Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant

Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant in Russia's Far North is the world's northernmost nuclear power plant, and the only one in a permafrost region. (The Kola Power Station is also above the Arctic Circle, but has a milder climate.) Constructed from 1974 to 1976, the plant provides energy for the intensive industrial development of territories in the northern part of Magadan Oblast' and of the western part of Chukotka. These territories are rich in various mineral resources, but are remote from coal, oil, and gas deposits; therefore, the construction of thermoelectric power stations is highly expensive, as are large-capacity diesel electric stations, which require the delivery of large volumes of diesel fuel.

The main consumer of the electrical energy produced by Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant is the western Chukotkan mineral province, where there are sizeable known and prospective reserves of gold and tin ore (cassiterite). In the Bilibino area there are considerable placer deposits of gold and one primary ore gold deposit, Karalveyem, which has provided resources for several decades.

Construction projects for nuclear power plants with lower power for industrial purposes were planned in the USSR in the mid-1950s, with the awareness that in remote regions the use of nuclear fuel would solve the problem of fuel transportation. In the 1960s, experimental nuclear power stations of two types were constructed: TES-3 and ARBUS. In 1963, surveying began for construction for the Bilibino Power Plant. This was the first nuclear power station intended to provide electrical energy for the Chaun-Bilibino mining industrial region, and would also provide heat for the residential districts of Bilibino town.

The plant has four light-water-cooled graphite-moderated reactors (EGP-6, the type at Chernobyl), each with a capacity of 12 MW. The first reactor began operating in January 1974, the second in December 1974, the third at the end of 1975, and the fourth in December 1976. Each reactor is connected with one heating turbine and one power turbine. The absence of a developed network of electrical transmission lines results in a shortfall of electric energy in some settlements, although at the same time the energetic capacities in other settlements may be underloaded.

Construction of the plant had to give due regard to its inaccessibility and to reliability under the extreme conditions of the Far North. During the facility's construction, work was conducted throughout the year despite conditions of low temperature. The plant design took into account the high seismic activity of the area; construction and plant design stipulated considerable antiseismic resistance. The power plant was erected on monolithic reinforced concrete plates.

The general design accorded that the plant's running, refueling, and startup and shutdown regimes be as simple as possible. The reactors were stabilized by using construction and materials (in particular, the design of tubular fuel elements) that had been meticulously tested in advance. The plant relies on a single-circuit system with cycling of pressurized water and steam to cool the reactor. Steam from the heated coolant feeds the turbines that generate electricity; the steam is then condensed (in air heat exchangers, utilizing the very cold air outside) and fed back to the coolant circuit.

The cost of the electrical energy from the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant is 1.3-1.5 times less than in fossil fuel electric power stations and 2 times less than in the Bilibino Diesel Electric Station. The cost of heat energy is also 2 times less than in the boiler houses of Bilibino town. The Bilibino plant is a highly effective thermopower station, especially in the Arctic region, where winter lasts for almost 10 months of the year.

The plant is located outside the town of Bilibino and separated from it by a mountain ridge. The level of radiation in the town is usually not higher than 14-15 microroentgen per hour (it is recorded and displayed in the town center). The plant provides for spacious subsidiary agricultural enterprises with many hothouses that supply the town and district with fresh vegetables.

The long operation of the plant has demonstrated the successful use of graphite-moderated nuclear reactors for power plants in remote territories. In such plants, reactors with tubular fuel elements are preferable; the same reactors run at optimal performance when the capacity of the plant is relatively small. The high reliability of the plant as a source of power and its accident-free functioning were positive factors that speak to the possibility of future reactors of the same design. Between 1979 and 1985, Bilibino averaged less than one accidental stop page per year.

The process of construction and long operation of the plant enriched the practice of nuclear energetics with the unique experience of building and managing atomic power stations in inaccessible locations with severe climates and permafrost. The results may aid in the development of a general strategy for providing power sources for territories of the Far North. The experience of creating an industrial and social infrastructure providing for the erection and work of the plant, namely the experience of the development of Bilibino town, was also very valuable.

Environmental monitoring over many years has demonstrated that Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant has not had a negative ecological impact either in the surrounding areas or among the population. The main cause of radioactive contamination in Chukotka remains atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in the 1950-1960s, when westerly winds transmitted radioactive deposits from the test grounds in the islands of Novaya Zemlya. However, the plant is not free of problems: its design is today considered obsolete, and with the gold resources coming to an end, system failures are becoming more frequent. The radiation levels among plant staff have increased, although they are still far below the maximum permissible. Radioactive solid waste repositories are at maximum capacity as well.

Stricter safety standards and guidelines in the 21st century mandate design and other improvements at the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant. The current reactors will be decommissioned by 2007 as the plant undergoes a second phase of design with three new 32 MW reactors.

However, the prospects for construction of the second phase of the plant are unclear. The difficulties of further works at the plant are connected with increasing ecological demands of the population and with a considerable increase in costs. The most pressing problem is the uncertain future for further industrial development of Bilibino District and, as a consequence, the impossibility of determining electrical energy requirements.

Alexis A. Burykin

See also Bilibino; Nuclear Testing Further Reading

Dolgov, V.V., "Bilibinsakya Nuclear Power Plant: 23 years operation in the specific conditions of the Russian far northeast." Nuclear Engineering and Design, 173 (1997): 87-97 Petrosyants, A.M., Problemy atomnoy nauki I texniki [The problems of atomic science and technics], Moscow: Nauka, 1979; translated as Problems of nuclear science and technology: the Soviet Union as a world nuclear power, Oxford: Pergamon, 1981

-(editor), Atomnaya nauka I texnika SSSR [Atomic science and technics in the USSR], Moscow: Energsatomizdat, 1987 Prirodno-ekonomicheskiy ocherk/Chukotka [The survey of nature and economy: Chukotka], Moscow-Anadyr: Art-Litex Publishers, 1995

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