Comment: Russia embarks on constructing floating Chernobyls in waiting

Bellona Archive

Publish date: April 19, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - Russia has embarked on building the world’s first floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) in the northern city of Severodvinsk, and the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) has promised to have six of the units operational by 2010.

The Bellona Foundation strongly objects to the advancement of this project, as Russia has neither the means nor infrastructure to ensure their safe operation, has made no plans for disposing of their spent nuclear fuel (SNF), and has not taken into consideration the enormous nuclear proliferation risks posed by placing nuclear reactors in remote areas.

Furthermore, officials apparently have not considered their vulnerability to terrorists attacks while on site or during transportation to their intended locations.

Issues of debate remain unanswered by authorities
The issues surrounding the debate over FNPPs have long been outstanding and remain unaddressed by Russia’s nuclear establishment.

A book entitled “Floating NPPs: A threat to the Arctic, World Oceans and Nonproliferation” by Russian environmentalists Alexei Yablokov, Vladimir Kuznetsov, Vladimir Desyatov Igor Forofonto, and Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, written in 2001, still poses questions to nuclear authorities that they have not or will not answer.

“The intentions of Minatom (Rosatom’s precursor) to build these stations defines only its wish to use remote Arctic regions as an experimental ground for the gestation of its dangerous new technologies,” the authors write.

Yet Russian nuclear authorities blithely repeat that the plants are safe and ideal for supplying power to Russia’s far-flung and ice-bound regions that have little or no access to coal or gas power. But this implies they will be very difficult to reach in times of emergency – a notion Rosatom brass seems to intentionally evade.

Indeed the rhetoric in which Russian nuclear authorities talk about the plants is misleading.

“The rosy perspective that the nuclear industry draws leaves the impression that we are talking not about the construction of a nuclear power plant but a usual battery,” said Bellona researcher Igor Kudrik.

The cash-crop Rosatom expects
The first FNPP is slated by Rosatom to provide heat and power to the closed nuclear city of Severodvinsk and the Sevmash ship-building yard that is located there, Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov told Bellona Web in a telephone interview.

Furthermore, Russia expects to make a booming profit on the new technology, and 12 nations – including unstable regions such as Indonesia, Zimbabwe, as well as the South East Asian countries of China and Malaysia – have already lined up to become customers.

“The economics will prove that FNPPs are profitable,” said Novikov.

Rosatom touts the safety of FNPPs

Rosatom officials also assure that the reactor designs and the design of the plants themselves are entirely safe. According to Novikov, the reactors are of the same type used on nuclear submarines.

Specifically, Novikov said the reactors were of the KLT 40 variety that was used aboard the Kursk submarine, which sank after an explosion in its torpedo bay during a military exercise in August 2001, killing all 118 sailors on board.

“It’s an unfortunate example, but (the reactor) was put to an extreme test,” said Novikov.

“It survived an explosion, the whole crew sank – that is to say that there was no one to operate the reactor. The reactor shut down automatically, and when they retrieved it, it turned out that they could restart it right away.”

Novikov also said the floating plants themselves are stressed for the harshest weather conditions that the areas they would be located could dish out.

“An FNPP can withstand winds of up to 90 kilometers a second. The maximum wind in the Severodvinsk region has never exceeded 25 kilometers.”

But in the post 9/11 world, there are larger concerns about conditions that could cause radioactive disaster than weather – for instance an airplane crashing into one of these units.

Furthermore, there is no reliable way of dealing with an FNPP if it sank. Several thousand tons of nuclear fuel and irradiated equipment falling to the ocean floor would have an untold impact for generations on the local oceanic biosphere for years to come.

Bellona’s Position Detailed

The Bellona Foundation believes the technology is far too dangerous to put into use.

At present, Russia lacks the infrastructure to deal with any emergencies that might occur at one of these far-flung plants. Neither have authorities drawn up any suitable plan for transporting or disposing of the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from these remote reactors, and is disregarding the proliferation risks associated with isolated, largely unguarded reactors that require by their design more highly enriched uranium fuel to operate.

Proliferation risks
Unlike their larger cousins, such as VVER-1000 or VVER-440 reactors, FNPP and submarine reactors provide much less power, but require a much more highly enriched uranium fuel to operate.

This makes FNPP fuel an even more attractive acquisition for potential nuclear terrorists than fuel for land based reactors. Higher enrichment means less work to build a full-fledged nuclear device.

“Floating NPPs: A threat to the Arctic, World Oceans and Nonproliferation” further illustrates the vulnerability of FNPPs to potential terrorist attacks.

According to the authors, FNPPs would require enormous military resources to protect them – perhaps even a unit of the Russian Navy.

“But even in this case, it is practically impossible to guarantee absolute safety from underwater, such as torpedo blows or saboteurs,” the authors write. From above ground, FNPPs are equally susceptible to missiles and bombs or suicide pilots.

These considerations are especially vital given the potential market fort FNPPs – like Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation that has proven itself a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.

“The notion of providing (FNPPs) to such nations as Indonesia borders on insanity, if, of course, each station is not provided with a company of soldiers to defend against various terrorists and insurgents,” said Kudrik.

Storage of SNF from FNPPs

Given the planned remote locations for FNPPs, many of which are only accessible by sea for a few months out of the year, it is highly inconceivable that waste can be taken from the plants on a regular basis and will thus be left to gather on the territory of the stations.

The stations themselves are not equipped to handle large scale storage of nuclear waste, and getting their SNF to reprocessing at Mayak in the southern Urals would, by the very nature of the FNPPs’ remoteness, be largely impossible – an issue Rosatom has failed to address.

This means that local residents of the small settlements FNPPs are meant to serve run the risk of becoming permanent nuclear waste dumps. Since the eradication of legally binding public hearings with the passage of Russia’s new municipal building codes in January, the residents would furthermore have no say in whether they wanted to watch their region turn into a radioactive wasteland.

Furthermore, nuclear officials in Russia seem to have no concern for that aspect of FNPPs anyway.

“When they build nuclear submarines – do the hold hearings for that?” Rosatom’s Novikov asked rhetorically.

Ironically, one of the most looming environmental catastrophes of the post Cold-War era are the 250 nuclear submarines that were built by the Soviet Union – not one of which has been entirely dismantled.

Though the majority of them have been cut into sections, the problem of safely storing their spent nuclear fuel remains unsolved. Other rusted out submarine carcasses that are still afloat with their nuclear fuel on board, ageing nuclear icebreakers and nuclear service ships are a headache not only for Russia, but other nearby nations as well, which have spent millions of dollars to help Russia avert potential nuclear catastrophes.

FNPPs, once decommissioned after their service life has ended, would likely face the same fate of becoming yet another floating nuclear hazard on the seas surrounding Russia.

Dealing with emergencies
The intended remoteness of FNPPs also contribute to their vulnerability should any emergencies arise. Proposed areas along Russia’s Arctic coast for their use are ice-jammed most of the year and lack crucial infrastructure for dealing with emergencies.

The size of many of the potential settlements FNPPs would serve lack even public address systems to alert citizens to any of the dozens of accidents that could occur, from accidental release of radioactive emissions to full-scale melt downs.

Rosatom has yet to announce any plans to outfit these far-flung regions with the radiation monitoring and emergency systems that towns hosting land-based nuclear power plants have.

In Kudrik’s assessment, far too large a tangle of questions remain unanswered to even begin considering putting six FNPPs into operation over the next three years, to say nothing of their prospective sale to other nations.

“In what way do they propose to remove fuel from stations that are providing electrical power to some remote region in the far north?” said Kudrik.

“And if the station has an emergency? How can you prevent it when several of the regions where they are planning on putting floating nuclear power plants are accessible only during a few months out of the year?”

In Bellona’s opinion, FNPPs are a dangerous experiment that poses too many dangerous questions to which there is a dangerously small amount of answers. They are, in short, floating mini-Chernobyls in waiting.

Igor Kudrik and Rashid Alimov contributed to this piece. Ponomareva reported from St. Petersburg and Digges reported and wrote from Oslo.