Fire aboard floating nuclear plant ignites fresh debate

akademik_lomonosov_baltic_shipyard1-320x213 Nuclear reactor installation on the Akademik Lomonosov. (Photo: Baltiisky Zavod)

A fire broke out on the floating nuclear power plant being built at a shipyard in the center of St. Petersburg, but was extinguished before anyone was injured, Russia’s emergency services ministry said yesterday.

There were no reports of damage to its two nuclear reactors, but the incident at the city’s Baltic Shipyard, in the middle of Russia’s second biggest city, renewed environmentalists’ concerns over the experimental nuclear reactor baring barge.

A release from the emergency services ministry reported the fire was caused by a short circuit in a storage battery, and that it was put out soon after it began.

The Baltic Shipyard where the Akademik Lomonosov is under construction is only two kilometers down the Neva River from St. Petersburg’s major tourist sites, like the Hermitage Museum and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

Mooring tests recently began on the plant, and Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, says it will be towed around Scandinavia and through the Northern Sea route to the remote port of Pevek on the Kamchatka Peninsula as soon as 2018.

akademik_lomonosov11 The Akademik Lomonosov under construction at the Baltic Shipyard. (Photo: Rosatom)

Tuesday’s fire reignited opposition to the Akademik Lomonosov and sparked fresh anxieties over still murky plans to fuel its two 70 megawatt KLT-40 reactors with uranium – a process many fear could take place right in the middle Russia’s second biggest city.

Countries like Norway and Finland are worried about possible calamities with the plant as it skirts their coastlines on its way north and east. Norway’s foreign minster, Börge Brende, has proposed that the Nordic nations officially band together and protest the planned tow route of the plant. Meanwhile, Finnish nuclear officials are scheduled to register their ill ease over the project in St Petersburg this month.

Bellona has pushed back against the plant from the beginning, saying a waterborne nuclear reactor operating in a distant, sparsely populated region poses a threat to the environment, as well as representing juicy bait to terrorists on the prowl for materials to make a dirty bomb.

“A fire like this shows the risks of a floating nuclear power plant,” Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general manager and nuclear physicist said Wednesday. “You could have a fire in the non-nuclear part of the plant that could spread somewhere far more dangerous, and that’s troubling when the floating plant will be sent somewhere so remote.”

moving akademic lomonosov The Akademik Lomonosov puts in for further construction at the Baltic Shipyard. (Photo: Baltiisky Zavod).

Some local politicians in St. Petersburg have demanded public hearings over the prospective fueling operation. For their part, Rosatom officials have yet to say when, or indeed, where, the fueling might take place. Members of the Yabloko opposition political party have insisted city hall draw up evacuation plans in case of a fueling accident.

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, who has held talks with Rosatom in an attempt to persuade the company to fuel the plant elsewhere, said the nuclear corporation is playing the fueling procedure close to its vest.

“As far as I understand it, they haven’t made a final decision about where and when to do it,” he said. “But there are suspicions that they may have started fueling it on the sly.”

He added that: “My position on this issue is clear: You don’t need to be doing potentially dangerous nuclear work in the middle of a city of 5 million people – it’s dangerous.”

Some have suggested fueling operations for the Akademic Lomonsov wouldn’t be any more hazardous than fueling a nuclear icebreaker, of which the Baltic Shipyard has built many.

But Nikitin said fueling accidents are disturbingly likely. An explosion during a nuclear submarine refueling operation in 1985 blew radioactive debris all over Chazhma Bay in the Pacific near Vladivostok, killing 10 and injuring 49. It was later discovered that the nuclear fuel had rocketed out of the Echo II class submarine onto neighboring vessels, onto the shore and into the water.

chazhma The Echo II class nuclear submarine after an explosion gutted its reactor at Chazhma Bay in 1985. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Two thousand people were involved in the ensuing cleanup operations, 290 of who were exposed to high levels of radiation. Decades later, portions of the seabed are still severely contaminated. The Soviet government kept the accident hushed up until 1993.

To avoid  similar disaster in St Petersburg, Nikitin has proposed that Rosatom fuel the floating nuclear plant at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, located along the Northern Sea Route to Pevek. Finland and Norway have likewise suggested the fueling operations be carried out close to Murmansk, which the Atomflot nuclear icebreaker port calls home.

The current disquiet arising from the fire are yet another chapter in the Akademik Lomonosov’s troubled history. Begun as a highly propagandized project with no prospective customers, the plant has become a money pit, costing several million dollars more than expected and smashing through numerous deadlines for completion.

Its construction, initially slated to take five years, has now dragged on for more than 13, and the build has taken place at two different shipbuilding yards separated by thousands of kilometers of sea.

The Akademik Lomonosov’s keel was laid at the Sevmash shipyard in 2006, but the vessel was moved under hints of scandal to the Baltic Shipyard in 2008.

bodytextimage_nikitin4833.JPG Bellona's Alexander Nikitin (Photo: Bellona)

Since coming to the Baltic Shipyard in St Petersburg, it has weathered lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings, property disputes, budget shortfalls and regular but protracted delays.

When it’s towed from St. Petersburg to Pevek on the far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula in next year, it will be almost a decade behind schedule and several million of dollars over budget.

Upon arrival, it will replace the nuclear power supplied to the remote Chukotka Autonomous Republic by the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant, which Rosatom plans subsequently to decommission.

Regardless of where it is finally fueled, the Akademik Lomonsov will be Russia’s first-ever floating nuclear power plant, a controversial honor eclipsed only by the Sturgis, designed and launched by the United States in 1967 and decommissioned in 1976.

And it’s supposed to be only the first of many. In 2015, amid a mire of delays and shocking price spikes to complete the Akademik Lomonosov, Rosatom rolled out plans to build a second, more compact, floating plant by 2030. And that plant, the company said, would be built in 40 percent less time by eliminating on-vessel storage of spent nuclear fuel and crew quarters.

Reports from that time in the business daily Kommersant carried head-scratching quotes from several anonymous sources within Rosatom, who said they didn’t know how the new design would house the crew or what they would do with the spent fuel.

Some of those sources even acknowledged that building the first plant was a misadventure. Using a floating nuclear plant as an area’s single source of energy was, they said, a bad idea, which called into question the reason for building the plant in the first place. Ever since, discussion of a second floating plant has faded.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no