Back in the early 1970s, U.S. utility companies, frustrated with growing public unease about nuclear power that made it difficult for them to find sites for new plants, came up with a wild brainstorm. Why not put full-sized nuclear power plants on barges and position them offshore, where they wouldn't be in anyone's backyard, unless you counted fish?
The scheme never took off, according to a recent article by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian Thomas Wellock. Financing proved to be as challenging at sea as on land. Coastal communities were just as strongly opposed to neighboring nuclear plants as their inland counterparts. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which was then known as the General Accounting Office, raised worries about what would happen to the ocean ecosystem in the event of a meltdown. (See related, "Quiz: What Do You Know About Nuclear Power.")
But now, on the other side of the world, the idea of seaborne nuke plants is being refloated.
Russian state-controlled energy company Rosatom is moving ahead with plans to build the Akademik Lomonosov, a ship that would contain a pair of small nuclear reactors capable of generating up to 70 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to provide a city of 200,000 people with electricity as well as heat and desalinated water for drinking. Rt.com, an English-language Russian news website, has reported that the Russian company envisions the craft, which is scheduled for completion in late 2016, as the harbinger of a new breed of small, portable, ship-based power plants that it might manufacture and export to other countries.
But it is clear that a major impetus behind the effort to develop modular, portable, nuclear power at sea is Russia's own drive for oil and gas exploration in remote reaches of the Arctic.
Melting sea ice has opened the prospect of greater access to the Arctic's riches, including 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas, according to a U.S. Geological Survey estimate. Sixty percent of that fuel is in the Russian Arctic, home to four of the ten largest natural gas fields in the world.
But one of the great ironies of the industry is that it will take energy to extract that energy.
The challenge of powering an energy-extraction infrastructure in Russia's Far East is great enough that momentum continues to propel the floating nuclear effort forward, despite a boatload of financing problems and delays.
The Nuclear Navy
If Russia's plans go forward, it won't be the first cruise for nuclear power at sea. Since the U.S.S. Nautilus, a nuclear-powered submarine, first put out to sea in 1955, there have been hundreds of U.S. and Soviet nuclear-powered military vessels on the world's oceans. Many of them were decommissioned after the Cold War, but still, all U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and submarines are nuclear-powered and as recently as 2011, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) studied whether nuclear propulsion was a feasible option for surface ships. (It concluded that the petroleum fuel savings would not offset the additional upfront cost of procuring the ships.)
It is not as well known that the U.S. Army deployed a floating nuclear power plant on a barge, the Sturgis, at the Panama Canal from 1968 to 1976. At the time, there was an electricity shortage as water for hydroelectric power was diverted to accommodate increased military ship traffic through the Canal Zone due to the Vietnam War and the closing of the Suez Canal.
In 1976, the military commander in the Canal Zone requested that the Sturgis be withdrawn from the area because of concerns of the risks of violence during treaty negotiations then taking place between Panama and the United States. And even though it had recently spent more than $1 million to install an emergency back-up cooling system on the craft, the U.S. Army ultimately decided to decommission the power plant. The Sturgis left one final flurry of controversy over for seaborne nuclear risk in its wake, as it was battered and damaged by rough seas off the Carolina coast (with no leak of radiation) as it was being towed to its final resting place in Virginia.
Russia's new floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, is to have ten times the capacity of the 10-megawatt reactor that was aboard the old Sturgis. It will contain a pair of KLT-40 reactors—the same type used in the Russian Arktika-class nuclear-powered icebreaker ships, which are roughly the same size. (Russia's much-vaunted fleet of 37 icebreaking ships include four that are nuclear-powered, with three more planned by 2017.) At a displacement of 21,500 tons, the Akademik Lomonosov would be far more humble in scale than the massive floating power plants once envisioned by U.S. utility companies. And according to the website of Rosatom's subsidiary OKBM, the ship would be towed to its destination, rather than sailing under its own power.
Instead of using highly enriched uranium like the Russian icebreakers' reactors, the Akademic Lomonosov's units will be modified to run on lightly enriched uranium, to conform to International Atomic Energy Commission rules aimed at preventing fuel from being stolen and diverted for use in nuclear weapons. The company catalogued a number of other safety features in a presentation to the IAEA this summer. It said the Akademic Lomonosov is designed to withstand a range of different catastrophic events, ranging from an earthquake with a magnitude of 10 and a tsunami large and powerful enough to cast the floating power craft ashore. It even could withstand having a 10-ton aircraft crash into it, according to the presentation.
In addition to its system of passive circulating coolant and control rods, in the event of an emergency, operators could deploy additional backup active and passive cooling devices and another system designed to reduce pressure building up inside the containment.
A corporate website touts the power plant's nuclear technology as proven to be resilient in a disaster, by citing a macabre example: the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, which sank in shallow waters in the Barents Sea in August 2000, apparently after one of its torpedoes exploded, killing its entire 118-man crew. "Even the long stay [of the] wrecked ship under water did not lead to the exit of radioactivity in the environment," the OKBM website proclaims.
Self-Contained and Portable
While a Rosatom spokesperson did not respond to an email request for comment, OKBM's website touted the floating nuke's virtues, saying that "floating power units [are] best suited for hard to reach areas on the banks of large rivers or seas, far from centralized energy systems. The company envisions that floating nuclear plants would "stimulate economic activity and maintenance of modern living conditions of the local population" in Russia's Arctic and subarctic Far East region and elsewhere.
Indeed, the idea of a self-contained, portable turnkey nuke plant that floats offshore might sound like dream come true for developing countries with remote, energy-starved coastal towns and cities. And the technology would be priced to sell: World Nuclear News has reported that the craft will cost 9.8 billion rubles, or $340 million, a fraction of the multibillion-dollar price tag for a full-size, land-based plant. (Related: "New Nuclear Power Grapples With Costs")
But from the start, the goal was for floating nuclear to provide a boost for Russian energy exploration. Back in 2008, Bogdan Budzulyak, a board member of Russian energy giant Gazprom, told Rosatom that Gazprom needed three of the floating power plants for development of Arctic gas fields, according to a 2010 article by Monterey Institute of International Studies research associate Thomas Young. Others estimated that Gazprom would need as many as five floating nuke platforms to fulfill its Arctic exploration plans.
Since then, Gazprom has had to alter its ambitions considerably. Its hopes to one day export natural gas from the Arctic to the U.S. market has been dashed by the shale gas revolution in the United States. Gazprom's Norwegian partner, Statoil, wrote off its investment in the huge Shtokman gas field last year, and the remaining partner, France's Total, said it is working with Gazprom on technologies to reduce the cost of the Arctic development. Key among those costs has been the challenge of powering drilling equipment in the remote location in the Barents Sea.
Weather and Terror Risks
Many industry observers—including both critics and proponents of nuclear power in the United States—are skeptical about whether Rosatom's floating nuke will be the answer for Russia's own Arctic plans or for other energy-hungry nations. They raise concerns not only about reliability, but about whether it will be vulnerable both to extreme weather and terrorist attacks. One commentator, Oilprice.com energy analyst John Daly, went so far as to deride the Akademik Lomonosov as "Chernobyl at sea." (See related: "Pictures: 'Liquidators' Endured Chernobyl 25 Years Ago.")
"The idea of marketing these things is a stretch," said Ed Lyman, a physicist and official with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He noted that construction of the prototype floating nuke began in 2007 but has been hit by delays, including a lag caused by the bankruptcy of the shipyard where it is being put together. "I think that any country that would look at the history of this project would be ill-advised to buy one," he said.
Lyman said that despite the company's claims, the containment of the portable nuclear reactors might not be sturdy enough to withstand unforeseen dangers. "Fukushima has shown us that accidents can occur that we can't predict very well," he said. "We think that for the first generation, you need extra features to compensate for the things that you don't know could happen." (See related, "Fukushima's Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know.")
Lyman also questioned whether the floating nuclear plant could operate economically by using lightly enriched uranium, rather than the highly enriched variety that allows the nuclear-powered icebreakers to go for long periods without refueling. "They'd have to refuel the power plant every three or four years," Lyman said.
Paul Genoa, senior director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear industry's Washington, D.C.-based policy advocacy organization, said that there would be challenges to operating a small nuclear plant in an extremely cold environment such as Russian East Asia. Backup diesel generators and batteries, the redundancy systems that kick in to power a reactor's cooling system in the event that the usual source of electricity fails, don't work as well in the cold, he said. "Diesel is difficult to ignite in very cold weather, and the chemical reactions upon which batteries depend are slowed at low temperatures," according to Genoa.
Genoa noted that the U.S. nuclear industry also is looking to develop small modular reactors that could be built in a factory and then transported to remote locations to provide electricity, but those units would be installed below ground on land. (See related, "First 'Small Modular' Nuclear Reactors Planned for Tennessee.") Putting a nuclear power plant on a ship makes safety and security far more complex, he noted. "In our country, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would want to know how a barge tied up at a pier could be defended from potential terrorist attack," he said.
"I think what they're doing is interesting," Genoa said. "But I'm not endorsing it as the way forward." (See Pictures: The Nuclear Cleanup Struggle at Fukushima.")