Comment: Floating madness as Russia sizes up floating nuke plants for Artic Ocean oil projects

A mock up illustration of a floating nuclear power plant.

A mock up illustration of a floating nuclear power plant.

The first in a planned series or such plants has just been launched by the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg. Bellona asserts that floating nuclear power plants – long a pet project of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom – are madness. They were madness when the plans were presented, and now the madness has become a reality.

It is unquestionable that nuclear power is dangerous. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 woke the world up to that fact. Other threats to health and the environment involve the tons of radioactive waste that we will be dealing with for generations.

Towing nuclear power plants by sea from place to place will only increase potential risks. The floating nuclear power plant launched by the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg is slated to be used in northern Siberia  – but even its prospective recipients in the far northeast Kamchatka region have balked at the new gift, and the plant will now be situated somewhere else along the Russian Arctic Coast.

The Chukotka region will now be holding public headings  on whether they want the freshly minted floating nuclear power plant on August.

Yet, Russian officials have also acknowledged that they are planning to use nuclear power in the Barents Sea to supply power to efforts to work the Shtokman oil and gas condensate field in the oceans north of Murmansk, which is thought to be one of the largest untapped oil and gas fields in the world.

Nature is vulnerable and preparedness poor

The Arctic ecosystem is extremely vulnerable to perturbation, and climate change is already wreaking havoc with it. Predictions coming of a melting polar ice cap include more unstable weather, more hurricanes, more tsunamis and other natural disasters.

Preparation for oil spills in Russia’s northern areas is poor, and Bellona doubts that preparedness for a nuclear incident will be any better. Currently, technology for cleaning Cold War atomic waste is insufficient. To believe that setting nuclear power plants to sea is going to help matters is utopian.

Floating nuclear power plants – especially in the remote areas they are slated to be used – will make them attractive targets for terrorists and pirates. The fuel from one reactor of the newly launched floating nuclear power plant alone is enough to produce 10 nuclear bombs.

The power of Russia’s nuclear lobby

Despite all of this, Russia is desperately betting on nuclear power to restore itself to its great nation status, and the powerful nuclear industry is beginning to rise again.

As a result of Russia’s huge Cold War nuclear inheritance, the nuclear lobby has great power. Nuclear progress was, after all, a symbol of the progress of the old Soviet Union. But Chernobyl put a stop to nuclear progress throughout the world – until now.

Renewable energy is on the verge of making a breakthrough in the world energy supply. As Norway has been ardent in its line against nuclear power, it is scandalous that the country’s state owned oil giant Statoil – one of the three principle groups of Shtokman AG, which is realising the Shtokman project along with Russia’s Gazprom and France’s Total – will participate in the expansion of nuclear power at the expense of renewable and safe energy.

Instead, Norway should make it abundantly clear to Russia that the use of nuclear power in the Barents Sea during the realisation of the Shtokman project is out of the question. Going a step further, all Norwegian partners in Shtokman AG should withdraw their participation from project using nuclear power at sea.

Chernobyl at sea?

Norway must be at the forefront of ending this floating madness before it is put into mass production. The oil industry must be aware of its responsibilities and realize that the petroleum industry carries with it enough dangers to the rest of the world without adding nuclear ones. The industry simply cannot merge with nuclear power.

It is a preoccupying thought: Think if the Deepwater Horizon spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and think what would have happened had that been coupled with floating nuclear power plants. The situation is bad enough as it is, but with floating nuclear power plants, we would be standing in the middle of a Chernobyl at sea, as radioactive oil washed up on beached. Could there be a worse disaster?

Frederic Hauge is the president of the Bellona Foundation and Alexander Nikitin is the executive director of the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, Bellona’s St. Petersburg office.