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Russia Nears Completion Of First Floating Nuclear Plant

Russian company Zapsibgidrostroy (it’s a mouthful, yes) has begun the construction of the docks that will carry the world’s first floating nuclear power plant to its location off the Chukotka coast. From there, the NPP will supply power to the coast and to the offshore oil and gas platforms pumping crude in Arctic waters, starting in 2019.

Work on the 21,000-ton NPP, named Akademik Lomonossov, has been in progress since 2007, and the plant itself is already complete and undergoing tests. With two low-enriched uranium reactors with a combined installed capacity of 75 MW, the plant, once operational, should be able to produce enough electricity to supply a city of 200,000, along with 300 MW of heat that will save 200,000 tons of coal annually.

Civil power and heating supply aside, Akademik Lomonosov could turn into just the first step towards a whole fleet of floating NPPs that will power Russia’s advance into the Arctic hydrocarbon wealth.

Temperatures in Russia’s Far East sometimes reach minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, which greatly increases the energy needs of any production facility in Arctic waters. Floating NPPs can respond to these needs at a lower carbon footprint than onshore plants fuelled by crude oil, gas, or coal.

According to proponents of the floating NPP idea, these plants are also lower-risk than nuclear plants on land. They are more resilient to earthquakes and tsunamis, and they have constant access to cooling water, since Akademik Lomonosov’s reactors are suspended below sea level, so a meltdown is more unlikely than on land. Basically, all such a floating plant needs is a power line nearby. This portability is also a major plus, as they can be towed to any location that needs energy.

This could solve a lot of the energy challenges related to Arctic hydrocarbon extraction, as nuclear energy is much more reliable in terms of permanent supply than any renewable alternative to date, but as is the case with all nuclear technology, some issues could be risky.

According to a Greenpeace expert, storms can do to floating NPPS what earthquakes and tsunamis can’t. To illustrate, Jan Haverkamp refers to the fate of the Sturgis, a U.S. floating mini-NPP that was seriously damaged after being decommissioned and en route to the coast. He doesn’t, however, mention any spill of radioactive fuel as a result of the damage. Related: For How Long Can OPEC Talk Up Oil Prices?

Another nuclear expert, Julius Cesar I. Trajano from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says that the question of transporting waste fuel in a safe way remains a challenge with floating NPPs. With Akademik Lomonossov, the challenge is being addressed by organizing the productive life of the plant into 12-year cycles: at the end of each, the plant will be taken to the shipyard, to dispose of the waste fuel and reload it with fresh uranium.

Another potential problem is the absence of back-up energy sources in case of an accident, unlike onshore NPPs. This latter problem could make it that much harder to handle a radioactive spill.

Then there is the risk of terrorists taking over a floating NPP, although admittedly, Trajano sees this as a risk in Southeast Asia, where China is preparing to start building floating NPPs for the South China Sea, a focal point for territorial disputes with its neighbors.

There is also the risk of a cybersecurity breach, which is more relevant to the Russian NPP, but there is no information available on how this threat would be managed. Managed it will be, though, there is no doubt about this.

The first large-scale floating NPP could mark the beginning of a new stage in power generation, despite the widespread opposition to nuclear power. Yet, for all the praise Akademik Lomonossov has received as an alternative and cleaner-than-coal source of energy to Far East cities, its primary role is more likely to be the vital power lifeline supplying juice for the offshore platforms that are bound to multiply in Russia’s Arctic waters.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Jim Decker on October 10 2016 said:
    There are hundreds of floating nuclear power plants- powering our submarine and surface ship Navy.
  • John on October 26 2016 said:
    The example the nuclear expert referred to is hardly a reasonable comparison for this ship. First, the Sturgis was damaged in a tropical storm after leaving the Panama canal. I find it hard to believe that a tropical storm would reach the arctic cost of Russia. Second, as the expert has no background in shipbuilding or mechanical engineering, he conveniently overlooks the fact that the ship he is referring to, the Sturgis, was converted from an old WWII era liberty ship - and was over 30 years old at the time it was damaged in that storm. Any 30 year old ship, hastily made in the 1940s as the liberty ships were, then modified and parked in the Panama canal zone for over a decade, is bound to susceptible to damage from a storm. Third, that damage did not prevent the ship from being repaired and placed in storage - so how badly was it damaged if it was still worth storing for another 40 years?

    You must not take everything that experts say as gospel - particularly those with an unmistakable sociopolitical agenda to pursue. Frankly, I am wondering why we are not commenting on the irony of using nuclear power to avoid the release of greenhouse gases in the production of electricity, in order to produce more hydrocarbons which will in turn produce greenhouse gases.

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