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Rosatom’s output dropped over the last year. We look at three reasons why

Novovoronezh NPP-2 with the first two VVER-1200 units in Russia, launched in 2016 and 2018. If we carry out continuous numbering of the station's units, then these are units No. 6 and No. 7 of the Novovoronezh NPP. Photo: Rosenergoatom
Novovoronezh NPP-2 with the first two VVER-1200 units in Russia, launched in 2016 and 2018. If we carry out continuous numbering of the station's units, then these are units No. 6 and No. 7 of the Novovoronezh NPP. Photo: Rosenergoatom

Опубликовано: 13/03/2024

Автор: Dmitriy Gorchakov

The output of Russian nuclear power plants in 2023 decreased by 2.8% compared to 2022.

A decrease in output occurred for the first time in 10 years and only the second time in 20 years – the last one was in 2013. This seemingly purely internal event can actually tell a lot about the state of the Russian nuclear industrial giant and show several key points that are important both for Russia’s neighboring countries and for the prospects of Rostom’s foreign projects and its role in the global nuclear market in the next few years.   

According to The Federal Service for State Statistics (Rosstat), nuclear power plant output in 2023 amounted to 217 billion kWh. This is 6.4 billion kWh less than the 2022 figure of 223.4 billion kWh, which became a record for the entire time of the Russian and Soviet nuclear industry. The output indicator of a nuclear power plant is extremely important for a state corporation that is proud of the fulfillment of important government tasks – both in state defense orders (nuclear weapons and their carriers), in the volume of transportation along the Northern Sea Route and the construction of nuclear icebreakers, and in foreign projects. In terms of electricity generation, Rosatom has also been given a task personally by Vladimir Putin – to achieve 25% of the share of nuclear energy in the country’s energy balance by 2045, compared to about 18%-20% in recent years.  

Therefore, the annual increase in electricity generation has always been an important indicator of which Rosatom was publicly proud. It is no coincidence that Rosatom has still not publicly announced the exact output figures for 2023, more than a month after the end of the year, since they show both a decrease in output from year to year and a decrease in the share of nuclear energy in the country’s energy balance to 18.4% (it has been declining for the 4th year in a row). And in the coming years it will not be easy to even keep these indicators at their previous values. 

Historical electricity generation by Russian nuclear power plants from 1991 to 2023 and the share of nuclear energy in total electricity generation in Russia. Author’s graph based on Rosstat data.

The decline in output itself was expected for those who closely follow events in the Russian nuclear industry. And Rosatom itself, at the level of statements made by not top officials, recognized the upcoming difficulties. Commenting at the beginning of 2023 on the high output figures of 2022, First Deputy General Director for NPP operation, and since June 2023, General Director of Rosenergoatom concern (Electric Energy Division of Rosatom), Alexander Shutikov, said: “By optimizing repair campaigns and increasing the efficiency of electricity production, we were able to support until 2023 there is a constant increase in the level of production, but miracles do not happen. The output for the next three years will be lower. We know this and are ready for it.”  

The forecast indicators reflected what was said in words. For 2023, the state target for the production of Russian nuclear power plants, agreed with the federal antimonopoly service, was 214.2 billion kWh, which is almost 2% lower than a year earlier. This reduction allowed Rosatom to once again report on exceeding the state target, elegantly veiling the decline in output in absolute terms. At the same time, Rosenergoatom failed to achieve its own target of 218.8 billion kWh.  

The main reason for this natural decline is the aging of the country’s nuclear fleet and the gradual closure of old power units, to replace which there is no time to build new capacities. In recent years, 4 large first-generation RBMK uranium-graphite reactors at the Leningrad and Kursk NPPs, which had exhausted their service life in 45 years, have been closed in Russia. The last one was just the other day, on January 31, 2024. But they were replaced by only two VVER-1200 units at Leningrad NPP-2. New units at Kursk NPP-2 lag behind the closure of old reactors by at least 3 years. This is precisely what accounts for the three-year period of expected decline. It is curious that the previous decline in nuclear power plant output in Russia in 2013 was also associated with first-generation RBMK reactors, which were taken out for repairs to carry out work to restore the parameters of the graphite stack.  

In such conditions, when no new capacities are commissioned, it is possible to maintain or increase electricity generation only through more efficient and trouble-free operation of existing capacities. This actually happened to be done in 2022, perhaps at the cost of a partial shift in some repairs to next year, but not in 2023. As Shutikov rightly noted, miracles do not happen.  

Although in the first six months of 2023, the concern apparently had such hope, and the stations worked beyond the plan, so that Rosenergoatom in June even increased its annual production targets, reaching 218.8 billion kWh instead of the approved 214.2 billion kWh. However, in the end, it was still not possible to reach it (otherwise this would have been solemnly announced). Summing up the results of 2023, Shutikov said that despite exceeding the indicators at eight stations, three nuclear power plants failed to fulfill their production plans – Leningrad, Novovoronezh and Beloyarsk. Indeed, it was precisely in them, and precisely in the second half of the year, that serious unscheduled equipment failures occurred. 

What exactly went wrong at the Leningrad, Novovoronezh and Beloyarsk nuclear power plants with the newest reactors in Russia

It is easy to see that the main problems in 2023 were at stations with the newest and most promising reactors – VVER-1200 and BN. It was the VVER-1200 reactors, first built at the second stages of the Novovoronezh and Leningrad NPPs, that became the main export product for Rosatom – first Russian powerful generation 3+ PWRss. The corporation is building them at 14 of 19 power units at its foreign projects in Turkey, Egypt, China and Bangladesh, and has already launched them at two units of the Belarusian NPP completed last year. And the fast sodium reactors BN-800 and BN-600 at the Beloyarsk NPP are prototypes of promising 4th generation reactors.  

More specifically, at the Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant (NVNPP), problems arose precisely at the very first VVER-1200 in the country, at the 6th unit, launched in 2016. In 2023, it underwent a major overhaul with the replacement of the turbogenerator stator. This is the first equipment of its kind with such power, with water cooling, manufactured by the Russian JSC Power Machines. As Rosatom itself writes, quite soon after the unit was launched, an increased level of vibration was detected in this stator. For the next unit, NVNPP-7, commissioned in 2019, a modernized stator has already been installed. And on the first-born it was replaced only in 2023. The entire complex overhaul lasted 82 days.  

But, in addition to this, during the year the unit was disconnected from the grid 6 more times (!) for small (from several hours to 5 days) unplanned repairs due to breakdowns of “electrical equipment”. In normal operation, units operate without such unscheduled shutdowns, and their presence may indicate problems with equipment that could not be eliminated or prevented during scheduled shutdowns for repairs and refueling. The NVNPP-7 unit with the second VVER-1200 at the station was also switched off for several days at the end of the year for this reason (problems with “electrical equipment”). As a result, NVNPP produced less in 2023 than planned.  

Novovoronezh NPP-2 with the first two VVER-1200 units in Russia, launched in 2016 and 2018. If we carry out continuous numbering of the station’s units, then these are units No. 6 and No. 7 of the Novovoronezh NPP. Photo: Rosenergoatom.

At the Leningrad NPP, the main problems were with the 5th unit. This is the first VVER-1200 at this site and the second in the country after NVNPP-6, launched in 2018. The main problem is that the unit stopped twice due to broken turbine blades in the low-pressure cylinder, which in general is a rather rare and very unpleasant occurrence. The first time, at the end of summer, it took 2 months to fix the breakdown; the second repair in the fall took more than 3 months. The turbine, by the way, is produced by the same Power Machines that produced them for all 4 VVER-1200s in the country. In addition, there were 2 more emergency stops to eliminate minor breakdowns, and this is not counting the stop for scheduled repairs and refueling. As a result, this unit stood idle for more than 6 (!) months in 2023. On the 6th unit, in addition to scheduled repairs and refueling, there were also 4 unscheduled shutdowns for short-term repairs. Summing up the station’s work in 2023, its director chose not to announce production figures at all.

The low-pressure cylinder of the turbine of unit No. 5 of the Leningrad NPP during installation. Photo: Rosenergoatom.

At the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant with two fast neutron reactors, the plan also failed to be fulfilled. The catch there was that the BN-600 (commissioned in 1980), which was being prepared for extended operation, was under repair for almost 5 months during the year. The BN-800, launched in 2015, in 2023 marked its first full year of operation on a full load of MOX fuel – mixed uranium-plutonium fuel made from nuclear materials recovered from the reprocessing of spent fuel from other reactors. This process itself, important for closing the nuclear fuel cycle and truly unique for the global nuclear industry, has become another cause for pride and advertising for Rosatom.  

But any technical achievement has a downside and consequences that usually do not come into the spotlight but fall on the shoulders of the operating personnel. After a second scheduled repair and refueling in October 2023, the unit operated at reduced power, and a couple of weeks later it had to be briefly shut down to “optimize operating parameters”, as was vaguely described in the station’s press release. And a month after the launch, the power had to be reduced again by almost half due to a “malfunction in the thermal-mechanical equipment”. Beloyarsk NPP is one of the smallest in Russia, however, its reduction in output by almost 1 billion kWh due to the problems described above contributed to Rosenergoatom’s overall performance.  

BN-800 reactor at unit No. 4 of the Beloyarsk NPP. Photo: Newspaper “Strana Rosatom”

Why is it important for us to know these details about the production of Russian nuclear power plants and what conclusions can a foreign reader who is interested in the environmental issues of Russian nuclear power and the foreign policy influence of the nuclear state corporation during the war in Ukraine draw for themselves? We can highlight at least three important aspects of the current situation.  

1. By 2030, Rosatom will be more focused on building nuclear power plants in Russia than abroad.

To achieve the goal of increasing the share of nuclear power generation in Russia to 25% by 2045 and replacing retired capacities, Rosatom urgently needs to begin massive construction of new units. According to our calculations, published in the Bellona report on the Russian nuclear industry, if this is not done, then by 2035 the total capacity of the Russian nuclear fleet will be reduced by a third, and by 2045 – by almost half from the current level of 29.5 GW.  

Currently, only three units are being built in Russia – two 1250 MW VVER-TOI units at Kursk NPP-2 and a 300 MW BREST-OD reactor in Seversk. However, permission has already been received for the construction of two more VVER-1200 at Leningrad NPP-2, and in total, according to the current general scheme, Rosatom plans to build 10 large power units by 2035. By 2030, 8 of them will be under construction with a total capacity of 9 GW. 

Abroad, at the beginning of 2024, Rosatom is constructing 19 nuclear power units at 7 nuclear power plants in 6 countries: 4 each in Turkey, Egypt, China, India, two in Bangladesh and one in Iran. By 2030, almost all of them should be completed, except maybe 1-2. According to current contracts and discussed plans, most likely by 2030, two more units will be under construction in Hungary at the Paks-2 nuclear power plant, two units at the nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan, and construction of 2 to 4 new units will possibly begin in India. However, Rosatom has not signed new contracts for the construction of units in recent years. Potentially, if luck is on Rosatom’s side, then in the coming years it may receive contracts for the construction of a second nuclear power plant in Turkey, another nuclear power plant in India, it is possible to win a tender for two units in Kazakhstan, and receive several more orders in China, which are rarely widely known in advance announced, as well as bring the intentions for the construction of nuclear power plants in African countries to the level of contracts. However, even if new projects appear in the coming years, it is still unlikely that by 2030 they will reach the construction stage. In total, by 2030, Rosatom will be constructing from 6 to 10 large nuclear units abroad. We are deliberately not considering SMR projects yet due to their smaller power scale.  

Thus, according to known plans and projects, the volume of construction of large nuclear power units with the participation of Rosatom in the world will be reduced from 22 at the beginning of 2024 to 14-18 by 2030, i.e. by 20-40%. At the same time, the share of foreign projects will decrease by almost half, from about 90% now (19 out of 22) to about 55% (no more than 10 out of 18) in 2030. Thus, in 6 years, Rosatom will be more focused on building nuclear power plants inside Russia than abroad, and the total volume of construction of large blocks under his projects may decrease by a third. Only the sudden start in the coming years of new Rosatom projects in China in the amount of at least 4 large blocks can maintain the total volume of construction by 2030.  

If Western countries, as part of the sanctions pressure on Russia due to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, plan to use various measures to restrain Rosatom’s foreign expansion in developing countries, then in the coming years “natural” reasons will come to their aid, since Rosatom will be more occupied with resolving issues within Russia.  

2. Rosatom is forced to extend the service life of those old units that it had not previously planned to extend. 

Even the announced plans for large-scale construction in the next 10 years will most likely not be enough for Rosatom to compensate for the impending failure with the withdrawal of old units. Therefore, in recent years, Rosatom has started talking about extending for another 5 years (up to 50 years of operation) 7 operating second-generation RBMK-1000 reactors and the first two units of the Kola NPP to 65 years. Just a couple of years ago, no one publicly voiced such plans. And even its director is not yet sure about the possibility of extending two VVER-440 units at the Kola NPP. 

Such an extension of the units’ operation should allow Rosenergoatom to avoid a whole wave of closures of old units in the coming years and maintain a stable level of output until the commissioning of new capacities after 2030.  

Despite the fact that extending the life of units is a common global practice, such decisions must be carefully considered and assessed for each unit individually, and carried out in conditions of transparency of the decisions made. A closed procedure may carry risks not only of future accidents or equipment failures, but also risks of cost overruns and public fears. 

NPP Units inside Russia, which will be under construction stage by 2030. Compared to the situation at the beginning of 2024. Author’s infographics.

In addition, all these reactors are located closest to the western borders of Russia. In particular, RBMK reactors at the Leningrad, Kursk and Smolensk nuclear power plants are located no further than 70 km from the European borders. All of them are Chernobyl-type reactors. All such reactors abroad, in Lithuania and Ukraine, have already been shut down due to political and safety concerns. The Kola Nuclear Power Plant is located 100 km from the border with Finland, is the world’s largest nuclear power plant beyond the Arctic Circle and one of the oldest nuclear power plants in Russia. Therefore, extending the operation of these reactors for another 5 years may cause already existing concerns among neighboring countries both about the possible consequences for themselves and for the Arctic region as a whole. Moreover, in the context of the current confrontation between Russia and the West, a full-fledged international dialogue to reduce concerns on these issues will be impossible. However, in conditions of war, the concerns of neighboring Western countries on this issue will not play any significance for the Russian authorities.  

3. The quality of Rosatom projects in foreign markets depends on cooperation with foreign partners in terms of turbine equipment. 

The third important aspect concerns the provision of Rosatom’s foreign projects with domestic equipment. As we can see from the example of problems in 2023, many of them were related specifically to the quality of equipment at VVER-1200 power units, namely in terms of turbine equipment produced by JSC Power Machines. On foreign projects, Rosatom offers foreign customers its main export project of the VVER-1200 power unit with the option of choosing a supplier of engine room equipment.  

For example, for 4 VVER-1200 units in China at the Tianwan NPP and Xudapu NPP, Rosatom supplies only nuclear island equipment. And China equips turbine halls with equipment of its own production. Most other projects, in particular all 4 units at Akkuyu NPP in Turkey, 4 units at El Dabaa NPP in Egypt, two planned units at Paks II NPP in Hungary and the canceled Hanhikivi single-unit NPP project in Finland were or are expected to be installed French Arabelle turbines from Alstom Power Systems (owned by the French Alstom, and previously, from 2016 to 2022, by General Electric). 

Equipment for turbine halls from Power Machines was produced in the amount of 8 pieces – for 4 VVER-1200 in Russia, two units of the Belarusian NPP (where they also had problems) and for two units under construction at the Rooppur NPP in Bangladesh. 

Thus, the direct participation of Western industrial companies, in particular French ones, allows Rosatom to offer foreign customers who have the opportunity to choose more competitive products or increase the chances of winning tenders. If the West is seriously concerned about how to limit Rosatom’s activity in third countries, then reducing cooperation in the supply of turbine units for new projects could be a serious and significant step.  

Conclusions

A decrease in output from Russian nuclear power plants is an expected and natural stage in the development of the country’s nuclear energy industry, which is experiencing a period of aging of a certain part of its nuclear fleet. In recent decades, Rosatom has taken a leading position in the construction of nuclear power plants abroad, but has delayed the construction phase of replacement capacities within the country. Over the next 5 years, there will be a gradual reorientation of Rosatom’s activities from foreign nuclear power plant construction projects to domestic ones. At the same time, the quality of Russian turbine equipment still leads to periodic technical problems and is mainly used on domestic Russian projects. It is unlikely that the situation will change quickly in the coming years, therefore, in many cases of competitive selection of projects, the success of Rosatom’s new export proposals for the construction of nuclear power plants will depend on effective cooperation with foreign, primarily Western, partners. And in the future, perhaps even Chinese.