Bulgaria Weighs Offers to Begin Belene Again

  • Bulgaria to give Belene another go and multiple bidders show up
  • Rosatom postpones work on BN-1200 Fast Reactor
  • Russia plans for SMRs in far northeast based on ice breaker reactor designs
  • Controlling costs, meeting schedules, and complying with regulations involving export deals in multiple countries has vexed Rosatom according to a speech one of its executives gave this week to the World Nuclear Association.

Bidders Off and Running for Belene $11 Billion Contract

(WNN) Bulgaria has received 13 applications for participation in the Belene nuclear power project the country’s energy minister announced last week. The applicants included seven to be a strategic investor, four to be an electricity customer and/or minority shareholder, and two to be an equipment supplier.

According to Reuters, Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova told reporters in Sofia:
“There has been a lot of skepticism whether there will be interest at all for the project. With the applications we got this is no more, because these include some of the global leaders in nuclear energy.”

Bulgaria’s energy minister is right about the skepticism because the question is this – who wants to work on, and is capable of finishing, a partially built pair of Russian 1000 MW VVER with Rosatom as the EPC? The Belene NPP construction project in northern Bulgaria includes construction of two 1000 MWe units, each using the Russian VVER-1000/V-466 design. For western nuclear reactor firms, this is terra incognita. Financing the project is a separate matter for some and seven firms say they are interested.

The Belene Nuclear Power Plant is a planned nuclear power plant 3 km from Belene and 11 km from Svishtov in Pleven Province, northern Bulgaria, near the Danube River just south of Bulgaria’s border with Romania.. It was intended to substitute four VVER-440 V230 reactors of the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant that were decommissioned as a prerequisite for Bulgaria to join the European Union.

Bulgaria ordered the two Russian reactors for Belene in 2008, but the project was cancelled in 2012 because of financial and political considerations. In June 2018, the government formally revived the project following a vote in parliament.

A 2016 arbitration settlement awarded Bulgaria most of the nuclear equipment, worth about $600M, which had already been produced by Russia for Belene under the 2008 agreement. Bulgarian officials said that if the Belene project goes forward Russia’s Atomstroyexport will be the main contractor.

The seven firms who have expressed an interest in being a strategic investor are:

  • China National Nuclear Corporation;
  • Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co;
  • Rosatom through Atomenergoprom;
  • a consortium including Czech firm Vitkovice Heavy Machinery;
  • two Bulgaria-registered bidders, Belene NPP and Belene Nuclear Power Plant 2019;
  • a Germany-registered company ‘Bektron-Liaz-Engineering’.

One Bulgarian company, Grand Energy Distribution, is reported to be interested in having a minority stake and also a power purchase agreement, a second, Atomenergoremont, in a minority stake only and a third, European Trade of Energy, in a power purchase agreement only. In addition, North Macedonia has expressed an interest in a minority stake and long-term contracts to buy electricity from the Belene plant.

Separately, General Electric said it is interested in providing equipment, including steam generators, for the project. Early media reports incorrectly listed GE as a potential bidder on the project as a whole. Framatome has previously indicated interest in being an investor, but not as a main contractor.

After an evaluation of proposals, shortlisted candidates will then be asked to file binding bids for the project which Bulgaria estimates will cost about $11 billion. The energy ministry said it hopes to complete the selection process to select the winner of the bid process by May 2020.

In a move that will surely make the project more financially challenging, the government said it will not provide state or corporate guarantees nor offer to buy electricity from the plant under long-term contracts with preferential rates. The government has said it will have a majority stake in the project, which it expects to be complete by 2030.

History of Western Firms in Bulgaria’s Nuclear Program

Burlgaria was behind Russia’s iron curtain until 1991 when the then Communist government collapsed in response to a general strike. Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Historically, Russia has regarded Bulgaria’s nuclear energy plants as a captive market and has thwarted efforts by western firms to bid on projects there.

In 2012 Westinghouse signed a contract to prepare a proposal for a third reactor at Bulgaria’s Kozloduy site. Efforts by the firm to take over construction of the plant came to an end when Russia said has no intention of sharing information with Westinghouse regarding a feasibility study. That project is designed to scope out the potential for a seventh unit at Bulgaria’s Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant.

In 2010 Westinghouse reportedly told the US Embassy in Sofia that the 1st unit was “a lemon” according to a US State Department Cable as reported by the UK Guardian newspaper. The embassy cable, dated February 17, 2009, also complained about endemic corruption in Bulgaria associated with the project.

In 2016 the former Bulgarian energy minister and two executives of the state owned national electric utility were indicted over alleged illegal activities involving the disputed sale of equipment ordered for the original construction of the plant. The defendants denied the charges and said they were brought by state prosecutors for “political reasons.”

Rosatom Postpones BN-1200 Fast Reactor Project

(WNN) Rosenergoatom is expected to receive about RUB280 billion (USD$4 billion) less in state funding for the construction of new nuclear reactors in Russia owing to the postponement of its fast neutron reactor program according to Russian newspaper Kommersant.

Russia has pushed back the construction and startup date of the biggest of its planned fast reactors which is the BN-1200. (Technical briefing – PDF file) The plant is now expected to be commissioned at the Beloyarsk plant between 2031 and 2035 which is a significant delay from previously announced project milestones. The original commissioning date was 2017. The Russian nuclear engineering company OKBM Afrikantov, a subsidiary of Rosatom, is developing the BN-1200 as a next step towards future reactor designs, commonly known as Generation IV.

bn-1200 conceptual image

Conceptual design image of the BN-1200 and one of its fuel elements. Image Source: Russian Construction Feb 2017.

Earlier and Smaller Fast Reactors Are Completed and Now Online

The BN-800 fast neutron reactor – constructed as unit 4 of the Beloyarsk plant in the Sverdlovsk district – entered commercial operation in October 2016. The 789 MWe unit’s capacity exceeds that of the world’s second most powerful fast reactor – the 560 MWe BN-600 Beloyarsk 3. According to the Kommersant article, the capital expenditure of the BN-800 amounted to RUB140.6 billion (USD $2.1 billion).

Russia Plans Small Modular Reactors for Far Northeast Region

(WNN) Rosatom has signed an agreement with the Yakutia regional government to investigate building a number of small reactors in Yakutia’s remote areas. The small modular reactors would be 50 MWe RITM-200M units, similar to those now being commissioned in the latest LK-60 Russian icebreakers.

The reactor is intended for land based applications installed two at a time per site. The refueling cycle is reported to be 5-7 years using enrichment levels of less than 20% U235. See this briefing in English by OKBM on all three of its SMR designs and its plans for commercialization of them.

These units are significantly smaller but more powerful than earlier icebreaker and floating NPP reactors. Rosatom said that serial production of these reactors could start within six years. Previous versions of the reactors in Russian ice breakers used highly enriched uranium at 35% U235.

Separately, the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating nuclear power plant, was late last month towed out of Murmansk to begin a 4,700 km voyage to its base in Pevek, an Arctic port town in the country’s far northeastern autonomous district of Chukotka. The region juts out into the Bering Sea and is the Russian land mass that is visible from Alaska. Rosatom says the ship is ready to provide power to its customer on arrival.

Russian floating nuclear power plant

Cutaway digram of the Akademik Lomonosov. Imge: IAEA

The 21,000-tonne vessel has two Russian-designed KLT-40S reactor units (IAEA ARIS DBMS entry) with an electrical power generating capacity of 35 MW each. Both reactors achieved their first criticality in November 2018. The reactor also is fueled by uranium fuel at less than 20% U235 to met international standards and to fit with plans for export of the design as a free standing SMR.

Rosatom VP Complains About Cost, Schedules,
and Regulation at WNA Meeting

(NucNet) The nuclear industry in Russia is working on finding solutions to the nuclear firm’s three major challenges of controlling costs, meeting schedule milestones, and responding to regulatory induced delays along with head spinning demands from clients and safety regulators at projects involving export deals. Sound familiar?

Vadim Titov, senior vice-president of Rosatom International Network, told the World Nuclear Association Symposium in London last week that “we often struggle as an industry with costs and timelines.”

For the Russians, who are infamous for their lack of transparency in civilian nuclear energy projects, especially in terms of communications with the West, the speech was an astonishing turn about in the face of a long history of clamming up when asked about progress at their export projects.

But at WNA the Russians have plenty of history to talk about. Titov told the conference, as reported by NucNet, that Rosatom has now commissioned 15 new nuclear power units in 14 years – including plants at Tianwan in China, Kudankulam in India and Bushehr in Iran – and has 41 nuclear plant projects in various stages of developmnt.

Another surprising element of his remarks including one in which he complained about the nuclear industry being, “in many ways over burdened by over regulation.”

Titov, who is a lawyer by profession, is especially focused on regulations and the variety of them in terms of rigor, topics covered, and enforcement in countries where Rosatom has export deals underway.

“And the regulations are different in every country. We need to work together to find the right balance, he said.

Finland as a Case in Point

The Fennovoima consortium and Russia’s state-run nuclear company Rosatom said last December that the Hanhikivi 1 power plant’s projected start-up date has been pushed to 2028, four years behind the original schedule and eight years later than the proposed start when Finland’s government supported the project in 2010.

The delays are due in part due to Rosatom’s problems with securing approval to begin construction from Finland’s nuclear regulatory group.  Clearly, in his speech, Rosatom’s Titov must be in boil over mode about the firm’s experience in Finland.

With a global audience available at the WNA conference, it probably looked like an opportunity to do some good old fashioned push back at the European Union’s anti-nuclear policies wrapped up in a regulatory package.

Power Magazine reported that the project, which will build a VVER-1200 PWR, has been delayed by Rosatom’s struggle to meet the strict standards of STUK. The Finnish nuclear regulator that is considered among the world’s most rigorous in compliance inspections of new reactor builds.

Areva’s effort to build a first of a kind 1600 MW PWR in Finland has also suffered regulatory induced schedule delays. Some of the problems have come from skilled trades not having experience with nuclear quality standards and language barriers have also played a role in work stoppages. The plant is now scheduled to open in July 2020. The project was authorized to start construction in 2005 and begin operation in 2010.

The Fennovoima consortium said its plan now is to receive its construction license and begin the Hanhikivi 1 project in 2021. Fennovoima said if it comes online, the plant would be Finland’s sixth nuclear power facility.

The Hanhikivi 1 project is owned by Fennovoima, in which a 34% stake is held by RAOS Voima Oy, the Finnish subsidiary set up in 2014 by Rosatom for the purpose of buying a share in the company. Russia’s Titan-2 is the main contractor for the Hanhikivi project.

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