Russia unveils floating power plant dubbed ‘nuclear Titanic’ by critics

Russia develops ‘first of its kind’ floating nuclear power plant
The Lomonosov is to be put into service in 2019 in the Arctic off the coast of Chukotka in the far east, providing power for a port town and for oil rigs.

The world’s first floating nuclear power plant is taking on fuel and gearing up for its inaugural mission in the Russian Arctic, despite misgivings among some who have dubbed it a “nuclear Titanic.”

The Akademik Lomonosov arrived safely at its port in Murmansk, in northwest Russia, earlier this week, concluding a 4,000-kilometre voyage from the St. Petersburg shipyard where it was built. The vessel is expected to take on nuclear fuel until it sets out to power a community near Chukotka in Russia’s far east next year.

The Akademik Lomonosov is the first of what’s expected to be a new generation of nuclear power plants designed to operate off-shore in hard-to-reach areas. Russia’s state-sponsored nuclear agency, Rosatom, has plans for several more of the vessels, while China is expected to launch one of its own in 2020.

The Akademik Lomonosov floating power plant measures 144 metres long and 30 metres wide, with two small nuclear reactors each capable of producing up to 35 megawatts of power. The reactors are similar to the ones found in Russia’s nuclear icebreakers.

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The Akademik Lomonosov has no means of propelling itself, so it’s reliant on other vessels to pull it from one place to another.

Rosatom says the floating power plant will have a lifecycle of 40 years, although that could be extended by up to an additional 10 years. The nuclear energy giant adds that none of the expended fuel will be left in the Arctic, and that the net impact on the environment will be overwhelmingly positive once an old coal-fired power plant is taken offline.

Environmental groups have criticized the notion of a sea-faring power plants as nuclear disasters waiting to happen, with Greenpeace dubbing the Akademic Lomonosov a “nuclear Titanic” in a recent blog post.

“This plant’s flat-bottomed hull makes it particularly vulnerable to tsunamis and cyclones,” wrote Jan Havenkamp, a nuclear energy and energy policy consultant at Greenpeace. “A large wave can pitch the power station onto the coast.”

Akira Tokuhiro, dean of Energy Systems and Nuclear Science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, says the Rosatom floating nuclear plant is an “intriguing” proof-of-concept likely aimed at promoting Russia’s nuclear energy industry. He also dismissed the possibility of a wave upending the entire plant, saying that nuclear-powered aircraft carriers manage to survive such conditions whenever they arise.

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“The mobility is the big point,” Tokuhiro told by phone on Tuesday. He added that many nuclear power experts have “floated the idea” of a mobile plant in the past, but “actually doing it is a big deal.” He says the real hurdle to building one has always been demand, not technology.

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And while Russia can justify a nuclear plant in the Arctic to support towns and mining operations in the region, the same is probably not true for a less-populated country like Canada.

“Canada certainly has the capability to reproduce what the Russians have already done,” Tokuhiro said.

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The Akademik Lomonosov is fairly small in terms of power plants, with a combined output of only 70 MW. Tokuhiro says that supports approximately 200,000 people.

Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant, the world’s largest, has a net capacity of 7,985 MW.

Tokuhiro also downplayed the notion that a floating power plant might in some way be a disaster waiting to happen, pointing out that there are many nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and icebreakers operating at sea under various military regimes. The only difference between those and a nuclear power plant is that the latter is for commercial purposes, he said.

In addition to powering remote communities and mining operations, Tokuhiro says mobile nuclear power plants could also be extremely useful in disaster relief situations. He suggests one be brought in on short notice and used to reconnect power to communities devastated by an earthquake, hurricane or tsunami.