Bellona visits Russia’s floating nuclear power plant at sea

nils at Akademik Lomonosov Nils Bøhmer, Bellona's general director, visiting the Akademik Lomonosov, Russia's floating nuclear power plant, at sea. Credit: Bellona

After years of secrecy surrounding the Akademik Lomonosov, Russia’s controversial floating nuclear power plant, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, invited Norwegian journalists and Bellona general manager to have a look at it at sea.

At present, the floating plant is being towed through the waters off Norway’s west coast on its way to Murmansk, where it will be loaded with its nuclear fuel. The plant pulled out of St. Petersburg last week, where it has been under construction for nearly ten years, towed by tug boats.

After the Akademik Lomonosov’s two reactors, which are similar to those aboard nuclear icebreakers, are fueled in Murmansk’s nuclear icebreaker port, the plant will be towed through the Arctic to the Far East Siberian city of Pevek, in Chukotka, were it will be plugged into onshore infrastructure and provide power for the town as well as offshore oil rigs.

akademkik lomonosov VI The Akademik Lomonosov, Russia's floating nuclear power plant, at sea. Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Rosatom has in the past been less than forthcoming about its floating nuclear plant. Past opportunities for Bellona to visit the Akademik Lomonosov while it was being built were scuttled for vague reasons, and for a number of years the company insisted it would fuel the vessel within St Petersburg’s city limits. Last summer, heeding appeals from Norway’s foreign ministry and other Nordic governments, Rosatom relented on those plans and agreed to tow it to Murmansk free of its fuel, and load the fuel there instead.

Tuesday’s visit to the Akademik Lomonosov as tug boats towed it through the seas off Bergen, Norway, were part of an effort, Rosatom said, to be transparent about the plant, which has, since it left St Petersburg, received reams of anxious international media coverage.

akademik lomonosov  Vitaly Trutnev Vitaly Trutnev, the he Rosatom official responsible for overseeing the Akademik Lomonosov's construction and operation.

Because of this overture at openness, Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general manager and nuclear physicist, who visited the flotilla hauling the floating plant with NRK Norwegian Television, said he had no reason to believe Rosatom had broken its agreement to haul the plant to Murmansk without its fuel.

And, while he said Bellona has no particular objection to an un-fueled nuclear reactor skirting the coast of Norway, he did say that Bellona objects overall to the concept  of floating nuclear power plants.

“Bellona is concerned with the very concept of floating nuclear power plants, as well as with what will happen after the nuclear fuel is loaded into the floating reactor,” he said. “In remote arctic regions, where Akademik Lomonosov will be used, it will be extremely difficult to provide technical assistance in case of emergencies. And such a scenario is all the more likely thanks to the harsh climate in which it will operate.”

Bøhmer and NRK met with Vitaly Trutnev, the Rosatom official responsible for the floating plant’s construction and operation, on one of the support vessels accompanying the Akademik Lomonosov. Trutnev said what while he believes the floating plant to be as safe as it possible can be, history has told darker stories.

Akademik Lomonosov at sea The Akademik Lomonosov, Russia's floating nuclear power plant, at sea off the coast of Norway. Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

“I do not believe that a floating nuclear power plant can be 100 percent safe,” Bøhmer said. “We heard similar assurances before, but then there were accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima.”

The broad strokes of the Akademik Lomonosov’s design combine floating reactor designs that Rosatom has developed over decades and Russian shipbuilding designs. The KLT-40S reactors will generate 70 megawatts of energy. This, says Rosatom, is enough to support Pevek’s population of 100,000, as well as power nearby offshore oil and gas platforms.

Rosatom has further said the Akademik Lomonosov has been designed with several threats in mind. The technology on board meets with requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Rosatom additional claims it is invulnerable to tsunamis.

The Akademik Lomonosov is expected to arrive in Murmansk later this month. Rosatom says its fuel will be loaded in the fall, and will be delivered to Pevek in an already operational state by 2019.

The plant is expected to replace the energy supplied by the Bilibino nuclear power plant in Chukotka, which will then be decommissioned. At that point, the Akademik Lomonosov will assume its title as the worlds northernmost nuclear power plant.