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Russia's floating nukes to power oil and gas extraction in Arctic Ocean

Russia has launched the first in a series of at least seven small-sized floating nuclear power stations largely to power its Gazprom’s massive expansion of offshore oil and gas extraction in the Arctic Ocean. The floating atomic power plants will also power new and renovated Russian military bases in the globally strategic region.

The “Akademik Lomonosov” carries two KLT-40S small modular pressurized water reactors rated at 35 megawatts electric each (MWe). The atomic power reactors are built into a 500-foot long, 21,500-ton barge currently being towed by tug boats from St. Petersburg to Murmansk, Russia. Once in Murmansk, the Lomonosov reactors will be loaded with enriched uranium fuel, low power tested and towed further to Russia’s northernmost Arctic region. There, the floating atomic power station is to be moored offshore from the port city of Pevek on the Northern Sea Route. It is scheduled to begin full power production (70 MWe) in 2019. Pevek, once a center in the former Soviet Gulag for seven large hard labor camps where prisoners mined uranium, is now a modernized city.

The concept of a floating nuclear reactor is not a new. The United States was the first country to deploy a floating nuclear power plant in 1968. The 10 MWe MH-1A was an early pressurized water reactor retrofitted into a Liberty ship, the Sturgis. The Sturgis was to supply electrical power to the Panama Canal. The Sturgis operated only eight years before it was permanently closed as too expensive to maintain. In 1971, the U.S.-based Westinghouse Corporation briefly revived the concept building a central manufacturing facility in Florida for 1200 MWe Pressurized Water Reactors using a notoriously thin shelled containment structure. The reactor was to be placed on a barge and towed out to sea up where it would be moored off the coastline beyond controversial emergency planning zones. New Jersey utilities were the first to enthusiastically embrace the plan without fully appreciating the unique concerns the concept  added to already apparent siting issues from land based reactors. Ship collisions, barges sinking, fishing ground impacts and a host of regulatory concerns clashed with national and international law and inter-agency authority including the US Coast Guard. The U.S. Government Accounting Office issued a report criticizing federal regulators for not even analyzing the impacts of meltdown through the barge on the ocean environment. It added up to failure with no utility orders, the unwillingness of states to site facilities in coastal waters and the failure of a government bailout to finance construction.  

The KLT-40S nuclear power reactor is significant because it is Russia’s first small modular reactor (SMR) design originally intended to be manufactured on an assembly line and mass marketed for international export to power large coastal cities where the reactors could be moored offshore.  While the Russian state-owned nuclear power industry, Rosatom, promotes the technology as proven, reliable and safe, the KLT-40S is based on a previous design, the KLT-40M, that powers Russian icebreakers not without accidents. In 2011, one of those icebreakers, the Taimyr, experienced a radioactive release to the atmosphere from the reactor’s primary cooling system prompting the crew to abandon its mission and make an emergency return to port. Greenpeace International aptly identifies the five key reasons why floating nuclear power stations are still a bad idea; 1) it’s an accident waiting to happen; 2) such a catastrophe at sea will be extremely difficult to manage with significant environmental consequences; 3) there is already a terrible track record of accidents involving nuclear ships, ice breakers and submarines; 4) these reactors will be a nuclear dumping ground on water and; 5) using nuclear power to extract fossil fuels is the worst of all worlds.