Russia’s floating nuclear plant arrives in Murmansk

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

The Akademik Lomonsov, Russia’s floating nuclear power plant – dubbed the “nuclear Titanic” by some environmentalists – arrived in the Arctic port of Murmansk over the weekend, after a 4,000 kilometer journey from St. Petersburg that began on May 1.

The plant, which has been moored at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, will be fueled in July before it is put through several months worth of tests. Next summer, the Akademik Lomosov will be towed once again to its final destination of Pevek, in Chukotka, which is separated from the US state of Alaska by the 84-kilometer-wide Bering Straight.

Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, has presented the notion of floating nuclear plants with mobile, small-capacity reactors as part of its strategy to boost energy reserves to remote regions, especially in the arctic.

But environmentalists have challenged that by pointing out the essential vulnerabilities of far-flung sea-borne nuclear installations, which present difficulties for emergency response, spent nuclear fuel handling and radioactive waste disposal.

The arrival of the $480-million Akademik Lomonosov was greeted by a ceremony attended by Rosatom chief Alesky Likhachev, who also received a letter from Greenpeace and other environmental groups urging the corporation demanding strict adherence to safety standards in the plant’s fueling and operation.

Bellona’s Alexander Niktin has said there are few safety concerns surrounding fueling the plant’s two KLT-40 nuclear reactors in Murmansk, as the procedure will be carried out by technicians at the nuclear icebreaker port, which has been carrying out similar refueling operations for nearly 50 years.

He did, however, note that fueling is an essentially dangerous undertaking, and that the responsibility for maintaining safety lies with Atomflot.

In statements, Rosatom said the plant – which will provide power not only to the port of Pevek but oil rigs as well – marked a blow against climate change and harmful emissions.

Yet that assertion is just one uncertain marketing tactic from the company, which for 14 years has sought to justify its massive experiment in alternative used for nuclear power.  Initially billed as the next step in nuclear power, few of the countries Rosatom initially saw as customers for its 140-meter nuclear novelty have rushed to submit orders.

China is said to be pursuing floating nuclear power plants of its own, and only Sudan, which is arguably decades from building an infrastructure that could support nuclear power, seems to be considering a floating Russian reactor.

That lack of interest is likely a good thing. Bellona has long maintained that waterborne nuclear reactors operating in distant, sparsely populated areas create a number of migraines for the environment. Their faraway locations present hurdles to proper disaster response in the event of a nuclear accident, and their spent nuclear fuel storage capacities are limited.

Floating plants are also far more susceptible to other elements than are their land based counterparts, namely high seas and terrorists on the prowl for the ingredients of dirty bombs.

Rosatom has asserted that the Akademik Lomonosov is steeled against threats like tsunamis, tornadoes as well as other acts of God, but Greenpeace wasn’t buying the reassurances. The group called the plant “a Chernobyl on ice” in reference to its intended use in Russia’s frozen Far East.

Perhaps some solace can be found in the Akademik Lomonsov’s protracted and difficult birth. Its keel was laid at the Sevmash shipyard near Severodvinsk in 2006 in, but the vessel was then moved under hints of scandal to the Baltic Shipyard in 2008.

After arriving there, it was beset by lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings, property disputes, occasional labor disagreements, budget shortfalls and regular but prolonged delays. When it finally arrives in Murmansk on or around May 20th, it will be a decade behind schedule and cost nearly twice as much as Rosatom initially thought.

Rosatom used the enthusiasm of the launch to cast the Akademik Lomonosov as the first floating plant of many. But over the past few years, a number of anonymous sources from the company have told Russian newspapers they would be happy to see the backside of the costly, fantastically-conceived project.