India's struggle with Russian VVER-1000 reactors at KKNPP

Published on Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The following article, written jointly by me, A Rahman, and India's V T Padmanabhan, has been published in Bangladesh's Energy and Power magazine on 1 Sept 2015. It may be noted that Bangladesh is also embarking on a similar project at Rooppur with the same reactor vendor, Rosatom of Russia. Here is the article.

India's struggle with Russian VVER-1000 reactors at KKNPP A Rahman and VT Padmanabhan

India embarked on a civil nuclear power programme more than 20 years ago in order to address the chronic shortage of energy within the country. Although initially America, France, South Korea as well as Russia showed keen interests, but no country other than Russia was willing to throw in large chunks of money as loans to sell its nuclear reactors. This loan was obviously a bait – which foreign donors/loan providers know - that no developing country could possibly resist the temptation, particularly when there is a large opportunity for slush money to go around!

India chose to build two reactors of Russian design VVER-1000 MWe at Kudankulam (KKNPP) in Thirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu state. The site Kudankulam is at the southern-most tip of India, off the coast of Bay of Bengal. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) started construction of the first 1000 MWe VVER reactor at Kudankulam in 2002 (unit 1) and the 2nd unit was few months behind the 1st unit. (It may be pointed out that the West Bengal government refused permission to build six VVER-1000 units near Haripur in 2011). The original cost at 2002 price-base was 2.02 billion dollars each; but as usual the cost has escalated by more than 35 percent already, although commercial production of electricity has not yet started earnestly even in unit-1. Russia agreed to offer nearly 50 percent of the construction cost as loans to be provided at various stages of the construction.

The initial fuel loading (IFL) in unit-1 reactor took place in October 2012. According to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) of India the time interval between IFL and the First act of Criticality (FAC) should be as short as possible. Normally this interval is no more than about three months. But for KKNPP-1 it took nearly nine and half months (from Oct 2012 to July 13, 2013), more than three times the normal time period!

After the FAC, commissioning tests are scheduled to commence. Commissioning is a stringent procedure which the IAEA very succinctly specified as "to confirm that the design intent of the components, systems and the plant as a whole are achieved. Commissioning objectives also include optimisation of the plant system functions, verification of the operating procedures, getting operating personnel familiar with plant systems, and producing the plant initial start-up and operating historical records. ...When full power is reached, a number of tests are performed to demonstrate safe and reliable operation of the plant before it is turned over to the operating organization."

The AERB specifies that the acceptance criteria of all commissioning tests should be as per the preliminary safety assessment report (PSAR) of the plant. The main elements of the test are non-stop operation at 90% FP (full power) level for 7 days and 100% FP level for 100 days. Out of 435 days of grid connection from 22 October 2013 to 31 December 2014, the reactor experienced 19 SCRAMs and 3 maintenance outages. In other words, the commissioning tests were unsuccessful.

Commissioning is a very vital element of the plant operation. Even according to the chairman of the AERB the commissioning is the stage when the ownership of the plant is handed over from the construction organisation to the operating organisation. The results and reviews of commissioning are incorporated in the previously produced PSAR and the final safety analysis report (FSAR) is produced. The FSAR is the basis for offering operating licence of the plant.

Over a prolonged period of about 18 months (from July 2013 till the end of 2014) the plant could not complete and pass the mandatory commissioning tests. Frustrated owner of the plant declared the commissioning of the reactor completed on 31 December 2014, without the consent of the Regulator. As two more attempts to clear the test during the first five months of this year also failed, the Regulator granted the licence to operate on 8th July 2015.

The whole thing is blatantly illegal. This is the only civil nuclear reactor in the world which is allowed to operate by the national regulator without clearing the commissioning tests! This is extremely dangerous. As the reactor had been tripping on tests, if it is forced to operate commercially making some of the trip signals disabled or enhanced, there is every likelihood that the reactor will exceed its design safety limits and super-criticality would be reached. This super-criticality was the cause of nuclear accidents as happened in Three Mile Island in America, Chernobyl in Russia and recently in Fukushima in Japan.

So why on earth the regulator which is supposed to be totally impartial and independent of all vested interests such as the reactor vendor, reactor operator and commercial organisations having stake in it caved in and forwarded the licence to the NPCIL to operate? Instead, the AERB should have prosecuted the NPCIL for illegally declaring commissioning completed without the AERB consent. The reason was simply the political pressure. If unit-1 was not commissioned quickly and unit-2 follows immediately, the proposed construction works for unit-3 and unit-4 would be in danger to be scrapped. Neither the Indian government nor the Russian government wanted that to happen and hence this back-room illegal deal between the governments!

In addition to this commissioning fiasco, there were a number of shortcomings and defects which would have warranted strict censorship and withdrawal of construction permit by the regulator in any western country. These are some of these defects:

  1. Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) is supposed to have 60 years life span. But because of manufacturing and design defects, its life span had to be reduced to 40 years. The design basis core damage frequency had been reduced from 10-6 to 10-4 per reactor year. Again this is in violation of PSAR statement.
  2. The maximum hoisting capacity of the Polar Crane was specified by the Russian manufacturer to be 450 tonnes. But it failed to function properly even at 350 tonnes and tilted. The AERB had to scale down its limit to 332 tonnes. This may have safety implications on load bearing during maintenance schedule.
  3. The turbo-generator had to be overhauled even before it was grid connected. Turbine blades got damaged after working for less than half a year. It was found that the quality control of the blade material was not maintained and quality assurance provision was ignored.
  4. The steam generators malfunctioned and caused reactor to SCRAM a number of times. Again quality control was suspect.

Even with all the above mentioned defects and many more minor ones, KKNPP unit-1 was allowed to operate. However, at least the Indian operators and home based skilled manpower could identify the defects and bring the Russians to task. All of these defects and consequences of such defects due to fault progression will have to be rectified by the manufacturer.

Now what will happen in the case of Rooppur nuclear plant in Bangladesh, where initially two VVER-1200 MWe reactors are going to be set up? The Russians (Rosatom) are likely to have Build, Own and Operate (BOO) contract, but the licensee would be a Bangladeshi organisation such as the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC). The Bangladeshi Nuclear Regulator with no knowledge, no experience and no expertise of either nuclear technology or regulatory matters will have no clue at all what the Russians are doing. This namesake regulator would be a joke to the Russians, its contractors as well as to this country. The poor people of the country will have to bear the brunt of fake regulator.

In any western country such a regulator or the regulatory organisation would be summarily dismissed as they are NOT SQEPs (Suitably Qualified and Experienced Personnel). Pretention and faking may be just acceptable in any low technology industry, but in the nuclear field, where lives and properties of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people depend, it is positively dangerous and outrageous.

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