New Europe, by Kostis Geropoulos

ZARECHNY, RussiaRussia and the European Union will continue cooperation on nuclear safety, security and safeguards, the EU’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA told New Europe, following a visit to the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant in south-central Russia on July 20.

“Russia with some other countries is really having a good record in safety, security and safeguards at least in the international arena and by inviting us here definitely what we have seen here – but to be quite frank it is, of course, very limited and well planned – we really got a good idea about it and they set the right priorities,” Hendrik Koets said, representing the EU and Euratom. He noted that in Russia as a nuclear weapons state, language can be different but Russia through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna is doing its best to promote safety, safeguards and security.

Koets also highlighted the importance of non-proliferation. He said the EU and Russia share the same safety and safeguards goals.

“We’re not political here. We are here of what Russian Federation is offering us and I think it’s a good idea that together we have this kind of platform,” he said. “The same platform we will continue in Vienna and we have our positions. But to be quite frank, on safety and safeguards, there’s hardly any difference,” the EU representative to the Vienna-based nuclear organisation said. “We see the offered hand and we’re not going to say ‘no’ to it,” he added.

Permanent representatives to the IAEA and a small group of international media, including New Europe, visited the Beloyarsk NPP and went into the reactor core. “It was quite hot,” Koets said, after we all took turns entering the heart of the reactor in small groups.

Beloyarsk has the largest fast breeder reactor, the (BN-600). At 600 MW, it is the most powerful breeder in the world. Construction of a second breeder reactor, the BN-800 reactor, is completed.

The BN-600 reactor is a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor. Designed to generate electrical power of 600 MW in total, the plant dispatches 560 MW to the Middle Urals power grid. It has been in operation since 1980. In 2014, its larger sister reactor, the BN-800 reactor began operation.

The core, that is the nuclear fuel at the heart of the reactor, was shut down for maintenance. In a somewhat unnerving experience, we striped down to our underwear and slipped into a white outfit that was provided and our own personal Geiger meter. Finally, we had to go through a radiation detection machine twice before it allowed us to exit and we changed back to our clothes.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Willem Van de Voorde, Belgium’s Resident Representative to the IAEA, told New Europe on July 20 that this was the second time he visited the heart of a nuclear reactor. “In Belgium, I visited the SCK-CEN in Mol,” he said. “I was also lucky because when I visited that research reactor core in Belgium two years ago it was also in maintenance and I could go until the water basin actually where the rods are kept,” he added.

Turning to Russia’s Beloyarsk nuclear power plant, Van de Voorde noted that although the first nuclear plant of this type opened in 1980, the BN-600, remains very interesting for countries with large nuclear programmes because they generate spent fuel that can be re-used in these types of plants. “It’s not so interesting for Belgium, but it’s interesting for larger scale nuclear power programmes. It is an interesting complimentary technique. It’s not the only future-oriented technique. But it’s a good complementary technique in specific situations. I was quite impressed also by the security conditions here after the visit. They make no compromises. But it should be like that. That’s reassuring. On that point of view, it’s very professionally done,” Belgium’s Resident Representative to the IAEA.

Russia’s Permanent Representative to IAEA Vladimir Voronkov said his country has organised trips for IAEA members since 2013 and every trip has unique and specific characteristics. “For example, first they were on a reactor which had its lifetime extended,” he told reporters, responding to a question from New Europe. He added that many countries have Soviet-type reactors. “From this point of view, this experience with reactors has a very practical point,” he said.

Asked about progress in terms of safety and non-proliferation, Voronkov said that after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, “We paid a lot of attention to this question and next year there will a reactor of new type on Novovoronezh NPP, which already is going to be the most modern and safe”.

New Europe also visited the Novovoronezh NPP on June 1. The new reactors meet all post-Fukushima requirements. The main specific feature of the VVER-1200 design is a unique combination of active and passive safety systems, making the plant to the maximal extent resistant to external and internal impacts. In March, Russia’s State Atomic Corporation Rosatom started in the framework of implementation of the physical start-up programme of the Power Unit 6, which is the first unit with enhanced safety generation “3+”, fuel loading into the VVER-1200 reactor core.

Voronkov told New Europe that Russia, the United States and the IAEA are also working together on non-proliferation issues, following “all the rules and restrictions” in this sphere. “I don’t see any problems in this at all,” he said, adding that they are doing “a lot of work” on exchange of information.