You are here

Russia trying out floating nuclear power plants

Such plants can be assembled fast and sent to remote spots in need of a power boost

The Akademik Lomonosov, a floating nuclear power plant in Murmansk, Russia, will service Pevek, a remote Siberian port 800 km from Alaska.

Murmansk, Russia

ALONG the shore of Kola Bay in the far northwest of Russia lie bases for the country's nuclear submarines and icebreakers. Low, rocky hills descend to an industrial waterfront of docks, cranes and railway tracks. Out on the bay, submarines have for decades stalked the azure waters, travelling between their port and the ocean depths.

Here, Russia is conducting an experiment with nuclear power, one that backers say is a leading-edge feat of engineering but that critics call reckless: The country is unveiling a floating nuclear power plant. Tied to a wharf in the city of Murmansk, the Akademik Lomonosov rocks gently in the waves. The buoyant facility, made of two miniature reactors of a type used previously on submarines, is for now the only one of its kind.

Moscow, while leading the trend, is far from alone in seeing potential in floating nuclear plants. Two state-backed companies in China are building such facilities, and US scientists have drawn up plans of their own. Proponents say they are cheaper, greener and perhaps counterintuitively, safer. They envision a future when nuclear power stations bob off the coasts of major cities around the world.

Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the Russian floating power programme: "They are light-years ahead of us."

Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, has exported nuclear technology for years, selling plants in China, India and a host of developing nations. But smaller reactors effectively placed on floats can be assembled more quickly, be put in a wider range of locations and respond more nimbly to fluctuating supply on power grids that increasingly rely on wind and solar.

The Russian design involves using submarine-style reactors loaded onto vessels, with a hatch near the bow to plug them into local electrical grids. The reactors will generate a combined 70 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 70,000 typical American homes.

Rosatom plans to serially produce such floating nuclear plants, and is exploring various business plans, including retaining ownership of the reactors while selling the electricity it generates.

The bulky, rectangular structure resembles a big-box store, only with a nuclear emblem of an atom emblazoned on its side. Inside, the floating reactor is a warren of tight corridors, steep staircases, pipes, wires and warning signs in Cyrillic letters. Officials plan to tow the vessel to coastal cities in need of power, either for short-term boosts or longer-term additions to electricity supply. It can carry sufficient enriched uranium to power the two reactors for 12 years, before having to be towed, with its spent fuel, back to Russia, where the radioactive waste will be processed.

A rotating crew of about 300 Russians, including private security guards, will operate the plant. Rosatom is considering a work schedule where they will remain on board for four months at a time before taking a four-month break.

The Akademik Lomonosov will start out serving Pevek, a remote port in Siberia about 800km from Alaska, next year. While on the vessel, the civilian crew will have access to a host of amenities, making the structure a sort of cross between the set for "The Hunt for Red October" and a cruise ship. Those aboard can swim in a pool decorated with pictures of a tropical beach, play squash or strangely, given the seeming importance of sobriety on such a vessel, have a drink at a bar.

Vitaly A. Trutnev, director of Rosatom's floating reactor programme, said in an interview: "Such a local source of electrical energy, which can easily be transported to difficult-to-access locations, is economically effective."

Using nuclear reactors for marine propulsion, or on floating power plants, is not new. The United States used a barge-based reactor to generate electricity for the Panama Canal Zone from 1968 until 1976; Westinghouse, the US reactor builder, planned - but never built - two floating plants off the New Jersey coast at around that time.

The idea of floating nuclear power won unexpected support after the 2011 Japanese tsunami. That disaster wreaked havoc on the Fukushima coastal power plant by flooding backup diesel generators intended to cool the plant in an emergency shutdown. A floating reactor, supporters say, would survive tsunami waves at sea. And if an emergency shutdown were needed, it would retain access to cooling, something that is easier to do if it is already in the water, rather than relying on pumps.

Matthew McKinzie, director of the nuclear programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, asked: "The question is, would clients of Russia be comfortable with something like this being parked right at a pier in a major city?" NYTIMES