Russia advances on plans for new floating nuclear plants

Rosatom's headquarters in Moscow.
Rosatom's headquarters in Moscow.
Charles Digges/Bellona

Publish date: September 17, 2021

A Russian plan to build more floating nuclear power plants advanced this month after two subsidiaries of Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, signed a cooperation agreement to power a remote mining facility on Siberia’s northeastern tip.

A Russian plan to build more floating nuclear power plants advanced this month after two subsidiaries of Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, signed a cooperation agreement to power a remote mining facility on Siberia’s northeastern tip.

The new waterborne facilities will come on the coattails of the Akademik Lomonosov, the audacious experiment on floating nuclear power that Rosatom connected to a remote port in Chukotka in 2019 after spending more than a decade constructing it, amid objections from environmentalists.

The deal also falls in line with Rosatom’s burgeoning interest in building nuclear plants based on small modular reactors, or SMRs – a technology the company sees as solution for energy deficits in remote regions. Since January, the corporation has been  developing a plant based on such reactors in the Siberian region of Yakutia, promising it will come on line by 2028.

The new agreement unites Atomflot, Rosatom’s nuclear icebreaker wing, and Atomenergomash, its engineering division, in an effort to build what officials have called “streamlined” floating nuclear plants, each based on a pair of 55 megawatt RITM-200 reactors –– the type featured in Russia’s new generation nuclear icebreakers.

Mustafa Kashka, the director general of Atomflot, said the deal was significant for the whole global market for small reactors.

Under the new agreement, four floating plants will  deployed to the nascent Baimsky copper and gold mining project in Chukotka – located nearer Alaska than Moscow – by the end of 2026.

Developing the remote site demands a complex multi-partner regional plan involving the Russian government, the regional government and the developer, KAZ Minerals, which itself expects to spend as much as $110 billion. Across all the partners, more than $1.5 billion will be spent on power plants and transmission for the future mine.

On September 4, the project advanced with the signing of a “preliminary agreement” for power supply by Kashka and Oleg Novachuk, chairman of KAZ Minerals subsidiary GDK Baimskaya at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

“Thanks to the agreement with Atomflot, it is possible to economically develop the largest Baimskaya field, which is located in a remote area where there is no relevant infrastructure,” said Novachuk, according to World Nuclear News.

Nuclear power already plays a role in Baimskaya’s development as early facilities there are powered by the Akademik Lomonosov. KAZ Minerals said the plant will supply up to 20 MWe of nuclear power to the mine during its construction phase.

According to earlier reports in Russian media, Rosatom will construct three new floating plants at St Petersburg’s Baltic Shipyard – the shipyard where nearly all of Russia’s nuclear icebreakers, as well as the Akademik Lomonosov, were built.

A fourth identical plant, also to be built at the shipyard, would be kept in reserve, and rotate in when any of the original three require refueling or maintenance, Rosatom’s CEO Aleskei Likhachev told the official Tass newswire in August. He added that this fourth plant could also serve as a reserve unit for the Akademik Lomonosov, whose older KLT-40 reactors require refueling every 12 years.

The new deals reached this month confirm Russian media reports from May in which numerous government officials hinted that President Vladimir Putin had given his nod to powering the Baimskaya fields with floating nuclear plants. It also conforms to the wider ambitions of Rosatom, which have long circled around the notion of building a smaller, more streamlined version of the hulking Akademik Lomonosov, both for remote mining and hydrocarbon ventures, and to market to foreign customers.

In December, the official Tass newswire quoted Russian politicians as saying numerous foreign countries are interested in acquiring what they call “optimized” floating nuclear plants. While it remains unclear precisely which countries those are, Rosatom has long claimed that unspecified governments in North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are interested in acquiring floating nuclear plants.

Tass also reported that Rosatom was in talks with Cuba about both land-based and floating reactors. The company also discussed the possibility of building a floating plant for Sudan in 2018.

The first two the four new floating nuclear plants are due at their working location on Chaunskaya Bay in the East Siberian Sea by 2026. Once there, they will be connected to powerlines spanning 400 kilometers to the Baimskaya mine. The third unit is due to be connected at the end of 2027, increasing the total power supply to about 330 megawatts.

Bellona has opposed Russia’s aspirations to build floating nuclear plants since the Akademik Lomonosov’s construction began in 2006, and has published a detailed catalogue of its concerns in a report it released in 2011.