Nuclear power plants in Slovakia: Away from Russia’s fuel rods – just how?

Status: 04/26/2022 00:50 a.m

The nuclear power plants in Slovakia run on Russian-made fuel rods. The government no longer wants to be dependent on this. The search for alternatives begins – despite a special delivery in times of war.

By Peter Lange, ARD Studio Prague

Richard Sulik, Slovakia’s economics minister, can’t help but laugh briefly when he talks about the coup he managed to pull off: his government imported nuclear fuel and that, says Sulik, was “a strange move.” But she succeeded – with three flights of the Russian company “Volga Dnepr Airlines”.

Peter Long
ARD Studio Prague

The cargo planes landed in Bratislava in March, although the airspace was already closed to Russian planes because of the war of aggression against Ukraine. On board: nuclear fuel rods for Slovakia’s five nuclear reactors. The supplier: the Russian company TVEL, a subsidiary of Rosatom, which originally built the power plants.

The question of money is secondary

TVEL supplied fuel rods to 75 nuclear reactors in 15 countries last year. The company has had a monopoly in Slovakia – and has had it for far too long, says Jozef Badida, an analyst from the Energia pre vas web portal. The state did not push to look for a second supplier as an alternative, nothing was done. Badida is convinced that “we don’t have to have this problem anymore”.

The financial gain for Russia is rather small compared to the proceeds from the gas business. In 2020, the Slovak Electric Power Company paid EUR 64 million for TVEL fuel. But you can be blackmailed.

“If there were a Russian embargo on fuel rods, it would not only affect Slovakia,” explains analyst Badida. “Electricity production in the entire Central European region would be affected.”

“Enough time for Plan B”

If the Russian government were to stop exports, Slovakia would find itself in acute energy shortages, because the nuclear reactors cover 55 percent of the annual electricity requirement. The government is keeping information about the volume of deliveries secret. However, the newspaper “Dennik N” in Bratislava calculates that such a cargo plane can load 48 tons. In the reactors, 20 percent of the fuel is exchanged every year, about 8.5 tons each. This would cover the needs of the nuclear power plants for about a year.

With the three flights mentioned by Economics Minister Sulik and the remaining supplies, the nuclear power plants would be supplied until 2024, according to Dennik N. Slovakia has thus also bought itself a deadline.

“We now have enough time,” says Economics Minister Sulik and calls for a “Plan B.” Slovakia is therefore working with countries that have the same type of reactor so that they can also buy nuclear fuel from other sources.

Strong position through the subsidiary TVEL: the Russian company Rosatom.


Change provider? Not so easy

The US power plant builder Westinghouse, which had already applied in the 2018 tender, is under discussion as a second supplier. However, the Rosatom subsidiary TVEL was again awarded the contract. Their offer was 20 percent cheaper – and their fuel rods were also considered less prone to failure.

Finland has the same reactor type as Slovakia. At times Westinghouse fuel rods were used there. In the meantime, however, they have returned to the Russian provider. And it’s not that easy to switch providers now anyway: the fuel has to be certified, says Karol Galek, State Secretary at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Bratislava – only then can it be used in Slovakia’s reactors.

Certification can take years

And such a procedure takes time, especially since it is completely new territory for the Slovakian nuclear regulator. Slovakia has no experience with this, explains analyst Badida. The Russian fuel rods were certified more than 40 years ago when the reactors started operating.

The approval process could take six years. In association with other EU countries, it could perhaps be reduced to three years. In addition, a new call for tenders is required, albeit with different requirements.

And the price shouldn’t be the only criterion, according to State Secretary Galek – the basic criterion must be “clearly energy security”.

For the time being, the Slovak government does not have to worry about this issue. Some in Bratislava are also speculating that the war in Ukraine will end soon. Then perhaps the fuel rods from Russia would no longer be so politically controversial.

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