The first nuclear fuel assemblies have been loaded at unit 3 of Russia’s Rostov nuclear power plant, marking the start of the first criticality programme.

The milestone comes after inspections by Rusisan nuclear regulator Rostekhnadzor.

"The first criticality of a power unit marks the start of a large work stage to prepare Rostov-3 for the first power," said Valery Limarenko, president of NIAEP-Atomstroyexport, the principal contractor building the plant.

"I would like to emphasise that Rostov-3 is being commissioned earlier than planned," Limarkenko added.

Commissioning operations at Rostov 3 began very early in 2014. Over recent months pre-startup tests have been carried out at the plant, including hot and cold trials and equipment inspection, plant manager Andrey Salnikov said. Hot testing was completed in mid October, according to NIAEP-ASE.

In total 163 fuel assemblies need to be loaded into the Rostov 3 reactor. The unit, a 1100 MW VVER-1000 reactor, is expected to start up in 2014.