Unit 1 of the Belarus nuclear power plant achieved criticality on 11 October, after regulator Gosatomnadzor on 8 October issued a permit to operate at low power and was sustained at the minimum controlled power level, the Energy Ministry reported.

First criticality at the VVER-1200 reactor signalled the start of a series of tests in the run-up to physical start-up. In total, more than 50 studies will be carried out to clarify the neutronic characteristics of the first fuel load, as well as to confirm the reliability of the safety systems and other equipment. The results of the tests will be scrutinised by Gosatomnadzor and the Energy Ministry before a full operating licence can be issued.

The Belarus NPP, with two generation 3+VVER-1200 reactors (total capacity 2400 MWe) is being built near the town of Ostrovets by Rosatom. The project is financed by a Russian state loan of $10 billion (to cover 90% of the total cost). The repayment period is set for 2035. However, Belarus is seeking to extend  the term and reduce the interest on the loan.

The general contractor for Belarus' first nuclear plant is Atomstroyexport (part of Rosatom). Belarus NPP is the first VVER-1200 plant to be built outside Russia. Others are under construction or planned in Turkey, Bangladesh, Egypt, Hungary and Finland. Currently, three VVER-12000 units are operating in Russia: two at the Novovoronezh NPP and one at the Leningrad NPP with a fourth nearing commissioning at Leningrad.

Construction of the Belarus nuclear power plant began in 2011. In 2016, as a result of an incident at the construction site, the reactor vessel was damaged, which required its replacement and postponed the construction time. Initially, the commissioning of the first power unit was planned for 2019, then it was postponed until 2020. According to the current plans Belarus 1 was to be launched in the first quarter of 2021, and unit 2 in 2022. The loading of nuclear fuel at unit 1 took place in August, with first electricity scheduled for 7 November.

However, the government has recently revised the power industry development plan to 2025, extending the commissioning dates for the nuclear power plant to 2022. The decision is reported in Council of Ministers' Decree No.582 of 6 October signed by Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, and was officially published on the National Legal Internet Portal. The construction of peak-reserve power stations has also been extended to 2022. They will be built only using gas turbines.

Commissioning of the Belarus NPP will result in an electricity surplus, which, it was assumed, would be exported to European Union countries. However, the Baltic states are in the process of withdrawing from the energy system unified with Russia and Belarus, and Lithuania has repeatedly stated that it will not buy electricity from the nuclear plant. In late August, Lithuania and its Baltic allies reached an agreement, under which all their electricity trade with Belarus would stop after the plant is launched.

Photo: Belarus nuclear power plant achieved first criticality on 11 October (Credit: Rosatom)

Date: Tuesday, 13 October 2020
Original article: neimagazine.com/news/newsbelarus-nuclear-plant-achieves-criticality-but-commissioning-is-delayed-8176636