Early Soviet Reactors and EU Accession

  • Following the 1986 Chernobyl accident, safety concerns over early Soviet reactor designs intensified.
  • As a condition of accession to the European Union, eight Soviet-designed reactors were closed.
  • Sixteen nuclear power reactors of early Soviet design are still operating: one in Armenia and the rest in Russia.

Appendix to Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors

Three former Eastern Bloc countries – Bulgaria, Slovakia and Lithuania – were forced to close eight nuclear power reactors based on early Soviet technology as a condition of joining the European Union (EU). However, outside of the EU, 16 early Soviet reactors remain in operation, 15 of which are in Russia. These include 11 RBMK reactors in Russia, as well as four early VVERs (model V-230) in Russia and one in Armenia. The operating lifetimes of Russia's four oldest VVER reactors (at Kola and Novovoronezh), the four oldest RBMKs (at Kursk and Leningrad) and the four small GBWRsa in Siberia have been extended.

The RBMK reactor, a graphite-moderated type with the fuel and cooling water in pressure tubes, has been much discussed following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster to one of them. All RBMKs then underwent major modifications. It is based on a design developed for military plutonium production.  It is also known as the light water graphite reactor (LWGR). See page on RBMK Reactors.

The first-generation VVER (V-230 model) is a 440 MWe (gross) pressurized water design similar to the most popular Western design (which is derived from power plants for submarines). The V-230 has no containment structure in the Western sense but has provisions for confinement of any radioactivity arising from a major accident. In addition, its sturdy design, low power density and large volume of water mean that it has a considerable degree of inherent safety in these respects.

All of these reactors currently in operation have received substantial attention in upgrading. Later VVER reactors have also had significant upgrading, but their safety status is less contentious.

The clash of political imperatives and the mundane task of supplying electricity demand is a vexed question almost everywhere in Europe today. Environmental concerns dictate that greenhouse questions must be taken seriously and carbon emissions limited, but a vocal minority also seeks to scale back nuclear energy production. The particular dilemma in Eastern Europe relates to the definition of safety in nuclear power production, and whether Western standards are the only sensible benchmark.

VVER-440/V-230 reactors

Country Reactors First power Status
Armenia Armenia 1b 1976 Closed 1989
Armenia 2b 1980 Shutdown expected 2016
Bulgaria Kozloduy 1&2 1974, 75 Closed 12/2002
Kozloduy 3&4 1980, 82 Closed 12/2006
East Germany Greifswald 1-4 1974, 75, 77, 79 Closed 1990
Russia Kola 1&2 1973, 74 Shutdown expected 2018, 19
Novovoronezh 3&4c 1971, 72 Shutdown expected 2016, 17
Slovakia Bohunice V1 units 1&2 1978, 80 Closed 12/2006, 12/2008


RBMK reactors

Country Reactor First power Unit net capacity (MWe) Status
Lithuania Ignalina 1 1983 1185 (originally 1300) Closed 12/2004
Ignalina 2 1987 1185 (originally 1300) Closed 12/2009
Russia Kursk 1 1976 925 Operating until 2021
Kursk 2 1979 925 Operating until 2024
Kursk 3 1984 925 Operating until 2024
Kursk 4 1986 925 Operating until 2016
Kursk 5 -   Construction abandoned
Leningrad 1 1973 925 Closed 12/2018
Leningrad 2 1975 925 Operating until 2020
Leningrad 3 1979 925 Operating until 2024
Leningrad 4 1981 925 Operating until 2025
Smolensk 1 1983 925 Operating until 2022
Smolensk 2 1985 925 Operating until 2025
Smolensk 3 1990 925 Operating until 2020
Ukraine Chernobyl 1 1977 925 Closed 1996
Chernobyl 2 1978 925 Closed 1991
Chernobyl 3 1981 925 Closed 2000
Chernobyl 4 1983 925 Reactor destroyed April 1986
Chernobyl 5 - 925 Construction cancelled
Chernobyl 6 - 925 Construction cancelled


Safety concerns of early Soviet plants

Under the European Union's Agenda 2000d, first-generation RBMK and the VVER-440 model V-230 reactors were deemed non-upgradable to internationally acceptable safety standards at reasonable cost. Hence, despite extensive modifications to these reactors over many years, the European Commission (EC) insisted on the early closure of two RBMK-1500 reactors in Lithuania, two VVER-440/V-230 reactors in Slovakia, and four VVER-440/V-230 reactors in Bulgaria as a condition of these countries' accession to the EU. There is also pressure on Armenia to close its nuclear plant.

Part of the background to all this relates to the Chernobyl disaster and decisions taken following the reunification of Germany.

After the Chernobyl accident in April 1986, Western governments were quick to point the finger at RBMK and first-generation VVER reactors in Eastern Europe in order to emphasize the high levels of safety built into Western designs. In the emotive discussion of the late 1980s, Western safety standards were taken as the unquestioned yardsticks, while in fact the more profound differences were in safety culture. In the event, no Western reactor was stopped and no Western construction project aborted by political decision as a result of Chernobyl, and opinion polls supported continued operation of Western plants.

In the run-up to Germany's reunification, the government in 1989 examined the feasibility of upgrading the six second- and third-generation VVER reactors under construction in East Germany, one of which had just started upe. (The four operating V-230 reactors at Greifswald and an earlier model VVER at Rheinsberg were closed in 1990.) While it was found that the units under construction could in fact be brought up to Western safety standards at acceptable cost, they were abandoned because no investor could be found to take on the re-licensing risk in the context of Germany's nuclear bureaucracy and legal processesf.

The collapse of socialism in the Comecon countries in 1989 and 1990 paved the way for openness and cooperation between countries that had for decades belonged to antagonistic blocs. The new democracies looked to the West for help in reforming their economies and their administrative structures. The European Union (EU) set up its assistance programs, and individual countries started bilateral programs. Following a German initiative, the G7 summit in Munich in July 1992 agreed on a multilateral action program for improving the safety of all Soviet-designed reactors in Central and Eastern Europe.

G7 multilateral action program

The multilateral programme of action was to comprise immediate measures aimed at: operational safety improvements; technical improvements to plants based on safety assessments; and enhancing regulatory regimes. In addition, measures to improve longer-term safety included: carrying out studies on replacing less safe plants with alternative energy sources; and examination of the potential for upgrading plants of more recent design. The World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), its European counterpart, were put in charge of safety studies and analyses of energy policies, energy alternatives and financing. Complementary to these measures, the G7 resolved to pursue the early completion of a nuclear safety convention.

In effect, the G7 governments thus made efficient cooperation impossible because the program interfered with the energy policies of sovereign states and also established complex administrative procedures to bog down any initiative. Above all, it failed to strike a balance between the interests of the G7 countries with those of the Central and Eastern European states concerned.

As a result, ten years after the Munich G7 summit, both sides had reason to be disappointed: with the exception of Chernobylg, none of the reactors considered least safe had been closed, and none of the newer plants had been upgraded within the framework of European Union (EU) or EBRD financing. The only upgrading projects that had been or were being implemented to about 2000, i.e. Mochovce 1 & 2 (Slovakia), Paks (Hungary) and Temelin (Czech Republic), were financed privately.

EU accession: Bulgaria, Lithuania & Slovakia

In May 2004, five Eastern European countries with operating nuclear power plants joined the European Union (EU). These are Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia. At the time, all but Slovenia were operating Soviet-designed reactors, but only the RBMK and the model V-230 VVER were a source of contention.

A new round of political manoeuvring was started with the invitation of reform states to join the EU. One of the conditions laid down by the EU in 1997 was that all nuclear plants concerned had to achieve Western safety standards within 7 to 10 years. Shutdown dates for the two condemned reactor types returned to the agenda.

In exchange for assistance in safety reviews at Kozloduy 1 & 2, the EU and EBRD originally made Bulgaria promise to close all four of its older units by 1998.  In return for German export credits for safety upgrades of a newer plant, Mochovce 1 & 2, Slovakia had to promise to close down two older units (the two Bohunice V1 units) after Mochovce became fully commercial. It was also said that this had to be in the year 2000 at the latest.

Later on, these countries recognized they were paying too high a price and that in fact the West failed to assist them speedily and efficiently in solving their problems. Therefore, closures were delayed (although the 2000 deadline for closing Chernobyl in Ukraine was met – see section on Ukraine below).

The Western European Nuclear Regulators' Association (WENRA), was put in charge of analysing the safety level of all plants in EU accession candidates. It published a report in October 2000,2 which built on an earlier March 1999 report. Broadly, the 2000 report found that the nuclear regulatory regimes in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were comparable with Western European practice, while those in Lithuania and, in particular, Bulgaria needed more independence to achieve levels of practice comparable to those in the West. Bulgaria reformed its regulatory structure in 2003 and Lithuania adopted a new statute for its authority in mid-2002.

Encouraged by the offer of €200 million from the European Commission (EC), Bulgaria's Kozloduy 1 & 2 was closed on 31 December 2002 and Kozloduy 3 & 4 followed at the end of 2006, the latter under protest, since these were the most modern of all the V-230 reactors concerned and were close to the specifications of the later V-213 model. Slovakia agreed to close its older units (Bohunice V1 units 1 & 2) by the end of 2006 and 2008 respectively, despite recently completing a major refurbishment of them, including replacement of the emergency core cooling systems and modernizing the control systems. Lithuania agreed to close its first RBMK unit, Ignalina 1, at the end of 2004 and the second at the end of 2009.

Decommissioning costs for these closed reactors have provided a source of grievance directed at the EU. In February 2012 the European Court of Auditors reviewed the program 1999-2010 and called for a more efficient use of funds. Between 1999 and 2013, the EU has pledged to provide financial assistance totalling €2.85 billion to Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovakia: €870 million towards decommissioning the Kozloduy plant, €1.37 billion for the Ignalina plant and €613 million for decommissioning the Bohunice units. As of the end of 2010, the European Commission (EC) had committed €2.07 billion representing over 70% of the total pledged, with the funds mostly managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The Court of Auditors' report recommended that a further EUR 2.5 billion be provided for the work. It said that the EC had underestimated the task, and recommended that it establish a "detailed needs-assessment showing the progress of the programs so far, the activities still to be performed and an overall financing plan identifying the funding sources".

See also pages on:

Condemned plants in EU accession countries

(EU accession)
Plant Type
End of 30-year design lifetime Dates fixed early 1990s Actual closure
Kozloduy 1&2 VVER-440/V-230
(each 405 MWe)
2004, 2005 By 1998 12/2002
Kozloduy 3&4 VVER-440/V-230
(each 405 MWe)
2010, 2012 By 1998 12/2006
Ignalina 1&2 RBMK-1500
(each 1185 MWe)
2013 Before replacement of pressure tubes 12/2004, 12/2009
Bohunice V1 1&2 VVER-440/V-230
(each 408 MWe)
2008, 2010 By 2000 12/2006, 12/2008



Armenia is not a candidate for European Union (EU) membership, but its old nuclear plant at Metsamor (modified V-230)h is also a concern to the EU and to neighbouring Turkey. There have been various calls to shut it down, but Armenia is very dependent on it. Its slightly older twin was shut down in 1989 after 13 years operation.

See also page on Nuclear Power in Armenia.


While not in line for EU membership, the EU has taken a keen interest in Ukraine's nuclear plants, notably the Chernobyl RBMK plant. In 1995, Ukraine agreed to close the remaining units at Chernobyl by 2000 in exchange for assistance in modernising the Chernobyl 4 shelteri and in improving the energy sector of the country, including the completion of two new nuclear reactors, Khmelnitski 2 and Rovno 4 ('K2R4'). Finance for the K2R4 reactors, which were meant to replace generation lost due to the closure of Chernobyl, proved difficult. Construction on the VVER-1000 (model V-320) units began in 1983 and 1984, was halted in 1990 when they were about 80% complete, and recommenced in 1993.

In 2001, following extensive negotiations between Ukraine and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the EBRD approved a US$ 215 million loan towards completion of the reactors. However, Ukraine turned this down, in particular due to one of the conditions attached to the loan requiring electricity tariffs to be significantly raised. (A $585 million Euratom loan was also provisionally approved, but the EBRD loan was rejected before a decision on final approval of the Euratom loan was made.) Further negotiations continued to result in deadlock and Ukraine decided to complete the reactors using a Russian credit facility and local bonds instead. The government then completed both units using a consortium of Framatome ANP and Atomstroyexport. At the time, the Ukrainian government estimated completion at US$ 621 million and US$ 642 million respectively, but later lowered these significantly. Khmelnitsky 2 was grid connected in August 2004, with Rovno 4 following in October 2004.

In 2004, loans of $83 million and $42 million from Euratom and the EBRD respectively for post-completion safety upgrading were agreed.

See also page on Nuclear Power in Ukraine.

Notes & references


a. Four 11 MWe EGP-6 graphite-moderated boiling water reactors (GBWRs) for combined heat and power have been in operation at Bilibino since the mid-1970s. These units are not included in the tally of early Soviet design operating reactors. [Back]

b. The Armenian Nuclear Power Plant (ANPP) is often referred to as the Metsamor – or Metzamor – Nuclear Power Plant (MNPP). Although designated as model V-270, the two Armenia reactors are essentially V-230 reactors modified according to the high seismicity of the region. [Back]

c. Novovoronezh 3 & 4 are designated as model V-179, but are essentially the prototype units for the V-230 model. [Back]

d. In the run-up to the enlargement of the European Union (EU), a number of EU policies were reformed under the heading of Agenda 2000. Launched in 1999 with the adoption of 20 legislative measures, Agenda 2000 aimed to prepare the EU for the accession of new members, within a strict financial framework. [Back]

e. Greifswald 5, a VVER-440 V-213 reactor, began electricity generation in April 1989 and was in the process of commissioning when it was shut down in November of the same year. (The Berlin Wall had come down earlier that month, but German reunification was not until October 1990.) It is reported that, on 24 November 1989, a test of the emergency shutdown systems failed and the reactor had to be shut down manually, with damage resulting to several fuel elements. The shutdown date for this unit is given as the end of November 1989. Construction on three other V-213 units at Greifswald (units 6, 7 & 8) and two VVER-1000 units (model V-320) at Stendal was halted in 1990. [Back]

f. The decision to permanently close the Greifswald 1-4 reactors (all model V-230) was taken in 1990.1 A 62 MWe early model VVER (V-210) at Rheinsberg, which started up in 1966, was also closed in 1990. Its planned operational lifetime was due to end two years later.

The decision to finally close Greifswald 5 (model V-213) – which had been off line since November 1989 (see Note e above) – and to cancel the construction at Greifswald 6-8 (V-213) and Stendal 1&2 (VVER-1000 model V-320) was taken early in 1991, following studies carried out by the German safety agency GRS (Gesellschaft für Reaktorsicherheit) on Greifswald 5 and Stendal. [Back]

g. The Chernobyl plant in Ukraine was shut down by the end of 2000. Ukraine had been under pressure to close the plant following the 1986 accident, which destroyed unit 4. This pressure intensified following a fire at one of the turbines associated with unit 2 on 11 October 1991 (though the fire had nothing to do with reactor safety). Early closure of the plant was formally agreed in a December 1995 Memorandum of Understanding between Ukraine, the G7 countries and the European Commission. Unit 1 was closed in November 1996; the decision to finally close unit 2 (which was shutdown since the 1991 accident) was taken in March 1999; and unit 3 was shut down in December 2000. [Back]

h. Two model V-230 reactors, each of 407.5 MWe gross (376 MWe net), were built at Metsamor and supplied power from 1976 and 1980 respectively. These were the first Russian plants designed to be built in a region of high seismicity and were modified accordingly to be designated V-270. Following a powerful earthquake in December 1988, both units were shut down in 1989 due to safety concerns regarding seismic vulnerability. In 1993, it was decided to restart the second unit and this was achieved in 1995, after 6.5 years shutdown. The first unit is being decommissioned. See also page on Nuclear Power in Armenia. [Back]

i. A reinforced concrete casing was built around the ruined reactor building over the seven months following the accident. This shelter – often referred to as the sarcophagus – was intended to contain the remaining fuel and act as a radiation shield. As it was designed for a lifetime of around 20 to 30 years, as well as being hastily constructed, a second shelter – known as the New Safe Confinement – with a 100-year design lifetime is planned to be placed over the existing structure. See also ASE keeps the lid on Chernobyl, World Nuclear News (19 August 2008). [Back]


1. Last Soviet Reactor in Eastern Germany Shut, The New York Times (16 December 1990) [Back]

2. General Conclusions of WENRA On Nuclear Safety in the Candidate Countries to the European Union, Western European Nuclear Regulators' Association (October 2000); Nuclear Safety in EU Candidate Countries, Western European Nuclear Regulators' Association (October 2000) [Back]

General sources

W. Breyer, Siemens AG, paper presented at PIME (Public Information Materials Exchange) conference in February 2000
Siemens Power Journal (December 1999)
Judith Perera, Nuclear Power in the Former USSR, McCloskey, UK (2003)

Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors
Russia: Nuclear Power
RBMK Reactors