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'Cleaner' nuclear reactor comes a step closer as EU launches consultation exercise on nuclear energy

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With the European Commission arguing that nuclear is needed as a “transition” source of energy, Europe’s newest nuclear plant has taken a key step closer becoming fully operational.

The move is timely as the commission is expected to start a public consultation process on whether to include nuclear in its “sustainable finance taxonomy” before the end of the year.

That means the proposal itself be published next month.

This week’s commission announcement coincides with latest developments at what has been described as the one of the world’s newest state-of-the-art “cleaner” nuclear reactors.

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The reactor, near the town of Astravets in Belarus, seeks to implement one of the EU's flagship policies in cutting emissions.While it is accepted that this alone will not solve the environmental crises, the belief is that finding non-fossil fuel alternatives to meeting Europe’s energy needs is the way forward.

An EU source said the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant will cut emissions and, in doing so, help tackle climate change.

Earlier this week, engineers at the plant started fuel loading into its second of its two reactors. This is significant as it is the first stage of a reactor becoming fully operational. The engineers first load fuel, then achieve reactor’s “criticality” before finally connecting it to the national grid.Its two operating reactors will have a total about 2.4 GW of generation capacity when completed next year.

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When both units are at full power, the 2400 MW plant will avoid emissions of more than 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year by replacing carbon-intensive fossil fuels generation.The plant will, crucially, further reduce the country's dependency on imported fossil fuels and move Belarus closer to net-zero.

Sama Bilbao y León, Director General of the World Nuclear Association, the international organisation that represents the global nuclear industry, said: “Evidence is mounting that to keep on a sustainable and low-carbon energy path we need to rapidly accelerate the amount of new nuclear capacity built and connected to the grid globally. The 2.4 GW of new nuclear capacity in Belarus will be a vital contribution to achieving this goal.”

After the fuel has been loaded, the reactor in Belarus will be brought up to its minimum controlled power level (up to 1% of the reactor’s total capacity) to allow for safety tests to be conducted. Once the reliability and safety of the power unit have been verified, the power start-up phase will begin when the unit will be connected to Belarus’ power grid for the first time.

This week’s launch of the second power unit at Astravets was greeted by Alexander Lokshin, Rosatom First Deputy Director General for Nuclear Energy, who told this website: “After the huge amount of construction and installation works, the most interesting, exciting and crucial period in the construction of a nuclear power unit is setting it up and commissioning it. At this stage, cubic metres of concrete, tonnes of metal structures, kilometres of cable and pipelines are transformed into a living organism that will function and benefit people for at least 60 years. The fuel loading and launch phase is like a heart beating for the first time, bringing life to the power unit.”

“I wish all of the team every success in delivering this part of the project,” added Lokshin, who is also president of the Engineering Division at Rosatom, the general designer and contractor for the project.

Russian technology was selected for what is Belarus’ first nuclear power plant which, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency,  fully complies” with international norms and safety standards. Unit 1 became operational on 10 June this year and became the first Russian designed Generation III+ nuclear power facility to be commissioned abroad.

There has been some stiff opposition to the plant, not least from neighbouring Lithuania, where officials have voiced concerns about safety.

But IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated in a European Parliament hearing this year that: “We’ve been engaging with Belarus for a long time and we are present in the field all the time”. He said the IAEA had found “good practices and things to improve but we have not found any reason for that plant not to operate”.

The plant has also won the backing of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) which has said that the safety measures at Astravets are squarely in line with European standards.Rosatom is the only company in the world carrying out serial construction of nuclear power plants abroad. 106 Russian design nuclear power plants have been built around the world.

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