News

Bellona Nuclear Digest, January 2024

Illustration from Atomflot photo by Bellona
Illustration from Atomflot photo by Bellona

Publish date: February 26, 2024

A survey of events in the field of nuclear and radiation safety relating to Russia and Ukraine.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2002, Bellona ceased its activity in the aggressor country. On 18 April 2023 the Russian general prosecutor’s office declared Bellona to be an undesirable organization.

However, we continue to monitor events in the field of nuclear and radiation safety relating to Russia and Ukraine, which we believe are of interest to foreign readers. We analyze the situation in order to assess the degree of Russia’s international influence on other countries and the risks connected with this. We present you with a survey of these events for January 2024.

Follow the links to read the last three digests for December, November and October. Subscribe to our mailing list to make sure you don’t miss the next digest. Download a PDF of this digest here.

In this issue:

NUCLEAR EVENTS IN UKRAINE AND THE WAR
1. Zaporizhzhia NPP. Event timeline for January 2024
2. Ukrainian Energy Minister announces plans to start construction of four new nuclear power units in 2024

INTERNATIONAL NUCLEAR EVENTS AND THEIR CONNECTION WITH RUSSIA
3. Plans to develop HALEU production facilities in UK and USA
4. Construction of new nuclear units in Europe. Rosatom is not invited
5. Mongolia prepares to conclude deal with French Orano on use of new uranium field

EVENTS IN THE RUSSIAN NUCLEAR SECTOR AND IN ROSATOM PROJECTS ABROAD
6. Transportation volume on NSR grows. But at slower rates than planned in 2022, and future plans are being adjusted
7. Generation at Russian NPP dropped in 2023. Rosatom tries to avoid discussing this
8. Russia increases export of isotope production
9. Rosatom’s projects abroad in brief

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Nuclear events in Ukraine and the war

Zaporizhzhia NPP. Event timeline for January 2024 ↑

The 14th team of the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ) was present at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant until 11 January. This team, like the previous IAEA missions, inspected the buildings and plant territory as part of monitoring the nuclear safety situation at the ZNPP, and also observed the five concrete principles of protecting the plant.

The IAEA team at the ZNPP. Photo:IAEA

On 3 January, the IAEA reported that members of the team, for the first time since the IAEA mission began working at the plant in September 2022, were not granted timely access to the reactor halls of units in cold shutdown, where the reactor core and spent fuel storage pool are located. This concerned the reactor halls of units 1, 2 and 6.

On 5 January, Rosenergoatom representative Renat Karchaa reported that IAEA employees had not been permitted access to the containments in the reactor buildings in connection with safety requirements at the plant, as in usual (non-emergency situations) the containments are sealed. “In ‘sealed’ mode, staff access to the containment is prohibited, and only granted with clear justification and in emergency situations,” said Karchaa.

Later, the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation at the IAEA sent a Note Verbale on 11 January which among other things described where the mission experts had been permitted to go in past months. And it is noted that in early December they had the opportunity to examine reactor compartments and the main equipment (reactor, main circulation pumps, steam generators) of units 3 and 5. This information is also confirmed in an IAEA report of 21 December. This means that in December there were no problems in giving mission experts access to the containment.

On 12 January, the 15th IAEA mission began work at the ZNPP. The new team repeated the request for access to the reactor hall of unit 6, but did not receive permission. They were informed that the reactor hall was “sealed”, but experts were not refused access, and rather invited to conduct the inspection in about a week’s time. (Later, in a Note Verbale from the Russian Federation on 19 January, it was noted that the containments of power units are sealed in order to exclude unauthorized access). The IAEA reports that previously all ISAMZ teams were able to receive access to the reactor hall of any power unit in cold shutdown mode, and that the plant management did not mention the status of a containment as being “sealed”.

On 15 January, IAEA experts did receive access to the reactor hall of unit 6, where they inspected the main components of the reactor and confirmed that it was in cold shutdown. During their inspection, the operators transferred the operation of the cooling pumps of the spent fuel pool from one safety train to another.

In the second half of January, experts also visited the reactor hall of unit 3, and in late January the reactor hall of unit 1.

On 22 December, during a walkdown of the safety system rooms of unit 6, IAEA experts observed boric acid deposits on valves, a pump and on the floors of several rooms of the containment building. They were informed that the source of the leak was one of the boric acid storage tanks. The IAEA report notes that these types of leaks can occur during the operation of a plant, but that this kind of event still requires proper and timely attention, investigation and response from the plant operator, to prevent potentially more severe consequences for safety.

On 9 January, experts conducted a follow-up walkdown, noting a significant reduction in boric acid deposits, and that the leak from the tank had also diminished considerably. The group was informed that the cause of the leak was micro-cracks in the boron tank caused by aging, and a blockage in the leak detection pipe. The IAEA was informed that the blockage had been repaired, but that micro-cracks in the tank could only be repaired after draining the tank, which was postponed until scheduled maintenance, as the leak rate was currently within technical specifications.

On 18 January, during a visit to the main control room of unit 6, the IAEA team confirmed that the level of boric acid in the storage tank was above the minimum level in the technical specifications, despite the previously observed leak.

On 20 January, according to the IAEA’s information, the Russian nuclear regulatory body (Rostekhnadzor – note by Bellona) issued a special order to repair this leak.

The IAEA reports that the boric acid deposits were also observed in several safety system rooms of units 1 and 3.

As well as difficulties with access to the reactor halls of power units, since 18 October 2023 IAEA mission experts have been unable to receive access to some sections of the turbine hall of each power unit. On 10 January, access was again restricted at the turbine halls of units 1 and 2, and on 15 January access was denied to some areas of the turbine hall of unit 6. In January, permission was not received to examine the rooftops of reactor buildings, which had been planned for inspection on 19 December, but did not take place “due to security concerns”.

In January, mission experts examined the main control rooms of all six units. The IAEA reported that on 18 January the experts were able to observe staffing levels at the main control rooms, but did not have the opportunity to ask questions about their qualifications and experience.

Additionally, the IAEA reports inform that ISAMZ members visited the pumping stations of units 3 and 4, the emergency diesel generators of unit 6, and the safety system rooms of units 3 and 5.

At the end of January, they visited the two fresh fuel storage facilities, the dry spent fuel storage facility and water sprinkler ponds. They performed radiation monitoring, confirming that radiation levels were normal.

Also at the end of January, experts performed a walkdown of the cooling pond area, which supplies water for some of the site’s needs not related to safety (cooling water for the six shutdown reactors is supplied by the 11 groundwater wells near the sprinkler ponds). There they met with plant staff handling the site’s water management, and discussed how the cold winter weather may affect the cooling pond, and how the ZNPP deals with any impact of ice. Before the war, the water in the cooling pond was kept warm due to the operation of the reactor units. This winter, when it was coldest, the pond was covered by a two-centimeter layer of ice. During the walkdown, experts observed ice in a few locations of the cooling pond.

During this visit, experts were once again not permitted to examine the isolation gate of the cooling pond.

An inspection of the 750 kV open switchyard was also carried out, where experts confirmed that only one such power line was connected to the electricity grid (of the four that were connected before the war). 

On 19 January, the IAEA reported that in the buffer zone between the external and internal fences of the plant around the perimeter of the site, anti-infantry mines had once more appeared. Previously experts had already reported the mining of this area in July 2023, but the mines were removed in November 2023.

The Russian permanent mission replied that the presence of mines was due to the need to deter potential saboteurs, which “corresponds to the fourth of the five principles to ensure the nuclear safety and security of the ZNPP” presented by Grossi in May 2023. “Moreover, laying mines to protect the perimeter of a nuclear power plant is an acceptable practice that does not contradict any IAEA recommendations. This method can be used even in case when the nuclear facility is not located in the zona of an armed conflict”.

In the summer of 2023, however, Grossi discussed mining the perimeter of the plant, saying that “having such explosives on the site is inconsistent with the IAEA safety standards and nuclear security guidance and creates additional psychological pressure on plant staff – even if the IAEA’s initial assessment based on its own observations and the plant’s clarifications is that any detonation of these mines should not affect the site’s nuclear safety and security systems.”

The IAEA team at the ZNPP constantly reports that explosions can be heard at some distance from the site. At other Ukrainian NPPs, IAEA representatives also report air raid alarms almost daily. A communication from the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the IAEA reported that in mass rocket attacks of Ukrainian territory by Russia, on 29 December in the regions of the Rivne and Khmelnitsky NPPs two missiles flew at an altitude of 500 meters, and on 2 January as a result of a missile attack on Kiev, the electricity and water supply was lost in the building of the State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety.

Since July 2023, if the single main power line is switched off, the plant can receive electricity through the 330 kV reserve line. But all this time, for the line to work, it had to be connected manually. In early January, the IAEA published a report that measures had been taken at the plant to ensure the automatic supply of reserve electricity: work was conducted on the back-up electrical transformers, and two of the three transformers were put into operation, of which one is constantly connected to the on-site back-up power lines of all six power units. But on 18 January, an accident took place on the transformers that had been put into operation. Eight hours later, two other back-up power electrical transformers were connected. Maintenance on the malfunctioning transformer was completed in late January, and it resumed work. The preliminary cause of the failure has been determined, but IAEA experts have not yet been informed of the cause of the accident.

Inspection of the auxiliary back-up power transformers 5 and 6 during a visit by Rafael Grossi to the ZNPP on 7 February 2024. Photo IAEA

In January, IAEA experts at the ZNPP were shown the high-level maintenance plan for 2024, and informed about plant maintenance. They were told that priority was maintenance of safety systems of the site, and also important works that had not been carried out in 2023. The annual maintenance plan includes safety systems, diesel generators, unit transformers and the 750 kV electrical switchyard. The mission experts did not receive a copy of the plan for detailed study. But on the basis of discussions and information presented to the team, the IAEA came to the conclusion that the ZNPP would not realize the comprehensive maintenance plan in 2024.

On 8 January, Rosenergoatom representative Renat Karchaa reported that specialists from Atomenergoremont (the head specialized repair organization in Russia) and the repair division of the ZNPP would be brought in for scheduled and preventative repair works. The latter currently employs around 800 people, and in 2024 it is planned to increase the size of the staff to 1,200.

As of late January, five of the six reactors at the ZNPP remain in cold shutdown, while unit 4 is in hot shutdown to produce steam and heat. On 1 February four new diesel steam generators were put into operation, and the steam generated will be used to process liquid waste. It has not yet been confirmed at the ZNPP whether the steam generated by this new equipment will enable it to place all reactor units in cold shutdown.

On 23 January, Energoatom reported that soon the six-year warranty period permitted by the manufacturer would expire for nuclear fuel at all six reactors of the ZNPP.

On 25 January, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi made a general statement on the situation at nuclear sites of Ukraine at a closed meeting of the UN Security Council. He reported that in early February he would visit the ZNPP for the fourth time since the beginning of the war, and prior to this on 6 February would hold high-level talks in Kiev, and also hold meetings in Russia in mid-February.

One issue that he plans to discuss at the ZNPP is the statement by the Russian side that from 1 February employees of the Ukrainian national operator Energoatom will not be permitted at the plant. These concerns 120 specialists who did not sign a contract with the operating organization appointed by Russia.

Grossi says that to ensure nuclear safety it is extremely important that qualified and experienced staff work at the plant. To inquiries by the IAEA team about staff at the ZNPP, the Russian side replied that at present the Russian operating organization of the ZNPP employs 4,500 people and is currently considering 940 applications. The staff consists of former employees of Energoatom, who took Russian citizenship and have signed labor contracts with the Russian operating organization, and also employees sent to the ZNPP from Russia. The plant has sufficient qualified staff and all vacancies are filled completely. It also announced that the nominal number of staff for the NPPs operated by Rosatom is significantly lower than the number of staff established by Ukraine. Before the war began, the staff at the plant numbered around 11,500 people.

Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

The situation at the ZNPP is unique from the standpoint of international law, safety provision and common sense. A nuclear facility was captured by the military of a neighboring state using weapons, i.e. essentially an act of nuclear terrorism was carried out. The perimeter of the plant has been mined, and nearby military operations are being carried out with heavy weaponry and aircraft.

A strict military administrative regime has been established at the ZNPP. The civilian staff of the plant are subject to threats, pressure and blackmail. Those who do not accept the conditions of the new administration are fired or face other measures of punishment. As a result, the size of the operating staff of the plant has dropped by 2.5 times. It is an open question as to whether this number of staff is sufficient, and to what extent they are professionally reliable to ensure a high level of safety. Energoatom claims that the majority of staff do not have licenses.

There is practically no international influence on the situation. The IAE mission at the ZNPP is in the position of “poor relations”, who are sometimes permitted to look at what they want to. The mission and the IAEA itself have no special rights and capabilities.

The NPP units are not in operational mode. As a result, unpredicted breakdowns and leaks take place, which evidently may be caused by the fact that they were not supposed to be used in these modes. Ukraine’s Energoatom is beginning to worry that the six-year period of holding nuclear fuel in reactors established by the manufacturer is running out, and this is an beyond design previously untested conditions.

Rosenergoatom’s plan to carry out full maintenance of the equipment, systems and mechanisms of the ZNPP in 2024 is designed primarily to reassure itself and improve its image in the international community. Testing the functionality of nuclear unit equipment without the ability to use all modes, and not knowing many features of systems and mechanisms of nuclear units, will at best change nothing, and at worst will lead to dangerous situations.

Thus, Bellona believes that the ZNPP remains a nuclear hazardous facility with an uncertain technical state of the equipment of nuclear units, with an unclear level of staff numbers and qualifications, and also with uncertain prospects for the near future.

Ukrainian Energy Minister announces plan to start construction of four new nuclear power units in 2024 ↑

Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko reported on 25 January that in the summer or autumn of 2024 Ukraine plans to start building four new nuclear power reactors to compensate for the capacity of the Zaporizhzhia NPP occupied by Russia.

It is planned to build all four units at the Khmelnitsky NPP. Two power units, including reactors and accompanying equipment, will be based on equipment of Russian manufacture, which Ukraine plans to import from Bulgaria (it was designed for construction of two VVER-1000 units at the Belene NPP). These will be units 3 and 4, which were 75% and 28% complete respectively at the time construction came to a halt in 1990.

Galushchenko said that if Ukraine received the Bulgarian reactor equipment now, then in 2.5 years the first reactor could be put into operation. It is planned to install the reactors together with the assistance of the Westinghouse company.

The modern appearance of unit 3 of the Khemlnitsky NPP. Photo: xaec.org.ua

Discussions about purchasing equipment from the uncompleted Belene NPP began in July 2023. The national assembly of Bulgaria passed a decision that the sale price could not be less than 610 million Euros. In December 2023 Bulgarian energy minister Rumen Radev stated that the price would be higher than this sum, and that if the deal was completed, this money would be used to build two new reactors on the site of the Bulgarian Kozloduy NPP. At present, the reactors continue to be maintained according to the constructor’s recommendations, and conservation is managed by the Russian Atomstroiexport.

Radev also said that Ukraine was not only interested in all the equipment, but also in the engineering project. On 13 January, he reported that the sale of equipment from the Belene NPP to the Ukrainian side would depend on the financial package that the European Union approves for Ukraine. On 1 February, the EU agreed on a decision to issue macro-financial assistance to Ukraine.

Steam generator for a VVER-1000 unit in storage on the Belene NPP site. Photo: 3e-news.net

The two other units at the Khmelnitsky NPP, 5 and 6, will be built with AP1000 reactors from Westinghouse. In December, the Ukrainian nuclear power company Energoatom and Westinghouse signed an agreement on purchasing equipment for unit 5. Energoatom and Westinghouse are preparing to pour the first concrete in the first quarter of 2024.

Galushchenko says that to start the construction of all four units, the Ukrainian parliament must pass an according law.

It should be recalled that plans to build the units using equipment from Bulgaria, as well as units using the American AP1000, drew questions from a number of independent Ukrainian experts concerning the quality and cost of equipment, and the legality of all these procedures.

Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

Building four units in a situation when Russian missiles strike sites in the Khmelnitsky Oblast practically every day is no simple task. It would be interesting to see an analysis about how much electricity Ukraine requires today with the slump in industry caused by the war. If guaranteed electricity supply to the population is concerned, then it may be simpler to create wind and solar power sites on the right bank and western oblasts of Ukraine. This is cheaper, quicker and safer.

To build nuclear units, qualified staff is required, including employees who are supposed to be fighting in the war. In short, the intentions would make more sense if this was a time of peace, or at least a predictable time. But at present, the best choice of action should be chosen wisely.

International nuclear events and their connection with Russia

Plans to develop HALEU production facilities in UK and USA ↑

Two countries in the Sapporo-5 alliance have announced their plans for developing production of enriched uranium for advanced nuclear reactors.

On 7 January, the UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero announced plans to launch a program to produce high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) in the UK. State investments in developing the program will come to 300 million pounds, which is part of plans to provide up to 24 GW of nuclear power by 2050. An additional 10 million pounds will also be provided to develop skills and sites for producing other modern types of nuclear fuel in the UK. The first plant for producing nuclear fuel in northwest England is planned to be put into operation in the early 2030s. This program is included in the Roadmap published on 11 January for developing civil nuclear power until 2050.

On 9 January, the US Department of Energy issued a request for proposals for uranium enrichment services to help establish a reliable domestic supply of fuels using HALEU, which will be used in advanced nuclear reactors. At present, there is no commercial manufacturer of HALEU in the USA, and the department of energy believes that boosting domestic supply could spur the development and deployment of advanced reactors in the USA.

Altogether, the Inflation Reduction Act will provide up to USD 500 million for contracts on HALEU enrichments selected as part of this request for proposals, and for a separate contract on uranium deconversion services.

It is planned to award one or more contracts for HALEU production on the basis of US capacity, with a duration of up to 10 years. The government assures each contractor a minimum value of order of USD 2 million for the term of the contract. After enrichment, the material will be stored on site, until there is a need to ship it to deconverters. The proposals should be presented before 8 March.

HALEU is expected to be required for a planned generation of reactors in the works by companies including X-energy and TerraPower. The Department of Energy predicts that by 2030 over 40 tons of HALEU will be required, and in each subsequent year an additional amount will be needed to deploy new advanced reactors in a timeframe that supports the net-zero emissions targets by 2050.

In mid-December, US Congress also passed the National Defense Authorization Act and created a new Nuclear Fuel Security Program. Under this program, the Department of Energy undertakes to purchase not less than 20 tons of HALEU annually from American manufacturers, to create a supply and make these resources available for US companies.

In October 2023, the US company Centrus launched a demonstrational cascade for HALEU production as part of a three-year contract with the US government, and in November the first 20 kg of enriched uranium were delivered. This is the only US company with a license to produce HALEU. They also plan to “fight for financing required to expand production”.

Until now, the only major producer of HALEU on a commercial basis was Russia (Tekhsnabeksport, part of Rosatom). At present the main consumer of HALEU is not power reactors, but nuclear research reactors. According to assessments of the Euratom Supply Agency, the current requirements in the EU for this type of nuclear material is around 1 ton per year.

View of a cascade, HALEU Demonstration Program, Centrus Energy Corp. Credit: Centrus Energy Corp.

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

The growing interest in small modular reactors (SMR) in the world nuclear industry gives rise to a growing demand for a new type of fuel used in many SMR projects. At present Russia occupies a practically monopolistic position as the supplier for this type of fuel on the free market, as opposed to its share of not more than 40% on the market of low-enriched uranium. Therefore, efforts by western manufacturers and governments to develop HALEU production are directed towards preventing future serious dependence on this new market that is critically important for the western nuclear industry. At the same time, in the coming years it will probably not be possible to increase capacities drastically, and in the US the need for HALEU may be covered by dilution of high-enriched weapons-grade uranium.

Construction of new nuclear units in Europe. Rosatom is not invited ↑

On 19 January, the Kozloduy NPP in Bulgaria began the procedure of selecting an EPC contractor (engineering, procurement and construction) to build units 7 and 8 of the plant under the Westinghouse AP1000 project, publishing an invitation to express interest. Westinghouse will be responsible for planning AP1000 reactors, while planning individual systems and buildings of the plant will be delegated to the contractor.

The invitation states that the applying companies should confirm experience of working in the nuclear sphere acquired over the last 15 years, and as a leading constructor in contracts for building and putting into operation at least two nuclear power units.

The invitation text directly stipulates that candidates from Russia will not be examined in this procedure or included on the short list.

On 2 February it was learned that 5 companies had expressed interest (three companies expressed interest before the end of the deadline for submitting applications – South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering and the US corporations Fluor and Bechtel, said the executive director of the Kozloduy NPP Valentin Nikolov).

This is not the first case when Russia has been deprived of the opportunity to take part in European tenders for construction of NPPs. In April 2021, during the scandal concerning the involvement Russian special services in explosions at an ammunition storage facility in the Czech Republic in 2014, Rosatom was excluded from the list of candidates for a tender to build a new unit at Dukovany NPP out of safety considerations (China was also excluded from the list of candidates).

In May 2022, the Finnish company Fennovoima annulled the EPC contract with Rosatom for the delivery of the Hanhikivi-1 NPP and stopped construction, and arbitration proceedings concerning this project are continuing. On 22 January 2024, the company Fortum (operator of the Loviisa NPP in Finland) reported that it was examining several potential sites in Finland and Sweden to build NPPs with small and large reactors. The site of the Hanhikivi NPP is not one of them. It was also reported that if Forum builds a new nuclear reactor, the supplier of technologies will not be from Russia or China.

The project of the Hanhikivi-1 NPP. Credit: Fennovoima

Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

Evidently, the process of Rosatom’s participation in building power units in Europe has taken a pause, and it is uncertain when and how it will end. At present Rosatom only remains in Europe in Hungary at the construction of the Paks-2 NPP, and in the court proceedings with the Finnish company Fennovoima, which unilaterally annulled the contract with Rosatom to build the Hanhikivi NPP. No prospects for new construction in Europe are envisaged for Rosatom. Furthermore, practically all European countries where NPPs of Russian (Soviet) design have been built, maximum efforts are being taken to replace Rosatom nuclear fuel with fuel from other companies.

Hence Rosatom’s aspiration to move into the construction market in countries of the Global South, where China will be a serious competitor for them. A difficult situation for Rosatom is also unfolding on the market of the former Soviet Asian and Caucasian republics. The decision on what design will be used and who will build NPPs, for example, in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or Armenia, has not been taken, but given the current geopolitical situation and the recent talks of these countries with France concerning uranium surveying and production, it is unclear what Rosatom’s chances are.

Mongolia prepares to conclude deal with French Orano on use of new uranium field ↑

At the International economic Forum in Davos, Mongolian Prime Minister Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene reported that Mongolia was close to reaching an agreement with the French company Orano on operation of the Zoovch-Ovoo (Зөөвч-Овоо) uranium field. The chief executive officer of the Orano group Nicolas Maes in an interview with a Mongolian newspaper on 29 January shared several details of the future project.

The project for production in this field has been developed for 25 years, and production will be carried out using underground leaching technologies. It is expected that after an investment agreement is signed and the required infrastructure is built, production will begin in 2028-2029 with a planned production capacity of 2500 tons per year. USD 400-500 million will be invested before the project starts, and USD 1.6 billion during realization.

In previous years, surveying works were carried out at the field to establish the expediency of its future development, with test production of a total volume of up to 10 tons of uranium concentrate. Works were carried out by the company Badrakh Energy – a joint enterprise of Orano (66%) and the Mongolian state company Mon-Atom (34%).

Previously in 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Mongolia, and Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh visited France, where a protocol on developing the field was signed.

In November 2023, Macron made official visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where issues were also raised concerning surveying and production of uranium.

Yellow cake (uranium oxide concentrate) manufactured by Badrakh Energy, Mongolia. Credit: unuudur.mn

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

The potential production of uranium in Mongolia and reaching planned work indicators by the end of the decade are capable of replacing current deliveries of uranium from Russia to the EU, which in 2022 came to around 2000 tons. However, possibilities for replacing Russian supplies will also depend on the possibilities for maintaining deliveries to the EU from other traditional sources – Kazakhstan, Canada and Niger.

Events in the Russian nuclear sector and in Rosatom projects abroad

Transportation volume on NSR grows. But at slower rates than planned in 2022, and future plans are being adjusted ↑

Summing up the results of 2023, the head of Rosatom reported that in 2023 the volume of cargo transportation by the Northern Sea Route (NSR) had reached a record level of 36.3 million tons. This is almost 2.3 million tons more than the figure for 2022. Transit also increased, coming to 2.1 million tons (compared to 0.2 million tons in 2022), surpassing the previous record of 2 million tons in 2021. One reason for the drastic rise in transit to the historical maximum was the high demand for Russian oil in China. According to data from High North News, in 2023 deliveries to China and from China came to over 95% of transit cargo on the NSR.

It was possible to achieve record figures thanks to our partners, above all the company NOVATEK, whose liquified natural gas comprises over half of the cargo flow,” said Rosatom general director Aleksey Likhachev. “A major role was also played by Gazprom Neft, Lukoil and Nornickel, which redirected their cargos from the western to the eastern direction.”

Additionally, according to statements by Rosatom representatives, the target figure for cargo transportation on the NSR in 2023 was 36 million tons, and this was exceeded. In June 2023 these figures were named by the special representative of Rosatom for the Arctic Vladimir Panov.

However, according to the plan for developing the NSR until 2035 approved by the Russian government in August 2022, the target figure for transportation volume for 2023 was 46.82 million tons, and this was not achieved. The target figure for 2024 is set at 80 million tons, by 2030 150 million tons, and by 2035 220 million tons. These forecasts will evidently be adjusted.

According to information from Kommersant newspaper published in October 2023, the Ministry of Eastern Development proposed three scenarios for cargo volumes until 2030 – optimistic, basic and conservative. According to the present plan of development for the NSR, by 2030 the volume of cargo should come to 150 million tons. The optimistic, basic and conservative forecasts envisage volumes of 244 million tons, 224 million tons and 117 million tons respectively.

The realization of a certain scenario will depend on the development of a number of key projects in the Arctic, such as Rosneft’s Vostok Oil and also NOVATEK’s projects Arctic LNG-2, Arctic LNG-1, and Ob LNG. Some of these projects are already facing difficulties caused by sanctions placed on Russia (for example, NOVATEK’s Arctic LNG-2 project). According to experts surveyed by Kommersant, the conservative scenario is the most realistic one.

Beside foreign policy factors and sanctions, the rates of development of the NSR will also be influenced by the speed of development of infrastructure on the NSR, rates of launching new transport vessels and icebreakers, and the extent of their financing.

It is planned that in 2024 the icebreaker group to provide support on the NSR will consist of eight nuclear and three non-nuclear icebreakers, in 2030 and 2035 nine nuclear and five non-nuclear icebreakers. At present, Atomflot has seven functioning icebreakers. At the Baltic shipyard at present two more serial universal nuclear icebreakers of design 22220 are being constructed – Chukotka and Yakutia, which are planned for launch in December 2024 and December 2026 respectively, and in the Far East construction continues of the head icebreaker of the 10510 Leader deign, which has been given the name Rossiya – its construction is planned for completion in 2027.

On January 26, the fifth icebreaker “Leningrad” of Project 22220 was launched at the Baltic Shipyard (earlier this icebreaker was planned to be named “Kamchatka”). The ceremony was opened by Russian president Vladimir Putin, and was also attended by Valentina Matvienko, Chairman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Alexander Gutsan, Plenipotentiary Representative of the Russian president in the North-Western Federal District, Alexander Beglov, Governor of St. Petersburg, Alexey Likhachev, Director General of Rosatom, Andrey Kostin, Chairman of the Board of Directors of United Shipbuilding Company, and others. Construction of the fifth icebreaker of project 22220 began in August 2023. Later, the press-secretary of the St. Petersburg government reported that the sixth icebreaker of project 22220 “Stalingrad” (previously it was planned to be named “Sakhalin”) would be launched at the Baltic shipyard in 2025.

Meanwhile, budget funds for construction of icebreakers in 2024-2026 have been reduced.

The first section of the fifth serial nuclear icebreaker Leningrad. Credit: Baltic Shipyard

According to the January report delivered at the Federal Council by the minister for the development of the Far East and the Arctic Alexey Chekunkov, under the plan for developing the NSR, the total volume of investments up to 2035 is assessed at 1.791 trillion rubles. Of this, it is planned that 620 billion will be provided by the federal budget, and 407 billion from extrabudgetary sources. For the remaining 764 billion rubles (over 40% of the program), sources have not been determined.

Nuclear icebreakers of the 22220 design. Credit: Atomflot

 Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

It would seem that the NSR has become the «favorite child» of Putin and Rosatom. Putin’s aim and intentions are generally understandable.

Firstly, the geopolitical aspiration to create a route from Europe to Asia which would realistically compete with oceanic traffic through the Suez Canal. An important role is played by China’s interest and involvement in this project, whose friendship and economic cooperation Putin is betting on in the long term. Secondly, military and political goals aimed at creating military bases that are difficult to access for western opponents, which may allow Russia to gain complete control of the Arctic region. And finally, the economic interest in the minerals of the Arctic region and the development of its coastline when favorable climatic conditions begin.

Rosatom at present is one of the reliable state structures which Putin trusts almost unconditionally. Therefore, in the near future we should expect further activity by Rosatom in the Arctic, construction of new vessels, including nuclear ones, and also the construction and development of new ports, the capacity of which is already over 40 million tons at present.

Later, we may expect that Rosatom will include coastal fields of rare earth and other valuable metals in its structure on various terms, consolidate its enterprises on Novaya Zemlya, and develop the Arctic fleet and its infrastructure for trade and transportation. To achieve this, it will attempt to acquire shipyards of the United ship building company specializing in construction of icebreakers and transport vessels, and it has in fact already started this process. 

Generation at Russia’s NPPs dropped in 2023. Rosatom tries to avoid discussing this ↑

On 31 January, the Russian statistics board published data on industrial production in Russia for 2023. The data shows that in 2023, NPPs generated 217 billion kWh of electricity, which is 2.8% less than in 2022. However, according to Rosatom reports, this exceeded the target figure for the year. As we predicted earlier in our digests, for 2023 we can observe a drop in generation at Russian NPPs, caused by the aging of the country’s NPPs.

Electricity generated by Russian NPPs from 1991 to 2023, and the share of nuclear power in total electricity production in Russia. Graph by Bellona.

The share of NPPs in total electricity generation in Russia in 2023 came to 18.5%. This share has been dropping for four years in a row from the maximum figure of 20.3% achieved in 2020 during the pandemic. The target figure for electricity generated by nuclear power that Putin set Rosatom is 25% of the total energy balance of the country by 2045. “According to preliminary assessments, this will require 24 power units being put into operation, including at new sites and in new regions,” Rosatom general director Alexey Likhachev said in March 2021.

But in late 2022 construction plans of new NPPS in Russia were adjusted downwards. It was decided to compensate for the lag in the pace of construction of replacement facilities in the coming years by extending the service life of old units of high-power channel-type reactors (RBMK) from 45 to 50 years.

Incidentally, on January 31, power unit 2 of Kursk NPP with a RBMK-1000 reactor was shut down according to schedule as it reached the end of its 45-year service life, and it is planned to replace it by the end of this year the new power unit 1 of the Kursk NPP-2 with a VVER-TOI reactor.

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

The drop in generation by Russian NPPs is an expected and natural stage in the development of the country’s nuclear power industry, which is going through a period of aging of a certain part of its nuclear units, namely the many RBMK units which were built in the 1970s and 1980s. The forced decision to extend the operation of the second generation of these reactors will make it possible to postpone a drop in generation in the coming years. However, the situation will not change critically without the mass construction of replacement facilities.

Rosatom has taken the lead in building NPPs abroad in recent decades, but has delayed the phase of building replacement facilities domestically. In the next 5 years, construction of up to 8 new large nuclear power units will begin in Russia, and Rosatom will gradually reorient its activities from foreign NPP construction projects to domestic ones, in order to solve the tasks of maintaining and increasing the share of nuclear power in the country.

Russia increases export of isotope production ↑

In 2023, exports of isotope products by Isotope JSC, part of Rosatom Health Technologies Division (recently renamed from Rosatom Healthcare) increased by 15%. Over the past year, new contracts were signed in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the CIS. In particular, agreements with enterprises in China and India increased turnover there by one and a half and three times respectively.

After a break of many years, a shipment of Russian cobalt-60 products was received by Middle East irradiation centers. Deliveries began of the Macrotech preparation and technetium-99m generators to Belarus, and gallium-68 generators to Kazakhstan began. Cooperation with Latin American countries was expanded. Medical products are being supplied to Brazil. In January this year, regular deliveries commenced of molybdenum-99m and iodine-131 to clinics in Cuba.

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

In addition to its serious share on world markets in NPP construction and the nuclear fuel cycle, Rosatom is a major supplier of isotope products for medicine and industry. According to information provided by Isotope JSC, the company works with more than 17 partners in 50 countries around the world, making around 2,000 export shipments of isotope products annually.

At the same time, in addition to the centralized and official shipments from Russia through Isotope, there may be unofficial shipments from Russia where the products’ source of origin is not made public. The last high-profile scandal concerning semi-legal shipments of isotope products from Russia involved isotopes sent to Sweden from the Russian plant Elektrokhimpribor through a number of private firms.

Rosatom’s projects abroad in brief ↑

On January 24, the VVER-1000 reactor vessel of Unit 4 was installed in the design position at India’s Kudankulam NPP. After the installation of the reactor vessel, the equipment for the nuclear steam supply system will be assembled – steam generators, main circulating pump units and pressure compensator casings.

Earlier, on December 26, 2023, Russia and India signed a protocol under which Russia deferred payment by India of the debt for construction of the Kudankulam NPP due in 2022 (interest totaling USD 4.06 million and principal with capitalized interest totaling approximately USD 50 million). The deferred amounts are to be paid by India not later than 60 days after the date of signing of the protocol. The payment is proposed to be made in rubles or rupees. Evidently, this was one of the agreements on the Kudankulam NPP units signed by Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov. It should be recalled that due to Western sanctions, in 2022 Bangladesh also fell behind in making payments on the Russian loan for the construction of the Rooppur NPP, which Bangladesh and Russia agreed to pay in yuan.

Installing the shell of VVER-1000 reactor of unit 4 of the Kudankulam NPP. Credit: Atomstroiexport

On January 23, a ceremony was held at the construction site of El-Dabaa NPP in Egypt to mark the pouring of the “first concrete” into the foundation slab of Unit 4. The ceremony was attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin and President of the Arab Republic of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in video conference format. Egyptian Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly, Rosatom General Director Alexey Likhachev and other officials were present at the event site. Earlier, this event had been scheduled for November 19, to coincide with Atomic Energy Day in Egypt. Now all four power units of El-Dabaa NPP are in the construction stage.

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

The implementation of the Kudankulam NPP project is proceeding with delays, as we have noted earlier in our digests. The installation of the reactor vessel at Unit 4 took place more than 6 years after the first concrete was poured at the site. For many other foreign projects of Rosatom, this period is 3-4 years. In China, however, with the same Rosatom VVER-1000 export reactors at the Tianwan NPP, construction of the units has been fully completed and put into operation during this time. This may indicate that Rosatom’s projects in India are difficult to implement for one reason or another. It is characteristic that recent mutual visits of Russian and Indian ministers, as well as the visit of the head of Rosatom to India for the reactor vessel installation ceremony, did not result in the signing of agreements on the start of construction of new Russian power units in India, although the roadmap drawn up between the countries earlier provides for the construction of up to 12 units. At the same time, according to media reports, both sides noted the need to accelerate the ongoing construction of units 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam NPP.

In Egypt, the pouring of the first concrete at the fourth unit of El Dabaa NPP has also been inexplicably delayed. At the first three units of the plant in 2022-2023, the pouring of the first concrete took place no more than a month after the relevant license was received from the Egyptian regulatory authority. At the fourth unit, the interval between these events was about 6 months. The ceremony was scheduled for November 19, 2023, but did not take place until 2 months later. Perhaps ceremony with the online participation of heads of state was postponed owing to events in the Middle East and the Gaza Strip.

Recommended publications ↑

On 18 January, Energypost.eu published an article about the dependence of the EU and the US on Russian deliveries in the nuclear fuel cycle, steps taken in recent years and prospects for the future – “Can the EU and US end their dependence on Russia’s nuclear energy industry?” The article describes the differences in the security of deliveries and in the approaches of the EU and US to sanction policy against Russia’s nuclear enterprises, and predicts the consolidation of the western nuclear industry and its prospects in future competition with Russia. The article was written by Ihor Moshenets, PhD candidate at the Central European University.

On 15 January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article on a similar topic: “Diversification from Russian nuclear fuel requires market-oriented solutions”, mainly discussing the diversification of deliveries in the nuclear fuel cycle of the USA and risks of intervening in this sphere by the government. The article was written by Yanliang Pan, graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (California).

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