Opening the Nuclear Fuel for Mankind conference, Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov made a plea for more reliance on nuclear energy. He said the share of nuclear in Russia’s energy production must be increased from the current 12 % to 30-40%. He admitted that the industry was facing financial difficulties. Although Russian nuclear power plants annually produced energy worth $6 billion, he noted, the value of annual exports is about $2 billion in ‘real money’, specifically as a result of the sale of fuel and electricity. While 30% of export revenue is more than enough to pay wages at all enterprises on time, the delay in the payment of wages is now about three months, Adamov noted. He advocated using the sector’s “corporate advantages” to channel funds to pay salaries. Other necessary expenditures should be made by using offset and barter schemes. Increasing export revenues would be a priority.

The tone of the conference was set by Mikhail Solonin of the Institute of Organic and Inorganic Materials (VNIINM) who told the opening session that a key choice had to be made between whether to store and bury spent fuel or to reprocess it.

“It is quite evident that spent fuel is not waste,” Solonin said, noting that the world’s reserves of some 10 million tons of uranium “do not look very significant” in terms of an open fuel cycle which would use only 0.5% of the uranium. He noted that a closed cycle would also take care of the need to immobilise the toxic actinides in spent fuel. He acknowledged that the high costs of reprocessing was an important argument used by its opponents. But he said it was a “short-sighted” argument as the costs would be significantly reduced in a fully closed cycle. He noted that proper storage for spent fuel was expensive and could also lead to problems in future.

Solonin advocated restricting nuclear fuel cycle services to a few centres worldwide. He said for Russia a top priority is the recycling of plutonium and an extensive programme was being developed based on the new BN-800 fast reactor, the first of which should be built by 2008. Until then Russia would use MOX fuel in the existing BN-600 and in VVERs.

Examining fuel production

Looking at the front end of the fuel cycle, Vitaly Konovalov, head of the TVEL nuclear fuel company, explained that the company, set up 18 months ago, had already achieved some successes. TVEL, the largest company within MINATOM, incorporates and co-ordinates the activities of Russia’s nuclear fuel producers at Electrostal, Novbosibirsk and Glazov. It has managed to improve efficiency and product quality, encourage modernisation and oversee the introduction of some new technologies, while improving the cashflow. The Novosibirsk plant will begin fuel pellet production in 1999 to lessen dependence on Kazakhstan, and will also begin production of absorption rods. The plant is already producing new zirconium fuel rods. TVEL’s aim is to supply fuel to all of Russia’s reactors and to Soviet-designed plants in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Contracts have already been signed with Slovakia, China and Iran and new business is being developed with Germany and India. Several new products have been introduced including fuel with a 4-5 year cycle for Russia’s Novovoronezh and Kola plants, fuel with a 3-4 year cycle for Balakova and new uranium-erbium fuel for RBMK units at Leningrad and Ignalina in Lithuania.

“Strategically the policy of TVEL is to improve the nuclear fuel cycle by increasing burn-up and bringing down cost through the 4-5 year cycle,” he said.

Research progress More details on technical innovations in fuel design were given by Viktor Sidorenko of the Kurchatov Institute, including the development of uranium-gadolinium fuel rods incorporating a burnable absorber. This eliminates the cost of transporting and storing separate absorbers. He also noted that preliminary designs were already being developed for MOX fuel assemblies for use in VVERs. Initially the plan is to use MOX in a third of the assemblies but the new VVER-640 would be able to use 100% MOX. This would be as part of a closed fuel cycle.

“The nuclear power industry using thermal reactors and uranium fuel does not have a big future. Using just some plutonium would save 40% of uranium,” he said echoing many other speakers. He gave his support to a closed fuel cycle using liquid sodium cooled fast reactors which could also be used to burn actinides.

Similar views were expressed by Valery Lebedev of Rosenergoatom. “Nuclear energy resources can only be fully utilised by thermal and fast reactors together,” he said, pointing out that one assembly used in a closed cycle produces the energy of eight used in a once-through system. Academician Fedor Reshetnikov reiterated the importance of using plutonium as an energy source, noting that Russia had in fact closed its fuel cycle 15 years ago. The plan then was to use plutonium to fuel fast breeders to make more plutonium. However, the collapse of the USSR, the end of the Cold War and subsequent release of military plutonium, and the Chernobyl accident have changed these plans. Breeding plutonium is not longer viewed as necessary, although fast reactors will still be used to burn it as fuel and will be adapted accordingly.

Ivanov backs fast reactors

At a press conference on the first day, Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Valentin Ivanov confirmed that Russia intended to go ahead developing fast reactors and planned to build the first BN-800 in the foreseeable future. In the longer term, new fast reactors would be developed using liquid lead as a coolant, he said. As to Russia’s nuclear fuel industry, he noted that it was holding its own in the face of competition from the West.
“Competition is a useful tool and an incentive to develop technologies which sell well. However, sometimes politics interferes with economics,” he said. He stressed that all the parameters of Russian fuel were “no worse and often better that Western fuel” and added, “We are flexible in supplying anything from natural uranium to complete assemblies. We may even consider leasing fuel with additional benefit to customers as they will not have to dispose of the spent fuel.”