Russia: where's it heading in nuclear?

14 May 2007

The history of Russia’s involvement in the nuclear has been told many times. In the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed to be taking impressive steps to contest world leadership in civil development of nuclear energy, but a technological arrogance developed, in the context of an impatient Soviet establishment. The Chernobyl accident tragically vindicated western reactor design criteria, and the Soviet political structure, not up to the task of safely utilising such technology, eventually fell apart. There had to be significant changes and by the early 1990s, a number of western assistance programmes were in place and helped to alter fundamentally the way things were done. Design and operating deficiencies were tackled, and a safety culture started to emerge.

Nevertheless, economic reforms following the collapse of the Soviet Union meant an acute shortage of funds for nuclear developments. Between the 1986 Chernobyl accident and the mid 1990s, only one nuclear power station was commissioned in Russia and since then, the reactor programme has continued to major on completing units under construction for many years. On the brighter side, by the late 1990s, exports of reactors to Iran, China and India were negotiated and signs were emerging that the domestic construction programme could soon be revived by better funding.

At the same time Russia became a significant exporter of nuclear fuel to the western world. Much of this has been from inventories of materials built up in the past, particularly the downblended highly enriched uranium. Although Russia is not one of the largest uranium producers, it has formidable strength in centrifuge enrichment technology and plenty of capacity to serve export markets. Substantial export earnings have been achieved by exporting nuclear materials, which were particularly important in the early 1990s, when Russia had few alternative products to sell abroad.

Now things have changed and dramatically too. Major changes have been announced in the structure of the Russian nuclear sector together with ambitious plans for reactor construction at home, export plans to other markets and involvement in many international initiatives within the fuel cycle. At the same time, domestic fuel requirements and those for reactors built in other countries mean that Russia is no longer likely to play the same role of supplier to western nuclear fuel markets, at least not on the same terms as before. Russia's future international role will essentially be to built on its reputation over the last decade as a reliable commercial provider of fuel-related services.

In 2006 it was decided to create a single vertically-integrated state holding company for Russia's nuclear power sector, separate from the military complex. The corporation will include uranium production, engineering, design, reactor construction, power generation and research institutes in its several branches, so incorporating Tvel, Tenex, Rosenergoatom and Atomstroyexport. This is a sign of Russia’s serious intent to be a major player in nuclear on a worldwide basis. The company has the clear potential, over the longer term, to be a player in the market of the magnitude not only of Areva, but combined also with Electricité de France (EdF).

On domestic power generation, it is important to note that Russian demand is rising strongly after more than a decade of stagnation and also that some 50GWe of generating plant (more than a quarter of it) in the European part of Russia comes to the end of its design life by 2010. The most important point, however, is that it is now clearly Russian policy to export gas rather than use it for domestic power generation. Gazprom has cut back on gas supplies for electricity generation because it can supposedly make about five times as much money by exporting the gas to the West.

In September 2006, a target of nuclear providing 23% of electricity by 2020 was announced, thus commissioning two 1GWe plants per year from 2011 to 2014 and then three per year until 2020. This involves additional capacity of some 31GWe by 2020 and providing some 44GWe of nuclear capacity (net of closures) by then. A lower-growth scenario of adding only 2.4GWe per year to 2020 was also mentioned, which would give around 37GWe. The first stage must be to complete those reactors already under construction. A mid 2006 announcement pledged $665 million in 2007 towards completing Rostov (Volgodonsk) 2, Kalinin 4 and Beloyarsk 4. Balakovo 5&6 seem to have been deferred while there is some uncertainty on Kursk 5, an RBMK design. It is apparently 70% complete but still requires $750 million to finish. Beyond these units, initial plans for new reactors include three standard third generation VVER reactors to be built at Leningrad (two units as phase 2) and Novovoronezh (unit 6) to be commissioned 2012-13.

These plans are undoubtedly ambitious, particularly in the light of recent Russian performance at completing stated reactor plans. Delays have also been experienced in exported reactors, notably at Tianwan in China, with doubts expressed over project management skills. Nevertheless, the problem concerning finance for reactors in Russia, which has constrained plans for much of the period since 1990, would appear to be largely over. Difficulties in the future are likely to be similar to those discussed for elsewhere in the world, such as the availability of sufficient qualified staff and the capacity to manufacture the major reactor components in sufficient volume.


It is now clearly Russian policy to export gas rather than use it for domestic power generation

Two interesting developments are the plans for involvement with major aluminium smelters and the small floating nuclear power plants. In 2006 the major aluminium producer Sual (which has since become part of Rusal) signed an agreement with Rosatom to support investment in new nuclear capacity at Kola, to power expanded smelting there from 2013. Then in April 2007 Rosatom and Rusal, now the world’s largest aluminium and alumina producer, said that they will undertake a feasibility study on an “energy metallurgical company comprising a nuclear power plant and an aluminium plant” in Russia’s far east. Direct involvement with major power customers seems a logical way forward for new nuclear plants, on the lines of the fifth Finnish reactor, where the shareholders are big power consumers. Russia is also planning to construct seven further floating nuclear power plants in addition to one now under construction, on a barge to supply 70MWe of power plus 586GJ/h of heat to Severodvinsk, Archangelsk region. Five of the further units will be used by Gazprom for offshore oil and gas field development and for operations on the Kola and Yamal peninsulas.

Russia still plans to close the fuel cycle as far as possible and utilise recycled uranium, and eventually also to use plutonium in MOX fuel. However, its achievements in doing this are so far rather limited. At present, the used fuel from RBMK reactors and from VVER-1000 reactors is stored (mostly at reactor sites) and not reprocessed. Used fuel from VVER-440 reactors, the BN-600 fast reactor and from naval reactors is reprocessed at the Mayak RT-1 plant at Ozersk (Chelyabinsk-65) in the Urals. It started up in 1971 and employs the Purex process. The BN-800 fast reactor project, intended to replace the operating BN-600, may become international with Japanese and Chinese involvement. Construction has been continuously delayed by lack of funds, but it is now underway with hopes for a 2012 startup.

Russia’s policy for building nuclear power plants in non-nuclear weapons states is to deliver on a turnkey basis, including supply of all fuel and repatriation of used fuel for the life of the plant. In October 2006, its bid for two AES-92 units for Belene was accepted by Bulgaria. Atomstroyexport leads a consortium including Areva NP and Bulgarian enterprises in the €4 billion project. Since then, Rosatom has actively pursued cooperation deals in South Africa, Namibia, Chile and Morocco as well as signing a memorandum of understanding with Enel of Italy for cooperation on nuclear power projects in Eastern and Central Europe (where Enel has a major presence), using Russian technology. It is likely that Atomstroyexport will eventually build a second unit at Bushehr in Iran and two more in China. In early 2007, a memorandum of understanding was signed to build four more units at Kudankalam and other reactors elsewhere in India.

There has also been substantial activity in uranium production in recent times. In 2006, Russia produced some 3200tU of uranium, but Tvel announced that this needs to increase to 7500tU per annum by 2020 to match increased domestic demand. Tvel and Tenex have formed the Uranium Mining Company to consolidate their existing mining assets and to develop uranium deposits in Russia and in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. In October 2006 Japan’s Mitsui & Co with Tenex agreed to undertake a feasibility study for a uranium mine in eastern Russia to supply Japan. This would represent the first foreign ownership of a Russian uranium mine. Finally, Tenex has also entered agreements to mine and explore for uranium in South Africa (with local companies) and Canada (with Cameco).

On enrichment, in addition to steadily rising capacity at the four Russian facilities, the International Uranium Enrichment Centre (IUEC) is being set up at Angarsk. This is part of president Putin’s vision to provide new nuclear power states with assured supplies of low-enriched uranium for power reactors, giving them some equity in the project but without allowing them access to the enrichment technology. This fits in well with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) proposal for Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (MNA) and with the US Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

Finally on international cooperation, Russia has been the effective leader of the Inpro project at the IAEA, which is working on next generation reactors. It has also recently signed a cooperation declaration with the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), bringing it much more into the mainstream of western nuclear industry development. This agreement is expected to assist Russia’s integration into the OECD.

There is therefore a lot more now happening in Russia. It seems that the shadow of Chernobyl and the difficult economic era immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union have finally been shaken off. The reorganisation of the industry along western lines is encouraging and provides more credibility for the ambitious plans. Strong oil and gas export earnings appear to be giving the economic strength the Russian nuclear sector needs to fulfil the early promise it showed back in the early days of nuclear power.

It is now clearly Russian policy to export gas rather than use it for domestic power generation Quote1 Steve Kidd is head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association Steve Kidd Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy and Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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