Floating nuclear plant’s rectors to fire up in Murmansk

akademik_lomonosov_baltic_shipyard Installation of the Akademik Lomonosov's nuclear reactors. Credit: Baltic Shipyard

Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, has dispelled the cloud of mystery it had created about where and when, exactly, it plans to fuel its new floating nuclear power plant. At last it is known that the Akademik Lomonosov, as the plant is called, will be fueled at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port in Murmansk, in the autumn of 2018.

The news came buried in a release from Rosenergoatom, the reactor construction division of Rosatom, which described successful tests on one of the floating plant’s two turbine systems, which were carried out at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, where the plant is still under construction.

The news will come as some relief to environmentalists who weren’t entirely convinced Rosatom was being truthful when it promised not to fuel the floating plant’s rectors in the middle of Russia’s densely populated cultural capital.

Rosenergoatom’s release further detailed that tests will continue on the floating plant until it is towed out of St. Petersburg and further along the coast of Scandinavia to Murmansk. Once there, it will undergo its fueling procedures and undergo further tests that will continue for at least another year.

After that, it will be towed another 6,000 kilometers through the Arctic to Pevek in Chukotka on the Pacific Ocean, where it is expected to offset the power generated by the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant, which Rostatom subsequently plans to decommission.

Rosatom’s original plan was to load the Akademik Lomonosov’s two RITM-200 at the Baltic Shipyard, which is two kilometers from tourist meccas like the Winter Palace and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, on top of being located in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Bellona, other environmental groups, and many in the St. Petersburg city legislature strenuously objected to this plan. Rosatom finally backed away from the fueling procedure in August, when Norway’s foreign ministry extracted a promise from the corporation’s head, Alexei Likhachev, not to haul a pair of reactors loaded with nuclear fuel along the country’s coastline.

fnpp_control_room A photo of the Akademik Lomonosov's control room released by Rosenergoatom, showing the components still wrapped in factory plastic. Credit: Rosatom

But after that, the corporation’s intentions remained vague. While Rosatom had cleared up that it wouldn’t load the reactors in St. Petersburg, it had failed to mention whether the plant would be fueled in Murmansk’s Atomflot port or at a handful of other sites in Russia’s Arctic that are also suitable for such procedures.

Yet while that is now clear, one critical mystery still remains unsolved. Throughout this period of grudging promises from Rosatom, it is still not clear if the uranium fuel for the Akademik Lomonosov will be onboard the plant while it is towed to Murmansk, or whether the fuel will be shipped separately by rail.

The distinction may seem minor, whether or not its fuel is on board as it is towed by Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway impacts the spirit of promises Rosatom made to these governments by moving the fueling location.

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

Rosatom’s has thus far failed to respond to emailed requests for clarification from Bellona, and the company has similarly avoided discussing the subject with Russian newspapers as well.

According to Russian media, there is – or was until recently– nuclear fuel aboard the floating plant. That fuel arrived while Rosatom still had plans to load the plant’s reactors before it left the Baltic Shipyard.

Andrei Zolotkov, a Murmansk-based nuclear expert with Bellona, has said that the lack of clarity over Rosatom’s fueling plans hardly ends there.

While he said it was unlikely that Rosatom would breach its promise to not fuel the reactors in St Petersburg, he did say that it’s unclear even how much fuel was currently aboard the Akademik Lomonosov.

In his estimation, there could be as little as two uranium assemblies aboard, a quantity that would be sufficient for testing the reactor at Atomflot. But he also said there could be as many a six assemblies to fulfill the reactor’s 12 year cycle.

Usually, said Zolotkov, Rosatom releases particulars about reactor fueling procedure years in advance. That it hasn’t done so in this case adds to confusion surrounding an already controversial project.

Should the Akademik Lomonosov eventually be sent to Murmansk bearing its fuel, Norway would be right to think that the promise Rosatom made it in August had been broken.