Fuel loading starts in unit 2 of first nuclear power plant in Belarus

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Fuel loading has started in unit 2 of the first nuclear power plant (NPP) in Belarus, according to an official statement.  The first fuel assembly was loaded into the second unit’s reactor core beginning in the last week of December 2021, and totally 163 fuel assemblies will be loaded into the reactor.  

The 1,200 MW first unit of the Belarus NPP, equipped with the state-of-the-art VVER-1200 reactor and being built with the assistance of the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, started commercial operations in June 2021. The Belarus NPP located at Ostrovets, thus, became the first VVER-1200 project to be successfully completed outside Russia. 

The fuel was manufactured by Rosatom’s fuel arm, TVEL, at the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant in Siberia. Each of the fuel assemblies measures about 4 metres in length and weighs 571 kilograms. Once they are in place and the reactor pressure vessel is sealed, the unit may be brought to criticality and power gradually raised to the minimum 1 percent level. 

“The most interesting, exciting and responsible period of construction of the nuclear power unit is its commissioning after the completion of a huge amount of construction and installation work. At this stage, cubic metres of concrete, tons of metal structures, kilometres of cable and pipelines turn into a living organism that will function and benefit people for at least 60 years”, Rosatom’s engineering arm ASE Group President Alexander Lokshin said. ASE Group is the designer and general contractor of the Belarus NPP project. 

The Belarus Minister of Energy Viktor Karankevich said at a press conference last month that the first unit at the Ostrovets NPP already generates 22 percent of the country’s electricity, displacing 1.6 billion cubic metres of gas. The second unit is expected to double this achievement in energy security and decarbonisation. Karankevich also said that Belarus had upgraded substations and high-voltage power lines to make sure energy from the Ostrovets NPP reaches every part of the country. 

Last month, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission found that Belarus has significantly strengthened its regulatory nuclear safety framework over the past five years. 

The IAEA had arranged for an Integrated Regulatory Review Service team to spend nine days at Ostrovets to review how plant managers had implemented recommendations and suggestions of an initial visit in 2016. The mission focused on the Ostrovets plant, but took account of all Belarusian nuclear regulation, including that for industrial and medical uses of radioisotopes. 

“Belarus has made considerable improvements in its regulatory framework for safety since the 2016 mission and shows a strong commitment to nuclear and radiation safety,” said Anna Hajduk Bradford, director of the IAEA Nuclear Installation Safety Division.  

Belarus has “made progress in developing and implementing the regulatory framework for emergency preparedness and response … including the establishment of the emergency response centre in 2017 and the holding of complex emergency exercises”, the IAEA said.  

The VVER-1200 reactor has a number of advantages when compared to the previous generation VVER-1000 reactor, including a unique combination of active and passive safety systems that make equipped NPPs maximally resistant to external and internal influences. VVER-1200 power units are equipped with a “core catcher” – a device designed to contain and cool the melt of the reactor core in the event of a hypothetical accident – as well as other passive safety systems capable of operating without the participation of personnel in the event of a complete power outage. “In addition, the generation III+ design has increased the reactor’s capacity by 20 percent, reduced the number of maintenance personnel, and doubled the unit’s lifespan from 30 to 60 years, with the possibility of a twenty-year extension”, Rosatom has said. 

Currently, three reactors of this type are successfully operating in Russia – two at the Novovoronezh NPP and one at the Leningrad NPP. The fourth such reactor – unit 6 of the Leningrad NPP – reached 100 percent capacity on January 3, 2021. The VVER-1200 reactor is also a backbone of the Rosatom export order book consisting of 36 units across 12 markets, including Finland, Hungary, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Bangladesh. 

According to Rosatom, the safety system of the twin-unit plant in Belarus has been “fully endorsed” by the IAEA, which concluded that the design parameters account for site-specific external hazards, such as earthquakes, floods and extreme weather, as well as human-induced events, and that measures have been taken to address challenges related to external events in light of lessons from the

The Fukushima accident was caused by the tsunami that hit the coast of Japan in 2011. 

The IAEA has already conducted seven of the missions to the Belarus plant that it recommends for countries building their first NPP. In 2017-2018, Belarus voluntarily agreed to conduct the European Union nuclear safety stress tests, and had the results reviewed by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), which had given the tests an “overall positive” mark. In March last year, the ENSREG approved the preliminary report on the peer review of the Belarusian plant. 

According to Rosatom, once fully completed, the twin unit 2,400 MW Belarus NPP is expected to supply about 18 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of low-carbon electricity to the country’s national grid every year.