The world’s first Generation 3+ nuclear reactor is a symbol of optimism in nuclear power, says Alexander Voronkov, vice president, ROSATOM Middle East and North Africa
At a time when nuclear energy and associated safety and energy efficiency issues are increasingly in the spotlight as many Middle East countries are developing their nuclear programmes, one key event this year may have slipped the attention of the general public.
Yet another nuclear power unit going online is hardly front-page news these days; that unit being the world’s first nuclear reactor of a new generation certainly is. This happened at the Novovoronezh nuclear power plant in central Russia in early 2017, where Unit 6 became the world’s first Generation 3+ reactor to enter into commercial operation.
To give you some sense of perspective, since the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant, in Obninsk, central Russia, was connected to the grid in 1954, there has been three generations of nuclear reactors despite nuclear technology evolving continuously to make them safer and more efficient.
In order to be classed as a new generation, a reactor design must be a cut above the previous generation and feature breakthrough technologies that take it to a new level. Thus, each new reactor generation is a milestone in nuclear technology and a game-changing event for the industry.
Generation I reactors were developed in 1950-60s and are virtually extinct today except for a few units still operational in the UK. Generation 2 reactors, whose heyday was in the 1970-1990s, are still largely seen around the world after their design life was extended from 30-40 years to 50-60 years.
Generation 3 reactors, developed to incorporate improvements in fuel technology, thermal efficiency, safety systems and operational lifetime, first came online in the late 1990s and are still being constructed worldwide.
Generation 3+ is at the moment the cutting-edge nuclear technology that was made reality by Rosatom when Unit 6 of the Novovoronezh NPP went online in February 2017. It has been developed to incorporate the most advanced technologies that have no equivalent in the world today, resulting in enhanced safety systems and a longer operational lifetime while decreasing core damage and large release frequencies.
The VVER-1200is a pressurised water reactor design, where water is used both as a neutron moderator and as coolant. The-1200 prefix denotes a gross power output of 1,200 MWe, making VVER-1200 one of the world’s most powerful nuclear reactors. VVER-1200’s enhanced features include an extended operational lifetime- 60 years for the reactor unit - and enhanced safety systems that comply with the most stringent international regulations introduced after the Fukushima NPP incident.
VVER-1200’s key unique innovation is the use of both proven active safety systems and additional passive safety systems that require neither the intervention of personnel or power supply, and act as additional protection against potential human error. The unit is designed to withstand all manner of foreseeable disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and high-impact incidents. The project was stress-tested under more extreme conditions than those that existed during the Fukushima NPP incident, which included a simulation of every hypothetical scenario imaginable as a total loss of power for up to 72 hours.
Even in a worst-case scenario, where a meltdown incident could potentially occur, VVER-1200’s double containment and so-called core catcher will prevent radioactive release into the atmosphere. The versatility of the reactor design also means that it is suitable for a wide variety of geographic conditions and terrains.
Unit 6 of the Novovoronezh NPP has passed more than 20 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety inspections and was recognised by the Agency’s experts as one of the safest nuclear reactor designs in history. It also hosted six World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) inspections and drew praise from WANO Chairman Jacques Regaldo, who visited the unit shortly after its commercial launch, in March 2017.
The fact that the unit is successfully operating in Russia gives Rosatom the edge in being able to offer its customers a Generation 3+ technology that has been tried and tested in real-world operating conditions. In addition to Egypt, where four Gen3+ reactors will be installed at the country’s first El Dabaa NPP, and Russia, several VVER-1200 units are already under construction in countries as diverse as Belarus, Finland, Hungary, Turkey and Bangladesh.
Putting on the international market technologies that already have references in Russia or other local markets has been a Rosatom hallmark and part of the reason behind Rosatom’s success as a global vendor. For several years in a row, Rosatom has held the world record for the number of units under construction abroad – currently 34. The sheer span of its geography and the diversity of its customers – from Hungary and Finland to India and China – mean Rosatom is a company trusted worldwide as a reliable and predictable partner. In this light, VVER-1200 and Generation 3+ is not a new beginning but rather a new chapter in Russian nuclear technologies reshaping the world – and the Middle East’s – energy map.