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Mikhail Kovalchuk: Russia's never had thoughts of giving up

April 18, 8:00 UTC+3
Kurchatov Institute President in TASS special project TOP OFFICIALS
Material has 4 pages
© Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS

About free milk at work in compensation for exposure to occupational hazards, de ja vu and deindustrialization

- Are you entitled to getting free milk at work in compensation for hazardous conditions?

- No. Not any more… Before - yes, were used to get some. At the Crystallography Institute, where I’d worked for more than forty years all in all, the hustle and bustle began when free milk began to be distributed among the staff. The milk was brought in in pyramid-like carton packs. Doors were banging here and there and everywhere, busy-looking people could be seen racing up and down the corridors… At a certain point I was even presented with a souvenir made at the Leningrad Porcelain Factory - a bright reminder of those days. It was an exact replica of its carton twin - the red-white-blue tetrahedron-shaped pack the colors of Russia’s flag today. This comparison dawned upon me just recently. Today’s independent Russia was still non-existent, but milk was distributed for free…

Those carton pack had one big flaw: they developed leaks all too often. In some laboratories sour milk was used to ferment improvised yoghurts, while in others people preferred to turn it into cottage cheese. In a word, it was a tiny makeshift dairy factory. Nobody stayed idle.

- And what type of sour milk products did you make?

- My room had no windows. It housed an X-ray machine, a desk and a chair. That’s all. There was no place where I could go to try myself as a milkman, so I consumed pasteurized milk straight. Provided I couldn’t find something stronger to treat myself to…

This (in Kurchatov Institute) is possibly the cleanest place in the whole of Moscow as far as radiation is concerned

- In your room today I see enough windows, but there is a synchrotron two storeys below. Is it the reason why the screen at the entrance to the building shows not only the time of day and air temperature, but also the level of radiation?

- We also put up a large electronic panel on the façade of the Kurchatov Institute to let all passers-by see this information, too. Don’t you worry: we monitor the situation round the clock. This is possibly the cleanest place in the whole of Moscow as far as radiation is concerned.

True, back in the 1940s, in the early days of the Soviet Union’s atom project nobody cared about proper protection from radiation. As you may remember from your physics classes at school, Becquerel discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity accidentally. He had been getting ready for an experiment and spoiled several photographic plates with radiation emitted by uranium salts. For this discovery he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

The first nuclear reactor that was built here, at the Kurchatov Institute, was assembled without giving proper thought to precautions, because the potential risks still remained largely unknown.

- This brings to mind Mikhail Romm’s drama film Nine Days in One Year about Soviet pioneers of nuclear particle physics research, doesn’t it?

- Right. Incidentally, many episodes of that film were shot at the Kurchatov Institute. It was much later, in the early 1960s, when we learned not only how to make bombs, but also how to develop civilian nuclear power. Disposal of nuclear waste was the problem that arose next. And the environmental issues emerged in the limelight just recently. Many started talking about the possibility of a closed fuel cycle, in which every single item should be reprocessed and put to use again.

Chernobyl occurred thirty years ago. After that the industry’s entire potential was switched over to addressing this new task. A special unit for research into the safe development of nuclear power was created within the Kurchatov Institute. It was the idea of Anatoly Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Velikhov. After a series of experiments some fundamental changes were made to the security systems of modern nuclear power plants. Our science council just recently awarded the degree of the Kurchatov Institute’s honorary doctor to Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of the nuclear power corporation Rosatom. Kiriyenko made an excellent report in which he previewed the industry’s development. The state corporation’s current list of contracts is about three hundred billion dollars worth. Russia is a systemic player on the nuclear power market, but it took gigantic efforts to make this possible. In the first place, in the field of security. In that sense Chernobyl was not in vain.

- And yet the level of trust towards nuclear power in Europe has slumped. Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Poland have outlawed the construction of nuclear power plants and Germany is closing down the existing ones.

- You’ve forgot to mention Lithuania, where the Ignalina NPP was shut down five years ago. I won’t be discussing geopolitics in detail now, but just take a quick look at the three former Soviet republics in the Baltics, all now independent states. They’ve experienced a not very tricky thing that is sometimes called “deindustrialization.” It’s almost complete. The European Union had no need for the Baltic states’ industries for which the Ignalina NPP was providing electricity. The power plant was shut down on the pretext of a campaign for clean environment and security.

Does it make any sense to indulge in saber-rattling and to conquer others’ territories at a time when the same can be achieved without a single shot fired?

- But Germany can by no means suspected of deindustrialization. Germans are surely not their own enemies.

- I am certain that the policy of military colonization that the leading world powers were conducting over the past centuries against weaker and less developed countries has now given way to technological colonization. Does it make any sense to indulge in saber-rattling and to conquer others’ territories at a time when the same can be achieved without a single shot fired? Before, most backward states were the targets of colonization. Now the emphasis is on the developed countries.

In Germany, 37% of electricity the country consumes is nuclear power-generated. Yet it will be prepared to close down the industry altogether of its own accord. I don’t see the reason why. The Germans are very smart, but the French are no fools either, don’t you agree? Nearly three quarters of the electricity that is being produced in France today is generated at its NPPs. This is the second highest level in the world in terms of quality and in the highest from the standpoint of the overall amount. But the French are not in the mood of prohibiting anything. The Areva company, which designs and manufactures equipment for the French nuclear power industry, is one of the largest on the globe and it is our Rosatom’s major contender for future contracts.

I’m not saying that alternative sources of power should not be developed, but they are surely not a panacea

- Germans are going to develop alternative sources of power, aren’t they?

- Let’s take electromobiles for example first. They’ve been talked about a lot of late. They are just great in large megapolisis and for the protection of the environment, no denying that. But please remember one little thing: should all motor vehicles in the world be equipped with electric motors, the generating facilities required to charge the batteries will have to be doubled. At least!  And that’s impossible from both technical and financial points of view. Besides, the electromobile enthusiasts are also arch foes of nuclear power plants. Where can electric power be taken then? From gas and coal-fueled power plants, in defiance of all ecological requirements. Acid rains will literally kill the Earth! Take a look at China, where coal is used on a wide scale…

Solar energy is another proposed option. But enough place for installing the solar cell panels will have to be found first. Ok, you may put them on the roof. They will be just enough for supplying heat and light for your home. But you’ll have to build large power plants anyway to keep industries going.

I’m not saying that alternative sources of power should not be developed, but they are surely not a panacea.

- What should Russia be pressing for in your opinion?

- I’d put it this way. All of us are well aware of the foreign policy situation we are in today. Our Western partners have all the way cultivated the idea, first covertly and then overtly, that Russia is a loser country. It has no modern science, they claimed, its technologies are backward and its prospects are bleak. A mighty media campaign was launched to persuade the world and us that this is really so. One day I was leafing through an illustrated magazine on a plane the air carrier kept on board for passengers to read… It was some jointly published periodical – the authors were Russian and funding foreign. It was very beautiful, bright and on the face of it made sense. An article claiming the demise of the Russian Navy caught my eye. The news that prompted the author to write the story was the launch of a new coastguard ship at the Yantar (Amber) shipyards. The vessel, the article claimed, was a pale replica of its NATO counterparts. The conclusion was the Russian Navy was good for nothing, hopeless and doomed. The text sounded suicidal. The verdict was final, not to be overturned! The accompanying photograph showed an old-time abandoned shipyard and a half-erased slogan on a weather-beaten wall: Glory to Soviet Science! Something in that photo looked awfully familiar to me. I suddenly had that strange de ja vu feeling. And from the depth of my memory I dug up the recollection where I had seen it. At a far-away corner of the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg! True, the building’s wall was an eyesore, to say the least, but the St. Petersburg’s defense industries that still use this and many other shipyards were already developing and building naval technologies that the West was still utterly ignorant and shouldn’t have the slightest idea of. What I’m trying to say is this. That falsehood was an act of deliberate brainwashing. It was targeted against our youth first and foremost. If you really want to make a career in science, to be successful, its latent message was, get out of this doomed country as fast as you can! And those who were still determined to stay were cautioned that nothing good was in store for them. That thought was repeated so often and so aggressively, that even the authors began to believe their own propaganda.

This explains why it was stunning news for them Russia has never had the slightest invention of giving up to the joy of jubilant victors.

The West is particularly surprised at how we managed to live through it all. So many things were ruined, lost, given away for nothing in the 1990s that for any other country it would’ve surely been irreparable disaster! True, it was a really hard blow on us and on our science, but the portfolio of cutting-edge ideas and products had been so large that we managed to survive and to start developing again. In fact, Russia today is one of the most advanced high-tech countries in the world. And in many respects we are in the lead.

- Respects like what?

- I’ve shown you the synchrotron that is right below. It generates x-rays… As soon as it embarked on the path of industrial development, any country invariably tried to have some mega-facility built in its territory. It’s like an admission fee, a pass granting access to the club of states prepared to go ahead with science research. That’s what most of the industrializing countries used to do. Either we or the Americans agreed to meet their requests. But the elite group in that club still consisted only of those who were able to design and build such mega-devices on their own. Russia was invariably in the forefront.

These days, CERN is much in the news. You remember, it’s the nuclear research center on the border of France and Switzerland, the world’s largest laboratory of high energy physics. All accelerators there, including the Large Hadron Collider, use the same principle of opposing particle beams our physicists invented. Many parts and components, including magnets, are products of Russian research institutes. Now, the most important thing: inside the nearly 27-kilometer LHC ring, in which heavy particles are accelerated to tremendous energies, there are four so-called points of collision. These are detectors – mammoth structures the size of a five-storey building; two of them consist of elements made of lead tungstate monocrystals. Just imagine: one hundred tonnes of crystals within one structure. That’s the invention of Russian scientists. We also grew the crystals, manufactured the components and assembled the detectors. Hundreds of our specialists work at CERN on the permanent basis…

I’d like to drive the message home: practically all major science projects being implemented in Europe today were largely initiated by Russian scientists. Russia’s technological contribution is significant. For instance, just recently Rosatom and the Kurchatov Institute have provided nearly three hundred tonnes of a unique super-conductor cable for creating magnetic fields at ITER, the experimental thermonuclear reactor being built in southern France, between Nice and Marseilles. We outbid the Western competitors in a rather tough contest.

What is it I’m driving at? Economic sanctions and other instruments that are often in use in big politics are on one bank of the river, and science, on the opposite one. Russia has been an integral part of the world science landscape and it will remain so.

We don’t stay idle. At the site of the Kurchatov Institute in Gatchina a high-flux neutron research reactor is about to be launched. It’s one of the most powerful in the world. Second. In cooperation with Rosatom and Italian partners we are getting down to the development of a fundamentally new Tokamak, called Ignitor. The design of the project is almost ready, the money has been raised. There’s much practical work ahead for us. Also, we are beginning to promote the fourth generation of synchrotrons, unparalleled elsewhere.

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