Why did Tvel decide to develop fuel for Western design reactors?

We believe in free competition – we are a Russian industry that operates globally. We know that there are lot of political factors against Russia, and the only way we can remain optimistic is to believe that there is room for market competition, and if we can come up with a quality product, then it is going to be accepted by our customers. We have no other options. PWR fuel development for Western customers is not exactly a Tvel’s initiative. It was more a response to the situation in the market, and the view of customers that current competition is insufficient. What we are doing is just responding to that customer aspiration.

At the same time, that this is a good market opportunity. It’s a fairly large market which is still developing.

We started with a design for Westinghouse reactor fuel with a 17×17 lattice, because this represents the largest share of the PWR market. BWRs have three global suppliers – Westinghouse, General Electric and Framatome. PWRs only have Westinghouse and Framatome. Normally competition requires that a customer can choose among three offers. So, we are trying to be that third party for the PWR market, which will help the customer to feel secure.

This type of competition is not about money but about safety of operation and security of supply, because if something goes wrong with the resident fuel the operator needs to be sure that they can take action quickly that will provide an alternative. The alternative fuel must be fully licensed and available for manufacture at short notice.

What progress have you made so far?

Our TVS-K fuel has been in operation in Sweden, where we have so far completed three fuel campaigns. We have no negative feedback.

We believe that most of the PWR market needs alternative suppliers and the question is how open PWR market segments are to competition. When it comes to us, we need to demonstrate that our product is viable. Clearly, we look for some PWR market share. It would make no commercial sense if it were only for one or two units.

Is your initiative a response to Westinghouse’s decision to develop VVER fuel?

No, this is in no way a response to Westinghouse’s development of VVER fuel. It came as a request from a customer. At first we were sceptical, but we came to realise that the request was based on a purely commercial rationale.

It does not imply any criticism of Westinghouse or Framatome fuel. It is just that the customers want to have a functioning competitive situation, which will provide them with security of supply and safety in operation. And since it is about economics, they want to be a sure that no player will be dominant. They believe that if there are three or more players, all technically capable, they will be forced to come up with viable fuel solutions for the technical and economic benefit of the operator.

Have you encountered any technical problems?

I would not call them technical problems, but rather issues of a non-technical character. Technical problems are normal in any new fuel development. VVERs are just ordinary PWRs with some minor specificities, so on the technical side there is nothing new. Non-technical issues concern the input data that we need to obtain for the fuel design, and there are cases when we struggle hard, together with the customer, to get the data. There are also export control issues that have to be carefully tackled. These are mainly regulatory and proprietary issues, which can be tackled through the usual channels of communication and legal arrangements. This often takes time, and sometimes that feels like unfair treatment, but there are no insurmountable problems.

At what stage are the pilot tests of your fuel?

These should be completed in two more years. The normal campaign is 4-5 reloads and we have already completed three. So another one or two should provide sufficient demonstration of the fuel performance.

What are the technical advantages of your fuel?

We are trying to make use of all the experience and lessons learned from the VVER. We believe we have very good cladding material – E110 – which was developed for the Russian fleet and demonstrates very good performance. We have made important improvements that we are planning to use for PWRs, and can provide the customer with two modifications of the E110 alloy. They are purer alloys produced from zirconium sponge. Using that cladding we can provide good mechanical integrity for our fuel. And since Russian-produced enriched uranium has already demonstrated its market success, we hope that the bundle supply will be a viable marketing tool.

We are marketing not just the fabrication of the fuel, but complete bundles with uranium feed inside as an integrated solution for the customer. These are the two keystones on which we base our marketing strategy – it will be up to the customers to decide how they would like to proceed with our fuel.

Any other technical advantage?

Each fabricator will claim to have a better assembly design. Our TVS-K provides the customer with very similar operational results. At the end of the day, everything is about safety and economics. In terms of safety we are very confident about our cladding, and in terms of economics we are confident of a high demand for Russian-origin material.

There are two more features that I would like to highlight. First, Russian fuel assemblies are normally stiffer than competing designs. Since Tvel welds guide thimbles to spacer grids, this provides our assembly with a strong skeleton and makes the Russian design extremely fuel-bow resistant, providing the customer with robust and mechanically stable fuel. Second, our design combines two different zirc alloys: modifications of E110 for cladding and E635 for skeleton. Probably, these are the key technical advantages of our design.

Do you expect the TVS-K fuel to be competitive?

The market will judge competitiveness. We work very hard internally on our expenditure. We believe that we can withstand a very difficult market situation because we understand that, when the market is restricted, competition becomes tougher. The only way ahead is to be competitive and to control internal costs.

Our other strategy is to provide the customer with a product which reflects the lessons of Fukushima – accident tolerant fuel (ATF). We are now looking at what should be our approach to ATF.

We have more and less radical solutions. The less radical solution is cladding with chromium-layered fuel. At the more radical end, we are also working on the fuel matrix composition, trying to make the fuel denser, with cladding that does not generate hydrogen. We know customers are not prepared to pay extra for the ATF fuel, so we need to achieve better economics from its use. I believe that, in the reasonable future, Tvel will be able to offer PWR design fuel with accident tolerant features.

As to our marketing strategy, in the short term we believe our cladding is OK. In the long term, we hope to come up with a chromium-based cladding or some other cladding with a different fuel matrix. But we understand that the customer will only be interested in this fuel if it can demonstrate better economics. They are not prepared to pay a higher price for better safety. Tvel has the answer to this challenge. 

Author information: Igor Leshukov is director of Tvel’s TVS-K programme