Novosibirsk nuclear fuel producer upgrades to meet increasing competition

Joint stock company Novosibirsk Zavod Khimkonsentratov (NZK) – Novosibirsk Chemical Consentrates Plant – was established in 1949 to produce fuel elements for 13 plutonium production reactors located in Chelyabinsk-65, Tomsk-7 and Krasnoyarsk-26. NZK also used highly enriched uranium recovered from plutonium reactor fuel, to make cores for tritium production reactors. It later used fuel pellets from Kazakhstan to produce fuel pins and assemblies for various reactors, but specialised in fuel for research reactors and VVER-1000s. From then on NZK has produced fuel assemblies for these types of reactors only; currently sharing the market with the Elektrostal plant located near Moscow.

The reason to start production of VVER-440 fuel at the NZK plant, was the fact that the Russian nuclear fuel producing plants’ main income is from exports to countries operating Soviet designed reactors. Some of these countries have legislative prohibitions against purchase of nuclear fuel which can be delivered by one vendor only. Previously, the Elektrostal plant held a monopoly on VVER-440 fuel manufacturing.

Fuel production improvements ensure NZK competitiveness
Outbid by Westinghouse in the tender for nuclear fuel supply to the new Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic, which is expected to start energy production from its two VVER type reactors shortly, the Novosibirsk plant launched an upgrade program for its fuel assemblies. The NZK later won tenders for fuel deliveries to Ukraine and to the Dukovany nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic.

Currently, the NZK plant has finished upgrading its VVER-1000 fuel production. In particular, the plant now produces fuel assemblies with cirkonium cladding rather than steel cladding. This allows for a 13% increase in uranium efficiency, which can be utilised to make the assemblies cheaper by reducing the amount of uranium; or to increase the life-time of each assembly from three to four years based on the original amount of uranium. According to Novosibirsk plant management, some 600 nuclear assemblies manufactured in Novosibirsk were tested at Ukrainian nuclear power plants as well as at Novovoronezh nuclear power plant in Russia, showing four years performance instead of the regular three years.

The current upgrade also concerns the uranium fuel pellets, where gadolinium now is added as an absorber within the fuel pellets. The gadolinium-containing fuel rods removes the need for the special absorber rods now utilised, the absorber of which burns out after a period of time. This measure, according to the specialists of the NZK plant, will simplify the design of the assembly and increase fuel efficiency by another 22.7%, at the same time reducing the amount of generated radioactive waste. This type of assemblies are currently being tested at Balakovo nuclear power plant in Russia.

NZK future may be bright – or not
Currently, Novosibirsk is looking optimistically into the future, anticipating new customers for its products in Iran and China.

Not everything looks bright for the NZK, though: According to the governor of Krasnoyarsk county, the Krasnoyarsk-26 spent fuel storage facility will no longer accept spent fuel from Ukrainian VVER-1000s. The debt of Ukraine for the year 1996, letting alone previous years, has reached 2.73 million USD. Ukraine is operating 4 nuclear power plants on VVER-1000s (10 reactors), having no storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel, except the onsite ones. If Ukraine can not handle its spent nuclear fuel, these power plants – and major NZK customers – may have to close down.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no