Poor economy forces Russian nuke utility to mull extending old reactors’ run times to 60 years

An Orthodox priest blesses the control room of the Kola Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Bellona Archive)
An Orthodox priest blesses the control room of the Kola Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Bellona Archive)

Publish date: September 8, 2015

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia’s nuclear utility is holding a tender whose winner would develop tests for some of the country’s oldest reactors to analyze their fitness to receive new, extended run times that could total as many as 60 years.

Specifically, the tests would apply to the reactors at the Kola and Novovoronezh nuclear plants and their aged VVER-440 reactors, the RIA Novosti newswire reported in Russian.

Though not a welcome decision to environmentalists, it was one they said was expected in Russia’s current economic straits, which have derailed or postponed many of state nuclear corporation Rosatom’s plans to build more reactors, and have choked cash flow to safely decommission old ones.

kola The Kola Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Kola NPP)

“The main reason behind engineered lifespan extensions of aging reactors is, I think, related to a lack of money to decommission them,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist.

In his opinion, Rosatom should focus its financial energies on just such decommissioning efforts, money which is currently being siphoned off by “more exotic reactor projects like the BREST [fast neutron] reactor, floating nuclear plants whose costs are spiraling out of control, or developing nuclear reactors in foreign countries.”

Bøhmer’s colleague Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Right Center (ERC) Bellona, remarked that as long as Rosatom and the nuclear utility have opted to pursue the extensions, they’d better be as certain as possible they’ve done their math homework right.

“To extend reactors, you better obtain the support of science, and most importantly, the help of those institutions that make calculations on durability,” he said. “Without these calculations, no one can make any decisions on extending [reactor] service terms.”

The reactors under consideration

Novovoronezh reactor 3 and 4 The No 3 and 4 reactors at the Novovoronezh nuclear power plant. (Photo: Wikipeida)

The specific reactors the testing would apply to are the Novovoronezh nuclear plant’s No 3 and 4 units, which went into operation in 1971 and 1972, respectively, and all four of the Kola Nuclear power plant, each of which are currently operation on at least one lifespan extension. The Kola plant’s first two units went online in 1972 and 1973, followed by reactor No 3 in 1981 and No 4 in 1984.

Kola’s No 1 and 2 reactors are slated for shutdown in 2018 and 2019 unless, said Bøhmer, they receive extensions – which he expects them to get.

In October 2014, Kola’s No 4 reactor was granted a record-breaking 25-year extension, pushing back its shutdown date to 2039.

The tests Russia’s nuclear utility, Rosenergoatom, are soliciting for tender would provide calculations on the durability of reactor components and how to protect their crucial elements – such as the reactor chamber and equipment inside the core – from deterioration. The tests would also have to take into account protective measures for the VVER-440’s steam generators, and make assessments on whether they could complete six-decade run times.

Rosenergoatom is prepared to pay 22 million rubles ($322,000) for the tests, which the utility wants completed by March of 2017.

Andrei Zolotkov, director of Bellona Murmansk, said the decision to move forward on measures to prolong the lifespans of the reactors at the Kola nuclear plant –located 200 kilometers from the Norwegian border – was “not a safe decision, but an expected one.”

Nikitin was likewise not surprised

“We already know that Rosatom intends to extend the work of nuclear reactors to the maximum periods possible, which a lot of [other] countries are doing,” he said.

Too much power, too little demand

Zolotkov said that the extensions don’t make much sense in terms of the Kola Peninsula’s energy demands, which are far lower than the plant produces, even though it usually operates at only 70 percent capacity and with one reactor shut down. The lack of demand for the Kola plant’s energy is so profound, said Zolotkov, that even the 500-megawatt output of one of its reactors is too much.

Russia.Rosatom.KolaNPP.AO.1_Blok Inside Kola NPP's reactor No 1. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But both Zolotkov and Nikitin noted that both Russian and worldwide trends are favoring extensions rather than building whole new plants, which cost tens of billions of dollars, take decades to construct, and are rarely completed on schedule or budget.

According to Zolotkov, when Russia’s oldest reactors were built some 40 ago, solid data on how long they could operate were lacking, so calculations and estimates on run-times tended toward the conservative – hence Rosenegoatom’s desire for a new round of calculations.

Good math doesn’t guarantee safe outcomes

“But however detailed the calculations, in practice there always remains the likelihood of unexpected situations that can lead to failure of [a reactor’s] main primary circuit equipment – and most dangerous, the loss of [the reactor chamber’s] integrity, and a subsequent release of radioactivity into the environment,” said Zolotkov.

Nikitin said the main primary circuit and the core are the most vulnerable parts of any reactor, as they constantly operate in conditions of high pressure and heat.

While Zolotkov noted that the newer Nos 3 and 4 reactors at the Kola nuclear station were considered in line with contemporary standards, the older Nos 1 and 2 units are a question mark.

“This begs the question of what Rosatom would do in the event of an unforeseen situation, like loss of reactor chamber integrity, in one of the extended units –,” said Zolotkov. “Would they stop prolonging all reactor lifespans, or would they continue to use those [extended units] where nothing had occurred?”

A fatal hiccup would necessitate a Russian and worldwide reconsideration of prolonged engineering lifespans – something that would be hard to monitor with any ironclad guarantees.

Nikitin likened the situation of reactor extensions to driving an old car.

“It’s without doubt that extending operation times [for reactors] is risky,” he said. “When you continue driving an old car, your insurance rates go up because the risk that your car will break down and cause an accident goes up – and that’s pretty much the situation here.”

The mechanics, he noted, just have a lot more to take into consideration when it comes to keeping old reactors online.