News

Bellona nuclear digest. February 2024

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

Publish date: March 29, 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 2022, Bellona ceased its activity in the aggressor country. On 18 April 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 February 2024, with comments by experts of Bellona’s nuclear project Alexander Nikitin and Dmitry Gorchakov.

Follow the links to read the last three digests for January, December and November. 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 February 2024

INTERNATIONAL NUCLEAR EVENTS AND THEIR CONNECTION WITH RUSSIA
2. Sanctions on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
3. European Union doubled purchases of nuclear fuel from Russia in 2023
4. USA increases export of enriched uranium from Russia during discussion of new measures for its reduction
5. Plans to build new NPP in Armenia
6. Urenco continues cooperation with Russia

EVENTS IN THE RUSSIAN NUCLEAR SECTOR AND IN ROSATOM PROJECTS ABROAD
7. Rosatom’s mining division reports overfulfilling the plan for uranium production in 2023. But the figures raise questions
8. Disputes over legal disputes concerning Hanhikivi NPP in Finland
9. Rosatom projects abroad in brief

SEPARATE EXTENDED COMMENTARY ON A SIGNIFICANT EVENT OF THE MONTH
10. Rosatom’s “government hour” at the Russian State Duma

RECOMMENDED PUBLICATIONS

NUCLEAR EVENTS IN UKRAINE AND THE WAR

Zaporizhzhia NPP. Event timeline for February 2024 ↑

On 6 February, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev. Grossi informed the president about the main goals of the upcoming mission at the Zaporizhzhia NPP, and discussed the present safety situation and potential risks.

The IAEA delegation also met with Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko, the head of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate Oleh Korikov and the head of the Nuclear Energy Generating Company Energoatom Petro Kotin. The main topics of discussion were risks of licensed Ukrainian staff being dismissed from their positions at the ZNPP, and also the end of the operational life of nuclear fuel used in plant reactors.

The IAEA team in the western section of the turbine hall of unit 4, where the IAEA mission experts were not granted access for a lengthy period prior to Grossi’s visit. Photo: IAEA

Herman Halushchenko noted that around 400 employees with licenses to perform necessary functions had been dismissed from the plant. The Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the IAEA emphasizes that refusing access to plant staff violates the third of the seven indispensable pillars of ensuring nuclear safety and security in the course of an armed conflict, which states that “the operating staff must be able to fulfill their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure”.

On the second issue, Grossi stated that the IAEA would insist that the IAEA experts carry out an assessment of the state of fuel in power units.

On 7 February, Grossi visited the ZNPP for the fourth time since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. During this visit, Grossi noted that since the five concrete principles for the protection of the plant were declared in May 2023, the facility had not been shelled. These principles, among other things, state that there should be no attack from or against the plant, and that the ZNPP should not be used as a storage or base for heavy weapons or military personnel.

But nevertheless, there are other dangers that the ZNPP faces: on eight occasions, the plant has been completely disconnected from an external power supply, and forced to use emergency diesel generators (most recently in December 2023). Also, after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in June 2023, measures had to be taken to find alternatives sources of water for cooling reactors.

Grossi also stressed the importance of the IAEA experts having access to supervise implementation of the five concrete principles and seven indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security, which the IAEA set out at the start of the conflict, and also being permitted to ask questions. “There were situations where there were suggestions that they look but not talk,” said Grossi.

Grossi and his team visited the turbine hall and the main control room of unit 4, which is the only one in hot shut-down state, and where the presence of experienced staff is especially important. In recent months, the IAEA experts have not had the opportunity to examine some parts of turbine halls.

Additionally, during his visit Grossi was satisfied that at present there is sufficient water for the plant’s own needs, but the measures taken will not satisfy the plant’s requirements if and when the NPP starts to produce electricity again. At present, to cool reactors in shutdown mode, water is taken from sprinkler ponds, which are supplied by 11 wells on the plant territory. Grossi also examined four new diesel steam generators, which will be used to process liquid waste. So far there is no information as to whether these generators will make it possible to put unit 4 into cold shutdown mode.

During Grossi’s visit to the plant, the General Director of Rosenergoatom Alexander Shutikov and his Deputy for Corporate Affairs Dzhumberi Tkebuchava were also present.

The meeting with the IAEA team headed by Grossi was attended by the General Director of the Rosenergoatom concern Alexander Shutikov (first on the left) and his Deputy for Corporate Affairs Dzhumberi Tkebuchava (second on the left). Photo: Zaporizhzhia NPP

Grossi was informed of a detailed plant maintenance plan (in January the IAEA mission experts at the ZNPP were informed of this), and inspected the mine barriers installed at the plant (IAEA experts also made a report about them in January).

According to Grossi’s statement, the visit confirmed the crucial role of the permanent presence of the IAEA at the plant, and that the mission’s work would continue. “Until the conflict ends without a nuclear accident with radiological consequences, we will not be able to say that our job is complete,” he said. Following his visit to Kiev and the ZNPP, Grossi planned to hold meetings in Russia. Initially, a visit in mid-February was discussed, and then rescheduled for late February. Eventually the meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Rosatom management took place on 6 March.

Grossi was accompanied on his visit to the plant by the 16th team of the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission in Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ).

On 13 February, they visited the ZNPP training center, where they observed staff training, including operators of the main control room, undergoing additional training on simulators for other power units besides the ones they worked on. The team was informed that previously there were two types of licenses for main control room operators at the ZNPP: one type for units 1-4, and another for units 5 and 6 (the third stage of the plant). The IAEA experts were told that “authorizations” for operators would now be valid for all six reactor units.

On 14 February, the IAEA experts observed Rostekhnadzor, the Russian nuclear regulator, inspecting authorizations of the operating staff at the main control rooms of units 2, 3 and 4. They were informed that new rules had been introduced, stipulating that main control rooms of units in cold shutdown required at least three staff members, and units in hot shutdown required four. On 19 February, the IAEA experts had the opportunity to examine the regulatory authorizations of personnel in these units again. The group was informed that many of the operating staff were in the process of transitioning from the Ukrainian licenses to “authorizations” issued by Rostekhnadzor.

On 14 February, Russia reported explosions in Enerhodar after a drone strike. The IAEA experts visited the town on 15 February, where they were shown damaged buildings (plant representatives stated that there had been four drones). Two of the four sites mentioned in the reports were inspected – Enerhodar City Hall and a school garden. Traces of damages were visible, but the remains of drones were removed before their arrival, the team was informed.

At the end of the month, experts were informed that on 25 February another drone attack had taken place in Enerhodar, where the target was a roof with telecommunications equipment. The following day, the IAEA experts went to Enerhodar to examine the building, but they were only able to see it from the outside, and no signs of damages were visible at the time of the visit.

The team continues to report sounds of explosions and other signs of military activity in the area. Explosions can sometimes be heard close to the plant. Experts cannot properly determine the origin or direction of explosions, with the exception of a major explosion on 22 February, which according to ZNPP information was part of “field traning”. Separately, members of the mission were informed by ZNPP representatives that a mine had exploded outside the perimeter of the territory, without causing physical injuries or casualties.

On 28 February, an explosion was heard at some distance from the plant, followed by the sound of gunfire close to or on the site. Experts were informed that Russian troops had taken measures to “protect the plant” against drones in this area, but the ZNPP itself did not come under attack, and there were no damages or casualties. The IAEA experts requested access to the territory, but they were told that there were no damages that could be inspected, and that this territory was outside the plant’s control.

Grossi, commenting on these reports, said that reports from mission experts indicate possible military actions near the site and called on all sides to observe the five principles for protecting the plant.

At other nuclear plants in Ukraine, air raid signals are frequently heard. The staff at the Khmelnitskyi NPP has had to take shelter several times.

Yuri Chernichuk and Rafael Grossi with a map diagram of the Zaporizhzhia NPP. Photo: IAEA

On 20 February, the plant lost the connection to its last back-up external power line, the 330 kV Ferrosplavana-1 line. The only external powerline, the 750 kV Dneprovska line, remains in operation, which connects the ZNPP with the united energy system of Ukraine. On 22 February, the Permanent Mission of Ukraine at the IAEA informed the agency that damage took place on territory controlled by Ukraine 12 km from the open switchyard at the ZNPP as a result of artillery fire by Russian forces, and that it was impossible to carry out repair works because of continued shelling. The power line was not restored over the course of February.

During this time, the IAEA group visited the 750 kV electrical switchyard with the only connected line, and saw spare parts for the repair of the second line, but were told that there were no plans to carry out renovation work. They also observed tests of one of the emergency diesel generators of unit 4, which is in hot shutdown mode.

At the end of February, the experts were informed that all scheduled preventative maintenance activities on safety-related equipment had been suspended until the 330 kV powerline is reconnected, except for routine testing of the safety systems, including the emergency diesel generators.

Over the course of the month, experts of the IAEA mission continued to make walkdowns of the territory and plant rooms.

Information on walkdowns described in IAEA updates and information circulars by the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation at the IAEA is given below:

28 January -2 February

Unit 1: safety systems rooms of the reactor department and the central hall.
Unit 3: turbine hall.
Six back-up diesel power plants and three shore pump stations were examined, and the SNF site.

7 February with Rafael Grossi

Sprinkler ponds.
4 diesel steam generators.
Unit 4: turbine hall, main control room.

4-9 February

Unit 2: turbine department, safety systems rooms of the reactor department, central hall, back-up diesel power facilities, unit pump station.
Special buildings 1 and 2, training demonstration center.

12-16 February

Training centre.
Unit 2: reactor hall, safety systems rooms, turbine hall, emergency diesel generators
(by the spent fuel pool cooling pump a lubricant oil leak took place, later the spill was cleaned up; a water leak was observed in another pump of the same safety system).
Experts were not given access to the western part of the turbine hall.

19-23 February

750 kV electrical switchyard (spare parts for the repair of a second of four 750 kV lines were seen, so far there are no plans to start repair works).
Units 1-6: main control rooms, safety parameters collected in units 2,3 and 4, regulatory authorizations of personnel examined.
Chemical laboratory and back-up diesel plant of unit 4 (observed tests on one emergency diesel generator).

26 February – 1 March

Hydroengineering structures, including cooling pond and sprinkler ponds, cooling towers, and the isolation gate of the discharge channel of the Zaporizhzhia Thermal Power Plant.
Experts were not given access to the isolation gate of the cooling pond (it was last examined in November 2023, they were also not given access in December 2023 and January 2024).
Two fresh fuel storage facilities.
Unit 5: safety systems rooms (routine testing of some safety system pumps was being carried out), reactor department, spent nuclear fuel pool.

Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

«At the present stage at the ZNPP, besides events caused by military operations, we may single out three groups of problems that require special attention.

Firstly, the lack of answers to the question as to what will be done with nuclear fuel in reactors operational life of which is expiring. At present, a decision on this problem has not been made public, which means that none has been taken. The issue is complex, as the decision must be passed in coordination with the nuclear fuel manufacturer, the scientific support group and the regulatory body. None of these structures can be from Russia, as the fuel is not of Russian manufacture, so it is unclear how decisions will be coordinated and passed on this very complex issue.

Secondly, it is unclear who will carry out works in the process of the announced technical maintenance. Technical maintenance is an important part of the operation of nuclear power units, which involves much more than just “dusting off” the surface of equipment, as all systems and mechanisms must be tuned, tested and checked.

Thirdly, there are ongoing “cat and mouse” games between the ZNPP management and the IAEA inspectors, who find they are not granted access to some sections of the plant, including turbine halls. If these games continue, this may only mean one thing – there is something to hide, which draws concern from all observers.

And finally, it is important to note the high-ranking Rosatom representatives who met with and accompanied Grossi at the ZNPP. It is unclear whether this was designed to make up for Likhachev’s absence, who in two years has never visited what he calls “a site of attention and responsibility [of Rosatom]”, or whether there was a need to reach an agreement on something that would not subsequently become known to the wider public, although this is unlikely, as there are more Ukrainian agents at the ZNPP than anywhere else in the occupied territories»

International nuclear events and their connection with Russia

Sanctions on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ↑

On 23 February, the USA levied sanctions against several dozen Russian companies. They mainly affected the mining and metallurgy sector and Russian LNG projects, but this is also the sixth set of sanctions against Russia that includes affiliated companies of Rosatom that support Russia’s development of the Arctic region, and also an enterprise of the Russian nuclear weapons complex:

– Rusatom Arctic – an affiliated company of Rosatom founded in December 2023 to assist Russia’s development of the Arctic region;

– Innovation Hub – performs the functions of business accelerator for Rosatom, including an investment portfolio, a project office and research and development center;

– The Alexandrov Research Institute of Technology – a key enterprise of the nuclear weapons complex, which plans, tests and supports nuclear power and sea power reactors, including for submarines.

Additionally, the SDN list was joined by Transcontainer, the country’s largest owner of containers and operator of fitting platforms (part of the Delo company group, in which Rosatom owns a 49% share package) and the Far Eastern shipping complex Zvezda, a company which builds up to 15 specialized LNG tankers designed to support export in the Arctic LNG-2 project, and also construction of the nuclear icebreaker of the 10510 Leader design.

Inclusion on the SDN list means not being able to use the dollar for settling accounts, and carries the risk of secondary sanctions for all counteragents.

New sanctions on 23 February were also announced by Canada. The list of sanctioned companies included the Russian Federal Nuclear Center – Zababakhin All-Russia Research Institute of Technical Physics (RFNC-VNIITF), which solves scientific problems connected with providing and maintaining the reliability and security of Russian nuclear weapons.

On 1 March, the Japanese government also introduced new restrictive measures for Russia. The list of companies facing economic sanctions included Atomflot, which owns the Russian fleet of nuclear icebreakers, and the United Shipbuilding corporation (which includes the Baltic Shipyard that builds nuclear icebreakers of the 22220 design).

Christophe de Margerie ice-class LNG carrier, designed for servicing the Yamal LNG project, accompanied by the icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy, 2021. Photo: Atomflot

On 23 February, the European Union introduced 13th package of restrictive measures against Russia, which did not affect the Russian nuclear industry. There are also no Rosatom companies in sanctions by the UK announced on 22 February, or by Australia, announced on 24 February.

So far global sanctions against Rosatom are not foreseen. In an interview with Reuters on 19 February, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi noted that Europe still strongly depends on Rosatom, which supplies about 50% of the world’s enriched uranium, and that sanctions would cause an impasse in the nuclear industry in many countries. Meanwhile, on 28 February Rosatom General Director Alexey Likhachev reported that in 2023 the foreign turnover of Rosatom came to $16.4 billion (around 1.5 trillion rubles, which was more than half of Rosatom’s revenue for the year), more than $12 billion of which was on markets of “friendly countries”. In the same speech Likhachev also mentioned that Rosatom was developing models for non-nuclear weapons and military equipment.  Some of them have already been put into mass production and are used in Ukraine. (Perhaps this means products manufactured by the consortium of Rosatom companies, most of which are included on the sanction lists of western countries).

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

«As we can see, sanctions still do not affect the main areas of foreign activity of Rosatom – construction of NPPs and deliveries in the nuclear fuel sphere. The main problems that affect these Rosatom projects are connected with general sanctions against Russia in financial and logistical spheres. Nevertheless, we can see that besides Rosatom structures connected with the nuclear weapons complex, sanctions are also being levied against structures connected with ship building (in particularly with icebreaker construction), and also with the Northern Sea Route.

This policy may be justified if it pursues the goal of undermining plans for the economic development of the Arctic region of Russia, which focuses on increasing production and exporting resources (non-ferrous metals, LNG, oil etc.)»

European Union doubled purchases of nuclear fuel from Russia in 2023 ↑

This is shown by data from the European statistics board and the UN service for international trade Comtrade, which was analyzed by Bellona. We have already published a detailed article about this on our website.

An analysis of transborder trade operations with the customs code 840130 (irradiated fuel assemblies or fuel elements) show a more than twofold increase of import to EU countries of fresh nuclear fuel in cash terms – from 280 million Euros in 2022 to 686 million Euros in 2023. In physical terms this means an increase of deliveries from 314 tons of nuclear fuel to 573 tons.

In the EU, only five countries purchase nuclear fuel for 19 reactors of Soviet design – VVER-440 or VVER-1000. They are the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Finland. These countries are most vulnerable and dependent on deliveries in the nuclear fuel sphere, despite the lack of sanctions and bans on these deliveries from Russia to Europe.

As we have described in our digests previously, practically all operators of NPPs in these countries signed contracts with new fuel suppliers after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. So current purchases may be connected with the need to fill storage facilities for the upcoming transitional period.

According to data, the Czech Republic more than doubled its import of fresh nuclear fuel from Russia in comparison with 2022 (from 90 to 199 tons), Slovakia almost tripled import (from 80 to 229 tons). Hungary increased purchase volumes in 2022 and maintained this level in 2023. At the same time, according to our assessments fuel supply reserves at the Dukovany NPP in the Czech Republic may now be sufficient for five years.

Bellona requested commentary from the NPPs operators of all five countries and the Euratom Supply Agency, and despite the lack of specific figures in their replies, we received confirmation that the plants are increasing supply reserves, and that in future years purchases will drop.

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

«From all appearances, the increase of import in 2022-2023 reflects the purchasers’ desire to receive volumes of contracted fuel earlier to ensure a reliable supply during the period of a change in suppliers, and possible difficulties with supplies if sanctions against the nuclear industry are toughened, or if there is some other worsening in relations between Russia and the EU.

Rosatom itself may also profit from the increase in uranium purchases in the USA and fuel in Europe, as besides an increase in turnover this will help it to fulfill contracts before sanctions are applied or restrictions made by certain parties. However, this does not change the fact that strategically, the nuclear fuel market in the EU for Rosatom is practically closing down, along with the market of enriched uranium in the USA.

Given the current contracts for the change in suppliers, by 2030 deliveries of nuclear fuel to EU countries from Russia may drop by at least 60% to the level of 2022 – around 70-100 tons per year. Russia may lose purchasers for 10-15 power units in the EU with a capacity of 7 to 9 GW. Currently, only Hungary has no designated plans to change its fuel supplier, and given the development of the Paks II NPP project, this country will maintain close cooperation with Rosatom in the medium term»

USA increases export of enriched uranium from Russia during discussion of new measures for its reduction ↑

Boris Schucht, Chief Executive Officer of Urenco, the major western supplier of enriched uranium, has announced that the company has sufficient capacities to replace Russian supplies on the US market if the law banning imports of Russian uranium is passed in the USA. The Biden administration initially did not support a ban on Russian nuclear fuel, as US NPPs strongly depended on Russian supplies. But now the government supports a ban after two years of accumulating supplies at power stations, and multi-million investments in the delivery chain of nuclear power from western companies, including Urenco, Orano in France and Centrus in the USA.

Urenco currently plans to expand all three of its enrichment facilities in the USA, the UK and the Netherlands. Schucht noted that the portfolio of Urenco’s orders has increased to $14 billion compared with $12 billion a year ago.

Nevertheless, during discussion of the law banning the import of enriched uranium from Russia, the import of enriched uranium from Russia to the USA grew in 2023 to a record level of $1.2 billion, 40% more than the import volume for 2022. With rising prices, import also increased in physical volumes by around 20%, from 588 tons in 2022 to 702 tons in 2023.

Volume of import of enriched uranium from Russia to the USA. Infographic by Bellona based on data from the Comtrade service

Schucht also said that Urenco is holding talks with the governments of the UK and the USA on potential investments in new plants for production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU). In July last year, the UK government allocated Urenco £9.56 million for planning a plant and processes for HALEU manufacture at a site in Capenhurst in Cheshire, as part of the strategy to oust Russia from the world energy market. In January, the USA also announced a tender for the sum of $500 million from companies to provide enrichment services for producing HALEU.

HALEU is required for advanced nuclear reactors and will be used in small modular reactors (SMR). At present, the only commercial supplier of this uranium is the Rosatom-affiliated company Tenex. The lack of alternative suppliers causes problems for several US reactor projects. For example, in December 2022, TerraPower announced a delay in construction of a planned new reactor with a capacity of 345 megawatts in Wyoming, citing a lack of fuel.

Last year, Centrus launched a demonstrational enrichment cascade, and in November 2023 made the first delivery of 20 kg of HALEU to the US Department of Energy. The contract with the US government involves the production of 900 kg of HALEU in 2024, which will be stored at a storage facility built by Centrus in Piketon, Ohio. The Department of Energy is contractually required to provide storage cylinders, but in its annual report Centrus states that difficulties have arisen with deliveries of these specialized “5B Cylinders”, and the company now expects that it will be unable to deliver the planned volume of HALEU.

Until a commercial chain of HALEU deliveries is established, the US Department of Energy plans to dilute its supplies of HEU to provide a primary source of HALEU.

Urenco production site. Photo: Urenco Global

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

«The measures taken in the West to reduce dependence on Russia in supplies of enriched uranium are not sufficient to put a swift end to cooperation with Rosatom. Even plans announced to expand facilities of European companies will at best help to reduce dependence on Russia for enrichment services by around 60% by 2030.

Plans for independent development of HALEU are even vaguer. At the same time, the market reaction is observed in the increase of purchases of still-permitted products from Russia and creating supplies, similar to what is happening on the nuclear fuel market for VVER reactors in EU countries (see above)»

Plans to build new NPP in Armenia ↑

In late January 2024, Rosatom head Aleksey Likhachev reported that the corporation was holding talks with several countries on building new nuclear power units. These include discussions on a third unit in Belarus, and for another four-unit plant in Turkey. Likhachev also said that over the next one-and-a-half to two years, Armenia should also settle on a format for developing nuclear power in the future.

The resource of unit two of the Metsamor NPP currently operating in Armenia with a capacity of 430-440 MW has been extended to 2026, and work is underway for further prolongation by another 10 years. In 2021, the Armenian government discussed the fact that from 2026-2027 it would be necessary to start building a new NPP, so that when the present plant reaches the end of its service life a new plant can begin operating. Besides Russia, proposals from other countries are also being examined, the government stated.

In January 2022, Russia and Armenia signed a memorandum of cooperation for building new nuclear power units, where they expressed readiness for cooperation in building new nuclear power units of Russian design on the site of the Armenian NPP. There was also discussion of the possibility of building a small-capacity NPP of Russian design.

Later that year, in May 2022, the USA and Armenia also signed a memorandum on cooperation in the nuclear power sphere.

In June 2022, the press-service of the Armenian NPP announced that specialists from Armenia and Russia had begun to discuss the future project for a new nuclear power unit in Armenia. In particular, the option for a VVER power unit of 1000-1300 MW is under examination.

In May 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reported that Armenia showed an interest in US technologies of small modular reactors. In the same month, Maria Longi, coordinator of US assistance to Europe and Eurasia at the US Department of State, announced at hearings in Congress that in a number of countries, including Armenia, the US was assessing the possibility of building small modular nuclear reactors which could lead to greater energy independence both from Russia and from China.

In June 2023, South Korea and France joined the list of potential candidates for building the NPP. In autumn, it was reported that the governmental commission in Armenia was intensively studying three options for building a new nuclear plant – a Russian plant, the feasibility study of which were submitted to Armenia in February 2023, while the feasibility studies of US and South Korean proposals were also being studied (at that time the French were still only holding negotiations). Armenia’s Deputy Minister for Territorial Administration and Infrastructure Akop Vardanyan noted that in the project proposed by Russia, the capacity of 1200 MW was a problem, as this is too high for Armenia’s small energy system. When asked whether a unit of smaller power could be ordered from Russia, for example of 600 MW, Vardanyan replied that this project would be very expensive, perhaps no cheaper than the 1200 MW unit (which Rosatom General Director Aleksey Likhachev also pointed out).

The American proposal features small modular reactors of 77 MW – 6 units of 462 MW in total, or 300 MW versions of pressurized water reactors or boiling water reactors (some of these reactors have yet to receive licenses). In South Korea there are two versions for reactors – 1000 MW and 1400 MW, and also small modular versions which are at the licensing stage.

In January 2024, in a discussion of the procedure for analysis and further steps to build the new nuclear power unit in Armenia, installing small modular reactors, and also selecting necessary technologies, Pashinyan stated that while he was not aware of all the professional details, he considered the option of modular reactors politically interesting.

On 7 February, the Armenian information and analytical center VERELQ published an interview with Igor Yushkov, leading analyst at the National Energy Security Fund and an expert at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation. In his opinion, if Armenia decides to give its preference to the US option to build the new reactor, this will be perceived as a blow to Russian interests, and will be interpreted as a political gesture. In the Russian media space and political circles, this step will be seen as a turning point in Armenian foreign policy.

Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

«It is highly likely that the country selected to build the new Armenian NPP will be a political decision, and at present Russia’s chances are not high.

One may only imagine how Russian interests will be protected, which Russian government experts are currently discussing. Evidently, here political pressure will be used (perhaps even with the option of attempting to cause a regime change in Armenia, which will come as no great surprise to anyone), or economic pressure (funding and perhaps the offer of a complete or partial “Build-Own-Operate” format). In the latter case, not only financial support will be offered, but the possibility of sending SNF or radioactive waste back to Russia, which for Armenia, with its earthquake-prone territory, may be a very attractive offer»

Urenco continues cooperation with Russia ↑

On 13 February, the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection of the Netherlands (ANVS) issued three permits for transportation of enriched uranium hexafluoride from Russia (Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk, trading under the brand JSC TENEX), intended for Urenco Nederland B.V. in Almelo. The permits are valid until 13 February 2027 and allow for six deliveries in the validity period. One permit is for 120 small uranium samples, one is for 24 empty uranium containers and one is for 24 containers filled with fissile enriched uranium.

Diagram for processing reprocessed uranium from the presentation by the Director of the Nuclear Fuel Division of EDF, March 2022. Source: HCTISN

This came to the attention of the Laka Center for documentation and research of nuclear energy in the Netherlands. One aspect that has sparked indignation among a number of NPOs is that in 2022 Urenco reported that several days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it took the strategic decision to annul contracts with Russian suppliers immediately. The Urenco press-secretary explained that here fulfillment of work for Électricité de France SA (EDF) was involved. The route for uranium from France passes through Russia, as it must be converted to uranium hexafluoride before Urenco can process it. According to company representatives, as there are no sanctions against deliveries of uranium from Russia, Urenco cannot back out of the existing contract.

The work here concerns the processing of French spent nuclear fuel. In 2018, Tenex and Électricité de France (EDF) signed a long-term contract valued at $1 billion for comprehensive services for conversion and enrichment of reprocessed EDF uranium, and also technical maintenance of packaging containers for this material. The term of the contract was from 2022-2032. After conversion at the plant in Seversk, part of the uranium will be sent to Urenco for enrichment. The fuel assemblies will be produced at the Framatome plant in Romans-sur-Isère.

On 5 February, unit 2 of the Cruas-Meysse NPP in southeast France was relaunched with a first full core of processed uranium fuel. The EDF aims to use reprocessed uranium (RepU) in several reactors with a capacity of 1300 MW by 2027, to reach a level of over 30% of RepU used in French nuclear reactors by 2030.

The Cruas-Meysse NPP. Photo: Etienne Baudon

Commentary by Bellona, Dmitry Gorchakov:

«The present situation of the continuing cooperation of Urenco and EDF with Rosatom shows the deep historical mutual dependence between major nuclear companies.

On the one hand, this shows that for the nuclear sector as a whole, ending this cooperation is unprofitable and may lead to serious losses. Establishing new delivery chains may require time and investments, and a drastic unilateral annulment of contracts may lead to lawsuits. So without political will and pressure from civil society in western countries, these ties will not end of their own accord or be reduced.

On the other hand, all of this shows the importance of transparent and open relations in the nuclear sector, including in western countries»

Events in the Russian nuclear industry and in Rosatom projects abroad

Rosatom’s mining division reports on overfulfilling the plan for uranium production in 2023. But the figures raise questions ↑

On 19 January, in preparing Rosatom’s public report for 2023, the Executive Director of Atomredmetzoloto Viktor Svyatetsky reported that in 2023, Rosatom’s Mining Division had fulfilled the plan for uranium production by 103%, exceeding the division’s planned figure by 90 tons.

According to these figures, the production plan came to 3000 tons, and the total volume of production in 2023 came to 3090 tons, which exceeds production for the previous year by almost 600 tons.

At the same time, in recent years uranium production in Russia by Atomredmetzoloto has been dropping steadily. The company’s 2022 annual report states that production in the previous year came to 2508 tons, which is 127 tons lower than production for 2021 and 338 tons lower than production for 2020.

According to Svyatetsky, these high figures were achieved thanks to investments in production and use of new technologies. One example is the Priargunsky Mining and Chemical Production Association, where despite a decrease in uranium content in ore mined in existing fields, there was an increase in the volumes of processing low-grade ores by the heap leaching method.

Historical figures for uranium production in Russia (blue) and data for 2023 (yellow), based on the figures published by Atomredmetzoloto. Infographic by Bellona

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

«According to the figures announced by the management of Atomredmetzoloto on overfulfilling the plan for uranium production, production in 2023 came to over 3000 tons, which considerably exceeds the level of production in recent years. No significant expansions of productions or even plans for this expansion were observed over the previous year. Otherwise, at the press conference it would have been more logical to announce a more impressive figure on exceeding production by almost 600 tons compared to last year, than merely overfulfilling the plan by 90 tons. So it is unlikely that the figures given correspond to reality.

The practice of concealing real figures with tall tales of overfulfilled plans when annual figures actually drop is becoming typical for Rosatom’s affiliated structures. We have already observed the same phenomenon this year, concerning electricity generation at Russian NPPs. The real generation indicators in 2023 dropped compared to 2022, but Rosatom has not yet announced them, and instead states that the plan has been overfulfilled.

The main volume of uranium production by Rosatom’s affiliated companies comes from outside Russia – from Kazakhstan, through the joint enterprises Uranium One (an affiliated company of Rosatom) and NAK Kazatomprom. Rosatom’s uranium production in Kazakhstan is approximately double the amount of uranium production within Russia»
Priargunsky Mining and Chemical Production Association, Krasnokamensk, Zabaykalsky Krai. Photo: Rosatom

Disputes over legal disputes concerning Hanhikivi NPP in Finland ↑

On 26 February, Rosatom head Aleksey Likhachev announced that after the first stage of hearings at a Court of Arbitration in Paris, the actions taken by Finland in the project of the Hanhikivi NPP were ruled to be unfounded and politically motivated. According to Likhachev said, subsequent legal proceedings will specify the material damages involved.

The following day, the General Director of Fennovoima Matti Suurnäkki reported that Fennovoima was not involved in any arbitration proceedings in Paris. He said that the dispute between Fennovoima and Rosatom would be examined at the arbitration court of the International Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm, that the procedure was in the initial stage, and no decisions on this issue had yet been passed.

Fennovoima annulled the contract for construction of the Hanikivi-1 NPP with Rosatom in April 2022, two months after Russia invaded Ukraine. However, Fennovoima states that the contract was annulled not because of the war but owing to Rosatom’s own problems and a number of delays in the project (the contract for building and supplying the NPP was signed in 2013). Rosatom believes that this was just a pretext, and that the true reason was political.

The construction site of the Hanhikivi NPP, February 2022. Photo: Fennovoima

Subsequently, both Fennovoima and Rosatom initiated legal proceedings against one another. In August 2022, Fennovoiuma demanded that Rosatom pay a debt of almost 2 billion Euros. Rosatom filed lawsuits for a total sum amounting to around 3 billion Euros.

In December 2022, Rosatom announced that the Dispute Review Board (DRB) had confirmed the illegality of Fennovoima’s actions on annulling the contract, and stated that Rosatom had the right to demand compensation for losses incurred.

Fennovoima had a completely opposite interpretation of the DRB’s ruling, saying that the board had found that Fennovoima essentially had the right to annul the contract, given the delays in the project, but that the board could not take a position on whether Fennovoima or Rosatom were to blame for these delays. Fennovoima believes that the DRB even supported Fennovoima’s demands for compensation on many points.

Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

«After all of the military operations in which Rosatom has played an active part, no European courts, let alone boards and chambers of commerce, will take the side of a corporation that collaborates with an aggressor whose policies have done enormous damage to companies and entire countries. Therefore, the legal proceedings that Likhachev mentions may continue, but the result here seems predictable – Rosatom will receive nothing in compensation»

Rosatom’s projects abroad in brief ↑

On 8 February, Akkuyu Nuclear reported that in the reactor compartment of unit 1 of the Akkuyu NPP, a “clean area” had been organized – a workspace to carry out controlled assembly of a reactor (installation of equipment components into the design position, loading a dummy core before switching between cold and hot shutdown modes of the reactor plant).

Several days later, on 12 February, Rosatom head Alexey Likhachev and Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Alparslan Bayraktar held a working meeting (details of the meeting are not reported) and visited the NPP construction site. Before Likhachev’s visit, a stator generator was installed in the turbine hall of unit 1 – the heaviest piece of equipment in the unit. The stator, like most of the main turbine equipment of all units of the Akkuyu NPP, was manufactured in France.

On 28 February, at a speech in the State Duma, commenting on Rosatom’s projects abroad, Likhachev stated that Turkish president Recep Erdoğan had publicly announced that a political decision had been made to allocate another site to Rosatom, in all likelihood the Sinop site.

“Talks are now underway in the format of Rosatom and the Turkish Energy Ministry, and the technical appearance, control system and economic parameters of the project are under discussion. In Rosatom’s understanding, it will be possible to build a plant at the Sinop site similar to the Akkuyu plant, with the same kind of reactors. So far, issues for managing the financing of the project have not yet been decided. The Turkish government is generally satisfied with the construction process of the Akkuyu NPP, which gives prospects for expanding cooperation in this sphere,” Likhachev said.

An unnamed representative of the Turkish Energy Ministry, commenting on Likhachev’s statements to the TASS news agency, said: “At the present stage we cannot provide any specific information. Yes, talks on this matter are continuing, they have not been completed. This is a long process, and it has been going on for some time. There is still no information about any final decisions.”

At the Energy and Climate Forum held on 7 March in Istanbul, Turkish Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar said: “As far as construction of the second NPP in Sinop is concerned, there are two interested countries. They are Russia and South Korea. And of course, for Sinop we are paying attention to Russia and Rosatom. We already have serious work experience at the Akkuyu NPP site, so we wish to apply it to the Sinop site as well. Our talks are continuing with both parties.”

On 7-8 February, Likhachev also visited the Kudankulam NPP in India, and in a meeting with the Head of the Indian Department for Atomic Energy Ajit Kumar Mohanty, discussed options and resources for accelerating the ongoing construction of units 3-6. Both delegations also discussed strengthening ties in other spheres of civil nuclear cooperation. On 8 February 2024, Mohanty and Likhachev signed an addendum to the intergovernmental agreement of 2008. In December last year, the Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov signed three agreements at a meeting in Moscow concerning Kudankulam. However, their content has not been made public.

Aleksey Likhachev at the Akkuyu NPP on 12 February. Photo: Rosatom

Commentary by Bellona. Alexander Nikitin:

«Turkey and India remain “quiet”, but not completely faithful (like Belarus for example) allies of Russia, as they are very strongly connected with the West economically and politically. On the other hand, the considerably successful construction in these countries of Rosatom’s first NPPs increase the probability of new agreements being signed. In all likelihood, the situation will once more depend largely on the domestic policy of these countries, and geopolitics in general.

Turkey’s economy is not in the best position, so it needs economically attractive projects, like the construction of the Akkuyu NPP. At the same time, Erdoğan is in his last presidential term and is now trying to observe a balance in relations between the West and Russia, i.e. to find and take advantages for himself from both sides (for example the case of Sweden’s acceptance into NATO).

Putin is far more dependent on Erdoğan than Erdoğan is on Putin, as Azerbaijan is an unconditional ally of Turkey, and Syria and the Kurds are no friends of Erdoğan. So the Bosphorus may be closed off at any time, turning the Black Sea and Azov Seas into big lakes for Russia, and Likhachev’s dreams may be dashed overnight.

There is no such political and geographic interconnection with India, but there is also no absolute certainty, as India has its own relationship with the West and its own elections approaching. In other words, not everything is so simple and straightforward in Rosatom’s plans in Turkey and India, so we will continue to monitor and comment on the situation surrounding these projects»

Commentary by Bellona. Dmitry Gorchakov:

«With the increasing number of visits by high-ranking Russian officials to India recently and constant reports of new agreements signed, but without the details been made public, one gets the impression that one or both sides are not very happy with the progress of the ongoing construction of the NPP of Russian design in India.

Objectively, this may be shown by the constant delays in construction, which we keep track of in our digests. So the frequency of these talks which do not lead to announcements on expanding cooperation or opening new construction sites may show that they are going through a difficult stage.

It is telling that in his recent speech at the “governmental hour” at the State Duma (see below), Rosatom head Alexey Likhachev slightly embellished both the prospects of transferring the Sinop NPP in Turkey to Rosatom, and the course of court proceedings concerning the Hanhikivi NPP in Finland. The official representatives of these countries commented on both situations in a more moderate tone, which may even cast doubt on Likhachev’s interpretation of events. Thus, it is clear that in his public statements, especially within the country, Likhachev tries to portray things in the most positive light for himself and Rosatom, sometimes misleading the public»

Separate extended commentary on a significant event of the month

Rosatom’s “government hour” at the Russian State Duma ↑

On 28 February, a “government hour” was held at the Russian State Duma with Rosatom General Director Alexey Likhachev and a number of his deputies. Bellona provides a brief survey of this event in the form of an extended commentary by the Head of Bellona’s Nuclear Project Alexander Nikitin:

«Rosatom was the first Russian state corporation to be invited to a meeting as part of the “government hour” by the Russian State Duma since its election in September 2021. It is notable that although by law (No. 317 FZ of 01.12.2007) the state corporation Rosatom is not a structure of the Russian government and its head is not a member of government, and State Duma regulations (article 41) state that only the Chairman of the government and members of government are invited to the “government hour” to answer questions from deputies.

Thus, the exception that the Duma made on 28 February 2024 by inviting Rosatom may mean that the corporation’s status has now risen to at least the level of a ministry or even higher, given how close Rosatom is to the Russian president and his administration.

Judging from the atmosphere at the meeting, each of the parties had their own agendas to follow at the event. Rosatom is not just about energy, it is also about nuclear weapons, so deputies on the same “wavelength” as Putin, who has recently speculated on the possibility of using nuclear weapons, were unsparing in their flattery, praise, encouragement and promises of all kinds of assistance to the department that manufactures nuclear bombs.

Rosatom, in its turn, is interested in an increase in budget financing to build new NPPs and to strengthen its business which is inexorably expanding within the country, and according to Likhachev now numbers over 460 companies working in 100 different fields. As was made clear, Rosatom today on the one hand is the main distributor of budget funds for many state programs, and on the other is a multifaceted business holding, holding assets in many different sectors of the economy.

Rosatom is a participant and user of funds in many federal and state programs. According to the Head of the Auditing Chamber, 70% of all budget funds are spent and managed by Rosatom as part of the state program “Development of the nuclear energy and industry complex”. This program completely finances the construction of nuclear icebreakers and creation of infrastructure for treating waste of hazard classes 1 and 2 (non-radioactive). The program “Scientific and technological development” accounts for 25% of budget funds which Rosatom receives and distributes. The bulk of NPP construction abroad and several other Rosatom businesses are also financed from the budget.

Just in case, Likhachev first reminded deputies that “the main service [of Rosatom] and its first mission… is the state defense order, which is annually fulfilled by 100%, despite huge growth in a number of sectors.” He also emphasized that “in future the volumes [of the defense order] would increase”.

Likhachev went on to discuss Rosatom’s great success, and continued in a “peacetime” spirit, i.e. as if the war did not exist. Practically the only mention of the war that is now in its third year was connected to a question from a deputy concerning the ZNPP.

In his reply to a question about the “well-being” of the ZNPP and the town of Enerhodar, Likhachev said practically nothing worthy of attention. He only stressed that the ZNPP was “our individual duty and responsibility”. Additionally, he distorted facts, saying that there had been shelling of the SNF facility, and that the physical protection of the plant (if this means the fence around the ZNPP site) had been destroyed by the Ukrainian armed forces. In summer-autumn 2022 there was indeed shelling near this area, but the site itself was not hit.

The IAEA have drawn attention to problems of shortages and low qualification of staff at the ZNPP. Likhachev essentially confirmed the IAEA’s concern, saying that only 4,700 people at the plant had signed a contract with Rosatom, and that several hundred more people had been sent to the ZNPP from other plants. Thus, Likhachev admitted that the staff shortage at the NPP is now around 50%, if one bears in mind that before the occupation around 11,000 people were employed at the ZNPP

 It is also noteworthy that Rosenergoatom has plans for activity on this site until 2026, which may mean that it does not intend to leave the ZNPP. Likhachev confirmed Rosatom’s active involvement in the occupation and the active development of captured territories. He reported that Rosatom “had embarked on activity on sites in new regions – the industrial waste ground in the Luhansk People’s Republic and Gorlovka, the Gorlovsky chemical plant in the Donetsk People’s Republic.”

It is interesting that Likhachev failed to discuss the approach to the issue of capital expenses for building NPPs, the lengthy duration of construction and how these factors affect the rates of nuclear-generated electricity for the population. This is a separate topic that deserves analysis and detailed coverage, but it is noteworthy that according to Likhachev, a government decision is being prepared to limit maximum capital expenses on construction of new nuclear units which Rosatom plans to build in Russia, and expenses that exceed established norms will be compensated for by Rosatom at its own expense.

Likhachev confirmed that Rosatom intended to bring nuclear power generation to 25% in the energy balance by 2045, building 42 power units of high, medium and small capacity, increasing generation in the Urals, in Siberia and the Far East. Additionally, he said, it is planned to operate Russian NPPs for up to 60 years, with possible extension to 100 years.

At the parliamentary hour, there were much talk and numerous promises about fourth generation technology, i.e. the construction of the Brest Pilot and Demonstration Power Complex, and the prospects in this field. Such categoricalness and unquestioning certainty of success is somewhat disconcerting, along with the claim to be 10 or more years ahead of the competition. Even Russian nuclear experts have serious doubts about this project. Additionally, the long and torturous experience of operating shipboard nuclear liquid-metal plants, which the navy was eventually forced to abandon, shows that everything is not so straightforward, simple and clear.

The “Breakthrough” project under which the Brest reactor is being built has been continuing for 16 years. The physical launch of the BREST-OD-300 reactor is scheduled for 2026, so the “celebration” is not far off.

Without a trace of doubt, Likhachev announced that Rostom’s position on international markets was solid and promising. He stated that in 2023 Rosatom “had a record $16.4 billion in revenue in foreign markets, more than $12 billion of which was generated on the markets of friendly countries.” The only unanswered question today is how long these countries will remain “friendly” under changing geopolitical conditions, since the market is not really about “friendship,” but primarily about politics, economics, ecology, and other components that can change unexpectedly and swiftly, while affecting the market.

Rosatom is actively involved in non-nuclear processes related to achieving Russia’s so-called technological sovereignty, as Likhachev constantly emphasized in his report, while deputies discussed Rosatom’s global technological leadership. For example, there was discussion about Rosatom’s success in digitalization, and that Russia’s wind power industry is developing rapidly only thanks to Rosatom (without mentioning the fact that today Russia is barely approaching 1% of solar and wind generation).

The deputies praised Rosatom for its unique Atom electric car (without even comparing it to Chinese products), and for record cargo transportation through the Northern Sea Route (NSR), noting that in 2023 it was as much as 34 million tons (for comparison, more than a billion tons of cargo are transported through the Suez Canal, which the NSR is trying to compete with).

Likhachev again proudly reported on the world’s only floating nuclear power plant (of course, without explaining that the main equipment already required for it is taken from scuttled military vessels) and lamented that the limiting factor for the construction of floating nuclear power plants is Russian shipbuilding, which is not fast enough in manufacturing hulls, so they have to be ordered from China.

All the figures and results discussed in parliament can be considered as separate domestic results, or perhaps even achievements. But it is impossible to assess them objectively after listening to the report, because there were no comparisons with worldwide achievements in developed countries and companies. It seemed that for some reason the parliamentarians were not even interested in comparisons with others. There were simply statements by Likhachev and deputies to the effect that we are the best and the first, and an atmosphere of euphoria and jubilation caused by everything that Rosatom does.

Lastly, there was no mention of such important and costly problems as the environmental safety of the nuclear industry, including the elimination of the Soviet nuclear legacy, nor was there any explanation of when and with what funds the eighteen NPPs that have reached the end of their service life will be decommissioned over the next decade (today only four are in the process of being decommissioned). In addition, it will be interesting to see how 42 new NPP units will be built over the next twenty years at a rate with a restricted maximum sum of capital expenditures»

Recommended publications ↑

On 25 February, Novaya Gazeta published the article (subsequently posted on the Bellona website) by Bellona’s nuclear project expert Dmitry Gorchakov, “Rosatom loses domestic energy”, analyzing the causes of a decrease in generation of Russia’s NPPs in 2023 for the first time in 10 years.

The article describes both the accumulated causes in Russia’s aging nuclear reactors, and how operational problems at three NPPs in 2023 caused generation to fall below the expected result. In addition, three important consequences of this situation are described, which threatens the implementation of Rosatom’s goals of increasing the share of nuclear energy to 25% by 2045.

Firstly, Rosatom intends to extend the service life of old RBMK reactors for an additional five years. Secondly, in the coming years Rosatom will increasingly be occupied with building new nuclear units inside the country, reducing foreign activity. And thirdly, problems with Russian equipment, especially turbines, force Rosatom to rely on foreign deliveries, primarily from France, in their foreign projects. This cooperation increases the competitive ability of Rosatom’s proposals, but at the same time means a certain dependency on the West.

On February 28, Bellona held a forum in Oslo on the topic “War and the Russian Nuclear Industry.” Experts from the Bellona nuclear project spoke at the forum about the history of the organization’s activities in Russia, the closure of Russian offices after February 24, 2022, reformatting and new goals and objectives of the Bellona nuclear project. A detailed description of the event and video recordings of performances are available on Bellona’s website and YouTube channel.