All systems are nearly go for the Akademik Lomonosov, Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant – at least according to Valery Trutnev, the Russian nuclear official tasked with bringing the project to life.
During a wide-ranging briefing last week, Trutnev gave the most thorough accounting yet of what is next for Russia’s prized nuclear achievement of late – a project many in the environmental community wish had been left undone.
But Trutnev, who is overseeing the project for Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, came to the Murmansk briefing armed with timetables and dates.
Currently, the atomic barge is docked in this city in Russia’s far Northwest, where technicians at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, have begun fueling its two submarine-style KLT-40S reactors with uranium.
It was towed here last May from St. Petersburg’s Baltic Shipyard, which spent more than a decade cobbling it together through bankruptcy proceedings, property disputes, burst budgets – and despite the anxieties of the city’s Baltic and Scandinavian neighbors.
It was because of these anxieties that the plant is being fueled in Murmansk at all. Norway’s foreign Ministry, which wasn’t anxious to have a potential nuclear disaster floating off its coast, persuaded Rosatom to leave the Akademik Lomonosov’s reactors empty while it was being pulled by tugboat from St Petersburg to the Arctic.
Now that its here, preparations for towing it more than 4,000 kilometers east to the ends of Siberia are taking on the drumbeat of the inevitable.
After the fueling come reactor tests, Trutnev told the briefing, which will be finished by March. By August or September of next year, depending on Arctic ice conditions, Rosatom will ferry the Akademik Lomonosov to the port of Pevek in Chukotka, just shy of Alaska’s Bering Strait.
The big plug-in – when the Akademik Lomonsov starts supplying power to the region – is scheduled for December of 2019. The energy it produces, said to be enough to light up a city of 100,000, will replace the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant, which Rosatom plans to decommission.
According to the specifications Trutnev laid out at his briefing, the Akademik Lomonosov will be parked 500 meters from shore and a kilometer down current from Pevek. A sort of berth or wall meant to protect it from floating ice and waves will also surround it, and these facilities, he said, would be ready by September.
Once operational, the barge can operate for 12 years before it needs to be refueled, a procedure Trutnev said will take place locally, thereby avoiding the need to haul the Akademik Lomonosov to a different port to reload.
To say the world has its eye on Russia’s floating nuclear ambitions would be an understatement. Greenpeace has variously dubbed the Akademik Lomonosov a “nuclear Titanic” and a “Chernobyl on Ice” – a riff on the notion that the plant will spend most of its life among icebergs.
Bellona, which has opposed the plant at every stage of its 12-year-long build, has written an entire report on why the notion of a floating nuclear power plant is so ill conceived.
By design, the plant is meant to operate in remote locations. But this very remoteness, Bellona has said, would vastly complicate rescue operations in the event of an accident, as well as the more routine clearing of spent nuclear fuel from its reactors.
Likewise, the visions of Fukushima’s waterlogged reactors have not faded from public memory, and the thought of a nuclear power plant as vulnerable to tsunamis and foul weather as the ocean-based Akademik Lomonosov will be strikes an anxious chord among environmentalists.
Rosatom has often said the Akademik Lomonosov is invulnerable to tsunamis, and cite the fact that its ocean-borne location will give it access to infinite supplies of reactor coolant in the event of an accident.
But environmentalists are skeptical. In the worst-case scenario, the plant might not ride out the waves, and instead be torn from its moorings to barrel inland through buildings and towns until it lands, battered and breached, with two active nuclear reactors on board – well away from its source of emergency coolant.
Rosatom’s best option in that disaster scene would be the 24-hours worth of backup coolant located aboard the barge, which is hardly reassuring.
Still, the whole idea has piqued curiosity – and competition. Two state-backed companies in China are said to be pursing plans for at least 20 floating nuclear plants, and American scientists have drawn up blueprints of their own.
In his briefing Trutnev alluded to the fact that the Akademik Lonomosov was largely a sales pitch to prove floating nuclear power plants can work, and said Rosatom hoped to market them to countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.
The company estimates each floating plant will take four years to build, compared with a decade or so for standard land-based nuclear plants. The Sudan Tribune has cited that country’s minister of water resources and electricity as saying the government in Khartoum has a deal to become the first foreign floating plant customer.
This deal struck Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general manager and nuclear physicist, as frightening. Aside from the possibility that uranium fuel of a high enrichment could fall into terrorist hands in underdeveloped countries, he said the main issue was a question of technical competence.
“I fear the of use of nuclear technologies in countries where the level of nuclear and radiation safety, industry regulation and safety standards are not as high as they are in Russia,” he said. “How will they handle spent nuclear fuel, and react to emergency situations? How can you use nuclear power plants in when a country has no experience using them, or even has any regulations?”