The European Union (EU) has selected a consortium led by Westinghouse to develop and deliver a secure, fully European nuclear fuel supply for Russian-designed pressurised water reactors (VVERs). Westinghouse says “diversifying the sources of VVER fuel will be fully achieved by strengthening European capabilities in design, manufacturing, and supply while accelerating the capacity-building process”.

The three-year Accelerated Programme for Implementation of Secure VVER Fuel Supply (APIS), which began in January, is a project co-funded by the EU, using €10m ($10.9m) from the Euratom Work Programme 2023-2025.

APIS is part of the EU's Horizon Europe programme for research & innovation and involves 12 partners from eight countries. These include five NPP operators – ČEZ (Czech Republic), Ukraine’s Energoatom; Fortum (Finland), Paks NPP (Hungary), and Slovenske Elektrarne (Slovakia); two fuel manufacturers – Westinghouse Sweden and Enusa (Spain); and five fuel engineering & research organisations – Joint Research Centre-European Commission (Belgium), State Scientific & Technical Centre for Nuclear & Radiation Safety (Ukraine), ÚJV Řež (Czech Republic), Uppsala University (Sweden) and VUJE (Slovakia).

The APIS project brings together countries with experience in adapting VVERs to use Western-designed fuel as well as those just embarking on nuclear fuel diversification. There are currently over 30 reactors of VVER-440 and VVER-1000 design operating in the EU and in Ukraine.

Tarik Choho, Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel President, said: "The APIS project is a strong collaboration between suppliers and utilities, fostered by the EU, to mitigate the current supply chain risk and reduce dependence on VVER fuel supply from Russia."

He added that Westinghouse’s fuel technology "is the only available technology fully independent from Russian technology" and said the company is “deeply committed to offer, together with its partners, improved fuel designs and services with an even wider scope”.

In January Westinghouse signed a 10-year contract to fabricate and deliver VVER-1000 nuclear fuel to Kozloduy unit 5 in Bulgaria from 2025. It has already has supplied VVER fuel to Ukraine for more than a decade, although the switch from Russian TVEL fuel was not without its problems. Energoatom launched a project for the qualification of Westinghouse fuel in 2000, and in 2008 Energoatom and Westinghouse Electric Sweden signed a contract to ship fuel to three or six Ukrainian reactors between 2011 and 2015.

However, during trial use at South Ukraine in 2012, some fuel became deformed and Ukraine later suspended use of the Westinghouse fuel pending its redesign. Following Ukraine's change of government in 2014, the contract was revived and extended. After problems developed with the fuel, it was structurally modified and modernised. Westinghouse experienced similar problems with its initial supplies of VVER-1000 fuel to Temelin NPP in the Czech Republic. In 2009 Temelin cut short its contract with Westinghouse and reverted to TVEL fuel, until 2019 when redesigned Westinghouse assemblies were again tried.

In March Westinghouse signed an agreement to supply VVER-440 fuel assemblies from next year for the Dukovany NPP in the Czech Republic, although as yet the fuel is still in the design stage. Finland sourced fuel from Westinghouse (then part of BNFL) for its two VVER-440 units at Loviisa from 2001 to 2007, after which it switched to Russian TVEL fuel. Westinghouse then shut down its manufacture of VVER-440 fuel and is now in the process of redesign in collaboration with Enusa. A production line for the new fuel at Enusa’s Juzbado factory is now expected to be licensed this year, allowing fuel deliveries early in 2024.

The APIS project target included:

  • Developing safe fuel designs for VVER-440 plants for delivery in 2023;
  • Developing improved VVER-440 fuel designs, with improved fuel economics for operation and suitability for all EU and Ukraine plants, for delivery in 2024;
  • Developing a next generation improved VVER-1000 for delivery by in 2025
  • Evaluating design improvements in terms of ADOPT pellets and oxide coating for introduction by 2025;
  • Initiating development of the next generation VVER-440 fuel designs for delivery from 2027;
  • A harmonised approach for VVER fuel licensing;
  • Developing manufacture and/or supply chain re-instatement for VVER-440 fuel.

More generally, the APIS project is structured into 11 work-packages with different focuses, including: completion of the VVER-440 fuel design for short term delivery; development of improved and advanced VVER-440 and VVER-1000 fuel designs; standardisation of the fuel licensing; complete the re-instatement of fuel manufacturing capabilities; improved modelling and methods; analysis of fuel related plant lifetime extension; communication and project management.

The objective of the APIS programme is to create security of supply of nuclear fuel for Russian designed pressurised water reactors (VVER) operating in the EU and Ukraine. According to the APIS website: “Due to the situation in Ukraine and the fast transition from Russian to Western fuel design, work must be accelerated to be able to handle the situation that has arisen. The western design of fuel is hence introduced stepwise: emergent VVER-440 fuel designs for European energy security for delivery to Ukrainian power plant in year 2023, followed by a fuel design with improved economics for operation in all European plants without restrictions, and lastly next generation of fuel design.”

The expected result of the Apis project is:

  • VVER reactors in the EU and Ukraine operating with non-Russian supplied nuclear fuel;
  • Energy security for the affected countries;
  • Adoption of the harmonised licensing approach;
  • Increased knowledge and expertise to support the VVER operators in the EU and Ukraine;
  • A strengthened energy supply in Europe supported by the EU funding;
  • Increased expertise/skills development and employment opportunities; and
  • Assurance of the fiduciary responsibility of the EC for its planned investment resulting in energy security for the affected countries.

Image courtesy of Westinghouse