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Bellona nuclear digest. March 2024

Illustration from Energoatom photo by Bellona
Illustration from Energoatom photo by Bellona

Опубликовано: 03/05/2024

Автор: Bellona

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 2023 the Russian Prosecutor General’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 March 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 February, January, and December . Subscribe to our mailing list to make sure you don’t miss the next digest. You can download this digest in PDF format here.

In this issue:

NUCLEAR EVENTS IN UKRAINE AND THE WAR

1. Zaporizhzhiza NPP and other nuclear sites of Ukraine. Event timeline for March 2024
2. US fuel delivered to Khmelnitsky NPP
3. Stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus

INTERNATIONAL NUCLEAR EVENTS AND THEIR CONNECTION WITH RUSSIA

4. CERN ceases work with almost 500 specialists connected with Russia
5. Resumption of uranium production in the US
6. Orano to enrich uranium for Czech NPPs
7. Extension of western enrichment capacities
8. US companies hope to continue receiving enriched uranium from Russia until 2028

EVENTS IN THE RUSSIAN NUCLEAR SECTOR AND IN ROSATOM PROJECTS ABROAD

9. Russia’s shipbuilding development strategy
10. Rosatom’s projects abroad in brief

SEPARATE EXTENDED COMMENTARY ON A SIGNIFICANT EVENT OF THE MONTH

11. Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels and AtomExpo-2024 in Sochi. Two views on prospects of peaceful nuclear energy

RECOMMENDED PUBLICATIONS

Nuclear events in Ukraine and the war

Zaporizhzhia NPP and other nuclear sites of Ukraine. Event timeline for March 2024 ↑

On 6 March, an IAEA delegation headed by Director General Rafael Grossi held a meeting in Sochi with a Russian delegation led by Rosatom Director General Aleksey Likhachev. The head of Rostekhnadzor Alexander Trembitsky, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to International Organizations (including IAEA) in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov, and representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Troops of Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defence (RChBD) of the Russian Armed Forces and Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) also took part in the discussions.

The main topic of consultations was issues of ensuring nuclear safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, and also separate aspects of interaction with IAEA experts at the plant. According to Likhachev, the talks also touched on issues of what needs to be done to make the ZNPP a “functioning plant”.

Meeting between the IAEA team and the Russian delegation in Sochi, 6 March. Credit: Rosatom

Later that day, Grossi met with Russian president Vladimir Putin, where Likhachev was also present. The meeting lasted about an hour; the ZNPP was not discussed in the open part of the meeting, and the content of the closed part has not been revealed.

According to Grossi, the discussion focused on the primary importance of reducing the still considerable nuclear safety and security risks at the ZNPP.

“As I have repeatedly stated, I must talk to both sides to help reduce the danger of a potentially severe nuclear accident that would recognize no borders. No one stands to gain from a nuclear disaster, and we must do everything possible to prevent it. This was also my message to President Putin and other senior Russian officials this week,” the Director General said after the meetings.

Grossi noted that six of the seven pillars of nuclear safety and security that he outlined at the start of the conflict had been completely or partially compromised. He also repeated his call for maximum military restraint and strict observance of the five concrete principles established by the UN Security Council on 30 May 2023.

On 7 March, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a new resolution condemning Russia’s actions against Ukrainian nuclear sites (the fourth since the start of the war) by majority vote at a session held on 4-8 March in Vienna.

The document calls for Russia to withdraw all unauthorized personnel immediately, including soldiers, from the ZNPP, and to return the plant to the full control of the competent authorities of Ukraine in accordance with the existing license issued by the e State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU).

Additionally, the document expresses serious concern over the unstable state of nuclear safety and security at the ZNPP, especially the lack of properly qualified personnel at the site, problems in carrying out scheduled and preventative maintenance, the lack of reliable supply chains, the vulnerable condition of the water supply and external power supply, and mines laid in the buffer zone between the internal and external plant perimeter.

The Russian Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov announced that the resolution went beyond the mandate not only of the Board, but of the IAEA as a whole. He said that 20 members of the Board of Governors had voted to pass the document, representatives of 12 countries refrained, and Russia and China voted against it. He also said that twice as many board members did not support the resolution in comparison with the first similar document passed in March 2022.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that “any resolutions, and also statements by officials and international organizations calling to return the ZNPP to Ukraine or establishing international control over it are seen as an attempt to infringe on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia.”

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Credit: Energoatom

On 4 March, which marked two years since the seizure of the ZNPP, Energoatom published calculations of safety indicators for the plant’s power units, indicating that the safety criteria values received significantly exceeded the regulatory norms, which shows a worsening in the safety level of the plant during occupation. This information was relayed to the IAEA.

Calculations were made for the probabilistic model of Unit 4 of the ZNPP. Given the lack of a global methodology for safety analysis, which would take into account all current conditions at the plant, the analysis was carried out using the method of expert assessments. Calculations included facts of equipment failures, violation of nuclear and radiation safety, and also threats verified and confirmed by IAEA experts.

In March, as in previous months, experts of the IAEA mission at the ZNPP constantly heard explosions and other signs of military activity near the plant, some of which perhaps came from the use of heavy weapons in an area in close proximity to the plant. Artillery fire was also heard. In the second half of March the number of explosions heard daily increased.

A screenshot of a video where Yury Chernichuk (the ZNPP director from the Russian Federation) shows a cavity caused by an explosion and fragments of an explosive device near the ZNPP site. Credit: ZNPP Telegram channel

On 12 March, as the Russian side told IAEA, a shell-less explosive device was dropped in an area outside the perimeter of the ZNPP site, around 100 m from the diesel fuel storage tanks. According to experts, they saw a shallow cavity in the ground of a diameter of around 70 cm, located just outside the concrete wall that surrounds the diesel fuel storage area. The team also observed some partially burnt foil/plastic material in the area. The impact did not cause damage to any structures, and there was no impact on nuclear safety. On the basis of the available evidence and visual observations, the IAEA is unable to confirm if the event was the result of a drone attack or other type of projectile.

IAEA teams at other Ukrainian plants report that nuclear safety is being maintained despite the challenging wartime circumstances, including frequent air raid alarms at some facilities. The IAEA team at the Khmelnitsky NPP had to go the site’s shelter four times on 10 and 11 March.

On 22 March, Ukraine was subjected to mass shelling from Russia. During this time, 95 km from the ZNPP a short circuit took place, and the plant was left without power by the main Dniprovska 750 kV power line (the hydroelectric plant on the Dnipro river further upstream was also damaged).

There was no physical damage to the powerline, and it was connected again several hours later. During the period without the main external power supply, the plant received electricity by the reserve 330 kV power line, which was also recently restored on 14 March by Ukrainian power workers after a three-week power cut.

Two powerlines at the South Ukraine NPP were also temporarily disconnected (750 kV and 330 kV). The NPP contained to have access to other powerlines and remained in operation, although power output was reduced until the 750 kV line was reconnected.

On the same day in Kharkiv, the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology (KIPT) also lost its external power due to shelling and switched to emergency diesel generators. Until the start of the war, radioisotopes were produced for medical and industrial applications at the institute. The subcritical Neutron Source installation located at the KIPT was transferred to a deep sub-critical state at the start of the war, and its radioactive inventory is low.  Connection to the external power supply was not restored until 29 March.

Shortly before shelling of the Ukrainian energy system began on 22 March, and in a situation of increasing military activity in the area around the Zaporizhzhia NPP, planned maintenance of some reactor safety systems was postponed due to the “general situation in the plant’s surroundings”.

This was the second time in March that the ZNPP had postponed planned maintenance at the site. In early March, the IAEA team at the ZNPP was informed that maintenance activities on reactor unit 1 had commenced. However, activities planned for safety systems and electrical equipment were postponed until the reserve power line was reconnected (there was no connection to the 330 kV power line from 20 February to 14 March). After the power line was restored, the plant had intended to resume this work, and conducted the necessary preparatory tests, but on 20 March it decided to postpone it again, and so the work was not resumed in March.

Later, one of the safety trains of unit 1 that had been taken off-line and tested ahead of the planned maintenance work was put back into service again. However, maintenance on the same unit’s power transformer had already begun and it remains electrically isolated, though the unit can still receive power from external powerlines.

IAEA experts were also informed about an extension of maintenance periods planned for units 1, 2 and 6 during 2024. The IAEA believes that further postponement of maintenance activities may adversely affect the implementation of the ZNPP’s preventive maintenance plan for this year.

In February, Director General Grossi said in a report to the IAEA Board of Governors that the “situation in respect of maintenance activity, should it continue, is expected to have implications for nuclear safety over time, due to degradation of the safety systems and components.”

On 12 March, the latest rotation of the IAEA mission at the ZNPP took place. The new team observed the simulator training of operating staff in the training center, where they held discussions with employees of the ZNPP training center and Rostekhnadzor about the process that the staff must follow to obtain operating “authorizations”. The IAEA experts were informed that staff training takes into account the present situation at the ZNPP, where all reactor units are either in cold or hot shutdown, as well as the current status of the external powerlines and cooling water. As of March 22, Rostekhnadzor issued 137 authorizations to ZNPP employees for the right to carry out works in the field of nuclear power.

Since 1 February 2024, specialists have been denied access to the plant who have not signed a contract with the Russian operating organization (according to Russian data, this concerned 120 employees, and according to Energoatom data there were 360 of their employees at the ZNPP at the beginning of the year). Energoatom president Petro Kotin notes that the Russian staff cannot operate the plant properly: “The nuclear units at the ZNPP have undergone modernization, the projects are significantly different from Russian ones, and the Russian staff, which has not passed authorization in accordance with Ukrainian legislation, cannot operate them reliably.” He also says that because of the lack of qualified authorized staff, the Russian administration will not be able to carry out reloading of fuel, which is reaching the end of its six-year period of use in reactors.

During walkdowns of facilities at the ZNPP site, IAEA experts did not observe any concerns relating to nuclear safety. But the team does note that experts are still not being provided with timely and appropriate access to all areas that are important to nuclear safety and security, including some parts of the turbine halls, the isolation gate of the ZNPP cooling pond and the 330 kV open switchyard at the nearby Zaporizhzhia TPP.

Screenshot from a video showing military equipment (trucks and armored vehicles) inside one of the ZNPP turbine halls. Credit: t.me/actual_energodar

Publications appeared on social networks in March with photographs showing the presence of troops and equipment in one of the ZNPP turbine halls (without indication of the date). The IAEA stated that it was aware of these reports, and that it had reported on the presence of such equipment in turbine halls on September 2023 – in turbine hall of unit 1 experts saw a total of 15 transport vehicles, but did not see heavy weaponry.

The permanent representative of Ukraine at IAEA reported that the materials published show the stationing of Russian military equipment in turbine half of unit 4. They also show that the presence at the station of the nationalist battalion “Rusich” places additional pressure on plant staff and its ability to operate safety components and systems adequately.

Information on inspections described in March in IAEA updates and information circulars of the Russian Permanent Mission to the International Organizations in Vienna are given below:

3–8 March (Update 215, INFCIRC/1187):

 – Units 3 and 5: turbine halls

Experts were once more denied access to the western part of the halls, and were also unable to examine plant equipment on the ground floor of the turbine building of unit 5.

– Temporary emergency response center (emergency preparedness and response arrangements at the ZNPP continue under a temporary emergency plan, while a new plan is expected to be completed this year. A major exercise is being planned for late 2024).

– Electrical and mechanical warehouses (according to plant employees, the site has spare parts for upcoming maintenance and for the reactors in their current shutdown states, spare parts are provided from the Russian Federation).

– Observed the current management of solid radioactive waste.

10–15 March (Update 216, INFCIRC/1189):

Units 1–6: main control rooms.

– Training center.

17–22 March (Update 217, INFCIRC/1192):

Unit 1: emergency feedwater pumps and tanks

Unit 5: turbine hall (experts examined all levels, but were not allowed into the western part of the hall), electrical rooms.

Unit 6: reactor hall (containment, main equipment of reactor department) and safety systems rooms, spent fuel pool, emergency feedwater pumps and tanks

23–28 March (Update 218, INFCIRC/1195):

Unit 4: turbine hall (observed operating pumps and other equipment), electrical rooms of the safety systems; observed the testing of an emergency diesel generator.

Unit 5: reactor building (spent fuel pool, cooling pumps, two steam generators and the safety systems rooms), electrical rooms of safety systems.

Commentary by Bellona:

«The main question about the problem of the ZNPP which is hanging in the air and is a cause of major concern is the leaked information about Russia’s plans to relaunch the ZNPP. Perhaps this plan was mentioned at the closed part of the meeting between Putin and IAEA head Rafael Grossi. Initially the closed part of the meeting was not commented on, but some time later certain information appeared, which also concerned the relaunch of the ZNPP.

The relaunch of the ZNPP in the present conditions is a serious nuclear hazardous process, so intentions to relaunch the plant cannot help but concern society and specialists, including international representatives. The fact that these intentions clearly exist is indirectly confirmed by individual statements by informed officials, such as the present Russian director of the ZNPP Yury Chernichuk, Rosenergoatom representative Renat Karchaa and others.

Nevertheless, these reports must be checked thoroughly, assessed and analyzed. Above all, the military and political risks, technical readiness and staff capabilities for launching the NPP must be analyzed, along with the legal aspects, which concern issuing legal aspects which concern the issuance by regulators of operating permits, access of personnel to managing the plant and much more. Special attention must be given to the level of ensuring safety, given that the possibilities of using Dnipro water resources for cooling ZNPP units have been severely reduced, and also given the technical aspects at power units that arose in the period when the ZNPP was operated by Energoatom of Ukraine.

The political position taken by the UN (IAEA) and several countries is also noteworthy. The formulas “resist the politicization of peaceful use of nuclear power” and “nuclear power is not a political pawn” are understandable, but in this situation they practically benefit the Russian aggressors. For example, these positions do not make it possible to place sanctions on the international activity of Rosatom, which exploits this situation and actively supports the war.

Additionally, this position allows Russia almost completely to ignore the resolutions of the IAEA Board of Governors and other international organizations, and accuse these bodies of “attempts to infringe on Russia’s sovereignty”. An International conference on nuclear safety is scheduled to go ahead in May. It will be interesting to see the level of tension in discussing issues connected with the problems surrounding the ZNPP»

US fuel delivered to Khmelnitsky NPP ↑

On 8 March, Energoatom reported that fresh nuclear fuel from Westinghouse had been transported to the Khmelnitsky NPP site for two power units with VVER-1000 reactors. It is planned to load the fuel into the reactors during scheduled maintenance this year.

Previously, the two units had operated with Russian fuel purchased before the war. After 24 February 2022, Energoatom completely stopped work with Russia.

On 10 September, at unit 2 of the Rivne NPP, Westinghouse fuel was first loaded into the VVER-440 reactor.

Energoatom carried out a number of technical operations, and also acquired the necessary equipment. It confirms that now all Ukrainian nuclear power units (not counting ZNPP units) with VVER-1000 and VVER-440 reactors will work on Westinghouse fuel.

Fresh nuclear fuel from Westinghouse at the Khmelnitsky NPP. Credit: Energoatom

On March 13, the KhNPP’s second reactor unit was manually shut down and disconnected from the grid to investigate a problem with the turbine shaft (a fluctuation in the axial displacement parameter of the turbine unit’s high-pressure cylinder rotor was detected). On 19 March, Energoatom reported that repair work had been completed two weeks earlier and that the power unit would once more be put into operation.

Commentary by Bellona:

«Energoatom has the greatest experience among NPP operating companies in making the transition from Russian fuel to alternative fuel for VVER reactors, which is extremely important for other countries and operators planning this transition – in the Czech Republic, Finland, Bulgaria, Slovakia and potentially also in Hungary. However, it should be realized that this important work is being carried out in Ukraine in a wartime situation, in extreme conditions with tight deadlines, a lack of alternatives and war-related secrecy. For example, repair of the turbine at the Khmelnitsky NPP and the cause for its malfunction drew a number of questions from independent experts within Ukraine. All of this causes certain risks which must be taken into account in assessing the effectiveness of various innovations in the Ukrainian nuclear sector at the present stage of the war»

Stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus ↑

On 14 March the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) published a report describing the supposed location of Russian tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus.

Plans to station these weapons in the country was announced in March 2023, and in May that year Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko declared that the transportation of nuclear warheads into the country had already begun.

The potential location for stationing nuclear warheads in Belarus near Asipovichy. Credit: FAS

Since this time, experts have attempted to ascertain from satellite images whether nuclear weapons really are stationed in Belarus, and if so, where they are. In June 2023, the FAS released a report where it named possible locations as military sites near the town of Asipovichy in the Mogilev Region and near the town of Lida in the Grodno Region, but there was not sufficient visual evidence to conclude whether nuclear weapons would be stationed at these sites.

In the new report, experts show that modernization of the military site in the region of Asipovichy continued – by January 2024 there were already four security perimeters (in the summer of 2023 there were two of them), and trees had been cleared within a 20-meter zone inside the perimeter, the checkpoint had been modernized, and visually the physical protection of the site now bears more resemblance to the level that the Russian authorities require for storage of nuclear weapons. Additionally, according to certain information, a year ago this site was inspected by a representative of the Russian Defense Ministry.

The authors of the report say that over the last two years, statements by Russia and Belarus have confirmed that nuclear weapons were delivered to Belarus, but previously there was no clear evidence that military sites had been prepared for this purpose.

However, according to the authors of the report, if nuclear warheads really have been stationed in Belarus, this does not give Russia significant military advantage in Eastern Europe, as Russia has already stationed nuclear weapons in modernized storage facilities in Kaliningrad, and has long had the ability to target NATO countries.

Commentary by Bellona:

«One gets the impression that the decisions taken recently by Russia and Belarus, such as stationing nuclear weapons, building NPPs, uniting energy systems, forming joint political and economic groups etc. are directed towards preparing and passing a final decision on creating the union state of Russia-Belarus, i.e. creating a new “Soviet Union”.

So all manipulations with so-called stationing of nuclear warheads (perhaps tactical ones) are not so much military as political moves. The aging Putin and Lukashenko, evidently, dream of going down in history as unifiers, truly believing that one people live in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, who should live together in one nation.

Hence Putin’s actions and Lukashenko’s support that led to the war in Ukraine, and also their attempts to influence Kazakhstan by various means, seeing it as another potential nation for the formation of a new union»

International nuclear events and their connection with Russia

CERN ceases work with almost 500 specialists connected with Russia ↑

On 19 March, the figure was reported concerning the number of specialists at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) connected with Russian organizations with which CERN would cease cooperation from 30 November 2024. Their tasks at the Great Hadron Collider will be taken over by other groups of scientists. This was reported by CERN representative Arnaud Marsollier.

CERN was founded in 1953, and cooperation with the Soviet Union was first officially registered in 1967. Cooperation with the Russian Federation began in 1993, and in 2019 the Agreement on international cooperation was signed. This is valid until 30 November 2024.

In March 2022, CERN suspended Russia’s status as an observer country in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and also passed a resolution to suspend ties with scientific organizations in Russia and Belarus. In December 2023, a resolution was passed suspending cooperation with the two countries after the expiration of the Agreement on international cooperation (with Belarus on 27 June, with Russia on 30 November 2024). After this period, all ties between CERN and Russian and Belarussian institutions will be suspended (it is noted that these measures do not concern relations with scientists of Russian and Belarussian nationality who are otherwise affiliated with CERN).

The CERN scientific portal. Credit: CERN

Commentary by Bellona:

«The news from CERN reflects the trend seen since the outbreak of the war to suspend international cooperation with Russia in all fields, including science. At the same time, science cannot and must not develop in isolation. So the rupture of these ties and cooperation, to one degree or another, will affect all participants of the process. This is yet another price of the war in Ukraine»

Resumption of uranium production in the USA ↑

The USA is resuming uranium production at previously conserved mines in the light of the growing demand for nuclear fuel, caused by revived interest in nuclear power as a means for achieving climate goals, and also threats of possible sanctions and the aspiration of western countries to phase out nuclear fuel or raw material produced in Russia.

In an article of 17 March, Bellona.org website editor Charles Digges describes the details of resuming uranium production in the USA. US companies are resuming work at mines in Texas, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah, where work was suspended in 2011 after the disaster at Fukushima, which led to a decline in NPP construction worldwide, and a consequent drastic drop in uranium prices.

Production at these mines, which are mainly small and about to reach the end of their service life, will only make up a small part of world uranium deliveries. But resuming their work is seen as a way to gain greater independence in uranium production.

Now around two thirds of world production of uranium is accounted for by Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia. According to assessments of the International Agency for Nuclear Energy, by 2040 the world’s demand for uranium will be over 100,000 tons per year – a quantity which requires increasing production and processing by almost double compared with the present level.

Kazatomprom has been developing production after many years of working significantly below its capacity, Cameco is also increasing production at the largest mine in the world and a plant for production of high-quality uranium – MacArthur River and Key Lake – after a hiatus in 2018-2021 because of poor market conditions. But both companies warn that because of operational glitches, production in the coming years will be lower than planned. In Kazakhstan, difficulties are connected with problems in deliveries of sulfuric acid, which is used in uranium mining by in-situ leaching, and with delays in construction at new fields and sections. This may also impact Cameco’s obligations, which is carrying out production together with Kazatomprom at the Inkai field in Kazakhstan.

Restart of Rosita Central Uranium Processing Plant, February 2024 Source: enCore Energy

Commentary by Bellona:

«The resumption of uranium production in the USA involves an insignificant quantity, and at the present stage plays no role in the issue of replacing Russia or other foreign deliveries, and is largely motivated by rising prices and economic expedience. However, this is an illustrative example, which may raise the competence of the industry in the West, and lead to an increase in investments and competitive ability, which may potentially also bring about greater energy security and lower dependence on Russia»

Orano to enrich uranium for Czech NPPs ↑

Orano and the Czech electricity company ČEZ signed a contract on 5 March for providing uranium enrichment services for the Dukovany NPP. The signing took place during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to the Czech Republic with the purpose of strengthening bilateral cooperation, particularly in the civil nuclear power.

Previously, in late 2023 a long-term agreement was signed for conversion and enrichment services for the second Czech NPP Temelin.

According to the CEO of ČEZ Group Daniel Beneš, attracting a western supplier of uranium enrichment services for the Dukovany NPP significantly strengthens the energy safety of the Czech Republic.

ČEZ started the process of diversifying fuel suppliers with a tender for delivering nuclear fuel assemblies for the Temelin with VVER-1000 reactors in April 2020. Framatome, TVEL and Westinghouse took part, and in April 2022 two suppliers were chosen – Framatome and Westinghouse. According to the contract signed in June 2022, deliveries for more than 10 years should start in 2024. In March 2023, ČEZ signed a contract with Westinghouse for deliveries of fuel assemblies from 2024 for the Dukovany NPP with VVER-440 reactors with a proposed service life of 7 years.

In February 2024, it was reported that the first deliveries of fuel for the Dukovany NPP would arrive at the end of this year, and several months later deliveries to the Temelin NPP will begin.

Commentary by Bellona:

«New contracts signed with new suppliers for uranium enrichment is characteristic for operators and countries seeking a substitute for Russian supplies. Deliveries of nuclear fuel from Rosatom usually include several processes – uranium production, conversion, enrichment and fuel manufacture. Western proposals for new fuel for VVER reactors are less comprehensive.

For this reason, operators of plants that seek to avoid dependence on Russia must find new suppliers for the entire reprocessing line. Ukraine has already done this, signing contracts with Cameco for delivery of uranium and its conversion, with Urenco for enrichment and with Westinghouse for fuel manufacture. The Czech Republic is currently strengthening cooperation with the French nuclear sector in uranium conversion and enrichment»

Extension of western enrichment capacities ↑

Urenco commenced realization on 25 March of a project to expand enrichment production at its plant in Almelo, Netherlands, as announced in December 2023. It plans to increase production capacity by 750,00 SWU per year (15% of current production). The first additional cascades are scheduled to be put into operation in 2027.

Urenco plans to overhaul and expand enrichment capacities at all four of its sites in the USA, Netherlands, Germany and the UK, adding a total of 1.6 million SWU per year.

Ceremony to mark the extension of capacities at the Urenco plant in Almelo, Netherlands. Credit: Urenco

According to Boris Schucht, CEO of Urenco Group, investments in the extension program are backed up by demand for the company’s services on the market, as an increasing number of countries are turning to nuclear power or attempting to expand and diversify fuel deliveries for existing nuclear plants. For 2023, the portfolio of company orders extends to the 2040s and comes to 14.7 billion Euros, an increase of 36%.

Orano is studying the possibility of building a plant for uranium enrichment in the USA. Construction plans for this plant in Idaho were developed in the late 2000s, but after the accident at Fukushima, when several countries began to close down NPPs or suspend their work, Orano (which at that time was called Areva) abandoned the project. In March, Claude Imauven, chairman of the board of directors of Orano, announced that the company was examining this issue again.

Like Urenco, Orano also announced an increase in its enrichment capacities last year: in October it announced investment of USD 1.8 billion in expanding the Georges Besse 2 plant by 2.5 million SWU per year (now the production capacity is 7.5 million SWU). It is expected that an additional four enrichments modules, identical to the existing 14 modules, will be put into operation from 2028.

Commentary by Bellona:

«Urenco is moving from words to actions in expanding its capacities. However, this process also requires several years for realizing the project, so the issue of completely abandoning Russia’s services in the nuclear fuel sphere purely technically even within the EU is not an issue that will be resolved in the near future. This means that sanctions in this sphere should probably not be expected»

US companies hope to continue receiving enriched uranium from Russia until 2028 ↑

The US Nuclear Regulation Commission (NRC) received an application on 29 February for receiving an export license for delivering natural uranium in the form of hexafluoride to Russia from the USA. This was the second application for export in February, the first being submitted on 13 February. In both cases, deliveries will be made from the Honeywell International conversion plant. Enriched uranium will be used at US NPPs. In both applications, the proposed date for the end of the license is 31 December 2028.

As reported previously, a bill is currently being examined in US Congress to ban the import of enriched Russian uranium. If the law is passed, the phase-out of uranium enriched in Russia will be gradual, but must be fully completed by 1 January 2028. In March, US Energy Minister Jennifer Granholm encouraged Congress to pass a ban to unlock funds for supporting American fuel developers. At the same time, import of enriched uranium from Russia to the USA grew by up to USD 1.2 billion in 2023.

Commentary by Bellona:

«It is not surprising that in a situation of direct legislative bans, business continues to do what is easier and more profitable, and keeps working with Russia in the nuclear fuel sphere.

The requests for licenses only reflect the intention of US companies to ensure the legal ability to continue to do business with Russia, even if a law banning this activity until 2028 is passed in the USA. To a certain degree, this may reflect the lack of confidence in the US business world concerning the possibility for timely development of western capacities for uranium enrichment»

Events in the Russian nuclear sector and in Rosatom projects abroad

Russia’s shipbuilding development strategy ↑

The Russian government held a strategic session on 26 March concerning the development of the shipbuilding industry in Russia and the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), which controls up to 80% of all shipbuilding facilities in Russia. In his opening address, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin noted that the shipbuilding industry had faced serious challenges because of sanctions: all foreign vessels had left the Russian market of transport services, and owing to foreign companies refusing to work with Russia, it had been necessary to develop technology for manufacturing a wide range of advanced high-tech components and systems. The USC itself is on the sanction lists of all western countries.

In 2023, the USC was transferred to the management of VTB Bank. The past and present management of the corporation have spoken of the accumulated losses and financial problems of the company. In particular, losses were caused by delays in fulfilling orders from the Russian Defense Ministry, and also in building nuclear icebreakers of 22220 project. It was planned that losses for flagship vessels would be later compensated by profits in building serial production vessels, but the sanctions on shipping equipment in 2022 led to the need for a drastic change in projects, and it was not possible to achieve serial production. At the same time, Russian clients not only faced a rise in the price of vessels, but also a failure to meet delivery deadlines.

Kommersant reports that the USC submitted two projects for a development strategy up until 2035.

The first project proposes to minimalize expenses, in order to bring the company to the breakeven point. This scenario prioritizes the state defense order, icebreakers, and vessels with nuclear reactors for Rosatom. It is proposed to reduce the number of loss-making wharfs in Kaliningrad, in the Far East, the Crimea and the Volga-Caspian basin.

The second project, which has the preliminary approval of the government, proposes increasing state support, modernizing existing wharfs while at the same time making them specialize in certain types of vessels (including for inefficient wharfs), expanding competences in maritime device building and ship building, and building a new medium-tonnage facility in the Northwest. The most efficient facilities, Sevmash, Zvezdochka, the St. Petersburg wharfs and Krasnoe Sormovo, may remain multi-purpose. Besides fulfilling the state defense order, they continue to build unique vessels – for example ice breakers, floating nuclear units, and units of shelf platforms.

In this scenario, the USC expects to increase productivity up to 1,000 vessels by 2035. From 2011 to 2022, the company manufactured 201 vessels, in 2023 it delivered 25 vessels to clients, and the plan for 2024 is 36 vessels.

The cost of implementing this strategic development project and the procedure for financing it were not discussed in detail.

Loading of the Ritm-200 reactor at the Yakutia ice breaker, Baltic Shipyard, August 2022. Credit: Baltic Shipyard

Commentary by Bellona:

«Over the past few years, the USC has formed close ties with Rosatom. It was reported that Rosatom intended to purchase part of USC’s plants. This concerned a plan to purchase a 51% share package in the Baltic Shipyard, which builds nuclear icebreakers. But since VTB bank came to manage the USC, the situation surrounding the deal has been put on hold, as the new owner declared that “we will not sell anything at present”.

However, this does not mean that Rosatom has completely abandoned the idea to buy, as for Rosatom, which has become the owner of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and its infrastructure, shipbuilding may become an important part of its business. If the project for building floating NPPs is developed actively, Rosatom will certainly require shipbuilding facilities. Rosatom is already complaining about a lack of shipbuilding facilities to manufacturing shells for floating NPPS.

The USC is also involved in nuclear military shipbuilding, a significant part of which is carried out at Rosatom facilities. At present, according to reports from news agencies, the USC has several problems – technologies which are partly located abroad, metallurgy, especially a lack of rare metals and rare earth metals from Russian manufacturers, a lack of capacities and production facilities at plants, especially those located in major cities such as St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and others. Since the outbreak of war there have been problems with staff shortages. At present, shipbuilding and ship repair yards of the Northwest alone have staff shortages amounting to around 2,500 employees, which is 88% more than in 2022.

It should be understood that Rosatom has very powerful competitors in the field of floating platforms, such as companies in the oil, gas and trade spheres, which at present, given the closed land borders and ruptured ties with the shipbuilding industries in other countries, are in vital need of their own fleet»

Rosatom’s projects abroad in brief ↑

Akkuyu NPP, Turkey. At the Energy and Climate Forum held on 7 March in Istanbul, Turkish Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar noted that despite certain sanction-related problems that must be overcome, the launch of the first unit is still planned for 2024. The minister did not specify what these problems were.

On 27 March at the Atomexpo-2024 forum in Sochi, Akkuyu Nuclear CEO Anastasia Zoteeva announced that the process of delivering equipment and materials did not depend on sanctions, and that “technologies and equipment for NPPs built under Russian projects are 98% independent of imports”. She also stated that around 400 companies were taking part in the project, of which almost half are Turkish. Turkish contractors carry out around 40% of works at the Akkuyu NPP site. These companies deliver materials, equipment and services, plan and carry out various construction and assembly works, and transport equipment. The majority of construction materials are of Turkish manufacture.

Meanwhile, on 27 March it was reported that workers of the subcontracting organization Prometey İnşaat Ltd on the construction site of the Turkish NPP had staged a protest, demanding to be paid salaries that they have not received for three months. They also demanded improvement of labor conditions, increased safety measures at the site and the resignation of the management. Zoteeva did not mention the problems with Prometey İnşaat Ltd at her speech at Atomexpo.

On 8 March, installation of the first tier of the inner containment of the reactor building began at unit 1 of the El-Dabaa NPP in Egypt.

Paks-2 NPP, Hungary. On 12 March, Rosatom General Director Aleksey Likhachev met with the Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó. “The momentum we have gained allows us to expect that all preparatory work at the site will be completed by the end of this year, which will ensure that we can proceed directly to the pouring of the first concrete. It is also important that we have made considerable progress in optimizing and updating the EPC contract, working together with the Hungarian side,” said Likhachev.

On 19 March, specialists at Atomstroiexport (general contractor for construction of the Paks-2 NPP) and representatives of the Hungarian client, Paks-2 Ltd., began the factory acceptance of the melt localization device for unit 5 of Paks NPP. This is the first large-scale heavy piece of equipment manufactured for the Hungarian plant.

Core catcher for the Paks-2 NPP. Credit: Atomstroiexport

On 14 March, the lower section of the dome of the inner containment was installed in the final position at unit 8 of the Tianwan NPP in China.

On 30 March, flushing of the hydraulic tank of the emergency core cooling system of unit 1 of the Rooppur NPP in Bangladesh was completed, which is necessary for the final cleaning of all pipelines from impurities remaining after installation, and to check the operation of pump units, technical safety systems and normal operation systems.

Commentary by Bellona:

«Rosatom’s foreign projects for building NPPs continue, without facing serious difficulties caused by sanction pressure on Russia as a whole. On the one hand, this can be explained by the lack of serious sanctions on Rosatom itself. On the other hand, the partner countries where these projects are being carried out are interested in the successful completion of the projects, which are important for their economies, and look for ways to bypass existing sanctions or find alternatives to reduce their effect.

It is therefore important to take this effect into account when planning sanction policy, which cannot completely isolate Russia. However, increasing difficulties in realizing current projects with Russia may affect future projects.

It is illustrative that during the war, Russia has not signed a single new solid contract for the construction of new nuclear units abroad. It is worthwhile seeing how negotiations proceed on these new projects and sites, for example for the second NPP in Turkey, and NPPs in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India and Armenia»

Separate extended comment on a significant event of the month

Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels and AtomExpo-2024 in Sochi. Two views on prospects of peaceful nuclear energy ↑

The first Nuclear Energy Summit in history was held in Brussels on 21-22 March, which was announced in December 2023 at the COP-28 conference. The international forum ATOMEXPO-2024 was held on 25-26 March in Sochi, Russia. Bellona publishes a survey of these events in the form an extended commentary by the head of the Bellona Nuclear Project Alexander Nikitin:

«At the end of March, two major events took place, each of which emphasized the special nature of the current unstable nuclear sphere, and the relations that have formed within it recently.

In Brussels, under the initiative and co-chairmanship of Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo and the IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, the first Nuclear Energy Summit in history was held, where high-ranking representatives of 30 countries were present. It was stressed that this was the first time that a nuclear energy summit had been organized with the participation of heads of state, who were given the opportunity to express their opinion on the role of nuclear technologies in their country.

Russia was not invited to the summit. The Russian media, including Rosatom’s own media, did not explain the reason for the absence of the Russian delegation, and did not particularly comment on the event itself and its results. It seems likely that the reason for the absence of Russian officials at the summit was that the participants did not want to welcome Russia to the event. At the same time, the very restrained attitude of Russia towards the summit to which it was not invited, can probably be explained by the Russian side’s reluctance to enter into a conflict with the IAEA, which was the official organizer of the summit.

At the same time, it should be noted that a number of heads of CIS nations were present at the summit (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan), where Rosatom still wishes to build NPPs according to its own projects.

The Brussels summit was a kind of extension of the COP28, where nuclear power was first officially recognized as one of the solutions to the problem of climate change, both by big business and around 20 countries at the level of a ministerial declaration. In Brussels, these discussions were held at the level of heads and high-ranking representatives of over 30 nations. The summit primarily focused on raising interest in developing nuclear power in European and other nations present at the conference, in order to reach zero emission level and ensure sustainable development.

The topics of nuclear safety and security, sanctions and other problems caused by the war in Ukraine and problems in relations between eastern nuclear powers were not primary and were not included in the final summit declaration signed by 32 countries, but they were mentioned during participants’ meetings with the press or during speeches.

The leaders of several European countries stated that nuclear power, besides achieving climate goals, would help to ensure energy safety and independence in the light of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine.

Replying to questions from the press, De Croo said that EU countries needed to change their supply chains in the nuclear power sphere as soon as possible, which would make it possible to phase out nuclear fuel from Russia, but that there had to be certainty that this would not impact the operation of nuclear plants. Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for the US Office of Nuclear Energy, stated that countries at the summit jointly tried to identify the amount of investment needed from governments to support the western fuel supply chain. She pointed out that a bill had been passed in the USA in March allocating USD 2.7 billion to funding domestic fuel manufacture.

A number of speakers proposed to ignore the political context. For example, Chinese Deputy prime Minister Zhong Guoqing stated that it was important “to oppose the politicization of the peaceful use of nuclear power”. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban noted that his country was continuing to realize its plans for the design of the Russian nuclear power station Paks-2, and stated that companies from a number of countries of Europe and the USA were involved in the project. He said that it was in everyone’s interests to make sure that nuclear power did not become a “hostage of geopolitical hypocrisy and ideological debates.”

Grossi noted that nuclear power was not a political pawn. “We need to look at the needs of countries. There are certain long-term specific infrastructural projects, where Russian fuel is used. In future this may change, it will take some time. There are projects where Russian fuel deliveries will not be used. I would warn against dividing nuclear power into good and bad,” he said.

Grossi’s concern about nuclear power is understandable, as this is his job as the head of an international institution which is supposed to support and promote nuclear power in various nations. However, it is quite impossible today to separate nuclear power from global politics and economics, and also from the nuclear military aspirations and plans of dictatorial and authoritarian nations and their rulers.

Therefore, Grossi has no other option but to try to maneuver between political realities and energy possibilities. Hence his appeals “not to divide nuclear power…”, but unfortunately these appeals are becoming increasingly less attainable.

The summit passed a declaration to “fully unlock the potential” of nuclear energy, to provide more funding for its development, and organize more intensive professional training of “nuclear personnel”. The declaration did not mention any problematic issues and potential threats connected with the use and further development of nuclear power in the world, or problems relating to IAEA’s work in difficult geopolitical situations, only noting IAEA’s global role as a “center of cooperation in the nuclear sphere”.

For this reason, one gets the impression that this summit was a kind of advertising project for IAEA, aimed to consolidate the results of COP-28 at a sufficiently high level, and to stimulate the creation of political and economic space for developing nuclear power, while paying little attention to emerging problems that show a dangerous tendency of escalating in the world today, where nuclear power is not only “peaceful”.

Almost immediately after the Brussels summit ended, on 25-26 March, Rosatom held an event in Sochi known as the AtomExpo-2024 international forum. This was Rosatom’s annual forum, but one got the impression that the organizers wished to emphasize that many countries, despite the crisis and the war, remain interested in cooperation with Russia and Rosatom in particular.

Thus, special emphasis was placed on the fact that this was an international event, and the media constantly repeated that this was the largest event in the global nuclear sphere, with representatives of over 70 countries were taking part. It was also reported that forum set a record not only for the number of participating countries, but by the number of agreements signed, over 80, twice as many as at the previous forum.

The media reported with great pride that the forum was attended by representatives of Burkina-Faso, Mali, Nicaragua, Niger and Iraq, etc. The full list of foreign participants was not published, but it was possible to gather from media reports that it was attended by all countries that are “friendly” towards Russia, and neutral countries from the Global South and Asia, several former Soviet republics, and also Hungary and Serbia, the sole representatives from Europe. No developed country from other continents took part in the event, and among the former Soviet republics, representatives of Armenia, Moldova and Georgia did not take part.

The highest-ranking guests of the event was the Hungarian Foreign Minister, the Turkish and Belarussian Energy Ministers and the Serbian Health Minister. Rosatom showed off its achievements in technologies and technical innovations, such as models of floating NPPs and the first Russian electric car, Voit.

Other important topics examined at the forum includes the report from a roundtable concerning eco transformations of nuclear legacy sites, where problems of financing the decommissioning of power units of Russian NPPs were discussed. Up until 2065, 35 power units should be decommissioned, which are part of nuclear legacy.

There was also discussion of how much money would be required for decommissioning these units, given that in 2008 the decommissioning fund came to 1 billion 467 million rubles. According to Rosatom’s calculations, the last unit (of 35 decommissioned) will be decommissioned with conversion into a “green meadow” by 2093, for which 2 trillion, 60 billion rubles will be required. At the same time, full expenditure for radioactive waste and SNF treatment and extending the resource of RMBNK units is not taken into account. As the decommissioning fund at present is supplemented by deductions from functioning units, the deficit of funds in 2029 will come to 1 trillion, 844 billion rubles. These are useful figures when one is calculating and comparing the cost of electricity from different sources.

An interesting section involved the discussion of the topic of rare and rare earth metals, which experts have christened “the new oil”. It was noted that RM and REM are used today in renewable energy, nuclear energy, radio electronics, space, aviation, metallurgy and other modern technologies. Russia’s presence on the international RM and REM market is less than 1%, while China’s is 70%, the US has 24%, and the rest 5-6% – new players such as Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand etc.

Russia holds second place in the world for RM and REM reserves, with 18 surveyed fields, which are not fully developed at present for various reasons, and seventh place for production (i.e. less than 1% of the world’s total), after China, the USA, Australia, Myanmar, Vietnam and India. Russia practically does not produce RM and REM, i.e. it does not process raw material produced, while the six main producers in the world even include Estonia, which still has Soviet processing facilities.

At present, Russia does not have a technological chain from production to processing, due to a lack of industrial technology for separation production. Consumption of RM and REM in Russia in 2022 was around 1,200 tons, around 2,200 tons in 2023, and is forecast to reach 3000 tons by 2050.

The mining division of Rosatom (Atomredmedzoloto) manages RM and REM assets, owned by corporations at various levels and in various shares of ownership with other companies. The mining division has enterprises in five regions of Russia – the Murmansk, Kurgan, Tomsk, Perm and Moscow Oblasts. Rosatom’s enterprises focus on increasing production of lithium, titanium and magnetic REM groups. By 2030, Rosatom intends to meet 100% of the Russian market’s demand for RM and REM, i.e. Rosatom intends to capture practically the entire Russian RM and REM production and market.

The main idea expressed by representatives of the Russian government, the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, Rosatom and others, is that Russia’s technological sovereignty in the program for the production of RM and REM must be ensured by 2030. They also constantly emphasized that they began this work two years ago practically from scratch, i.e. the war drastically activated the development of this field of Russian industry. It remains to see what the result will be in 2030»

Recommended publications ↑

On 15 March, Bellona published an article on its website analyzing the twofold increase in purchases of nuclear fuel from Russia in 2023 by EU countries that operate nuclear power units with VVER reactors of Soviet design.

17 March saw the publication of the report “Power Plays: Developments in Russian Enriched Uranium Trade” by Darya Dolzikova, research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), providing a detailed analysis of enriched uranium export from Russia, and an evaluation of the possible influence on major partners – the USA, China and France.