Floating nuclear power is a good idea

Atomic energyRussia: Floating Nuclear power plant in the Polar sea

For a long time we didn't hear much about floating nuclear power plants, but then the Russians began building the Lomonosov Academy. Now it's almost time. The floating nuclear power plant will be tugged from Murmansk to its destination in August - the port city of Pevek in the very north-east of Siberia,

The Akademik Lomonossow is around 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and has two reactors in its hull - icebreakers and submarines are also powered by similar reactors. The reactors were modified for the floating nuclear power plant; they generate an electrical output of 35 megawatts (MW). The whole thing is a barque, so it has no drive of its own and has to be towed.

Both reactors have now been started up and tested. The operator Rosenergatom has received the license for operation from the supervisory authority - for ten years, so it is now valid until 2029. The Akademik Lomonosov in Pevel, a city of 100,000 inhabitants on the Chukchi Peninsula in the Arctic, is due to start commercial operations in December. In Pevek, the infrastructure in the port is now being completed, via which the floating power plant will then be connected to the city's electricity and heating network. If everything goes well, around 200,000 people should then be supplied with energy via the ship.

The fuel elements are also stored on board

Everything takes place on board: The hull, for example, houses the steam generator and everything you need for loading, unloading and reloading the fuel assemblies. In the wet storage area, the sea cools the fuel assemblies via heat exchangers, and in the dry storage area they are placed in storage containers after the decay time in the wet storage area. The fuel assemblies are to be changed every three years, and the Lomonossow Academy is to be brought to the shipyard for maintenance work every twelve years, where the used fuel assemblies are then also unloaded.

On board are all systems for the supply of electricity to the connection point on land, the crew quarters, canteens and leisure rooms. A total of 342 people will work in shifts around the clock.

"Everything is calculated very optimistically and viewed very optimistically. There have also been problems with these reactors on nuclear icebreakers."
Dagmar Röhrlich, science journalist

The idea dates back to the 1950s: floating nuclear power plants were supposed to supply remote villages with energy along rivers or other bodies of water. The US Army then carried out these plans. Between 1968 and 1976 the Sturgis generated electricity on the Panama Canal, until the military command asked for the ship to be withdrawn because of fear of violent conflicts at the beginning of the negotiations between the USA and Panama over the status of the Canal. Now Russia has taken up the idea again to supply remote places in Siberia with energy.

Because the nuclear power plant floats, the ship has to be particularly robust. It has a double-walled hull, was made of steel, which does not mind the low temperatures in the Arctic - and the ship has been specially reinforced so that it can also be towed through ice.

Allegedly nothing should get into the environment in the event of a core meltdown

As far as reactor safety is concerned, when the concept was presented to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it was said that the plant had been built with very large safety margins and that it could withstand both tsunamis and earthquakes with a magnitude of ten (the strongest measured so far was the Valdivia quake of 1960 with a magnitude of 9.5). Even in the event of a total blackout or a core meltdown, nothing should be released into the environment. The core melt is caught by the reactor pressure vessel and the heat is dissipated by passive cooling systems. Nobody has to be evacuated in an emergency. Emergency plans are only needed for a one-kilometer radius around the boat.

Environmentalists see it differently. They are skeptical about the argument that radioactivity cannot be released into the environment. The reactors are comparatively small and therefore it should be easier to dissipate the heat in the event of a serious incident than with a large reactor. But there is no such thing as a robust protective cover.

"If the ship is thrown onto land in a tsunami, then the sea is no longer there for emergency cooling."
Dagmar Röhrlich, science journalist

Critics also find it problematic that the fuel elements are stored on board, so that large amounts of radionuclides could be released in an emergency. And in the worst scenario of a tsunami, environmentalists fear that the entire plant could be thrown inland. There it would be - even if the reactor and the fuel element storage remained intact - far away from the sea, its source of emergency coolant. The supplies on board are only sufficient for 24 hours. And because the region is very remote, no one can come to help quickly.

China is also planning reactor ships

Further reactor ships are planned, for which 50 MW reactors are already being developed - they should then also be cheaper, because the price of the Lomonosov Academy was very high at around $ 480 million. It is advertised that the construction of such a floating and off-the-peg nuclear power plant would only take four years - in contrast to one or even two decades for a conventional power plant.

There are plans for floating nuclear power plants not only in Russia. Two state-backed companies in China are said to be pursuing plans for at least 20 floating nuclear power plants, and American and Canadian companies are also pursuing their own plans.