From Half-life to the afterlife – Chernobyl and beyond (Extending reactor life spans)

The 26th April marks the 32nd anniversary of the infamous Chernobyl disaster in (what was then Soviet) Ukraine.

Nuclear power remains a necessity within the Ukrainian energy mix, and will do for the foreseeable future.  That is clearly not without risk, (Chernobyl legacy, crumbling and long ignored infrastructure aside), for there remains something of a dependence upon Russia with regard to fuel and its disposal – albeit Ukraine is trying to minimise/remove Russia from that supply chain for obvious geopolitical reasons.

Nevertheless, the current Ukrainian nuclear power infrastructure is hardly new, and neither is there the significant finance available to build and commission enough plants to take existing nuclear plants originally designed with a 30 year lifespan, off-line.

Currently the Ukrainian authorities are seeking to extend the lifespan of its somewhat aged nuclear power infrastructure – with Unit 3 of the Yuzhnoukrainsk NPP being a timely case in point.

This particular 950 MW pressurised water reactor (VVER V-320) became operational in 1989 with a 30 year design life.

That 30 year design life clearly expires during 2019, so the Ukrainian government is seeking to extend that lifespan by another 10 years subject (at least prima facie) to “safe Long-Term Operation” audits.  While the Ukrainian legislation requires a safety review every 10 years, wisely the government has requested that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conduct a peer review of Unit 3 too.

That peer review took place between 11th and 25th April 2018, with the team consisting of experts from Argentina, Bulgaria, China, the Czech Republic, India, Sweden and two members of the IAEA central staff.

The IAEA report will be forwarded to the Ukrainian government and also be made public in about 3 months.  It is clear that the report will recommend Yuzhnoukrainsk NPP adequately preserve equipment qualification status, fully list structures, systems and components within LTO scope (and document the scope setting process), as well as fully implement any LTO implementation programme.  All to be expected.

Obviously the peer review is not only for peace of mind for those that govern Ukraine, but also for its neighbours – who all to vividly recall Chernobyl, and the international community more broadly.  In any worst case scenario, Ukraine will cite the peer review process as mitigation (on the proviso it implements all IAEA recommendations).

It also has to be noted that the IAEA peer review team came away with initial findings that will be circulated around the nuclear industry globally as “best practices” – The plant maintains a catalogue of operational defects in heat exchanging tubes for the VVER reactors.  Since its first operation, the NPP has catalogued safety indicators and failures – including those age related.  It also runs a comprehensive surveillance programme for irradiation embrittlement within the pressure vessel.

Whatever the case, absent a catastrophic IAEA report (which it will not be), the end result will be that Unit 3 will be included within the Ukrainian energy mix until 2029 – 10 years beyond its design life.  However, a decade is not a particularly long time if new reactor units are to replace those reaching – and clearly surpassing – their design lifespan.  To build a new one and connect it to the energy grid would probably take 5 years or more – this discounting the upstream design process.

The question therefore, is after kicking this particular rector can ten years into the future, what will the Ukrainian energy mix look like in 2029?  The plan cannot simply be to extend Unit 3’s lifespan by another decade, almost doubling its original design lifespan – or those of any other reactors with similar design lifespan horizons.

Assuredly there are significant increases in renewable energy across Ukraine that impact the energy mix – a reader need only look at major Chinese alternative/renewable energy projects (just in Odessa Oblast), as well as those of Rinat Akhmetov’s DTEK (and a further much expected large joint venture between them that will eventually manifest).  There are also smaller domestic and international players in the renewable energy market too (including one from the US).

Yet for all the welcome reform progress made within the energy sector, it is noticeable that, for example, such progress has not extended far into the gas and nuclear industries when in comparison to the electricity market or energy efficiency.

Income from the Ukrainian GTS will dramatically reduce, while perhaps incomes from its underground storage abilities may increase – as a recent entry explored.

The real question therefore, is how close is the Ukrainian government, and industry, to fulfilling any officially sanctioned energy mix plans for the next generation – particularly with regard to very expensive hard infrastructure, both in respect of new infrastructure and that which will have to be carefully and safely decomissioned?