Official vote of confidence for Russia’s floating nuclear plant fails to reassure

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

Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, has received its approval for operation from the country’s State Expert Examination Board, the last major bureaucratic hurdle before it plugs in at the Far Eastern Pacific port of Pevek on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

A State Expert Examination is Russia’s comprehensive federal level review of engineering and environmental specifications for industrial undertakings and is intended to serve as a sort of seal of approval for large scale projects.

But many are less than convinced that two nuclear reactors sitting on a barge like structure meant to operate in remote regions is a good idea, and the Akademik Lomonosov’s protracted construction and murky but skyrocketing expenses have done little to reassured skeptics.

Its construction, initially slated to take five years, has now dragged on for more almost 14, and the build has taken place at two different shipbuilding yards separated by thousands of kilometers of sea.
The Akademik Lomonosov is currently moored at St. Petersburg’s Baltic Shipyard, where it has been under construction for the last decade.

The keel for the plant was originally laid at the Sevmash Shipyard near Severodvinsk in 2006, but it was moved to St. Petersburg in 2008 when costs jumped and a military backorder took precedence to what was at that point merely a propaganda project.

Things got more serious for the floating plant when it arrived in St Petersburg, where it has weathered lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings, property disputes, labor complaints, budget shortfalls and regular but protracted delays, all while raising pulses around what were until recently highly secretive plans surrounding the loading of its nuclear fuel.

Originally, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, planned to load the Akademik Lomonosov’s two 35 watt KLT-40S reactors at the shipyard, which is located less than two kilometers from tourist meccas like the Winter Palace and St. Issacs Cathedral and in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

City Hall, which in the 1990s forbade nuclear fuel loading operations within St Petersburg’s city limits, was incensed, and Scandinavian countries, around which the nuclear barge will be towed on its way to the Pacific via the Arctic, were on edge.

In August, Rosatom responded to pressure from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to delay fueling the plant with its uranium fuel until it had cleared its coast.

But from then until December, Rosatom kept everyone in the dark about whether it was planning on shipping the plant’s uranium fuel aboard the plant itself – which would have violated the spirit of its August agreement with Norway – or whether the fuel would be sent separately by train.

It has now apparently been settled that the Akademik Lomonosov will be loaded at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker in Murmansk, by fuel that will arrive separately.

But even that news was buried deep within a release published by Rosenergoatom, Rosatom’s reactor building wing, about a series of turbine tests. The fueling venue that Rosatom had specified to the Norwegian government was added as an afterthought.

The latest releases on the Akademik Lomonosov passing its expert review buried bits of critical information as well. The overall cost for the Academic Lomonosov, both the plant and infrastructure for its Far Eastern port, are expected to top $530 million – which is almost four times as expensive as it was projected to be in 2006.

In the end, that may weigh in on the cheap side. The costs of decommissioning the vessel have not yet been weighed, nor have the costs of cleaning up a nuclear accident on a stretch of land as remote as the Kamchatka Peninsula.