Ekaterina Solntseva: at ROSATOM We Believe that Digitalization Takes a Lifelong Commitment to Stay on Top of Things

ROSATOM not only leads digitalization in Russia, but it is also a competence center for the Digital Technologies federal project, which is part of the Digital Economy of the Russian Federation national program. The scale of the tasks facing State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM is impressive: digitizing the nuclear industry and other sectors of Russia’s economy and launching in-house digital products into the open market.


The New Defence Order. Strategy talked to Director for Digitalization at ROSATOM, Ekaterina Solntseva, who gave an insider’s view into how these tasks are being handled.


ROSATOM is a leader of digitalization in Russia and a center of competence of the Digital Technologies federal project that is included in the Digital Economy of the Russian Federation national program. How does it come about that the nuclear industry has had the possibility to create its own digital products? And what were the prerequisites for that?

The national nuclear industry began in Russia’s nuclear weapons complex, whose task was to create a second, deterring center of power in the world. For this reason, from the very beginning of its existence, Russia’s nuclear industry was able to rely on the results of its own R&D, even in the domain of information technology. We must never, under any circumstances, depend on external factors, such as political ones. That is why many ROSATOM enterprises would develop necessary digital products on their own. Of course, they were not called “digital” at that time, and computers back then were different from the ones we have today. This expertise has been building up since the middle of the past century.

Today, it has become a pressing matter to ensure Russia’s technological independence in the digital sphere, hence the need is growing to acquire effective solutions that could be used for the entire country. In this regard, ROSATOM has been able to offer many developments that can be used as the basis for universal solutions. 

Why is it that these universal solutions could not be found, say, in the IT market?

The IT market is largely focused on regular corporate processes that are the same for any organization: there is always accounting, document flow, and human resources. Products for solving tasks in these areas naturally appeared in the market because IT companies understood the function of this or that product and could test it themselves. 

Nonetheless, in order to create, for instance, mathematical modelling software for industrial purposes, one needs to understand how engineering developments are implemented in practice. You need a production facility to be able to test the product in the making during the manufacturing process. Obviously, IT companies do not enjoy these advantages.

The nuclear industry enterprises that developed their own digital products, as a rule, had no intention to launch them into the market. However, three years ago, ROSATOM set itself the task of doing so. We have state-of-the-art digital solutions for industrial purposes, and we are committed to making these solutions available to other businesses. And not only in Russia but also abroad.

Digitalization is a broad multi-industry concept. How do you categorize digitalization projects at ROSATOM?

Our fundamental document in the area of digital transformation and digitalization, the Uniform Digitalization Strategy, consists of several large sections. In the area of internal digitalization, we are working on enhancing the efficiency of the Corporation’s activities. The broader task is to create commercial digital products for the open market. The most ambitious goal is to support digitalization in the Russian Federation. In this case, our audience is the entire country and the government agencies that develop the digital economy. And finally, another key area of the strategy is the development of end-to-end digital technologies that will serve as the foundation for achieving all the set tasks. 

Furthermore, the strategy includes a number of supporting areas: the development of digital culture and digital competence in ROSATOM, organizational changes as part of digital transformation, the pursue of partnering relationships with other market players, and, of course, ensuring information security ‒ that topic charges all areas of our work.

You have said that all these elements are included in ROSATOM’s Uniform Digitalization Strategy. To date, there are four revisions of this document. How is the fourth revision different from the previous ones and what has brought about these changes?

The digital market is evolving and changing very quickly. New areas are emerging all the time. For instance, when we developed our Uniform Digitalization Strategy in 2018, it did not occur to us at all that we would be responsible for creating a quantum computer in Russia. The subject of developing a quantum computer was on the table, of course, but it was treated more like a science-related problem that was still far from implementation. Nonetheless, today we can already see the horizon of the transition to the practical application of the newly created quantum computer. 

Our strategy also suggests working together with the government on developing the country’s digital economy. Changes are also underway in this area, and new approaches are emerging. Thus, updating ROSATOM’s Uniform Digitalization Strategy is our response to the changing environment. What is more important is that we analyze our own experience, learn from it and make adjustments to optimize our future work.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the digitalization processes at ROSATOM? Will this impact be reflected in the following revisions of the Uniform Digitalization Strategy?

The pandemic has significantly affected our activities. The main outcome is that we were quick to find and assimilate the new approaches that could bolster the efficiency of our regular activities. Mastering these approaches would take much more time and resources in normal conditions.

For example, remote meetings with the representatives of nuclear industry enterprises from all over the country have become a part of our everyday life. Such a format had been used previously but rather as an exception. Now, it is a common practice. 

During the pandemic, both our employees and our management have come to appreciate the benefits of new technologies, such as the potential of virtual and augmented reality. Now, we hold exhibitions and meetings not just online, but in virtual reality. Although this is not that critical for meetings, it is crucial for exhibitions. For instance, it is possible to place interactive stands that you can “visit” in a virtual space. Exhibition participants can move in the virtual space using digital avatars and communicate with one another ‒ just like in real life but safely and conveniently.

Also, amid the pandemic, we have noticed a considerable increase in the interest of many Russian IT companies to cooperate with us. During times of instability, businesses want large and, above all, stable, experienced, and steadfast partners, and ROSATOM is certainly one of them. We welcome such partnerships. This kind of interaction gives us, for example, an opportunity to access promising developments that startups work on. In this way, we can resort to the experience and competencies of our partners to find solutions in certain areas, rather than make them ourselves from scratch.

New tools, technological developments, and new partnerships have been mentioned in the updated Uniform Digitalization Strategy 4.0 that was approved in December 2020. Notably, strategic partnerships have been designated as a separate area.

You have said that one of ROSATOM’s areas of activity is the development of digital products for the commercial market, including the global one. It has been reported that a number of countries – in particular, India, Vietnam, and Egypt – are interested in establishing Data Centers within their borders. 

Yes, indeed, we are discussing such projects in these countries. Additionally, we are building up cooperation on data centers with Turkey and Uzbekistan. Foreign partners are interested in ROSATOM’s infrastructure solutions because we have already accumulated solid expertise in the construction and operation of data centers. Our flagship data center, the largest in Russia and one of the largest in Europe, operates near the Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in TverRegion, about 200 kilometers northwest of Moscow. 

Many companies can now build a data center as a capital construction object. However, personnel, the availability and price of electricity, reliability, and a robust service system are much more important in digital infrastructure. This is where our advantage lies.

Rosenergoatom, which has very strong competencies relating to the operation of complex technological facilities, operates our actively growing and geographically distributed network of data centers. We build backbone data centers near NPPs because it guarantees cheaper access to the most reliable energy resources.

It is important that data centers are located close enough to the users. Hydroelectric power plants are not always built at accessible locations. Meanwhile, for example, our Kalinin data center is conveniently situated between Moscow and St. Petersburg, at the crossroads of multiple communication channels, and has an uninterrupted power supply. This is the model that we offer to those countries where ROSATOM is either already building, or just starting to build NPPs.

In one of your speeches you have mentioned that the countries that ROSATOM cooperates with to construct NPPs request documentation in digitized form. Is this a common practice?

So far, it has been the case with some contracts, but it will soon become a common practice. Here we are not only talking about digitized documentation, but also about a digital deliverable where the customer receives a full-fledged 3D NPP model and can study the NPP as a whole or its individual elements, and simulate the construction process.

Is it correct to say that in this case, the “digital model” and “digital twin” concepts are not interchangeable? 

Correct. A digital model is not a digital twin yet, since it is not linked to the operation of a physical object in real-time. A digital twin, on the other hand, “lives” and changes simultaneously with the object, has all the same data and allows tracking technical characteristics.

It is planned to use the Nuclear Power Plant Operation Template for Russia-designed NPPs in Russia and abroad. Could you elaborate?

The NPP Operation Template is the next step after the digital model. NPP commissioning involves the transfer of the operation template, which fixes the operation rules for that complex object. This tool allows the direct users of the NPP to quickly grasp the operation process and always have tips on what to do at any given time.

The digital products created at ROSATOM can be used at other industrial enterprises, including those within the defense industry. Which Russian companies have already adopted ROSATOM’s products?

Up till now, ROSATOM has launched eleven digital products into the market. Our mathematical modelling system Logos has been quite popular among defense industry enterprises ‒ they use it in designing high-tech products. Among our clients who chose Logos are defense industry leaders such as Sukhoi, KAMAZ, Russian Helicopters, and ROSCOSMOS. 

Evidently, each enterprise faces specific issues. For this reason, our specialists cooperate with the representatives of our customers and adapt the product to their particular needs and tasks. It is of utmost importance that our software product Logos can be integrated with other Russia-made systems. Our goal is to unite other CAE developers around ROSATOM: by integrating our efforts, we will be able to create a platform with which we can enter the international market. 

Moreover, together with the enterprises of the defense industry, we are launching a large program aimed at ensuring the country’s digital sovereignty in the field of mathematical modelling systems. This program was presented to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko in April. 

The requirement to ensure technological independence makes the import substitution program all the more relevant. What are the barriers – be they technological or legal – that stand in the way of rolling out and deploying digital products in industrial enterprises?

As a matter of fact, such barriers do exist. From the technological viewpoint, everything seems quite clear: any product developed at ROSATOM, for instance, Logos, needs to be adapted to the specific needs of the enterprise where it will be deployed. At the same time, as you deploy a product at different enterprises, it gains more adaptation capabilities, and hence it takes less effort to follow through with each subsequent deployment. That is to say that, from the technological viewpoint, the answer to the task of the digital import substitution implies serious product reworking. This is a natural process. Yes, it does require resources, but we are prepared for it.

The second issue is an organizational, legal one. Russian legislation contains some inconsistencies. On the one hand, there are rather strict regulations on the use of Russian hardware and software. On the other hand, state-owned companies and companies partially owned by the state have to follow a requirement for the efficient use of public funds. This means that if they already have a foreign solution, they cannot buy a similar Russian one and install it alongside the first solution. First, they need to remove the imported product from the balance sheet in accordance with all the rules and only then install the domestic one.

Now, let’s keep in mind that the Russian product still needs to be customized and deployed. When it comes to software for complex design developments, it must pass verification and validation that may take as long as one to three years. And the software cannot be used until that process is complete.

Here we have the following situation: we need to install a Russian software product at our enterprises as quickly as possible and start its verification, but if the enterprise already uses a similar foreign product, cross-verification must be done with that product. And if we are talking about new calculations, then full-scale testing and comparison of their results are required. All this takes time, and the enterprise or design bureau needs to keep working! And they cannot just give up the foreign software; they need to use two software products in parallel. 

Today, our law does not allow government agencies to do this for it is regarded as an inefficient use of public funds. So, this is one of the conflicts that we need to resolve first. We brought this problem to the attention of the government and we hope that it will be resolved.

To what extent does the success of digitalization depend on government support? What existing state support policies do you think are optimal? 

Digitalization is inevitable. The success of digitalization is the speed of its implementation. And this speed depends to a large degree on state support. The implementation of the national program Digital Economy, for which the Ministry for Digital Development is responsible, is already in full swing. Considerable funds are allocated for the program, and it is very important that these funds are used for the development of both existing and promising technologies. For example, government subsidies play a key role in the development of quantum computers. ROSATOM invests its own resources in the creation of a domestic quantum computer. It would be impossible to organize this process without government support. This work would not have reached such a serious scale without it.

Besides that, the subsidies are allocated to the enterprises that implement Russian solutions. And these are significant expenses, a lot of resources are required, and not all enterprises can afford them. In this case, subsidies, as well as targeted and preferential loans, considerably simplify and accelerate the digital import substitution. Without government support, the same work would be done much later.

However, government support is not only about money. It is important that the state also pays attention to streamlining processes and eliminating existing barriers, including regulatory ones. Personal attention of the leaders of the country to these matters is also very valuable. Minister of Digital Development Maksut Shadayev and his deputies are quite interested in the implementation of the Digital Economy program. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, who is in charge of this area, is also deeply concerned with digitalization problems. 

All this – the integrated approach, the financial resources, and the personal involvement of the leadership – gives ground for justified optimism regarding the digitalization of the country.

Besides the evident advantages, digitalization also bears certain risks. What threats, especially in the area of security, do you see in the very process of digital transition?

Any process brings risks with it if treated carelessly. You can even organize the cleaning of a room in such a way that everything in it will be ruined. Therefore, we must approach digitalization seriously, thinking about the potential risks over in advance.

In general, I believe that digitalization considerably enhances security. It does not replace human work but adds to it; automation ensures the human resources and the human resources insure information systems through monitoring. This mutual control is precisely what guarantees heightened security.

How are requirements changing for the personnel involved in the digitalization process? How is this reflected in the activities of the ROSATOM Academy and ROSATOM-associated universities?

Human resources are the most important aspect. We fully understand that digitalization is something to pursue throughout life, it needs to be done constantly, it is an ongoing process.

At ROSATOM, we work with human resources in two areas. The first one is developing the digital competencies of our own staff. The ROSATOM Academy and the digital block of the corporation are responsible for this. Our specialists have designed special training programs. Some of them we deliver ourselves, and for others, we invite external lecturers. In terms of the education format, they can be seminars or full-fledged courses ending with an exam and a certificate awarded.

The second area is the cooperation with the ROSATOM-associated universities. This includes training specialists for the nuclear industry, creating startups at the university level, and running projects where talented students can approve themselves. Students can learn by using prototypes and simulators under realistic conditions.

What does ROSATOM do to organize and support its search for “digital talents”?

We are often invited to be partners in various contests and hackathons. The largest of them is Digital Breakthrough, we have been general partners to that event for three years. During this time, we have attracted a lot of talented young people, sometimes entire teams, and offered them interesting jobs. 

In a number of areas, we act as partners of Skolkovo and other development institutions and foundations. We also have our own venture fund focused on digital startups.

More than that, enterprises of the nuclear industry, operating in various regions of the country, organize hackathons and contests and provide platforms for startup development – if such a format of cooperation is acceptable from the security point of view.

ROSATOM has a strategic goal to develop a 100-qubit quantum computer by 2024. Do you think that this goal is attainable? What has already been done to achieve it?

We do believe that this goal is attainable. The implementation of the roadmap for the development of the high-tech area of Quantum Computing began in 2020; we pitched it in July and received the funds in December. However, we at ROSATOM had already known that we would be going after this goal. Therefore, the Corporation, ahead of schedule, at the beginning of the last year, allocated funds that were spent on the purchase of the most necessary equipment and the launch of the first projects.

When we just started with the roadmap, 2-qubit systems had been designed in the country. This year, we are planning to present 4-qubit systems. And yes, our plan is to have a 100-qubit computer built in Russia by 2024. 

What will be the base technology for this computer? There is a talk about photons, ions, superconductors…

It is still unclear which physical principle the computer will be designed on. There are four main platforms – superconductors, ions, neutral atoms, and photons. However, at the present time, in the whole world, there is still no answer to which technology will be the leading one and whether such a leading technology can be determined in principle. It is possible that specific problems will be most efficiently solved on different platforms. For this reason, we are working in four major areas, while at the same time we are closely watching the potential of promising platforms – thanks to the quite deep integration of ROSATOM in the international quantum community.

Simultaneously, we are creating a software stack for working with quantum algorithms, and by 2024 we should have the complete set of hardware and software. This is, strictly speaking, what the concept of “quantum computer” includes.

Speaking of future projects – let’s talk about the development of the Arctic. In 2019, ROSATOM initiated the Northern Sea Transport Corridor project that aims at creating a new international route offering logistic services for cargo delivery via the Northern Sea Route (NSR). What projects is ROSATOM implementing for the digitalization of the NSR?

The Arctic is a system with a unique potential, and ROSATOM plays a very important role in its development. Murmansk is the center of the presence of the Corporation in the region, the city is the base for the nuclear icebreaker fleet. It is in Murmansk that the Headquarters of Naval Operations was established. This is an important control center for the NSR that allows for tracking vessel traffic, monitoring meteorological and ice conditions, and maintaining continuous communication with the crews. Besides, this system is integrated with the infrastructure of the Ministry of Emergency Situations for quick response to urgent situations.

At the same time, there is an understanding today that the Arctic requires a special approach that must be based on the integrated development of the region. And this is where our Smart City platform, which was designed for “atomic towns,” has already demonstrated its potential. When creating tools for urban and territorial management, we rely on our own experience, since ROSATOM bears full responsibility for everything that happens in “atomic towns.” These developments are already in use in many Russian cities, in particular, in Murmansk. And of course, they must be leveraged in the development of the Arctic regions along the entire NSR.

ROSATOM has traditionally been an active participant in Russian national and international exhibitions. What solutions will ROSATOM present at the International Military-Technical Forum ARMY-2021?

Traditionally, we introduce our software and hardware solutions for the defense industry at MAKS and ARMY. Thus, ROSATOM’s portfolio of digital products includes a mobile supercomputer data center-mounted on the KAMAZ off-road undercarriage that can find a way to any location, for example, a natural disaster zone or a future construction site, and provide full-range data processing literally “on the wheels.”

Active participation in defense industry events is one of our digital strategy priorities. We are always glad to join in new partnership projects!

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Interviewed by Olesya Zagorskaya
©New Defence Order. Strategy  №4 (69) 2021


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