Rosatom replaces reactor vessel that technicians dropped at its Belarusian plant

belarus reactor shell Assembly of the reactor vessel for Ostrovets unit 2 at the manufacturing plant in Russia Credit: Rosatom

Belarus and Russia have agreed to shuffle a 330-ton reactor pressure vessel originally built for Moscow’s flagging nuclear project in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the Ostrovets nuclear power plant, which Minsk has asked Russia to build.

It’s the third time Russia has shipped a reactor pressure vessel to the cloistered dictatorship, and maybe this time they will get it right.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom confirmed the switch to World Nuclear News last week, adding that the new arrival will keep the plant’s commissioning date of 2020 on schedule. When it’s complete, the Ostrovets plant will consist of two VVER-1200 type reactors and deliver a net capacity of 2340 MWe.

Reactor pressure vessels – which contain the core and coolant systems – have an accident-prone history at the Ostrovets plant. An earlier pressure vessel sent to the site by Rosatom in December collided with a concrete column at a train station just over the Belarusian border. Activists in the repressive state were shocked, and took to independent Internet sites to report the incident, which authorities called insignificant.

ingressimage_npp-construction-in-belarus-1.jpg Construction at the Belarus nuclear power plant. (Photo: Bellona) Photo: Татьяна Новикова

Then, last summer, technicians at the plant ended up dropping the pressure vessel they intended to install at the plant’s number 2 reactor. Ironically, the accident occurred while technicians were rehearsing the pressure valve’s installation, which they had planned to do the next day in front of a bank of cameras from the country’s official news media.

The enormous steel structure fell a reported four meters, and the Belarusians asked Rosatom to exchange it for a new one, but not before Rosatom and other authorities contrived to shut the accident up.

The silence was finally broken two weeks later when a whistleblowing member of Belarus’s opposition posted news of the mishap on his social media page in late July. Belarusian opposition media and newspapers from neighboring Lithuania, where construction of the Ostrovets plant is reviled, piled on and excoriated Belarusian and Russian nuclear officials for keeping mum. In August, RFE/RL ran a report saying the incident illustrated persistent “Soviet-like secrecy.”

Then-Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko sensed a public relations disaster brewing in the country most acutely affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and he agreed to swap the dropped unit for one that the company had been building, inexplicably, for its long stalled Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad.

That unit has now arrived, and it takes its place in what Andrei Ozharovsky, a nuclear analyst with Bellona, calls a game of leapfrog going on at the Ostrovets plant with reactor pressure vessels.

According to World Nuclear News, the reactor pressure valve that ran into the cement column in December was initially intended for the plant’s reactor number 2. That one, however, was installed at reactor number 1 while Belarus was waiting to exchange the one it dropped.

That casts into question the future of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant, which has in any case been stalled since 2013 for a number of competing reasons. In June of that year, the engineering firm designing the plant and Rosatom announced a huge staffing shift away from Kaliningrad, effectively euthanizing the long struggling and unpopular project.

Ever since, the Baltic plant has maintained a weak pulse that blips to the surface occasionally, only to be smothered again. Both the plant and Rosatom batted back against reports of the staff shifts, calling them normal, and even painting them as a reinvigoration of the project. In 2014, media in Lithuania, which opposes the Baltic plant as well, broke the news that Russia couldn’t make any deals to sell the plant’s power to countries it had hoped to enlist as customers. Still, the worst that Rosatom would say of the plant was that its construction had been “halted.”

According to Ozharovsky, redirecting the reactor pressure valve that was built for the Baltic plant to the Ostrovets plant should prompt Rosatom to finally issue a death certificate for its Kaliningrad project.

Back at Ostrovets, Rosatom appears to be proud of its work. A company spokeswoman told World Nuclear News that Rosatom had grudgingly gone ahead and exchanged the dropped reactor pressure valve “to protect its Belarusian counterparts from any groundless claims by third parties” and “to dispel any public concerns” about the plant.

Conceivably, there are a lot of third parties that might be concerned. A 2008 report on Belarusian cancer statistics projected 93,000 people in the country were likely to die early deaths as a result of being exposed to Chernobyl’s fallout.