In Russia, a Push for Floating Nuclear Power Plants

  • Share
  • Read Later

An artist's rendering of the Academic Lomonosov, a Russian floating nuclear power station.

Russians have always embraced the Arctic. Thriving communities dot the country's 4,300-mi (7,000 km) northern border, and the port town of Murmansk — home to 300,000 people — is the largest city north of the Arctic circle. America's closest competitor? Barrow, Alaska, which has some 4,000 souls.

Servicing these far-flung communities has never been easy. The job has been handled largely by Russia's fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers, hulking vessels that have the massive horsepower needed to ram sea ice up to two meters thick and bring in needed supplies. Keeping these towns heated and lit has been another challenge — one made harder after the collapse of Soviet-era energy and transportation subsidies. Now however, the resourceful Russians have come up with an idea, one that they hope could not only secure the country's position as the preeminent Arctic power, but also blossom into a lucrative export business: floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs).

The idea of FNPPs is simple, if a little scary: Outfit a barge with two 35-megawatts reactors, float them to a spot off the coast and run cables to land to distribute your power. An FNPP set-up this size could power a city of 200,000.

The concept has some people screaming about "floating Chernobyls," but the technology is safer than that. For one thing, the portable reactors are fairly proven hardware, derived from those used on the icebreakers. And while any nuclear reactor poses real dangers if something goes wrong, the FNPPs are comparative pipsqueaks — their 35 MW output only a fraction of the Chernobyl plant's 4,000. A prototype vessel has already been launched at a St. Petersburg shipyard; after reactors are affixed it will be towed to Vilyuchinsk, a city (pop. 25,000) in the Russian Far East that is home to a squadron of nuclear submarines. It is expected to be operational in 2012.

FNPPs could help Russia expand its reach in another critical way: powering the country's efforts to exploit its off-shore petroleum reserves, 90% of which lie in its Arctic continental shelf. Portable reactors would eliminate the cost and headache of transporting diesel long distances in harsh weather. That has Gazprom, which is keen to develop the world's largest untapped gas field — Shtokman in the Barents Sea — signed up for several FNPPs from Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation. Other reactors are slated to be used in uranium mining.

"The ultimate objective of the state policy is to transform the Arctic into 'Russia's foremost strategic base for natural resources' by 2020," notes a Norwegian Defense Institute study, citing Russian documents.

Western energy and mining firms are expected to be among the first customers for small reactors — and a number of western vendors, who see a growing global market, have begun developing their own systems. Shell considered one for its energy-intensive exploitation of tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Toshiba has already interested the remote Alaskan town of Galena (pop.700) in a 'pocket nuke' of 10 MW, to unshackle it from diesel-fired electricity that costs about 10 times the price paid in the lower 48.

So far though it is only Russia that is promoting water-based plants which, assurances aside, do present a host of new environmental, safety, liability and proliferation challenges. There is the difficulty of securing a perimeter and protecting against underwater vulnerability. Some critics worry the containment structures will be stripped down to fit on barges and that the auxiliary safety systems will not be as robust either.

Then there is the issue of where FNPPs might be deployed. Among a dozen or so countries reportedly interested is Indonesia, which is susceptible to tsunamis, not to mention terrorists who could hijack the vessel and steal radioactive material or simply blow the reactor up, possibly releasing a tremendous cloud of radioactive steam.

Russia's solution is the Build-Own-Operate model. Host countries would simply buy electricity (perhaps desalinated water too), leaving everything else to the Russians. There would be no transfer of material or technology and Russia would haul waste and spent fuel for reprocessing home every three to four years, and tow the plant for maintenance every 12 years — three times in a plant's life span.

"Historically, the Soviets and Russians have a dismal track record of nuclear waste management," says Thomas B. Cochran, a nuclear expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. But Cochran thinks FNPPs may not pose "a particularly new concern, [but] more of the same" — at least in the Arctic, which is inhospitable to terrorists.

Russia seems determined to improve its reputation for safety, and has announced that it will keep the enrichment level of the fuel in its portable nukes to under 20%, below the weapons-grade threshold. But the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority worries that Moscow might eventually be tempted to step up its enrichment level to improve profitability since its "main focus" is commercial. Russia's icebreakers were initially powered by 5% enriched fuel; its present, third-generation models run up to 90% — though in this case the motivation was efficiency, not money.

Still, since 1996, Russia has allowed the U.S., and later the U.K., Sweden and Norway to help patch up vulnerabilities in its icebreaker nuclear fuel cycle, which is a good sign of its seriousness. It's too early to tell if such cooperation would survive in a commercial sphere, especially one in which Russia has a rare lead in an intense global competition.