Danger at Sea Russia To Build Floating Nuclear Power Plant

Russia is constructing a floating nuclear power plant for remote regions that could provide energy for coastal cities. Environmentalists warn of a catastrophe at sea. And nuclear proliferation experts point out that the ship would use weapons-grade uranium to generate electricity.

By Ulrich Jaeger

A computer model of the world's first floating nuclear power station in Severodvinsk.

A computer model of the world's first floating nuclear power station in Severodvinsk.

The concept is amazing. The new ship could be anchored along any coastline where there is no threat of a tsunami or hurricane. All local engineers have to do is attach a few cables and then the magic arrives: "the reactors are activated -- and there is light." Voilá, the world's mobile, boat-based nuclear reactor for the production of civilian power. That, at least, is how an enthusiastic Evgeny Kuzin, who works for the Russian utility company Malaya Energetika, pitches the ambitious project.

Last week the Russian nuclear energy company Rosenergoatom and the Sevmach military shipyard in Severodvinsk on the Arctic Sea signed a contract to build the world's first floating nuclear power plant. At a cost of €270 million, a 140 meter long by 30 meter wide ship will be fitted with two reactors on its keel. Combined they will produce 70 megawatts of electricity, almost a twentieth of that produced by land-based plants. The Severodvinsk nuclear ship is expected to go online in 2010, but that could be just the beginning. Countries including China, India, Indonesia and states in the Persian Gulf have apparently already expressed interest.

The Russians' plans promise a flexible solution to energy problems: The ship provides space for 55 crew members, a reactor control center and storage for nuclear fuel rods. However, tugboats will be required to bring the floating power plant to its site, as the 20,000 ton boat doesn’t have its own engine. Russian experts claim that the ship could supply the energy needs for coastal cities with up to 200,000 residents.

But what may sound like a groundbreaking project triggers nightmares for international nuclear experts. The Norwegian environmental organization Bellona has described the project as an "absolutely sick idea." The Norwegians are backed by the environmental group Green Cross Russia. The organization's spokesman, Vladimir Kuznetsov, former head of the Russian nuclear regulatory agency, believes the floating plants are "a threat to the world's oceans and to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Weapons-grade uranium

The problem is the fact that reactors of the KLT-40C variety are to be used on the ship. Plants of this type are also used to power Russia's nuclear-powered icebreakers. Sure the reactors would be modified for their use as energy suppliers, but that doesn’t change their delicate, accident-prone design. The reactors are run using fuel rods, 40 percent of which consist of the easily fissionable Uranium 235. That type of uranium is weapons-grade and could be used to construct dozens of nuclear warheads. Soldiers would be needed to protect the ship from terrorists.

The operational safety is also far from certain. Although reactor accidents on board Russian ships are kept secret, information about several serious incidents on board nuclear-powered icebreakers have reached the West. On at least two occasions, nuclear meltdowns almost occurred on ships after there reactor cooling systems failed.

Because the plant will be cooled using sea water, a reactor incident could lead to the contamination of entire maritime regions. According to the Swedish nuclear expert Oddbjörn Sandervag, the effects of a normal tanker accident would be negligible in contrast.

The concept remains unconvincing economically, too. The price per kilowatt hour would be six cents, according to the project leader. Gas power plants produce energy for 2 cents. And that doesn’t take into account the costs for insurance, security or the disposal of the nuclear ship after its estimated 40 years lifespan. Of course, cynics could easily point out that Moscow has a pretty effective system for getting rid of its rotting nuclear fleets: The disposal of the Russian nuclear submarines on the Artic Sea was paid for by neighbor Norway and the United States.


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