Faced with the environmental and public relations challenges of establishing nuclear power plants on land, governments and industry players over the past 50 years have been sporadically evaluating the offshore environment, far away from human population centres, as a potentially advantageous location for new nuclear installations.
Nuclear energy has a long history in the world's navies - nuclear-powered submarines are a relatively common component of advanced naval forces, and all of the US Navy's ten Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are propelled by twin A4W nuclear reactors. Given that small-scale marine reactors have proven suitable and beneficial in a naval capacity, wouldn't it also make sense to use them for civil power generation purposes?
The idea has enough traction that it has been investigated on a number of occasions, and even implemented as far back as the late 1960s. The US military deployed a floating nuclear plant called the Sturgis to power the Panama Canal from 1968 to 1976, and utilities have looked into floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) on a number of occasions in the decades that followed.
Despite the potential of the concept, the FNPP has never found a true foothold. For the most part, the reasons for this lack of development are similar to the problems encountered by land-based nuclear developments.
Regardless of the increased distance from towns and cities, the idea has generally been horrendously unpopular among coastal communities on safety and environmental grounds, and there is a consensus that marine nuclear power facilities would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks or sabotage than their land-based equivalents. The Sturgis was taken offline in 1976 amid security concerns as the US conducted treaty negotiations with Panama, and for the most part, the FNPP concept sank along with it.
Akademik Lomonosov: Russia resurrects the FNPP
For several years, the Russian Federation has been working to bring the FNPP back to life. With the country's extensive (though hardly trouble-free) experience with nuclear power generation technology, and specifically marine nuclear applications, it seems a likely candidate to push through a broadly unpopular concept, providing a proof-of-concept and practical safety case in the process.
In fact, it's Russia's development of nuclear-powered icebreakers, a field in which it is the undisputed world leader, that has provided the backbone for its in-development fleet of proposed FNPPs. The KLT-40S pressurised water reactor being used for the country's FNPP programme is a modified version of the reactor design powering the Taymyr-class nuclear icebreakers and icebreaking container ship Sevmorput, which have been in service since the late 1980s.
Two KLT-40S reactors, which were designed and assembled by state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom's subsidiary OKBM Afrikantov, were installed in early October this year on the first of Russia's planned FNPP fleet, the Akademik Lomonosov. Rosenergoatom's FNPP project deputy general director Sergey Zavyalov said, "We, as the customer, can see that work on the project has intensified in the past months, which gives us strong confidence that the floating unit will be ready in time."
The FNPP, which is currently under construction at the Baltiysky Zavod-Shipbuilding yard in St Petersburg, is a floating facility with a displacement of 21,000t. The barge, which has no propulsion systems of its own and will need to be towed to its place of operation, is due for completion in September 2016, and will likely serve as a full-scale demonstration project to advertise the concept to the global energy market. Its two reactors will reportedly generate up to 70MW of electricity, enough to power a city of 200,000 people or provide around 240,000m³ of desalinated water a day.
The road to bringing the Akademik Lomonosov to this advanced stage has been a bumpy one. The floating facility began construction way back in 2007 at the Sevmash military shipyard in Severodvinsk, but an overburden of military contracts at the yard forced the project to be transferred to the Baltiysky Zavod shipyard in 2009, at which time the vessel was due for completion in 2012. However, bankruptcy at the yard in 2011 delayed the project further, and was rescued only by the company's acquisition by the state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation in May 2012.
Now that most of the hard graft and legal wrangling is out of the way and the Akademik Lomonosov is approaching completion, how and where will it be deployed? The originally stated advantage of the FNPP concept is to provide energy to remote or hostile regions where traditional onshore power facilities are impossible or financially impractical to build. Thus the Akademik Lomonosov is destined for deployment near the remote Arctic port of Pevek on Russia's Chukchi Peninsula.
In addition to providing power and fresh water to Russian homes, the FNPPs have been indicated for a potentially lucrative application to power the country's energy-intensive oil and gas exploration and production efforts. According to US Geological Survey estimates, Arctic waters hide 30% of the world's undiscovered natural gas deposits, and 60% of that gas is in Russian territory. Offshore gas extraction projects in the region are becoming increasingly accessible due to melting Arctic Sea ice, and FNPPs could be an important factor in running viable operations.
Russia's state gas company Gazprom reportedly wants between three and five FNPPs to achieve its Arctic production ambitions, and according to OKBM: "Among probable users of [FNPP], Gazprom is also mentioned, which has already shown its interest to the usage of the station for power supply of projects on gas recovery in northern latitudes and at the Yamal Peninsula."
The developers of the FNPP would also like to export the concept itself to other countries, especially those in need of relatively inexpensive power plants to support remote coastal regions. Fifteen countries, including China, Indonesia, Namibia and Argentina, have reportedly expressed an interest in the technology; the success or failure of the Akademik Lomonosov will likely be a key factor in the wider adoption of FNPPs.
OKBM has laid out a structure for how the technology might be provided to interested countries, a licensing model that aims to satisfy the needs of cash-poor developing countries and the requirements of non-proliferation agreements. "The commercial model of the project for foreign users can be implemented using the 'we construct-own-operate' diagram, ie floating power unit (FPU) remains a property of Russia, changeable shift crew is Russian, and electric power, heat, fresh water are sold to the user based on the long-term agreement. The given diagram makes it possible for the country where a power unit operates not to create an operation substructure and ensure non-proliferation guarantees for technologies and nuclear materials."
Is it safe?
With memories of Fukushima still fresh, the potential implications of Russia's FNPP programme for nuclear safety, environmental conservation and non-proliferation hasn't been lost on the scheme's critics.
Environmental protection group Green Cross Russia is a firm opponent of the FNPP scheme. One of the organisation's major objections is that floating nuclear plants will exacerbate the dangers of weaponised nuclear material and nuclear terrorism. In an extensive publication entitled 'Floating Nuclear Power Plants in Russia: A Threat to the Arctic, World Oceans and Non-Proliferation Treaty', Green Cross Russia argues that "the realisation of the FNPP project would create a situation in which nuclear fissile materials suitable for the production of nuclear weapons were much more easily available, thereby undermining the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; and the potential for international nuclear espionage and terrorism would be greatly increased."
Concerns have been raised over the difficulty of securing nuclear facilities in an offshore setting. In an interview with the National Geographic, the US Nuclear Energy Institute's senior director of policy development Paul Genoa described Russia's FNPP vision as "interesting", but added a strong safety caveat: "In [the US], the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would want to know how a barge tied up at a pier could be defended from potential terrorist attack."
Oilprice.com analyst Dr John Daly, meanwhile, has called into question Russia's environmental record on marine nuclear projects. "So much for the lessons of Fukushima," Daly wrote in July. "Never mind oil spills, the Russian Federation is preparing an energy initiative that, if it has problems, will inject nuclear material into the maritime environment."
Daly cites Russia's first nuclear icebreaker, the Soviet-era vessel Lenin, which suffered two nuclear accidents in the 1960s and led to the dumping of reactor debris into Tsivolki Bay. Like the US, the country has also experienced incidents onboard its nuclear submarines, including the infamous sinking of the Oscar II-class submarine Kursk in 2000.
Russia's nuclear expertise
Russia has mounted a strong defence of the Akademik Lomonosov's safety credentials, and has been broadly backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In terms of non-proliferation, the facility's KLT-40S reactors are designed to use uranium enriched to below 20%, a significant reduction on the 30-40% enriched uranium used on many nuclear icebreakers.
According to an IAEA design description of the KLT-40S: "The limitation of uranium fuel enrichment to below 20% U235 is considered by the IAEA to be a factor that enhances proliferation resistance of nuclear systems, as LEU [low-enriched uranium] is not a direct use nuclear material."
In a broader sense, the IAEA has expressed confidence in Russia's nuclear expertise and safety record over the course of decades of extensive land and sea-based nuclear experience. "Over the entire period of nuclear vessel operation," reads the design description, "there have been no cases of navigation termination due to RP [reactor plant] failures, and no incidents associated with fission reaction control failures, core cooldown failures, uncontrollable nuclides transport or excessive personnel exposure. The experience of development and long-term failure-free operation of nuclear vessels served [as] the basis for developing the small-size FNPP design."
The country's experience with nuclear technology has seen Rosatom gain increasing traction in the global nuclear sector, even in advanced markets like Europe, where, for example, the Czech Republic has switched from US nuclear fuel assemblies to their Russian counterparts to improve safety and reliability. Is it possible that the suspicion over the Akademik Lomonosov, and Russian nuclear power in general, is anchored more in a post-Cold War hangover than the reality of Russia's 21st century nuclear industry, albeit one that is exacerbated by the country's rather opaque public information practices?
Without more information and practical experience of Russian FNPP operation, the question over the project's safety is impossible to answer for sure, and when the stakes are so high, it is this uncertainty that understandably gives observers pause. Russia's ambitious plan takes a bold and potentially risky step forwards for the deployment of nuclear technology, but it remains to be seen whether the Akademik Lomonosov and its proposed successors will end up a disaster, a roaring success or somewhere in between.
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