Russian company Zapsibgidrostroy (it’s a mouthful, yes) has begun the construction of the docks that will carry the world’s first floating nuclear power plant to its location off the Chukotka coast. From there, the NPP will supply power to the coast and to the offshore oil and gas platforms pumping crude in Arctic waters, starting in 2019.
Work on the 21,000-ton NPP, named Akademik Lomonossov, has been in progress since 2007, and the plant itself is already complete and undergoing tests. With two low-enriched uranium reactors with a combined installed capacity of 75 MW, the plant, once operational, should be able to produce enough electricity to supply a city of 200,000, along with 300 MW of heat that will save 200,000 tons of coal annually.
Civil power and heating supply aside, Akademik Lomonosov could turn into just the first step towards a whole fleet of floating NPPs that will power Russia’s advance into the Arctic hydrocarbon wealth.
According to proponents of the floating NPP idea, these plants are also lower-risk than nuclear plants on land. They are more resilient to earthquakes and tsunamis, and they have constant access to cooling water, since Akademik Lomonosov’s reactors are suspended below sea level, so a meltdown is more unlikely than on land. Basically, all such a floating plant needs is a power line nearby. This portability is also a major plus, as they can be towed to any location that needs energy.
This could solve a lot of the energy challenges related to Arctic hydrocarbon extraction, as nuclear energy is much more reliable in terms of permanent supply than any renewable alternative to date, but as is the case with all nuclear technology, some issues could be risky.
According to a Greenpeace expert, storms can do to floating NPPS what earthquakes and tsunamis can’t. To illustrate, Jan Haverkamp refers to the fate of the Sturgis, a U.S. floating mini-NPP that was seriously damaged after being decommissioned and en route to the coast. He doesn’t, however, mention any spill of radioactive fuel as a result of the damage.
Another nuclear expert, Julius Cesar I. Trajano from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says that the question of transporting waste fuel in a safe way remains a challenge with floating NPPs. With Akademik Lomonossov, the challenge is being addressed by organizing the productive life of the plant into 12-year cycles: at the end of each, the plant will be taken to the shipyard, to dispose of the waste fuel and reload it with fresh uranium.
Another potential problem is the absence of back-up energy sources in case of an accident, unlike onshore NPPs. This latter problem could make it that much harder to handle a radioactive spill.
Then there is the risk of terrorists taking over a floating NPP, although admittedly, Trajano sees this as a risk in Southeast Asia, where China is preparing to start building floating NPPs for the South China Sea, a focal point for territorial disputes with its neighbors.
There is also the risk of a cybersecurity breach, which is more relevant to the Russian NPP, but there is no information available on how this threat would be managed. Managed it will be, though, there is no doubt about this.
The first large-scale floating NPP could mark the beginning of a new stage in power generation, despite the widespread opposition to nuclear power. Yet, for all the praise Akademik Lomonossov has received as an alternative and cleaner-than-coal source of energy to Far East cities, its primary role is more likely to be the vital power lifeline supplying juice for the offshore platforms that are bound to multiply in Russia’s Arctic waters.