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Flashback: Lady Judge Interview

The passing of Lady Judge in 2020 was very sad news to hear. She had done so much in the Central Asian arena, particularly in Kazakhstan and I had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and even staying with her thanks to being friends with her son. As a tribute, I republish an interview I did with her while I was in snowy Astana in 2010.


The Future’s bright. The Future’s Nuclear.

Many have commented on Central Asia’s resource base and the significance it will play in meeting the global energy challenge that we face in the coming years. Few though realise just how advanced the reality of Kazakhstan’s own nuclear programme in providing this energy actually is. Open Central Asia was fortunate to interview the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Chairwoman, Lady Judge, and ask her about her new role as a key advisor to Kazakhstan’s rapidly developing nuclear programme.


Lady Judge is, quite simply, a remarkably diverse and successful woman. She has enjoyed a career so far that has taken her across the globe and always into new challenges that led to her recent award in June this year of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the nuclear and financial services.

“I’m a lawyer by profession,” she begins humbly. For someone who has held senior executive and advisory positions in law, finance, industry, public service, the arts and academic life, she is remarkably down to earth. From her early legal days as a partner for a major US law firm she has been an ambitious woman, full of firsts. In 1980 she was appointed as the youngest-ever Commissioner of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, initiating reforms to open US capital markets to overseas investors.

“I then moved to Hong Kong in 1983 as the first woman director of the London Merchant Bank, Samuel Montagu, before moving back to the US into private banking.” She reels off a list of impressive positions and entrepreneurial jobs that led her to found Private Equity Investor plc. Such experience, although distinctly impressive, is hardly a conventional route to her current role as Chairwoman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (AEA).

“I always get the jobs I don’t want,” she jokes. “I was looking for a government job and was called by a head hunter one day who said the AEA wanted someone to run their audit committee. I told him I was neither a physicist nor a scientist, but they suggested an interview. At the interview I told them that I was only interested in the job if they could help give me a good reference for a later application if I did well. I was a good lawyer and had a good education so I could learn, but I wasn’t totally interested at first.”

Lady Judge got the job and immediately inquired why they thought she would be the best person. “Because you ask the hard questions,” was the response. And so she learned the ropes and used her knowledge and public speaking skills to help raise and tackle the real issues related to nuclear power, becoming the chairwoman in 2002.

So how did Kazakhstan appear on her busy agenda? “Kazakhstan has a relatively advanced nuclear programme which it is still building, even after independence from Russia,” Lady Judge answers. “I met Mr Kelimbetov from Kazakhprom at a conference and he asked if I would become more involved when I stand down from the AEA this September.”

After visiting Kazakhstan, Lady Judge took away some very positive first impressions that helped her decide that this was an interesting opportunity to pursue. “The country has huge resources and potential, especially from a nuclear point of view,” she points out. “If they want to become serious players they can be, but they clearly need the regulatory advice. They have huge resources of uranium and will become global suppliers, so if we start to engage with them we can have a real input. The UK has done a lot of nuclear development and has an interest in the global outcome and benefits.”

The issue of safety is never far from public examination in all issues nuclear. Iran and North Korea may be on the tips of most media tongues, but the ever growing contingent of nuclear countries continues, almost unnoticed, in the background. Fears of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands are always top of political agendas on this issue, so why is Kazakhstan any different?

“That Kazakhstan is building nuclear power plants is no secret,” Lady Judge confidently states. “Providing the right level of education is there then what is to say that they cannot bring the correct level of technology and operational safety to the industry? They are members of the international authority in Brussels and therefore have a right to develop nuclear power. I look forward to being able to help them get to where they want to go, both efficiently and transparently. I also sit on the Abu Dhabi and Jordanian government nuclear boards, chaired by Hans Blix, so its a journey I know well. Everybody worries that we can’t guarantee safety. That’s an impossible task for regulatory bodies. But what we can do is put in suitable safeguards for Kazakhstan to be able to ensure it themselves.”

So, is nuclear power the answer to the energy challenge?

“Nuclear is not the solution, but it is clearly a part of the solution. As industrialisation continues we need every type of energy source available on the planet. Nuclear provides an important base load generation for the world. It’s available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, unlike many of the renewables. At $50 oil, Nuclear is economic and, let’s face it, oil is very unlikely to go below that level for a sustained period ever again.”

She provides some interesting facts and a belief that nuclear will provide up to 30% of the world’s future energy needs. “Just look at how important it is in France, where 80% of the energy requirement is provided from 59 power plants.”

Returning to Kazakhstan we discuss the timetable of development, which is rapid and occurring alongside the development of its conventional oil and gas fields in the Caspian region. There is a level of bureaucracy that is at times frustrating, but with such a sensitive issue it is bound to take time. Lady Judge describes the opportunity for Kazakhstan as, “Fantastic”, pointing out that nuclear will become a very important future source of energy and income for Kazakhstan, enabling it to use its mineral reserves of uranium as well as export them. If it develops far enough it may end up becoming a net exporter of nuclear power, a critical ingredient to ensuring the long term strategic viability of Central Asia as its oil and gas reserves dwindle.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she warns. “We will still need oil and gas. But nuclear is now a serious player that the world is going to have to rely on in the energy mix of the future.”

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