Floating nuclear power plants attracting interest of the oil industry in Russia and abroad


Publish date: February 12, 2008

Written by: Galina Raguzina

Translated by: Charles Digges

KALININGRAD - The extremely hazardous use of floating and underwater atomic energy stations to supply power to tap remote oil and gas reserves is gaining currency among not only Russian gas giants but their Norwegian counterparts as well, despite vociferous environmental criticism.

The idea, which has long been on the drawing board of the Russian nuclear industry, has attracted customers from developing nations. But a Kaliningrad conference, where the notion had so many adherents, represents the first time large-scale western oil giants have thrown their weight behind the dicey nuclear prospect.

“The concept of underwater atomic station has potential for autonomous energy supplies for underwater oil and gas fields at low capital investment and is worth further investigation,” said Petter Birkeland, director of production for Norway’s JP Kenny Norge AS at the sixth Russian-Norwegian oil and gas conference entitled “Partnership of Companies of the Oil and Gas Sector for the Exploration of the Continental Shelf.” The conference convened at the end of January in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Birkeland said Russia must make a significant contribution to the design of such underwater reactors, which are envisioned to be 50 to 100 megawatts, much like the reactor installations aboard nuclear icebreakers.

The idea was warmly greeted by members of Russia’s scientific community who were on hand for the conference. The Director for the centre for research and engineering development of means to develop sea and ocean resources at the Krylov Central Scientific Research Institute (TsNII) of shipbuilding, Yevgeny Apollonov, said Russia was up to snuff for building floating nuclear power plants.

Nuclear icebreakers provide the prototype – decommissioned subs the muscle
“This project includes the experience gained from constructing nuclear icebreakers. Our institute is actively participating in securing this project and the project shows that is realistic to construct atomic stations on the basis of nuclear icebreaker reactors,” Apollonov told the conference.

bodytextimage_bodytextimage_skretting_appolonov-1..jpg Photo: Galina Raguzina/Bellona

“Second, the institute has amassed vast experience in building underwater technologies; third it is possible to examine the proposition of building underwater atomic electric stations for instance, on decommissioned submarines.”

Stanislav Lavkovsky, general director of the Ship Repair and Building Corporation, and former vice director of the Lazurit Central Construction Bureau, spoke at the conference, saying: “The platform on which sit four atomic energy blocks of the KLT40-C type, each producing 35 megawatts, served for a 35-year period on our icebreakers.”

According to Lavkovsky, floating nuclear power plants are an optimal solution for supplying energy to drilling and transport of petroleum on the continental shelf, which Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom is currently divvying up.

Gazprom has recently expressed renewed interest in using floating nuclear power plants in it explorations of the Yamal Peninsual and the Shtokman field off the Arctic coast of Russia, which is believed to be one of the world’s largest untapped oil and gas fields. This was confirmed by Gazprom board member Bogdan Budzulyak during a January 24th meeting between the company’s directors and Rosatom, Russia’s federal agency for atomic energy.

“We require three floating nuclear power plants to supply energy for the development of the Yamal and Shtokman oilfields. A specific fixed figure on the quantity of necessary atomic energy stations shows the technical and economic foundation we are carrying out,” Budzulyak said.

On November 20th, representatives of Rosenergoatom, Russia’s state nuclear utility, gave a presentation on floating nuclear power plants at Gazprom’s central offices, and their prospective use in powering oil drilling equipment and the transport of petroleum on the continental shelf of Russia’s northern seas and the Yamal Peninsula.

Gazprom fishing for partners – in Norway
Yet Gazprom has not hurried to buy the technology.

“Gazprom is taking a passive approach to this work,” said Lavkovsky. “They payed for the designs, the expertise, but Gazprom doesn’t wish to take any further steps without a financial partner.”

And who would this financial partner be? Gazprom has some ideas.

“If someone among our Norwegian friends was interested in this, then we are ready for any kind of partnership relationship to make head way and push this system further,” said Lavkovsky, noting “the partnerships already forged between Russian and Norway in evaluating radioactive waste produced by the atomic fleet and radioactive installations in the territorial waters of Russia.”

Bellona erroneously cited as supporting work on floating nuke stations
Lavkovsky cited the work of Bellona as crucial to facilitating the union of atomic science and oil drilling.

“We can comprehend these things wisely, and we have spoken with the Norwegian Ecological Organisation Bellona in good professional language and without undue apprehension,” Lavkovksy said.

In the course of developing the floating nuclear power plant project, a data base of sunken radioactive objects in the Russian Arctic was compiled, which allows for the study of the impact of this radiation on the environment and facilitates methods of fashioning preventative approaches to avert ecological consequences, as well as offering ways to evaluate risks for the population in coastal areas nearby sources of possible radioactive contamination by nuclear powered ships.

Bellona condemns construction of floating nuke plants
But Bellona and other environmental organisations have vociferously protested the construction of floating nuclear power stations and warn that such stations present a dramatically heightened risk of radioactive contamination of the sea and costal areas, specifically the Russian Arctic.

The developers of the project insist it is safe.

“Why are they suggesting just such a solution?” said Lavkovsky. “Because you can’t undertake risky work at sea – the work associated with refueling reactors, this work has to be done at the shipyards where they have all necessary for this, in the first place ship yards like Nerpa and Zvedochka if we are talking about the Northern region.”

These explanations do not diminish the danger of storing nuclear waste on floating nuclear power plants, as it has been suggested that the waste that would accrue during the life span of any one of these plants would remain on board.

Ecologists also point out that the engineers of the project do not explain how a nuclear power station lacking in a service infrastructure will deal with routine and more serious radioactively hazardous situations, the results of which could pose even more unpredictable consequences when the particulars of the climatic and natural conditions of the Arctic seas are taken into account.

‘Bad, stupid, dangerous idea’

“Commenting on the idea of floating nuclear power plants is both difficult and easy,” said government honoured ecologist and Bellona correspondent Anatoly Lebedev.

“It’s hard because there is nothing concrete. It is easy because I am an engineer and ecologist with 20 years experience and thus know that this is a bad, stupid, dangerous idea,” said Lebedev, who also leads the Vladivostok based BROK environmental organisation.

“What is bad is that the nuclear industry never takes into economic account the expenditures on covering its debts to the victims of Chernobyl and (the) Chazhma (bay explosion), the expenses of disposing of waste, on the development of full-fledged technology for disposal, or on adequate monitoring,” he said.

Locals concerned over floating nuke plant construction
Environmentalists in Arkangelsk where the Sevmash graving yard is currently building the first floating nuclear power plant are extremely worried about the project.

“The maritime area has become a zone for the realisation of a new and dangerous experiment – a floating nuclear power plant, throwing us back to the pre-Chernobyl era of empty-headed proliferation nuclear installations anywhere and everywhere. People whose daily bread is nuclear are forcing us into that past. We don’t want a repeat performance of the insanity of the nuclear race, inevitably ending in explosions, death and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people,” the Ankankelsk environmental organisation Etas wrote in an open letter to residents of the region.