating countries not to have a thermonuclear fusion programme of our own. I think that if you think it important, we should have a national programme in this area. There is a programme, but we need to take it to a new level.
Vladimir Putin: Let’s discuss all of this in detail now.