Special approach truly guarantees good quality

By the end of the year the reactor vessel for the first energy block of the Belarusian nuclear power station will have arrived in the Ostrovets District

By the end of the year, having covered thousands of kilometres, the reactor vessel for the first energy block of the Belarusian nuclear power station will have arrived in the west of Belarus, in the Ostrovets District. From time to time, the media has reported on its journey from Russian Volgodonsk. For example, it was recently dispatched to Veliky Novgorod. However, let’s visit Volgodonsk, where the order was first placed.

Special attention paid to quality of equipment for Belarusian nuclear power station

Volgodonsk is far from Minsk but its atmosphere is familiar, the streets graced by pale green MAZ buses and Minsk trolley buses. Shops offer a wide range of Belarusian cosmetics, footwear and sausages. However, our bilateral co-operation reaches beyond the commonplace, with Volgodonsk’s Atommash having produced a reactor vessel for the first energy block at the Belarusian nuclear power station.

At the invitation of Russia’s Atomenergomash and Belarus’ Energy Ministry, I’ve been invited to visit the city and tour the facility long responsible for nuclear reactions. It’s an opportunity few receive. Although greatly automated, it still relies on human input, so all risks have to be foreseen, to avoid catastrophe. Accordingly, only staff are admitted inside the reactor section.

Production Director Vitaly Shishov leads me through the several hundred metre long workshop, throwing out impressive statistics. “Its diameter is 4.5m and the length is almost 13m,” Mr. Shishov comments. “The total weight is 340 tonnes. The reactor vessel is welded from several parts preliminary processed, and has walls 40cm thick, made from special steel which can withstand high burdens and nuclear radiation for decades. We used a special technique to weld it.”

Sixth degree welder Yuri Tkachev is inside ‘the pipe’ and is clearly an expert. “I’ve been working here since 1977, welding even the first Volgodonsk reactor,” he admits. “I knew who the reactor was intended for: our friends, the Belarusians. We were contributing not only our skills but our souls, to ensure the reactor works reliably and safely for many years.”

Atommash focuses greatly on the reliability and safety of nuclear power station equipment. The company has received all the necessary certificates and documents from state control bodies, installing equipment by famous global brands; recently, it has undergone modernisation. The central plant laboratory enjoys the newest equipment while the local welding laboratory offers training, to enhance qualifications.

Having seen at first hand, I can vouch for the level of training at the plant. Powerful infra-red radiators are warming the 3m diameter cover of the Belarusian station’s second reactor, as it stands vertically, being slowly rotated. A welder is at work. It’s a tough job, so employees replace each other every two hours. Each seam must be welded to a depth of several dozen centimetres; quality is checked endlessly, using all known methods. Even the smallest cracks, hollows or pockets must be remedied.

The guarantee of perfect quality is achieved by using other, specialised enterprises to produce certain details. Some come from Ukraine. Referring to the recent situation in the neighbouring state, Mr. Shishov notes, “All semi-finished products for our Belarusian equipment were received many months ago, after passing strict ‘entry’ requirements. Reactor production takes around 22 months, with over half of this time spent on test-controlling operations.”

While chatting, we approached the place where the nuclear reactor was hydraulically tested. The reactor vessel is vertically placed on a special bearing ring, within a caisson (a huge well of about the same depth as a five-storey house). It’s no easy task, with the cover fixed using 54 super-robust bolts. It takes a whole week just to set up. Later, warm water fills the reactor, under high pressure, so that a special commission may investigate each centimetre of the reactor vessel. Speaking of whether Belarusian specialists often come to the plant to inspect quality, Mr. Shishov asserts, “They come regularly. We enjoy close co-operation, as we’ve all been trained at the same technical school. We understand each other almost without speaking.”

After hydraulic testing, painting and other operations, the reactor was shipped to Belarus: initially, via the River Volga and other rivers and then by rail. By late 2016, it will have travelled thousands of kilometres, to arrive in western Belarus’ Ostrovets District. Some time later, the second reactor will make the same journey. “In line with the schedule, we plan to produce the latter in 2017. Currently, we’re ahead of schedule and hope to dispatch it to our customers in late 2016,” notes Mr. Shishov.

Atommash is producing other equipment for the Belarusian station also — such as 340-tonne steam generators, of which four are required for each reactor. The first are almost ready. Huge lock chambers are also important, being installed at the entrance to the rector section — for repair works and inspection. They need to be large enough that a steam generator can be passed through, to enable replacement, and extend the life of each reactor.

By Valery Bozhkov
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