On Friday, three tugs will tow the Akademik Lomonosov barge out of Murmansk to begin a 5,000km voyage to a remote port on the other side of Russia’s Arctic coast, and in the process send waves through the nuclear energy sector.
The vessel is a floating nuclear reactor, a portable power plant designed to supply electricity to areas disconnected from the grid, and envisaged by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom as the future of small-scale nuclear power with an eye on export opportunities in developing countries.
But the two-reactor Lomonosov, which took a decade to design and build, has sparked safety fears and concerns over the environmental impact of any mishap, amid concern over a botched nuclear missile test this month at a military site close to Murmansk that released a radiation spike in a nearby city.
Rosatom insists the unit is safe, and “virtually unsinkable” in case of natural disasters. The plant will also be guarded by the Russian guard, Moscow’s internal military force.
“Our unit has other tasks, other requirements in terms of security. It has to correspond with double standards — for a nuclear plant and a vessel,” said Dmitry Alexeenko, deputy head of Rosatom’s department overseeing its construction.
The unit is the first in a programme designed to provide power to remote communities where building a conventional nuclear power plant would be excessive. The Akademik Lomonosov will sail to the Chukotka region, deep in Russia’s far east, where miners are seeking to exploit gold and copper reserves.
“It is needed for the economy, because the infrastructure and the power cannot be linked quickly through mountains, mud volcanoes or tundra,” said Mr Alexeenko.
However, environmental groups have raised concerns over the possible repeat of the 1986 Soviet nuclear power plant explosion in Chernobyl, modern-day Ukraine. In 2017, Greenpeace led a protest at St Petersburg’s Baltic shipyard, where the unit was being tested, demanding “No to floating Chernobyl”. The reactor tests were then moved to Murmansk.
“A floating nuclear power plant is far more vulnerable to outside threats, such as those from pirates, should they be sold to equatorial countries, and natural disasters, which Fukushima proved even onshore plants are prone to,” said Konstantin Fomin of Greenpeace Russia.
The launch comes as energy companies around the world, including in the US and South Korea, have been exploring building smaller scale reactors.
Rosatom says it has been in talks with potential buyers from Latin America, Africa and Asia. It has also held discussions with Sudan to use the plant for power generation and Argentina for water desalination. But the project’s total cost, and confirmation of any foreign contracts, will only be made after the technology is fully tested, the company added.
Nuclear energy experts said given the construction timeframe, it is unlikely to be cheap.
Anton Khlopkov, head of Russia’s independent Center for Energy and Security Studies, expects the unit to be significantly cheaper than a conventional land-based nuclear power plant, which normally costs about $5bn-$6bn. But the cost per megawatt would be higher, he said.
“The project economics remain an open question, even taking into account that it is aimed at distant locations where the power costs can be higher for obvious reasons. Even then the project has to prove economic viability,” he said.
Rosatom, however, sees the reactor as a strategic project where economic costs are secondary. “Such a unit is to be installed in regions where nothing can be built, or where it isn’t economically viable,” Mr Alexeenko said.
Named after a prominent Russian scientist, the Akademik Lomonosov will become the first floating nuclear power plant since the MH-1A Sturgis — a US military reactor that supplied the Panama Canal with power from 1968 to 1975.
Equipped with two KLT40 nuclear reactors delivering capacity of 70 megawatts/hour, the vessel is 140m long and 30m tall. It also boasts a gym, swimming pool and bar to accommodate its 342 staff — around 80 permanent and the rest on rotating shifts that revolve every six weeks.
“We understand that this unit is excessive. Such units have to be made for specific tasks, and the capacity has to fluctuate at 60-200MWh,” said Mr Alexeenko.
Rosatom is planning six more units with lower capacity and fewer staff.
“Given that we plan such units not only for domestic use, but also for external markets, the fuel enrichment level is 14.7 per cent. It allows us to freely transport it to external markets, it corresponds with all international requirements,” said Mr Alexeenko.
Even if it proves successful, however, the judicial status of a floating nuclear power plant and its management abroad could also become an issue. Rosatom is not ready to say who would control and manage any plants shipped overseas.
“Too many legal questions remain that can affect security,” Mr Fomin of Greenpeace said.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy
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