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Ukraine Under Siege: Economic Humanitarian Crisis

Mar 18, 2022

Philadelphia, (March 17, 2022) - The World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia President Linda Conlin speaks with Dr. Kris Singh, Founder, President and CEO of Holtec International.

Linda Conlin: Dr. Singh, when you founded Holtec International in Marlton, N.J. over three decades ago, you described yourself as having ‘small capital, but big ambitions.’ Since then, Holtec has experienced phenomenal growth and a far-reaching global presence with operations in 18 countries across five continents, including four world-class manufacturing plants. What was really the inspiration for you behind Holtec?

Dr. Kris Singh: I started my career before I received my Ph.D., I was already consulting for companies that were serving the nuclear industry starting in 1970. And I could see that this technology had a huge future. Carbon pollution was not yet a public discourse topic, but... I could see from the energy generation projections that carbon dioxide would continue to increase. While we didn't know precisely what might happen, it wasn't going to be anything good...Technical papers were being published, and I was generally familiar with [the subject]. I looked at it at the time as a 23-year-old and I said, I should be working with nuclear energy to make it better...

I also realized after Three Mile Island (TMI), which occurred in 1979, that these plants could be safer. They could be designed to be better, because if the public does not endorse it, if the public doesn't feel safe, then it does not have a future. And that is precisely what was happening. After TMI, public support for nuclear was dropping rapidly. And then seven years later came Chernobyl in 1986. And that was then the bottom for nuclear energy.

After that, even though the nuclear reactor that blew up under Russian-controlled Chernobyl back in 1986 was a unique reactor designed to produce plutonium, it was being run to produce plutonium along with the generation of electricity... That doesn't happen in the west, but people don't differentiate. People looked at Chernobyl as another example of how dangerous nuclear power is. I founded Holtec that same year with the mission to make nuclear safer and take every area where nuclear energy was dealing with new problems and work on them and solve them.

Ukraine at the time had the third largest number of nuclear reactors in Europe, and they were Russian reactors. And as I said, they could stand - I thought at the time - more improvement and safety updates. We went to Ukraine to see what we could do in their PAVER program and I found people to be so wonderful and the technology base in their country to be so fulfilling that I opened an office there.

Linda Conlin: So, you were a visionary long before capturing carbon and carbon emissions became common language and recognized as an environmental concern. Some years later, you were there in Chernobyl with World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia Board Chairman, Gary Biehn whose law firm, White and Williams, assisted Holtec in negotiating the contract for the dry storage project. Mr. Biehn also shared with me a photo of you and then President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, signing that contract back in 2007.

At that signing, Dr. Singh, you emphasized how Holtec's double-wall storage containers - manufactured right here in Pennsylvania - met the strict Ukrainian regulatory standards for the storage of spent nuclear fuel. Starting with Chernobyl and the company's long history in the country, can you share with us what it is like to do business in Ukraine?

Dr. Kris Singh: Well, in any foreign country, of course you have to adjust to all the rules and regulations in the country, but Ukraine is a democracy… And in doing business in that country, you could rely on the rule of law. It is a country that values democracy and you see that in the way they conduct themselves. I saw that in Ukraine, that doing business in the country was not too different from doing business in the United States...

I've found that their technical experts are great and they have a brain drain going because the country has not been able to give them remunerative employment. And I said that to President Zelensky, when I saw him a few months ago, that he's got to do things to grow the nuclear economy, particularly because it holds so much promise. The country has so much technical talent. I still kept the staff there and we are continuing to do work there. Ukrainian engineers are working for our U.S. plants through Holtec.

Linda Conlin: I think what you are saying about your business relationship is also a reflection on the people, on their democracy and their fierce protection of it. Now, as Russian troops are encircling Kyiv, many people are saying the Ukrainian military was underestimated. And on the other hand, the ability of the Russian military and forces perhaps were overestimated. But you have people in Kyiv, Ukraine. What are these people saying to you right now?

Dr. Kris Singh: Well, if you summarize, their attitude is one of defiance. They are going to stand up. Many of them are torn by the fact that their families are in Russia. They have family-to-family connections, and many of them are torn by the situation. But when it comes to uniting behind the cause to save Ukraine’s democracy, they're all united. You can see that in President Zelensky, who has been the face of the country’s resolve.

And I think that you will see in the leadership of the country. Whether they are in power or they're out of power, they're all united in preserving their democracy. And a country that is as literate and educated as Ukraine, you cannot suppress by military force. I presume Mr. Putin understands that and if he understands it, he should reverse course before more damage is done... Ukrainians are fired up to be a democracy. They have given blood before. They're going to stand up for themselves and we should support them in every way we can.

Linda Conlin: I'd like to turn now particularly to the Chernobyl nuclear plant. With your knowledge of the nuclear industry and the development of technology, would you share with us your perspective of what these Russian actions mean for the safe operation and fuel storage at these facilities and the possible ramifications, not only for people in Ukraine, but Western Europe? What are you most concerned about?

Dr. Kris Singh: Well, my biggest concern is that the Russians haven't put those plants under supervision of their nuclear people right now. They seem to be run by the military and of course, the Russian soldiers don't know anything about nuclear. They don't know where the vulnerability is and the risk is that they will do something foolish that may lead to a serious accident.

For example, the Chernobyl site had the world's largest concentration of used nuclear fuel in deep water pools. That's how it's kept cool. That fuel is supposed to be moved every week into dry storage that we have built, but it takes time. It's going to take eight to 10 years to get it all out of the pools and into dry storage. The Zaporizhzhia plant near Enerhodar is even more risky because it's got active fuel that's been recently discharged, meaning that it's still quite energetic. I hope that they don't mess with it.

Linda Conlin: All the more reason, as you've often said, that having these facilities under civilian control is absolutely necessary. And hopefully those with the proper expertise are involved in this case… this leads me to another question. In your years of experience working closely with Ukraine, can you share your personal thoughts on the evolution of U.S./Ukraine relations?

Dr. Kris Singh: Well, the U.S. regard for Ukraine and the country’s leadership has grown over time. Former President Yushchenko, for example, was widely regarded all over the world. The city of Philadelphia gave him the Freedom Medal, along with people like Nelson Mandela and others who have received that medal. President Zelensky, I must tell you, has somewhat surprised me. I did not expect him to be a modern-day Churchill, but better looking than Churchill. What he’s done is amazing. And his heroic standing up to Putin will go down in history as a great act of leadership. No question... He has the support of the political class in Ukraine, which is always bickering, like a proper democracy, but when it comes to their country, they're all united and that's heartwarming to see.

Linda Conlin: Well, he has certainly not only rallied his own people, but he's rallied the world around him and around the people of Ukraine... We wanted to talk to you about the world economy, given the large global footprint that Holtec has. What challenges do you see that the current situation in Ukraine creates for the global economy, both in the short- and in the long-term? And, what does it mean for the future of nuclear energy?

Dr. Kris Singh: Well, the global economy is going to be severely affected - no question. I think the days of free trade amongst countries is coming to an end. The world is going to be again, I'm afraid, back in ‘blocks.’ Russia is going to be ostracized unless Mr. Putin changes his direction and recognizes the value of his wager. Russia will be isolated. Russia is a supplier of important raw materials [like] petroleum products... The prices of materials are gyrating wildly... And it's happening of course at gasoline pumps. You see the price of gasoline going up.

The world is in for a major economic disruption. And where the chips will fall at the end, I'm afraid will equate to increased inflation across economies and reduced economic growth everywhere in the world... The effect will be significant. I'm not an economist, but I am a businessman and I see how the economic forces work. It's not a good forecast for the world.

Now for nuclear, I think that overall people will realize the value of clean energy. People will realize the lack of dependence on fossil fuels from a country under an autocracy is necessary to free ourselves from such dependence... Nuclear energy will benefit from world leaders recognizing that maybe their total faith in stable global trade was misplaced.

But, I'll say it again for people who may not have the connection to Ukraine or with those who are the in the country, please understand, it's a humanitarian crisis. And what happens in Ukraine will reverberate for decades around the world. If democracy loses, if a dictator is able to suppress the will of the people, it will be catastrophic for all of us. So please help. Please help the beloved people of Ukraine.

About The World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia (WTCGP): A nonprofit, membership-based organization, the WTCGP accelerates global business growth for companies in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey by providing customized, one-on-one trade counseling, market research, educational programs, trade mission support, business networking events and powerful connections to customers and partners worldwide. Visit www.wtcphila.org.