Russian floating nuclear plant sets sail amid a sea of concerns

Russia's floating nuclear plant leaving Murmansk.
Russia's floating nuclear plant leaving Murmansk.

Publish date: August 23, 2019

Russia Friday launched the Akademik Lomonosov, an audacious and experimental floating nuclear power plant that has been more than a decade in the making despite strong criticism from environmentalists.

Russia Friday launched the Akademik Lomonosov, an audacious and experimental floating nuclear power plant that has been more than a decade in the making despite strong criticism from environmentalists.

Under the tow by three tugboats, the nuclear barge set sail from Murmansk on a 5,000 kilometer journey to a remote port in the Chukotka region, which lies across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, which developed the plant, says the Akademik Lomonosov will replace the energy supplied by the Bilibino nuclear power plant , which houses the world’s four northernmost commercial reactors. In February, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, began decommissioning work at that plant’s first reactor.

If the venture is successful, the Akademik Lomonosov will represent another milestone in Moscow’s efforts to tame the melting Northern Sea Route, which, with a perilous hand from climate change, could become a direct trade route between Europe and Asia.

But the two-reactor plant – which was painted white and emblazoned with Rosatom’s logo before its journey ­– has sparked safety fears and worries over the environmental impact of any mishap – all against the backdrop of a botched nuclear missile test this month at a military site close to Murmansk, which caused local radiation spikes that Moscow has yet to explain.

Rosatom insists the Akademik Lomonosov is “virtually unsinkable” in case of natural disasters, and says the plant will be guarded by the Russian Guard, Moscow’s internal military service.

Environmentalists are not convinced. While Rosatom has hailed the plant as a breakthrough for mobile nuclear technology, Greenpeace has nicknamed it a “nuclear Titanic” – a nod to its upcoming trek through icy waters.

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

On Friday, Andrei Zolotkov, who heads Bellona’s Murmansk office, said the Akademik Lomonosov’s similarities to time-tested nuclear icebreaker technologies likely meant the barge’s two reactors are likely safe to operate.

oskar floating nuclear Bellona's Oskar Njaa in the control room of the Akademik Lomonosov. Credit: Bellona

But he questioned the wisdom of packaging them into a waterborne plant when compact nuclear reactors can just as easily – and more safely – be based on land.

“[The reactors] are of a compact design,” Zolotkov said. “The equipment could be delivered to its destination. If it was based on the shore, and not based on water, there would be no additional risks.”

But to Rosaton, a floatable plant is the point. Since the Akademik Lomonosov’s rocky – and often secretive – beginnings in the early 2006, Russia has attempted to sell the plant as a cure-all for the energy woes of the world’s more remote regions.

While a rush of orders has failed to materialize, Rosatom says it hopes to design customized floating nuclear plants for international customers, using the Akademik Lomonosov as its sales pitch.

In March of 2018, the company reportedly had initial talks about producing a floating nuclear plant for Sudan.

Still, many Rosatom officials have acknowledged that putting the plant as designed now into serial production would be too expensive. Both the cost of the plant and the infrastructure needed to plug it in at its Chukotka mooring are thought to have cost about $480 million – though Rosatom has declined to provide an official price tag.

Still, the Rosatom has made some efforts to peel back the veils of secrecy it draped over the plant through much of its construction.

In October 2018, Bellona became the first international environmental group to inspect the Akademik Lomonosov at its moorings at Atomflot, Russia’s Murmansk-based nuclear icebreaker port. The media have since been allowed numerous tours of the vessel, although those are closely supervised.

Equipped with two KLT 40 reactors delivering a combined 70 megawatts of power, the nuclear barge is 140 meters long and 10 meters high. It also boasts a gym, a swimming pool and a bar to accommodate its crew of about 70.

But the new openness has done little to settle Bellona’s central concerns about Rosatom’s long-range intentions for its floating plant. By design, the Akademik Lomonosov 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 the ocean-based Akademik Lomonosov is strikes an anxious chord among environmentalists.

Dmitry Alekseyenko, the Akademik Lomonosov’s deputy head of construction, addressed that concern in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month, saying: “We studied the experience of Fukushima closely. According to our tests, a tsunami caused by a nine-point earthquake will not dislocate it from its base.”

Still, the possibility of the plant dislodging from its port during a catastrophe can’t be ruled out. The prospect of an active nuclear reactor heaved ashore and away from its cooling source is too troubling to ignore.

As worrying is the possibility that future plants could end up in the hands of governments that have little experience dealing with nuclear technology. Most economies where nuclear power is used have taken decades to develop effective nuclear fuel handling practices – and are still struggling to perfect them. The same cannot be said of potential customers like Sudan.