GAN fears design faults

Publish date: November 15, 1997

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The construction of a new BN-800 nuclear reactor at Beloyarsk may be financed through western capital through Russian sales of enriched uranium to the west. Construction of the Russian fast breeding reactor has not been resumed yet, as the State Nuclear Inspection (GAN) refused to grant a licence due to safety shortcomings in the more than 10 year - old design.

In July of this year, Bellona Web reported that the construction of the fourth reactor unit – a BN-800 fast breeding reactor (FBR) – at Beloyarsk nuclear power plant was to be resumed. The plant is located near Yekaterinburg in the Urals. In order to fund the project, an industrial consortium was established, comprising both the local government and nuclear operation and engineering companies.

GAN does not grant the permission

According to Leonid Piskunov, a nuclear engineer and environmental activist at the local NGO Urals Environmental Fund, the Russian State Nuclear Inspection has not granted licence for the completion of the BN-800 yet. The permission will be issued only upon satisfactory removal of the design faults inherent in the project.

–The head of the Sverdlovsk government, Eduard Rossel, insist on completion of the fourth reactor unit. He argues that it would provide new jobs in the county. This line of argumentation is generally accepted by the people, Gennadiy Rashupkin, editor of Urals’ Environmental Fund’s newsletter, commented to Bellona Web.

–On the other hand, the decision to suspend the construction of the BN-800 was adopted by the Deputies’ Council. Thus, it is not the governor who is in charge of this question, but the Deputies’ Council of Sverdlovsk county, added Rashupkin.

Construction work on the BN-800 FBR started in 1987. In 1990, the Sverdlovsk county Deputies’ Council suspended the construction, having discovered safety faults in the reactor design. Prior to the Council’s decision, five different expert evaluations of the BN-800 project had been conducted. In particular, GAN submitted a 24 page list of safety faults inherent in the project design.

A compromise was reached in 1993. The basic faults described by the expert groups were included in a Ministry for Atomic Energy (Minatom) programme called "Implementation of the state expert group recommendations in connection with BN-800". The programme was approved by the government of Sverdlovsk county, the County Deputies’ Council and Minatom. The deadline for the implementation was set for the following year, but none of the points had been fulfilled by that time . Indeed, their implementation would require almost the same amount of money as the original construction plans, effectively doubling the price of the BN-800. Fast breeding at Beloyarsk

Beloyarsk NPP comprises three reactor installations. The two oldest – an AMB-100 and an AMB-200 – were commissioned in 1964 and 1967, and shut down in 1980 and 1983 respectively. These reactors were defuelled but not decommissioned, due to the lack of both a programme for decommissioning and funding.

In 1980, a third reactor unit, a BN-600 fast breeder, was commissioned. This reactor unit is presently the only one operating at Beloyarsk NPP.

On January 21 1987, the BN-600 suffered a serious accident. Due to an uncontrolled increase of temperature in the reactor core, a part of the fuel’s cladding cracked. This led to discharges of radioactive substances, estimated as high as 100,000 Ci. The accident scored an impressing 4th level on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES).

Earlier this year, France closed down its fast breeder reactor Superphenix, while Japan probably never will restart its Monju breeder due to a number of technical problems and recent incidents.

At the same time, both Germany and France have been cooperating with Beloyarsk NPP, and both countries are interested in further development of the Russian fast breeder reactors, in order to proceed with their own experiments.

Funding of the BN-800

According to WISE newsletter, representatives of the consortium established in July to complete of the BN-800 reactor unit at Beloyarsk, claim they will finance USD 800 million of the estimated USD1 billion needed. The remaining 200 million will be allocated by the Russian state through Minatom.

The consortium counts on getting the USD 800 million from sales of enriched uranium to the western market. The matter is that Beloyarsk NPP sells most of its produced electricity to an enrichment plant called Urals Electro-chemical Combine Manufacturing Association, located in Sverdlovsk-44. In recent years, the UECMA has produced enriched uranium for the international markets.

Heading the Beloyarsk consortium is the utility which operates the BN-600 reactor at Beloyarsk today. The other four partners are the government of the Sverdlovsk district, the nuclear utility Rosenergoatom, nuclear plant building company Uralenergostroi and the grid organisation Sverdlovenergo.