Both reactors on Rosatom’s floating nuclear plant now operational

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

Both reactors on the Akademik Lomonosov, Russia’s controversial floating nuclear power plant, are now operational, and its starboard side reactor has been brought up to 10 percent of its total power, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, said in a release.

The reactor start, which occurred at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port in Murmansk, passed without incident, according to the release, and will be followed by a number of reactor tests, which are expected to last several months.

After completing these tests, the Akademik Lomonosov – essentially a large barge atop which sit the reactors – will be towed through the Arctic to the far eastern Siberian port of Pevek, a town of 100,000 people in Chukotka, were it is slated to go online in the summer of 2019.

The plant is expected to replace the energy supplied by the Bilibino nuclear power plant – the world’s four northernmost commercial reactors – which Rosatom will begin decommissioning in 2021.

For 12 years Russia has been pursuing its audacious experiment in floating nuclear power, fording a river of doubt, economic downturns and environmental outcry – and confounding critics who said the plant was an expensive publicity stunt that was doomed to failure.

akademik lomonosov reactor loading Technicians loading the first reactor aboard the Akademik Lomonosov, Russia's floating nuclear power plant. Credit: Rosenergoatom

Officials in Russia hailed the start-ups as a “victory of Rosatom,” but others aren’t so sure. The plant was labeled a “nuclear Titanic” and a “Chernobyl on Ice” – a nod to its eventual Arctic deployment – by Greenpeace.

For its part, Bellona has opposed the construction of the $480 million plant since the beginning, publishing a detailed catalogue of its concerns in a report it released in 2011.

Since the plant’s rocky – and often secretive – beginnings in the early 2006, Russia has attempted to sell the plant as a cure-all for energy woes in the world’s more remote regions. Yet while the plant has spawned a number of imitation plans in other countries, it has so far failed to draw the windfall of orders Rosatom said would justify its cost. May Rosatom officials themselves have conceded that the Akademik Lomonosov’s price tag is too high to bring the floating plant, as designed now, into serial production.

Still the corporation has done much in recent months to draw back the veils of mystery it draped over the plant through much of its construction.

In October, Rosatom invited Bellona to be the first foreign environmental group to inspect the Akademik Lomonosov at its moorings at Atomflot, Russia’s Murmansk-based nuclear icebreaker port.

But the new openness has done little to settle Bellona’s central concerns about Rosatom’s long-range intentions for its floating nuclear power plant. By design, the plant is meant to operate in remote regions. But this very remoteness, Bellona has said, would vastly complicate the rescue operations that would be necessary after an accident, as well as the more routine clearing of spent nuclear fuel from its reactors.

Likewise, 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 is the ocean-based Akademik Lomonosov strikes an anxious chord among environmentalists.

Rosatom has often said the plant is invulnerable to tsunamis, and cite the fact that its water-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, but 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 of a floating nuclear plant 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.