Comment: A floating nuclear plant as a disposable lighter?

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In June this year, Russian Federal Agency of Atomic Power (Rosatom) head Sergei Kiriyenko signed a batch of documents to launch the construction project for a first Russian floating NPP. The papers were inked during Kiriyenko’s visit at the Severodvinsk-based machine-building enterprise Sevmash near Arkhangelsk.

The new NPP is to be operated on the basis of a floating reactor block running a reactor of the type KLT-40S.

Talks of creating a floating nuclear power plant have long been in place, but action was stalling for either problems with money or lack of volition. Both were easily found as soon as Russian president Vladimir Putin mentioned in passing, while speaking at some forum, that Russia needs to put to use the “experience accumulated by running reactors of our fleet.”

Certain modifications of the KLT-40 reactors are, in fact, in use on two third-generation atomic-powered icebreakers and one nuclear-powered lighter carrier. All of these vessels were built in the late 1980s and are now operated, with varying success, in the Arctic.

A few cases of insignificant malfunction aside, KLT reactors have proven to be quite reliable in their 16 years of operation. The icebreakers were built in Finland, while the reactors were assembled at the Baltiisky Shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But Severodvinsk’s Sevmash has never worked with icebreakers or other types of nuclear-powered surface vessels. Before the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, Sevmash was a diligent conveyor line for atomic submarines, sometimes hammering out as many as 10 subs a year. As a result, the USSR accumulated around 250 nuclear submarines, of which 197 are now officially taken out of operation as too old or useless.

Today, Sevmash is a busy enterprise and its order-book is filled with diversified engagements. The plant is cutting up the same submarines it was once building and continues to build new nuclear submarines—vessels of either fourth of fifth generation (even military authorities are lost as to which generation projects are employed). Lately, Sevmash has broadened its horizons to completing oil platforms and small-size ships and making steel cups for vodka shots, as well as other souvenir products. Now, the construction of floating NPPs.

To look at it logically, the floating NPP project should have been handled from start to finish at Baltiisky shipyard. But things look far from perfect at this St Petersburg plant.

For the past 10 years or more, the yard has been lost in attempts to complete the new icebreaker “50 years of Victory” (the ship was presumably to be finished in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany). Some wisecrackers say caustically that the vessel will eventually be renamed “80 years of Victory.” Tendering details are unknown, but the end result is that the floating NPP order went to Sevmash.

Project costs are in the ballpark of RUR 9.1bn ($347.5m). The bulk of the investment funds will come from Russian nuclear power plants operator Rosenergoatom. Sevmash itself will ante about a fifth of the anticipated expenses into the investment pool.

But this is only a pilot project. Should it be successful—and that it will be successful is no cause for doubt among atomic authorities and specialists—contracts will be up for signing for a whole series of floating NPPs. Those involved in the design and construction of the pilot NPP are confident that the novelty—much like a next-generation game console—will be all the rage among customers in Russian regions and foreign nations, all eager to buy.

Supplies of floating NPPs are envisioned to flow into 11 Russian regional entities, to the natural resources development sites in areas of Russia’s Far North and even to support large naval bases of the Russian Northern and Pacific Fleets (not that there are any of those bases left anymore). There are even plans to export floating NPPs to all corners of the earth, including such nations as Indonesia.

When reading about these rosy outlooks, one tends to forget about nuclear stations: The impression is that the subject of discussion is producing Energizer batteries. But the small energy capacity of such power plants notwithstanding, they do remain nuclear plants. And that means that their operation is only possible if a developed and varied infrastructure is in place: Vessels to transport spent nuclear fuel (SNF), storage facilities to hold SNF and radioactive waste, and maintenance sites.

What kind of infrastructure do we have to offer today? Basically, none. There simply are no vessels there to approach modern standards that could be used to transport SNF and radioactive waste.

Moreover, Russia has yet to see a unified concept for handling SNF and nuclear waste. How is one supposed to transport to a storage destination the spent fuel unloaded from a power station that serves to supply electricity and heat to some remote location far up the Russian north? What if an accident takes place at such a nuclear plant? What accident prevention measures could be employed for these plants if access to some of the regions where floating NPPs are expected to operate is only available for a few months out of the year?

And the idea to export these NPPs to nations like Indonesia simply borders on insanity—unless, of course, there is a Navy SEALs platoon assigned to defend the site from all kinds of terrorists and insurgents.

All of these questions are left unanswered. Indeed, cues given by Putin are not up for debate. If one even bothered with answers, the very idea would be found delirious.

That the new, floating NPP is going to be built is now a settled issue. It is the future of such a nuclear plant that remains an open question. But one clue can be found in Sevmash’s past experience of building nuclear-powered submarines that were later used with just as much efficiency as disposable lighters.

It is, in particular, the story of Project 705, or Alpha in NATO classification. It turned out that there was simply no way to reload these subs’s reactors. The vessels would run on the same old nuclear fuel for several years, after which they were under endless repairs and finally taken out of operation by the Russian naval fleet.

If Russia has loads of money to burn, reliving this experience with floating NPPs would do just right.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no

Maria Kaminskaya