Fears of ‘Chernobyl on ice’ as Russia prepares floating nuclear plant

Russia is planning to dispatch the vessel, its first floating nuclear power station, on a 4,000-mile journey along the Northern Sea Route, in a milestone for the country’s growing use of nuclear power in its plans for Arctic expansion.

“I feel like I’m one of the first cosmonauts going into space,” said Vladimir Irminku, one of the chief engineers of the Akademik Lomonosov, as he stood on the deck of the giant, box-like platform on a chilly summer morning at Kola Bay in the Barents Sea.

If all goes to plan, the Akademik Lomonosov will be towed to the Arctic port of Pevek this month, where it will use its twin nuclear reactors to provide heat and energy to homes and support mining and drilling operations in Russia’s mineral-rich Chukotka region.

Russia claims the project will provide clean energy to the remote region and allow authorities to retire an ageing nuclear plant and a coal-burning power station.

But the Akademik Lomonosov has raised safety concerns among environmental groups, including accusations from Greenpeace that it could be a “floating Chernobyl”, and doubts about whether floating nuclear power stations meant to provide power to remote regions are economically viable.

The Northern Sea Route – shipping lanes opened by melting ice sheets in the Arctic – presents new trade routes between China and Europe that Russia hopes to make navigable year-round.

The prospect of lucrative trade routes, as well as the region’s military importance, has led to a proliferation of nuclear-powered icebreakers, submarines and other high-tech nuclear technologies in the Arctic region.

Thomas Nilsen, the editor of the Barents Observer newspaper, based in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, has estimated that by 2035, the Russian Arctic “will by far be the most nuclearised waters on the planet”.

Floating nuclear power stations may play a role. While plans have existed for generations and the US deployed a small nuclear reactor onboard a barge in the Panama Canal Zone in the 1960s and 70s, they have never been mass-produced. Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy company, hopes to change that and sell customised floating nuclear power stations to countries around the world. Rosatom said it has signed a project development agreement to explore the possibility of building a floating nuclear power plant for Sudan, among others.

In Rosatom’s business plan, the Akademik Lomonosov is part of the sales pitch. The platform, recently painted a brilliant white and stamped with the energy agency’s logo, is an expensive pilot project with some extravagant flourishes, including a gym, pool and bar (with no alcohol) for crew members. Security is tight and visiting reporters were shadowed by private security guards while onboard.

The Akademik Lomonosov, which took more than a decade to build, carries two KLT-40S nuclear reactors, similar to those used on Russia’s nuclear icebreakers. The reactors use low-enriched uranium and are capable of producing a combined 70MW of electricity, which Rosatom estimates as enough for 100,000 homes. Rosatom also claims the platform is “virtually unsinkable” and able to withstand collisions with icebergs and the impact of a seven-metre wave.

Greenpeace has described the project as a “nuclear Titanic” and “Chernobyl on ice”, at a time when popular attention to the threat of nuclear accidents has been stoked by the popular HBO miniseries Chernobyl, dramatising the nuclear disaster of 1986. Neighbouring countries including Norway have successfully lobbied Rosatom not to load nuclear fuel on to the platform until after it is towed away from their borders.

Rosatom officials visibly bristled at the comparisons to previous nuclear accidents, arguing Chernobyl used far larger reactors of a different type and the nuclear technology onboard the Akademik Lomonosov had already been employed on Russia’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers.

Irminku said: “This and a ‘Chernobyl on ice’ is just night and day – we’re talking about totally different systems. There should always be scepticism of new technology. But they’re going overboard. If they say there is a possibility of an accident with the reactor then they have to present evidence.”

In case of an accident and a reactor shutdown, Irminku said, the ice-cold water beneath the reactor could be used as coolant until help arrived.

The Bellona Foundation, which covers environmental issues in the Arctic region, theorised in a 2011 report that waves from a tsunami could throw the nuclear power plant away from its water source on shore, leading to a “nuclear accident with grave consequences”.

Rosatom says dangers from waves are mitigated by a dock constructed around the power station, and if thrown inland, the reactors’ emergency systems can cool them without an electricity supply for 24 hours.

Dmitry Alekseyenko, a deputy head of construction and operation of the platform, said: “We studied the experience of Fukushima closely. What happens if the platform is hit by a tsunami? Or thrown onshore? According to our tests, a tsunami caused by a nine-point earthquake will not dislocate it from its base.”

Anna Kireeva of Bellona said the organisation had closely followed the development of the Akademik Lomonosov. Russian experts may safely be able to operate a floating nuclear power plant, she said, but plans to license out the technology raised much larger concerns.

The Akademik Lomonosov is towed out of St Petersburg bound for Murmansk in April 2018. Photograph: Nicolai Gontar/Greenpeace/Reuters

“Our real concern is the reason why they’re making this floating plant – they want to sell this technology to countries like Sudan,” she said in a telephone interview.

“I’m really concerned that such nuclear technologies can be used in countries where levels of nuclear radiation safety, regulation and standards of safety are not on such a high level as in Russia. What will they do with spent nuclear fuel? How will they react in case of emergencies?”

The other question is whether floating power plants are economically viable. While Rosatom executives have touted interest in the platforms, potential buyers have yet to put any money on the table. Some critics have called the project frivolous.

Nilsen described it as a “PR project”, citing the lack of additional orders and the ready availability of liquefied natural gas in the Arctic region as an alternative to nuclear power.

“If this had been a very good way of providing electricity to the north coast of Siberia then we would have seen more of them under construction … I think this is going to be a one-of-a-kind project,” he said.

Rosatom officials declined to say how much the Akademik Lomonosov cost, although they did say they expected prices to fall as further plants were built. In 2016, an official connected to the project said the floating nuclear power station cost an estimated 21.5bn roubles (£274m), and the necessary infrastructure would cost an additional 7bn roubles.

After years of reported cost overruns and delays, Alekseyenko called the plant’s completion a “milestone” for Rosatom and Russia’s shipbuilding industry. “An order this big hasn’t been completed for a long time,” he said.

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