Rosatom yet to land a floating nuke order

Publish date: May 31, 2007

Written by: Galina Raguzina

For the Russian top atomic authority, Rosatom, floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) are hardly a new fancy. The agency has been toying with the idea well for some time. Still, despite regular media reports that it is just a matter of a few years before an FNPP starts operating in this or that region, Rosatom’s order book remains nothing but a lone page with one customer – the city of Severodvinsk.

“No, everything is at the stage of development,” Andrei Timonov, deputy head of the Centre for Information and Public Relations of Rosenergoatom, Rosatom’s energy supplier branch, told Bellona Web when asked whether any FNPP construction agreements had been reached with regional authorities in Russia’s Far Eastern Primoriye or Yamal Peninsula, where Rosatom has been enthusiastically promoting their product, as evidenced by media reports.

Primoriye has been approached by Rosatom with a floating NPP offer once again just recently – this time, the atomic authority promises to have the plant running by 2012, when Vladivostok welcomes guests for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The announcement was made by Rosatom’s head Sergei Kiriyenko at a joint meeting of the presidium of the State Council of the Russian Federation and the Russian Maritime Collegium, which took place on May 2 on board the newly floated nuclear-powered icebreaker “50 Years of Victory.”

“In time for the summit, we can deliver a floating nuclear power plant to Primoriye, this is the only energy source that can be built there so quickly,’ the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS quoted Kiriyenko as saying.

As for the plans in Yamal, Rosatom intends to build there three floating NPPs to supply energy to the enterprises of the Russian gas giant Gazprom, said Russia’s first deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov at a press conference hosted by the news agency Interfax on May 23.

Just four days prior to the Interfax event, Ivanov said at a press conference in Yekaterinburg: “I think that, commercially speaking, this is a very good, very competent project. We already have requests coming from rich countries of the Persian Gulf: When can you sell us a floating nuke? We need to get our capacities loaded and start conveyor-belt production.”

But not everyone is convinced that it’s all smooth sailing for Rosatom’s brainchild. And this time, sceptics are found not only among environmentalists – the atomic industry’s eternal nemeses – but, lo and behold, among economists and even former industry insiders.

For instance, this unexpected statement came from ex-deputy atomic energy minister Bulat Nigmatulin during the show “Looking for a way out” aired by the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy on May 21: “Floating [NPPs] today have absolutely no economic effect. Because they are overly expensive and overly extravagant, and at such prices, no market segments will be found for them.”

And just before that, a crushing blow was delivered to Rosatom’s rosy picture by the Russian minister of economic development and trade, German Gref, who said the floating NPP plans need simple arithmetic, not mass-scale production.

At the May 17 meeting of the Russian government, where ministers discussed the programme of investments into the Russian electrical energy complex for the years 2080 through 2010, Gref expressed doubt that floating NPP construction was economically justifiable, especially with regard to commercial production. Russia’s economy czar proposed that just one floating nuclear power plant be built first and the overall results considered before a batch-mode manufacture programme is approved.

However, Rosatom head Kiriyenko insists serial production is what these plants need, asserting that it will help decrease their prime cost by some 30 to 40 percent. As many times before, Ivanov rushed to Kiriyenko’s side to help defend Rosatom’s grand visions: As the first floating NPP comes online in Severodvinsk, said Ivanov, energy tariffs for all the Ministry of Defence’s units quartered in the city, as well as for the military shipbuilder Sevmashpredpriyatiye, will go down three-fold.

Gref’s doubt was palpable. “This is very unlikely, I don’t believe these figures. For the [floating NPP] to pay off, the tariff will have to be three times as high. The talk that is talked and the walk that is walked are usually two different things,” the Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Gref as saying.

His distrust is not without merit as the discounted tariff is promised to be three, if not four, times lower than its regular level, while the cost of the FNPP with the projected capacity of 70 mW has jumped from $120m to $500, according to Nigmatulin.

Primoriye and FNPPs: A match made in Rosatom’s fantasy land
Rosatom has for years maintained that a nuclear power plant – land-based or floating – will be God’s gift to the Russian Far Eastern region of Primoriye, or Primorsky Krai, as it officially is called. Last year, board chairman and general director of the electrical power supplier Far Eastern Energy Company (FEEC) Viktor Myasnik said he did not think that construction of a floating NPP in the waters washing the Kamchatka Peninsula was economically advisable.

According to Myasnik, projected costs of installation of floating nuclear energy converters require far more investment than those needed today to start using safe alternative sources to provide energy to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

“The electrical power that a nuclear power plant generates is not so cheap as it seems at a first glance. Today, relatively cheap energy comes only from those nuclear power plants that were built 20 to 30 years ago,” FEEC head said in April in an interview to the regional weekly Konkurent. “The prime cost of electrical power generated at a new NPP will even exceed the cost of energy provided by gas, which, in its turn, is more expensive than that supplied by coal-based power plants – if we’re talking current [fuel] prices. Which is why an NPP can be considered a profitable operation only in the very long term.”

Myasnik is heading a task group formed to prepare Primoriye’s energy sites to the 2012 APEC summit. The group is developing suggestions for the plan of energy supply to the summit and two construction options are currently on the table: A coal-running energy provider in the south of the region and a 300mW gas turbine in Vladivostok. Primoriye is going to start receiving gas in 2010, according to an agreement signed between the regional government and Gazprom in November 2006.

In the words of Myasnik, the available options will fully cover Primoriye’s energy needs – both during the summit, when the region’s demand in energy will increase, and in the long-term perspective – as well as improve environmental conditions in Vladivostok.

However – in contrast to what the region’s top energy authority thinks – Primorsky Krai’s governor Sergei Darkin is happy about the prospects of an NPP operating in Primoriye. “We have worked out a number of suggestions for the construction of an NPP…” said, among other things, the governor’s report titled “Results and Tendencies of the Social and Economic Development of Primorsky Krai in 2006 and Strategic Objectives for 2007.”

In January, at a meeting gathered by the Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Russia’s preparation to its chairmanship in APEC in 2012, the governor proposed to give consideration to the construction of an NPP in his region. In May, he had talks with Kiriyenko about building a floating nuclear power plant in Primoriye.

Will anyone even ask us?
“We will absolutely take the population’s opinion into account,” a representative of Rosatom told Bellona Web. He noted, however, that it was still too early to discuss exactly how the population’s vote would be taken into account. One would think it would be simpler to consult the people in advance, rather than after all relevant documents are signed and construction started.

Remembering Rosatom’s pledge not to impose nuclear power plant projects on the regions where more than half of the residents protest NPP construction, environmentalists intend to help the atomic authority and carry out public opinion polls in those areas where such construction is planned in accordance with the newly proposed programme “General Layout of Electrical Energy Sites for the Period through 2020, with Prospects for until 2030,” also known as the so-called “NPP Roadmap.”

Environmentalists from the Kaliningrad region, Russia’s westernmost enclave, were fist to forward such an initiative. According to the results of a poll conducted by the Ecodefense! group in March this year, nearly 70 percent of Kaliningrad residents oppose the construction of a nuclear power plant in their region.

All the way across Russia to its easternmost tip is Primoriye, also among the sites marked for construction in the “NPP Roadmap.” One wonders if Primoriye people do not live and breathe the same as their compatriots in Kaliningrad.