Kazakh-Chinese joint venture completes fuel qualification certification

5 January 2024

National Atomic Company Kazatomprom has announced that the Kazakhstan-China joint venture, Ulba-TVS LLP, which produces fuel for Chinese NPPs has completed the qualification process for the production of AFA 3G type A fuel assemblies. Technology holder France’s Framatome has confirmed the announcement. Work on the certification began in March 2023 and took place in four stages, Kazatomprom noted.

Kazatomprom published an image on its website of the document signed by Framatome Senior Executive Vice President Lionel Gaiffe, dated 18 December 2023. The qualification allows the plant to produce AFA 3G type A fuel assemblies, in addition to AFA 3G AA fuel assemblies they already supply to China, thereby expanding the product line, the company added, noting that it plans to commission industrial production of AFA 3G type A fuel assemblies and supply a batch to China in 2024. Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMZ) with 51% and CGNPC Uranium Resources Company Limited (CGNPC-URC - part of China General Nuclear Power Group - CGN) with 49%.

The 200 tU Ulba-TVS plant began operations in November 2021 after receiving certification from Framatome. The plant also received recognition as a certified nuclear fuel supplier from end user CGNPC-URC.and delivered its first batch of fresh fuel to CGNPC-URC in December 2022 followed by a second in May 2023. The company has a guaranteed sales market for 20 years going forward.

The joint venture, Ulba-TVS, was set up in 2015 by UMZ and CGNPC-URC. In 2016, construction of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant began as a joint project involving Kazatomprom, CGN and France’s Areva (now Framatome). The plant is managed by Ulba-TVS and procures enriched uranium either from China or Russia.

Since 2006, Kazakhstan has been considering the pros and cons of constructing a nuclear plant, and in 2014, Kazakhstan and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding for constructing a reactor, but a location for the site was never finalised. Kazakhstan operated a small Soviet-built BN-350 fast reactor from 1973 to 1999 producing both power and desalinated water, which is now undergoing decommissioning.

Kazakhstan is now seriously considering NPP construction. In August 2023, the Energy Ministry provided an update on previously conducted studies related to the choice of reactor technologies and siting for Kazakhstan’s first NPP. The Ministry said that, based on studies, Ulken village in the Zhambyl district of Almaty region had been chosen as the most preferred locality. The Ministry also recommended choosing a technology “proven by the experience of construction and successful operation of a similar plant”. The shortlist included:

  • China National Nuclear Corporation’s HPR-1000 (Hualong One) reactor;
  • Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power’s APR1400 reactor;
  • Rosatom’s VVER-1200 and VVER-1000 reactors; and
  • EDF’s EPR-1200 reactor.

Kazkahstan is organising a referendum to ascertain public support for the project. Meanwhile lobbying and discussions with potential vendors continues. In December Kasakh media reported that the Chinese proposal offered a nuclear plant at half the price of French, Russian, and South Korean alternatives. However, concerns have arisen over the Chinese design that reportedly uses outdated technology, despite being compatible with Kazakh-produced fuel assemblies.

The projected cost for a two-unit nuclear power plant is over $12 billion, with an output of 2.4 GWe. The Kursiv news outlet cited Baurzhan Ibrayev, chair of the Central Asia advisory board of the UK-based New Nuclear Watch Institute, as saying the projected cost of the Chinese-built plant would be up to half the price of proposals submitted by French, Russian and South Korean entities. At the same time, Ibrayev appeared to suggest that China had used “not the latest technology” in the Ulba-TVS project.

One advantage of Beijing’s proposal is that a Chinese design would be compatible with Kazakh-produced fuel assemblies, Kursiv reported. The other designs under consideration, however, would not be able to run on domestically produced fuel assemblies, according Ibrayev. “Today, there is new technology, new reactors” requiring different fuel, he is quoted as saying. The Kazakh government has not officially commented on the Kursiv report.

Image: Ulba-TVS has received a certificate of conformity for the production of AFA 3G type A fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants in China (courtesy of Kazatomprom)

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