Nuclear expert advises against replacing Russian fuel rods at Paks

17 January 2024

It is neither sensible nor safe to replace the Russian nuclear fuel used in the VVER-440 reactors at Hungary’s Paks NPP with fuel from another supplier, Hungarian nuclear engineer Zsolt Hárfás said in an interview with Magyar Nemzet. “An often asked question is whether fresh Russian nuclear fuel used in the VVER-440 reactors at the Paks NPP can be quickly replaced by fuel from alternative producers. The short answere is ‘no’ because currently none of the Western manufacturers has an officially approved fuel assembly suitable for VVER-440 units,” he said.

He explained that the reason for this is nuclear safety. It takes at least five to seven years for a NPP operator to switch to new nuclear fuel from another manufacturer. “This is the case even if the new fuel has already been developed,” he pointed out. This is the time it takes for operational testing, measurements, including the removal of the used fuel and associated measures, and the licensing process by the nuclear authority. “This process cannot be compared to switching from Russian gas to, for example, US LNG overnight,” he stressed.

Although diversification may be an important consideration, this should only be considered if, in addition to the priority of nuclear safety, the alternative manufacturer is able to guarantee the same or better quality, not to mention the other conditions such as reliability and price. “There is currently no manufacturer other than Russia that has licensed fuel that meets these conditions,” he said.

While Westinghouse has been mentioned as a possible alternative, Hárfás said he did not consider the company to be professional In the context of the war in Ukraine and with EU support, it is trying to supplant Rosatom in the Central European nuclear fuel market. However, he noted that its VVER-440 fuel was not yet licensed and that the costs of its ongoing development would be passed on to future customers.

He emphasised that Rosatom has been a reliable supplier and has continued to meet its international obligations and deliveries on a continuous and timely basis despite the Ukrainian conflict. Fuel for Paks had arrived regularly and the plant now has enough fresh fuel reserves for about three years instead two as before. Hárfás added that Rosatom is constantly improving its fuels. At Paks the four units are now operating on a 15-month fuel cycle instead of 12 months as a result of these improvements.

He noted that new Russian third-generation fuel had recently been installed for the first time at unit 4 of the Czech Republic’s Dukovany NPP and that the fuel had been specially developed for the plant. He added that improved Russian fuel developed for the Czech plants had improved the physical and thermal-hydraulic properties of the fuel, increasing efficiency by providing greater performance and extending the length of the fuel cycle of Dukovany to 16 months. He pointed out that this, as well as the transition of the Czech Temelin NPP’s VVER-1000 units to a 18-month fuel cycle using Russian fuel, means that the two NPPs can now produce 2 TWh more electricity a year.

Image: Hungary's Paks nuclear power plant currently uses Russian-supplied nuclear fuel in its VVER-440 reactors

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