Russia is preparing to launch its audaciously conceived floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, deploying it 6,000 kilometers to the country’s far east in a bid to expand the use of nuclear power in the Arctic.
The barge will be towed from Murmansk to the port of Pevek on Russia’s Pacific coast, where its two nuclear reactors will provide heat and power to homes and support mining and drilling operations in the mineral-rich Chukotka region.
If all goes to plan, the Akademik Lomonosov will also 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 the plant’s first reactor.
If the venture is successful, it will represent another milestone in Moscow’s efforts to tame the melting Northern Sea Route, which, with the help of climate change, could become a direct trade route between Europe and Asia.
According to Rosatom’s schedule, the Akademik Lomonosov will depart Murmansk this month, towed by a flotilla of tugboats and travelling the Northern Sea Route’s entire length.
For 12 years Russia has been pursuing its daring – and worrying – 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 fail.
But environmentalists are still skeptical. While Rosatom has hailed the plant as a breakthrough for mobile nuclear technology, Greenpeace has nicknamed it a “Chernobyl on Ice” – a nod to its eventual Arctic deployment.
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.
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 Pevek are thought to have cost about $480 million – though Rosatom has declined to provide an official price tag.
Despite that, the company 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.
The plant, which was recently repainted white and emblazoned with the Rosatom logo, is longer than two football fields and houses two KLT-40 reactors, which are similar to those that power Russia’s nuclear icebreakers. Bellona also got a look at some of the Akademik Lomonosov’s more extravagant features, like a gym, a pool and a non-alcoholic bar.
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.
Dmitry Alekseyenko, the Akademik Lomonosov’s deputy head of construction, addressed that concern in the Guardian newspaper, 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 troubling 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.
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.