The first VVER-440 fuel produced by US-based Westinghouse at its Swedish facility has been loaded into one of the reactors at Ukraine’s Rivne NPP. It was not clear which of the units – 1 or 2 – received the fuel, which reportedly will initially be mixed with the existing fuel supplied by Russia’s TVEL. Ukraine’s target, however, is to end the use of Russian-supplied fuel as soon as possible.

The event was attended by Ukrainian Energy Minister Hermann Galushchenko; the President Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom, Petro Kotin; the Ambassador of Sweden to Ukraine, Martin Oberg; the President & CEO of Westinghouse Electric Company, Patrick Fragman; the CEO of Westinghouse Electric Sweden, Aziz Dag; the head of the Rivne Regional Military Administration, Vitaly Koval; and the CEO of Rivne NPP Pavlo Kovtonyuk.

Energy Minister Galushchenko noted that the contract for the supply of VVER-440 fuel assemblies had been concluded in September 2020. “And that we managed to do this so quickly is a great success and a significant basis for our further collaboration with Westinghouse, which is only expanding,” he said. Energoatom President Petro Kotin said Ukraine had asked Westinghouse to accelerate its development of VVER-440 fuel at the start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. “With our engineering support, they made it in a year and a half and brought it here to the Rivne NPP.”

The President & CEO of Westinghouse Electric Company Patrick Fragman noted that specialists from Energoatom and Westinghouse had achieved in a year and a half, a task that would normally take 6-7 years. “We have done this together, and not only for Ukraine, but also for most European countries, where nuclear reactors can now be completely independent of the supply of fuel from Russia,” he commented.

Rivne 1&2, commissioned in 1980 and 1981, are the only VVER-440 units in Ukraine. Ukraine also operates 13 VVER-1000 units, including Rivne 3&4 and Westinghouse has been supplying VVER-1000 fuel to Ukraine since 2005, when the first lead test assemblies were delivered to unit 3 the South Ukraine NPP.

Over the past several years there has been growing pressure from the European Union (EU) for member states to diversify away from the use of Russian-supplied fuel. Westinghouse Electric Sweden, is leading the Accelerated Programme for Implementation of Secure VVER Fuel Supply (APIS), which was launched in January. There are currently over 30 reactors of VVER-440 and VVER-1000 design operating in the EU and in Ukraine.

In July the EU selected a consortium led by Westinghouse to develop and deliver a secure, fully European nuclear fuel supply for Russian-designed VVERs. The three-year APIS project is co-funded by the EU, using €10m ($10.9m) from the Euratom Work Programme 2023-2025. APIS, part of the EU's Horizon Europe programme for research & innovation, involves 12 partners from eight countries.

These include five NPP operators – CEZ (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 Rež (Czech Republic), Uppsala University (Sweden) and VUJE (Slovakia).

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 had 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 causing significant damage to the reactor and Ukraine later suspended its use pending a 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.

Meanwhile the race was on to develop an alternative to TVEL’s VVER-440 fuel. Finland had sourced fuel from Westinghouse (then part of BNFL) for its two VVER-440 units at Loviisa from 2001 to 2007, but decided to switch to TVEL. Westinghouse then shut down its manufacture of VVER-440 fuel and has rushed to redesign it in collaboration with Spain’s Enusa. A production line for the new fuel at Enusa’s Juzbado factory is being developed.

The APIS project target included:

  • Developing VVER-440 fuel designs for delivery in 2023;
  • Developing improved VVER-440 fuel designs, with improved fuel economics suitable for all EU and Ukraine plants, for delivery in 2024;
  • Developing a next generation improved VVER-1000 for delivery by 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.

The objective of the APIS programme is to create security of supply of nuclear fuel for VVER reactors 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.”

Image: A ceremony was held to mark the occasion (courtesy of Energoatom)