Merging Nuclear Academia and Industry
How did you get into the nuclear space?
Milko Kovachev studied nuclear engineering at the Technical University of Serbia. In 1979, Kovachev graduated from university and moved to work at the nuclear power plants operating in Bulgaria at that time. Nuclear was a new technology at the time, seen as a popular source of energy. In order to become a licensed senior reactor operator, one must study and obtain a Master’s degree and then go through the plant training system. This changed Kovachev’s mentality from academic thinking to a practical, business-oriented, operational thinking. He went through many positions such as field operator manager of the field control room, eventually taking practical exams to qualify him to operate the reactor. The operator understands all the operating parameters and studies different accident conditions to know how to react to these events. After serving as reactor operator for four years, Kovachev returned to school to pursue his PhD and teach at the university, where he found his field experience very valuable. In 1992, Serbia was transitioning from a planned economy to a market economy. Kovachev returned to the nuclear plants, which were at the center of the international community focus for safety reasons after Chernobyl in 1986. Upon his return, Kovachev became director of a new training center at the plant and re-designed the training curriculum based on a systematic approach, integrating the use of simulators in the process. Next, Kovachev joined the Committee of Energy, a policymaking center in Europe, to manage the EU support for safety. Sample testing the reactor pressure vessels of Unit 1 occurred during Kovachev’s time on the Committee and was a key element of showing the integrity of the structure.
Nuclear Infrastructure in the European Union
Were you trying to figure out how to integrate current energy infrastructure into compliance with European Union standards upon entering the EU?
The European Union has a number of treaties, directives, and regulations and a newly integrated country must prepare to operate in a new environment and accept new rules. Some chapters are more challenging to adapt to, such as creating 90 days of supply and meeting environmental standards, and have significant cost implications. The country had to accept closure of two units in 2002 and another two units in 2006. This was a difficult internal dialogue, because the response from the society was not very positive about this move away from nuclear power in the country and was logistically and politically difficult. In 2000, Kovachev was invited to join the new Bulgarian government as the Minister of Energy. This position carried high dynamism, but also high responsibility due to the impact his decisions made on a large number of people. Energy loads were changed and strategized for long term development.
Framework for Nuclear Program Development
If you had the ability, how would you have transformed the country’s energy infrastructure and resources overnight?
Energy infrastructure and resources cannot be changed overnight, but one needs to do the right thing at the right time to bring results later. Leaders need to implement the right strategies, legal environment, and institutions. The institutional, legal, and regulatory framework was the most interesting part of Kovachev’s position as Minister of Energy. There may not be immediate results, but when systems are placed in the right direction, results can come later. Ten years ago, a special program for countries embarking on nuclear power was developed to guide countries through the process and complexity of developing a nuclear program. This guide, called “Milestones in the Development of National Infrastructure for Nuclear Power”, became very popular with nuclear countries and became a standard and common language between countries embarking on nuclear power and the technology providers. Nuclear power requires a specific environment as it pertains to legal obligations, safety, security, and safeguards. It is important to have a competent and independent regulator, since the regulator oversees the operating organization. The accumulated experience, reflected in the guide, show that 10-15 years is timeline starting from scratch, preparing your commitment to the program, all the way through putting legal and regulatory framework in place, building institutions for operation and regulation, and contracting, constructing, and commissioning.
Kovachev's Role at IAEA
How long have you been in your current role at the International Atomic Energy Agency?
Milko Kovachev joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the summer of 2015. The Agency has seen steady interest from countries interested in embarking on nuclear power, with about 30 countries currently in different stages of program development. Some frontrunners, like UAE and Belarus, are constructing and close to commissioning their plants. Other countries, such as Turkey and Bangladesh, recently began building their first nuclear plants via contractors. A significant number countries are at the face of consideration and also establishing their nuclear infrastructure, to which the Agency provides assistance. As part of the IAEA, Kovachev sees countries that decided to pursue nuclear in the past, but may not have considered the commitments that requires for the future. When digging deeper and understanding the implications, some countries may decide not to pursue nuclear after all. Nuclear is a high capital intensive industry and requires big front end capital, along with total preparation to get into the contracting phase. Engaging in nuclear power is different than developing research and development reactors. Have this prior experience in research reactors might be helpful for implementing power reactors, but is not a prerequisite and is not necessarily recommended. Small modular reactors (SMR’s) vary differently from large power reactors in terms of capacity. Technology is now coming from the market, as vendors provide innovation and support.
Implications of a Commitment to Nuclear
Do non-nuclear countries ever come to the IAEA wanting to become a nuclear country, but unable to bring on gigawatt scale reactors?
Are they interested in other options?
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has steps from the very beginning of the program intended to share available technologies on the market and options about reactor systems. The Agency is maintaining an advanced reactor information system database and has a center for competencies across the Agency which assists countries in understanding available technologies and commitments. In the next phase, the Agency supports in more sophisticated approaches, such as how to structure negotiation process. Different designs and features are reviewed before deployment. The time to develop a program is approximately 10-15 years, which may bring new technologies in the next decade. Thirty countries are currently in pursuit of nuclear power by 2030. When invited by the government, the IAEA may visit the country at certain checkpoints to give relevance of the infrastructure, identify gaps, and support the efforts of the country moving forward.
Future International Demand for Nuclear Energy
If significantly more countries wanted to implement nuclear energy in the near future, where might the world see bottlenecks in the surge of interest in nuclear energy?
Last year, the International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century was held in Abu Dhabi. Many decision makers, policymakers, and nuclear experts were present to discuss nuclear planning. The Agency is developing projections and scenarios to serve the needs of nuclear member states. One important takeaway from the conference is here is no full alignment of the energy, environmental, and climate change policies. Many countries in the advanced stages have declared that nuclear power is part of their solution for climate change. Another of Kovachev’s takeaways was presented by WNA, the World Nuclear Association, showing that the nuclear industry, prior to Chernobyl, was able to construct 33 nuclear units in one year. Today, in the last two years, ten units sequentially were connected to the grid. The complexity of the industry is much bigger now. Scaling up can serve a surge in nuclear interest, but will depend on the policies set by countries and commitments made. The sector is ready to deliver upon the needs of countries. New generation reactors are coming online. High levels of interest are coming from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Kovachev is certain that one day nuclear will be operated in sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, and West Africa. The big nuclear market right now is in India and China. Newcomer countries may drive deployment of the first small modular reactors (SMR’s). The International Energy Agency is classifying all low-carbon electricity sources, including nuclear, as clean energy, which is key for addressing the needs and challenges for the planet.