This story is part of an ongoing Forum on Energy series on nuclear energy in emerging markets across the globe. See more entries here.
Russia, home to the first operational nuclear power plant, is now the fourth-largest generator of nuclear electricity in the world. Russia’s state-run nuclear energy industry is currently developing fast reactor technology and improving the efficiency of existing nuclear facilities to increase nuclear energy generation, and has made it a national priority to be a global leader in the export nuclear technology to countries around the world.
In 1954, the United Soviet Socialist Republic’s (Soviet Union) Obninsk nuclear power plant – located in present-day Russia – became the first operational nuclear power plant in the world. The Obninsk nuclear facility was water-cooled and graphite-moderated, and served as a prototype for other graphite channel reactor designs, such as the nuclear reactors at Chernobyl. The Obninsk nuclear power plant resulted from a robust research and development effort in the Soviet Union that had been conducted since the early 1900s. Russian researchers were the first to master nuclear energy technology that was being simultaneously researched by countries around the world.
As early as the 1940’s the Soviet Union was constructing enrichment and reprocessing capacity. This desire for a closed fuel cycle was partly motivated by its antagonistic relationship with Western European nations and the United States. Following Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941 – until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 – the Soviet Union became increasingly isolated both economically and politically from the United States and “Western” nations, and relied upon domestic resources to maintain the nuclear industry and the Soviet Union’s economy.
By 1982, the total installed capacity of nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union exceeded 18,000 MW and by the mid-1980s the Soviet Union has 25 nuclear power reactors in operation. However, a deadly accident in April 1986 at Chernobyl nuclear power facility – located in present day Ukraine – revealed major problems with the Soviet nuclear industry. Specifically, the isolation of the Soviet Union together with design flaws at the Chernobyl power facility, drastic human error and above all, a lack of safety culture are widely identified as the cause of the Chernobyl disaster.
Following the accident at Chernobyl in 1986, only one additional nuclear power plant was commissioned before the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.
The economic and political turmoil that resulted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to significant geopolitical and economic changes. Within the nuclear energy sector, the Ministry of Medium Machine Building was reorganized into the Russian Federation Ministry of Atomic Energy, which inherited about 80 percent of Soviet nuclear facilities. Within this structure, the newly-formed Russian government created Rosenergoatom to handle the operation of all civil nuclear power plants within the newly-formed Russia.
In 2007, Rosenergoatom was designated a subsidiary of Atomenergoprom a 100% state-owned holding company that established to consolidate over 80 civilian facilities operating in all segments of the nuclear fuel cycle. During that same year, the Russian Federation Ministry of Atomic Energy was reorganized as Rosatom. Today, Rosatom oversees both Atomenergoprom and Rosenergoatom and more than 350 nuclear companies and R&D institutions that operate in the civilian and military sectors in Russia.
Current State of Nuclear Energy in Russia
Today, Rosenergoatom operates all 33 nuclear reactors within Russia, and 10 reactors are under construction. In 2011, 6 percent of all energy produced in Russia was generated by nuclear power. Fifty-four percent was generated from natural gas, 22 percent was generated from petroleum, 16 percent was generated from coal and 2 percent was generated from renewable energy sources. As of July 2012, Russia plans to add 30.5 GWe of new nuclear energy capacity by the year 2020, and aims to generate 45-50 percent of the nation’s electricity from nuclear power by 2050.
Russia’s desire to increase nuclear energy generation is motivated in large part by the desire to reduce domestic consumption of natural gas and export it to countries in Europe and Asia for both economic and geopolitical advantage. Russia holds the largest natural gas reserves in the world, and oil and gas revenues account for more than 50 percent of federal budget revenues. Russia currently provides 30 percent of Europe’s gas, and has frequently used its role as a major gas supplier to influence politics on the European continent. For example, during a recent political upheaval between Russia and Ukraine, Russia’s state-owned energy company declared that it would no longer sell gas at a discounted price to Ukraine, which gets 60 percent of its natural gas supply from Russia. In May 2014, Russia also signed an agreement to supply China with $400 billion worth of natural gas over the next 30 years, an agreement that also impacts the supply of natural gas to Europe.
Regulation and Oversight
Russia’s nuclear energy sector is regulated by the Russian Energy Ministry – the federal executive body responsible for drafting and implementing government policy and legal regulation in the energy sector. However, as mentioned previously, the operations of more than 350 nuclear companies and research & design institutions that operate in the civil and defense sectors is overseen by Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom). Rosatom’s oversight includes all civil nuclear operations, nuclear weapons facilities, and the world’s only nuclear-propelled fleet of icebreaker ships. Rosatom also oversees the mining of uranium within Russia and the production of nuclear fuel.
Nuclear Energy Output
While new nuclear energy capacity is still under construction, Russia has realized increase nuclear electricity output by improving the utilization of existing plants, in part by uprating existing reactors. In 1998, Russia’s capacity factor was just 56%, but by 2009 it had increased to 80.2 percent. A July 2012 draft plan from the Russian Energy Ministry envisaged increasing the power of WER-440 units to 107 percent, RBMKs to 105 percent and WER-1000 units to 104-110 percent.
Many reactors are also being licensed for life extension by Rosatom. By the end of 2011, 15-year extensions had been achieved for 17 units. Generally, Russian reactors were originally licensed for 30 years, but following design modifications and refurbishment, the World Nuclear Association has declared a 15-year life extension “reasonable” for most 1000 MWe units in Russia.
Fast Reactor Technology
In 2012, Russia announced plans to demonstrate ‘a full range’ of fast reactor technology and closed fuel production by 2020. Through this process, Russia seeks to achieve 100 GWe of total capacity with just 100 tons of input per year. Fast reactors are projected to comprise approximately 14 GWe of capacity by 2030 and 34 GWe by 2050.
Russia’s BN-800 Beloyarsk 4 reactor is being developed to achieve this goal. The first BN-800 unit is expected to be operational in 2015. Two BN-800 reactors are also being designed for future delivery to China. Additional models of fast reactors such as the BN-1200 unit are also being developed and are expected to play a role in the growth of fast reactors within Russia.
Floating Nuclear Power Plants
Rosatom has proposed building seven or eight floating nuclear power plants across Russia. Each proposed unit will have two 35 MWe KLT-40S nuclear reactors. Each of the proposed floating power plants is scheduled to have a lifespan of 38 years. The plants will operate for 12 years continuously with year-long outages in between for maintenance purposes. The first of these floating nuclear power plants is currently under construction.
Russia is home to the second largest uranium reserves in the world and provides 40 percent of the world’s uranium enrichment services. Russia’s largest uranium mine, Kraznokamensk, is an underground mine that produced 4 percent of the world’s mined uranium in 2011. In January 2014, Rosatom’s CEO declared that Russia will nearly triple its production of natural uranium in the next two years and produce 8,400 tons of uranium a year.
Fast reactors are a technological advantage for Russia as it seeks to export nuclear goods and services to other countries. Exporting nuclear technology is a top priority for Russia, and the government has dedicated $55 billion to grow its export market.
Despite memories of the 1986 Chernobyl accident persisting among the American general public, Russian nuclear technology is in demand. As of 2010, Russia was building 15 of the 60 nuclear reactors under construction worldwide. Customers include China, India, Turkey, Iran, Ukraine and Vietnam.
In exporting nuclear technology, Russia frequently agrees to supply all fuel for a new nuclear reactor, and to repatriate the fuel after it has been used. In fact, Russia exported $66.5 billion worth of enrichment services in 2012, and aims to hold one-third of global enrichment services by 2030.
Rosatom has said that it aims to host international nuclear fuel cycle service centers within Russia in the future. Jointly financed with other countries, these facilities would handle four major projects: uranium enrichment, reprocessing and storage of used nuclear fuel, training and certification of nuclear energy personnel, and research and development.
Through the development of advanced technology such as fast reactors and the continued exporting of nuclear technology – including nuclear fuel – Russia is securing its standing as a global nuclear energy leader, and this leadership role is expected to grow in the years to come.