Second life: The questionable safety of life extensions for Russian nuclear power plants

By Igor Koudrik, Alexander Nikitin | December 13, 2011

In response to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, countries such as Germany and Switzerland are preparing to phase out aging nuclear power plants. The Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom), however, is taking a very different approach. In 2001, Rosatom began extending the operation of nuclear power plants that had surpassed their projected life spans. More recently, Sergey Kiryenko, the chief executive of Rosatom, confirmed that Rosatom intends to give all of its aging reactors a new lease on life, including water-cooled, graphite moderated RBMK reactors like the one that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986. Under Rosatom’s plan, the youngest of these reactors would continue operating until 2035.

Many of the country’s experts and non-governmental organizations maintain that this decision is economically unjustifiable and environmentally dangerous — to say nothing of illegal. The Russian nuclear industry, however, argues that lifetime extensions are justified because the original estimate of a 30-year life span was conservative; the plants have been significantly upgraded; and extensions cost significantly less than constructing new reactors.

Russia’s nuclear power strategy. During the reform of Russia’s nuclear energy sector in 2004, the Russian government created Rosenergoatom, the state monopoly that now operates the country’s nuclear power plants. Rosenergoatom’s data show that 10 nuclear power plants are currently active in Russia. They comprise 32 reactors with a total capacity of 24.2 gigawatts, and supply approximately 16.6 percent of the country’s electricity.

According to the government’s current plan, the nuclear share will rise to 25 percent by 2030 with the addition of 39 new reactors. But Russia has fallen behind on its “optimal” strategy: Rosatom is constructing nine new nuclear reactor units and one floating nuclear power plant, but only one reactor unit has been commissioned since 2007, according to the 2010 annual report.

To ensure that there is no energy shortfall before the new reactors are online, Russia is prolonging the service life of RBMK-1000 reactors; first-generation EGP-6 reactors (which are similar to RBMKs but smaller); and VVER-440 Soviet light-water reactors by up to 15 years. The lifetime of newer units will be extended by as much as 25 years (see table). So far, the lifetime has been extended at 16 nuclear reactor units.

Lifetime extension of Russian nuclear power plants
Plant Reactor
Unit type Comissioned Design
Balakovo No. 1 VVER-1000 1985 2015
No. 2 VVER-1000 1987 2017
No. 3 VVER-1000 1988 2018
No. 4 VVER-1000 1993 2023
Beloyarsk No. 3 BN-600 1980 2010 15
Bilibino No. 1 EGP-6 1974 2004 15
No. 2 EGP-6 1974 2004 15
No. 3 EGP-6 1975 2005 15
No. 4 EGP-6 1976 2006 15
Kalinin No. 1 VVER-1000 1984 2014
No. 2 VVER-1000 1986 2016
No. 3 VVER-1000 2004 2034
Kola No. 1 VVER-440 1973 2003 15
No. 2 VVER-440 1974 2004 15
No. 3 VVER-440 1981 2011 25
No. 4 VVER-440 1984 2014
Kursk No. 1 RBMK-1000 1976 2006 15
No. 1 RBMK-1000 1977 2009 15
No. 1 RBMK-1000 1983 2013
No. 1 RBMK-1000 1985 2015
Leningrad No. 1 RBMK-1000 1973 2003 15
No. 2 RBMK-1000 1975 2005 15
No. 3 RBMK-1000 1979 2009 20
No. 4 RBMK-1000 1981 2011 20
Novovoronezh No. 3 VVER-440 1971 2001 15
No. 4 VVER-440 1972 2002 15
No. 5 VVER-1000 1980 2010 *
Rostov No. 1 VVER-1000 2001 2031
No. 2 VVER-1000 2010 2040
Smolensk No. 1 RBMK-1000 1982 2012
No. 2 RBMK-1000 1985 2015
No. 3 RBMK-1000 1990 2020

*Unit’s lifetime will be extended after repairs in 2010-2011.
Source: Rosatom 2010 annual report

The dangers of life extension. As defined in Russian legal documents, a reactor unit is the part of a nuclear plant that includes the reactor itself, radiation sources, nuclear material and radioactive substance storage points, and waste storage. Therefore, extending the working life of nuclear power reactors also includes constructing or upgrading these above-mentioned facilities. A decision about whether to extend the life of a reactor, or to decommission it, must be made five years before the end of the reactor’s originally projected life span. Extending a reactor’s life beyond its engineered life span is inherently dangerous in Russia for two main reasons: some parts of the reactors are irreplaceable, and the issue of what to do with spent nuclear fuel and highly radioactive waste has not been resolved.

During life-extension projects, engineers determine which components are in need of replacement, and which can remain in service if maintained regularly. Some parts of a reactor, however, cannot be replaced — including the reactor casing and its internal elements, the graphite stack (found in RBMK reactors), primary coolant circuits, primary coolant pumps, and biological shield systems. These parts are crucial for the safe operation of a reactor, particularly a first-generation reactor.

In the case of the Kola nuclear power plant in northern Russia, for example, the reactor casing should be replaced in order to ensure safer operation, but that cannot be done without building a new reactor. In addition, the proximity of the fuel assemblies to the steel walls in the VVER-440 reactor tank — such as those used in two of Kola’s reactor units — results in higher neutron irradiation than in other types of reactors, so the walls of the VVER-440 become brittle more rapidly.

Official documents on extending the engineered life spans of the Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), Kola, and other nuclear power plants mainly deal with work carried out on the reactors and associated components, but life extension also affects systems for handling spent fuel and nuclear waste at nuclear power plants. Spent-fuel storage facilities at all Russian nuclear plants operating RBMK-type reactors, and at the Leningrad plant in particular, are in critical condition. The Leningrad plant currently does not meet one of the main requirements for a storage facility, namely that its construction should allow unloading of any pool at any moment to carry out emergency work.

Further, spent fuel problems at the Bilibino plant, operating EGP-type reactors, are even more acute than at the Leningrad plant. EGP and RBMK reactor fuel cannot be reprocessed; it therefore remains in onsite storage facilities. Rosatom’s decision to increase the capacity of onsite storage by doubling the number of fuel assemblies that the storage brackets can hold is hazardous. And even with doubled capacity, storage facilities at the nuclear power plants with RBMK reactors — Kursk, Leningrad, and Smolensk — will run out of room for spent fuel before the plants’ extended lives come to an end.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Western governments have spent billions of dollars on extensive programs to upgrade the safety of Russian nuclear reactors so that they could operate safely until their life spans expired. Unfortunately, these programs have breathed new life into first-generation reactors, giving most of them 15 additional years to operate.

The legality of life extension. The legality of extending nuclear power plants’ engineered life spans has been the subject of heated discussions and even court cases. The key question is whether life extensions can be done without environmental assessments.

Russian general safety regulations state that an organization operating a nuclear power plant may extend a reactor’s engineered life span by obtaining a new license from Rostekhnadzor, the federal nuclear oversight agency. The procedure and conditions for licensing are set out in regulations, which state, among other things, that a nuclear power plant operator must present the conclusions of a state environmental expert assessment, along with other documents.

Under federal law, citizens and their organizations have the right to information about the results of these assessments. In addition, members of the general public can commission their own environmental expert assessments using any information that is not classified as a state, commercial, or other type of secret.

None of the reactors that have received life-extending licenses have undergone any environmental expert assessment. In our view, that makes them illegal. In the case of the Kola nuclear power plant, the regional prosecutor’s office for the Murmansk region agreed, but the general prosecutor’s office overturned the decision, stating that federal law does not require environmental assessments for existing facilities.

Russia launched its life-extension program to compensate for the lack of new capacity and to retain nuclear power as an important energy source, as well as to maintain expertise in this field. But prolonging the lives of aging reactors increases risk, because the reliability of systems and mechanisms cannot be guaranteed at the same level as for new equipment. Moreover, older Russian reactors have inherent design flaws, which are not financially feasible to eliminate during life-extension work. It seems that Rosatom does not have the funds to decommission older nuclear power plants and replace them with new ones. But is that any reason for Russia to approve questionable compromises on safety?

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