Michael K. Launer, Ph.D.
July 11, 2012
A news item posted to the Nuclear Street website indicates that Rosatom, the Russian Federation agency in charge of all nuclear power production (excluding the Chernobyl type RBMK reactors at the Leningrad nuclear station west of St. Petersburg), has announced it will seek to have the design of its VVER pressurized water reactors (PWRs) certified for use in the United States and Great Britain. One of the comments elicited by this news item indicated that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) probably did not have knowledgeable personnel who could assess the VVER design. But I think that might not be the case.
In the late 80s and early 90s, before the Department of Energy (DOE) took over management of US assistance programs with Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union, the NRC developed substantial information regarding the design philosophy and operation of Soviet-designed reactor units - not only the RBMK, but also the various generations of VVERs in operation at the time.
When a delegation of Soviet physicists, bureaucrats, and power plant people visited the US in October 1987, I was selected as one of the interpreters for the group, which toured plants in Illinois, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania (TMI), along with stops for discussions at Bechtel, EPRI, INPO, and Brookhaven. This led to the creation of WANO two years later and, under the leadership of the late Bill Lee, to industry sponsored exchanges involving primarily Duke Power (Catawba and McGuire) for PWRs and PPL (Susquehanna) for its boiling water reactor units - the commercial Western design closest to the ill-fated RBMKs. These exchanges lasted into the mid-90s.
In 1989, I spent seven weeks in Russia and the Ukraine with an NRC chief inspector and a regional administrator. This delegation led to numerous interactions between Commission members, their staffs, and counterparts in the Soviet Union, which in turn led to greater safety collaboration.
More specifically, under the aegis of the Lisbon Initiative, teams consisting of DOE personnel (mostly from the Argonne and Pacific Northwest national laboratories), together with industry experts in power plant operations and operator training (through cooperation with INPO), were engaged to provide training and advice. Within this program staff members at VVER plants in Russia, the Ukraine, and Eastern Europe spent several years learning to develop symptom-based emergency operating procedures for their reactor units. Four meetings were held overseas each year, and numerous US plants allowed the team to train on their simulators (Russia had no full scope simulators at the time, although their development was taking place concurrently under other assistance programs). I had the honor to serve as the lead interpreter for many of these various endeavors.
This process involved intense discussions regarding differences between Soviet and US PWR hardware, design principles, and plant operating procedures. Initially there was a significant level of distrust on the part of the Eastern Europeans, but ultimately they came to understand that the US participants, who had been carefully selected to avoid Cold Warriors, were genuinely interested in helping them learn to operate their plants more safely. Although the number of units that managed to implement SBEOIs under the program was miniscule, there is no doubt that the US personnel who participated had succeeded in their efforts to “change the hearts and minds” of their counterparts.
In one particularly telling incident, a procedure involving the response to a steam generator malfunction was presented for discussion by the Ukrainian team. The draft EOI involved scramming the reactor, which was contrary to common Soviet practice. When the Americans asked why the unit did not continue to operate with the remaining SGs while the malfunction was addressed, they were told succinctly, “We are not allowed to do that anymore.”
Many of the US personnel who participated in these programs are still active in the industry. I am certain the NRC could assemble an advisory team of people who do (or did) have knowledge of VVER design and operation.
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