Russia’s nuclear industry has seen some significant developments over the past few months, with start-up of the world’s largest fast neutron reactor – the sodium-cooled BN-800 at Unit 4 of the Beloyarsk NPP – and the world’s first Generation 3+ power reactor at Unit 6 of the Novovoronezh NPP. In addition, the construction has begun of the infrastructure for the world’s first floating NPP (FNPP) in Chukotka and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has designated the Russian Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR) in Dimitrovgrad as the world’s second International Centre for joint research projects based on Research Reactors (ICERR).

Meanwhile Russia has continued to expand its portfolio of NPPs under construction and home and abroad and has made progress on several innovative projects. Against this, there are some uncertainties – the ending of cooperation with the US and the replacement of state nuclear corporation Rosatom Director General Sergei Kiriyenko, who has held the post for more than a decade (see adjacent text box entitled 'Rosatom’s new Director General').

Rift with the US

Russia, on 5th October, suspended the 2013 inter-governmental agreement with the US on cooperation in nuclear and energy-related research and development. “Actions taken by the US over the imposition of sanctions on Russia have directly impacted on the areas of cooperation covered in the agreement,” the explanatory note to the government instruction said. It mentioned the US decision to suspend nuclear energy cooperation with Russia in April 2014, following the annexation of Crimea. The US role in the introduction of sanctions against Russia, “directly affected” areas of cooperation envisaged in the agreement, according to the statement. “In particular, the US imposed restrictions on cooperation with Russia in advanced technologies,” it added.

“In these circumstances, further cooperation with the American side, meaning tolerance of American citizens at Russian nuclear facilities, direct cooperation between Russian and American institutions, and the exchange of information and documentation between them, is impractical,” it said. The note also said that cooperation could be resumed “when this becomes justified in terms of the overall context of relations with the US”.

The 2013 agreement defines areas of scientific and technical cooperation, including nuclear security, NPP design, innovative reactor fuel, the use of nuclear and radiation technologies in medicine and industry, and handling radioactive waste, according to the Russian government statement. It also envisions implementation of joint projects with US specialists that would “further mutually beneficial cooperation in the nuclear energy sphere and help save time and resources in conducting fundamental and applied research in this sphere”.

Russia also “terminated” a 2010 cooperation agreement on the conversion of Russian research reactors to low-enriched uranium fuel. The decisions were issued in separate documents published on the government’s website.

The 2010 agreement signed between Rosatom and the US Department of Energy “provided for the possibility of technical research into the conversion of six Russian research reactors”, the government noted. “As of February 2016 the Agreement had essentially been met, with work on research reactor conversion capabilities having been completed. The signing of new research contracts is not planned and there have been no meetings of the Russian-American working group set up to coordinate activities under the Agreement since 2014.”

A statement by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the 2014 suspension by the US of nuclear cooperation and “other hostile steps and statements”, mean that Russia “can no longer trust Washington in a sphere as sensitive as the modernisation and safety of Russian nuclear power plants”. It added: “If Russia makes the decision to convert particular research reactors to low-enriched nuclear fuel, we will conduct this work independently.”

This came two days after Russia had suspended the 2000 agreement on the disposition and management of excess weapons-grade plutonium, blaming “unfriendly steps” by Washington for the decision. It also suspended two protocols based on the agreement, signed in 2006 and 2010. The 2010 protocol called on each side to dispose of 34t of plutonium by burning it in nuclear reactors.

Since then, Russia has completed a facility for making mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel at its Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC) in Zheleznogorsk and has put in place a long-term plan to close its nuclear fuel cycle based on fast neutron reactors which will burn plutonium as fuel. However, US plans to build a MOX facility have been suspended and Russian officials said Washington had failed to honour the agreement.

The Kremlin decree stated that, despite the suspension, Russia’s surplus weapons-grade plutonium would not be put to military use. Russia remains committed to its obligations to dispose of 34t of plutonium that are surplus to defence requirements. “These are not empty words.” Rosatom is ahead of schedule with this, a spokesman said. “We’ve started operating a production line for uranium-plutonium mixed oxide fuel,” he said. The BN-800 reactor, recently connected to the grid at the Beloyarsk NPP will use MOX fuel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted a draft law to parliament setting out the conditions under the plutonium deal could be resumed. They included Washington lifting sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine, paying compensation to Moscow for the sanctions, and reducing the US military presence in NATO member state in Eastern Europe to the levels they were 16 years ago. The move prompted Washington to suspend diplomatic contacts with Russia over Syria.

Foreign nuclear construction contracts

However, tension with the US has not stopped Russia from expanding its nuclear industry to the point where Rosatom now claims the world’s largest portfolio of nuclear construction contracts. Rosatom First Deputy CEO for Corporate Development and International Business Kirill Komarov told the Rosatom September newsletter: “We continue building up our portfolio of foreign projects. Over the last three years, Rosatom’s ten-year international contract portfolio has grown from $72.2bn to $110.3 billion. It includes contracts for nuclear construction, LEU supplies, fuel assemblies and more. The plans are to increase our international portfolio by 20–25% by the end of 2016.”

Russia currently has 36 reactor construction projects worldwide, across Europe, Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. Komarov said Tianwan NPP Units 3 and 4 are under construction in China and India’s Kudankulam NPP Unit 2 is ready for grid connection. The contracts for Kudankulam Units 3 and 4 have been signed and are being implemented to supply long lead equipment and develop engineering documents. Construction of the first NPP in Belarus “is in full swing,” with construction projects also underway in Finland, Iran, Bangladesh, Jordan and Turkey.

During the 60th International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference in Vienna in September, Russia signed inter-governmental agreements with Finland, Cuba, Tunisia and Jordan on cooperation in civil nuclear energy. The agreement with Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority was a protocol to a 1995 agreement on the early notification of nuclear accidents and exchange of information covering NPPs, propulsion reactors, fresh and used nuclear fuel storage, research reactors and other nuclear facilities that are “under construction or operating in Finland and within a 300km frontier area with Russia”, Rosatom said.

The agreement with Cuba establishes the legal basis for further cooperation in civil nuclear power, including medicine and radiation technology; training of nuclear specialists; fundamental and applied research; and radioactive waste management. A similar agreement was signed with Tunisia covering assistance in the development of Tunisian nuclear infrastructure in compliance with international recommendations; the design and construction of NPPs and research reactors, as well as desalination plants and particle accelerators; uranium exploration and mining; research into Tunisia’s mineral resources; and nuclear fuel cycle services. Rosatom also signed an agreement with the Jordan Atomic Energy commission to educate and train Jordanians in nuclear energy.

Also in early October, Egypt’s State Council ratified the final draft of the contract between Egypt and Russia to build a four-unit NPP in Al-Dabaa. In November 2015 Russia and Egypt signed an intergovernmental cooperation agreement for its construction with Russia offering a $25 billion loan to finance 85% of the value of each contract for equipment and services. Rosatom has already begun site surveys for the 4800MWe plant. However, the NPP has yet to receive any financing and no contracts have yet been signed, he added. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the sidelines of the recent G20 Summit in China, that Russia had already started work at Dabaa.

Rosatom is also hoping to accelerate progress on the construction of Vietnam’s first NPP, Ninh Thuan-1. This is one of two projects Russia is implementing there, the other being a new nuclear research centre. Russia and Vietnam signed an agreement on construction of the two-unit (2400MWe) NPP in 2010 and another in 2011 on a $10 billion Russian loan to support construction. A general framework agreement for implementing the first phase was signed in 2015 with a view to commissioning Unit 1 in 2020. However, this was later deferred to 2027 or 2028.

In Eastern Europe, Russia is contracted to build two new units at Hungary’s Paks NPP supported by a €10 billion ($11.2 billion) loan under a 2014 inter-governmental agreement. An environmental licence for construction was issued by the government in late September. However, the European Union is still deliberating over whether the  loan constitutes state aid.

In Bulgaria, the project to build a two-unit NPP at Belene, which was cancelled in 2012, appears to be back on the table after the Geneva-based International Court of Arbitration awarded compensation to Russia for equipment already manufactured before the cancellation. Meanwhile, Russia is undertaking life extension work at Bulgaria’s Kozloduy NPP. It has a similar life extension project at Armenia’s NPP at Metsamor, and is involved in completion of two units at Slovakia’s Mohovce NPP.

Komarov noted that Rosatom is also building research centres and research reactors and has built over 100 research reactors in Russia and 19 other countries in the past 50 years, many of which are still in operation, particularly those in North Africa, Europe, Central and Southeast Asia. “We estimate the market for research reactors, nuclear research centres and related technologies at approximately $5-6 billion, and have excellent prospects for winning a market share of $2-3 billion”. As well as the Vietnam research centre, Russia in March signed an agreement to build a research centre in Bolivia and earlier this year also signed an agreement with the Nigerian government for cooperation in building a nuclear science and technology centre. “Our plans for this year are to sign similar agreements with Tanzania and Belarus,” he said.

Komarov stressed the importance of Rosatom’s integrated offer policy. “Every time we enter a new market, we say that we are prepared to build the nuclear infrastructure from scratch and solve all related issues from A to Z. Our services are not limited to delivering a successful Generation 3+ VVER-based project…. We assist in staff training, licensing and standardization. We supply fuel throughout the entire lifecycle of a nuclear station, provide maintenance and modernisation services, dispose of radioactive waste and, if needed, help setting up the national regulatory framework. Finally, we are prepared to provide finance for the project and offer flexible financing solutions.”

Domestic developments

As well as foreign projects, eight reactors are under construction in Russia, at various stages of completion, Komarov said, drawing particular attention to the Generation 3+ unit that was brought online at Novovoronezh NPP and which will serve as a reference project for this generation of reactors. Also in August, Beloyarsk NPP Unit 4 with a sodium-cooled BN-800 fast neutron reactor reached full capacity.

Construction of the coastal infrastructure for Russia’s first-of-a-kind floating nuclear power plant (FNPP), Academik Lomonosov, formally began on 4th October with an official ceremony at Pevek in the Chukotka Autonomous Region. The FNPP is scheduled to be commissioned in 2019, after it completes tests at the construction site in St Petersburg and is transported to the site. The FNPP will replace the ageing Bilibino NPP and a small thermal plant which have reached the end of their design life.

Russia is also focusing on innovative technologies for the nuclear industry, in particular the development of fast neutron reactors. Rosatom Deputy General Director for Innovation Management Vyacheslav Pershukov told the IAEA 60th General Conference that the global nuclear power industry is under competitive pressure from other energy sources and needs to progress to a new level. “Transfer of nuclear energy on a closed fuel cycle, based on fast reactors, will serve as the solution to five key issues – security, competitiveness, lack of raw materials, processing of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level waste, as well as non- proliferation of fissile material and weapons technology,” he said.

While a formal decision on whether to build a prototype a large commercial sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor – the BN-1200 – still officially rests on the successful performance of the BN-800, all the indications suggest that the project will go ahead. The BN-1200 will be built at Beloyarsk Unit 5. The chief designer of the BN-1200 project, JSC OKBM Afrikantov has commissioned work to secure a multi-criteria comparative analysis of the project, establishing a programme of research and development and a roadmap for its implementation. This work should be completed by spring of 2017, according to Rosatom’s procurement website.

The main purpose of the focus on fast reactors is to close the nuclear fuel cycle through more efficient use of fuel and reduction in waste, including burning hazardous radionuclides.

This is being explored through the Proryv (Breakthrough) project based at the Siberian chemical combine (SCC) in Seversk, where a demonstration project is being developed based on a different fast reactor technology – the lead-cooled Brest 300, which will have its fuel fabrication and reprocessing facilities onsite. These will be innovative and will include the development of dense nitride mixed uranium- plutonium (MOX) fuel and a new reprocessing/ recycling technology.

Vladimir Troyanov, chief production engineer of the Breakthrough project, told a roundtable on fast reactors on the sidelines of the IAEA 60th General Conference that it was planned for the BN-1200 to begin operation in 2027 assuming the BN-800 project goes as planned. The Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC) in Zheleznogorsk now hosts an industrial scale MOX plant and a pilot demonstration reprocessing plant is being completed there to deal with the used fuel from the BN-800.

Troyanov said that by 2019 the BN-800 would be fully fuelled by MOX – it currently uses both uranium oxide and MOX fuel. From 2020-2023 it will begin to also burn neptunium and americium actinides (extracted from high-level wastes). Reprocessing of its used uranium oxide fuel will begin at MCC in 2018 and plutonium recycling will begin in 2024.

To support fast reactor research Russia is building a multipurpose research facility, MBIR, at the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR) in Dimitrovgrad. This sodium-cooled fast reactor facility will replace the BOR-60 fast neutron research reactor, which has been operating for some 50 years.

MBIR will be used to test innovative materials and cores elements for fourth generation nuclear energy systems, including fast reactors and small thermal reactors. The 150MWe MBIR is three times more powerful than BOR-60 and can be used to test different coolants (gas, lead salt solution).

Rosatom Deputy Director Pershukov said MBIR is an advanced research platform not just for Russia but for the whole world. “Rosatom is open to mutually beneficial cooperation in this project with all stakeholders”, he noted. The state-owned company hopes it will become the centre of an international research platform for exchange of views and experiences related fourth-generation installations.

“To date, we have signed two memorandums on cooperation and plan to sign a few more before the end of the year.”

An advisory committee is being set up to discuss the planned research areas and next year will begin to negotiate with partners on key issues of participation. The reactor is planned to be completed by 2019 and then will be fitted with the necessary research facilities based on discussions with potential users. Rosatom intends to formally register the centre for fast reactors in 2017. Earlier it was reported that 40% of the working time on MBIR will be reserved for Rosatom’s research programmes, and 60% for foreign companies to implement their research programmes on a commercial basis.

The IAEA in September designated NIIAR as the second International Centre for joint research projects based on Research Reactors (ICERR). France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) was the
first to receive ICERR status in 2015 for its research centres in Saclay and Cadarache. NIIAR will make its six research reactors and other facilities available to IAEA member states for joint research and development projects. NIIAR’s new status will be valid for five years. MBIR will become part of this arrangement when it begins operating.