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Later this month, a flotilla of tugboats will leave Murmansk, a port located at the northwest corner of Russia. They will tow the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating nuclear plant. These ships will travel 5955 kilometers east to Pavek, a remote port in the northeast of the country. There, the two small reactors of the plant will provide energy to homes and also to mining and drilling operations.
It is a bold and expensive project; Besides, it seems that it is just the beginning. China plans to launch 20 floating nuclear plants in the next decade. US investors hope to build an assembly line in South Korea to produce affordable, sea-reacted reactors.
However, it is worrying that regulations have not kept pace with technological advances. The uncommunicative response of Russian officials to the fatal explosion of a nuclear-powered cruise missile near Moscow at the end of last week is proof of what is at stake. It is not difficult to imagine the catastrophic results if a nuclear reactor is parked in a tsunami zone, a congested traffic line or a region vulnerable to terrorism or piracy. It must be a priority to establish new global standards quickly.
The idea of nuclear energy in the sea has existed since the beginning of the atomic era. Reactors on land are extravagantly expensive and it takes years to build them – for decades. They require custom designs, large surfaces, a continuous water supply and multiple layers of regulatory review. A government with no previous nuclear experience usually needs 10 to 15 years before starting the operation of a new reactor.
In contrast, floating reactors are much smaller and the goal is to be modular, which reduces the cost of manufacturing and deployment. By placing them in the sea, there is no need for terrestrial spaces and it is possible to offer energy to remote areas, underdeveloped or devastated by disasters. Rosatom Corp., the nuclear power giant after Akademik Lomonosov, recently signed a memorandum of understanding to provide Sudan with its own floating reactor.
The first and only plant of this kind so far was the MH-1A, a floating platform designed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. In 1968, it was sent to the Panama Canal when the drought exhausted the hydroelectric generation capacity of the area and threatened the operation. The MH-1A maintained the operation of the canal for eight years, until the Corps decided that it was very expensive to continue.
Public opposition and customer shortages condemned the mid-1970s projects led by Westinghouse Electric Co. to build a floating nuclear plant the size of an island off New Jersey. Soviet officials long contemplated the idea of using mobile nuclear plants to supply power to the sparsely populated regions of northern and eastern Russia, but never carried it out.
The cost remains a challenge. When the keel was laid for the Akademik Lomonosov in 2007, Rosatom hoped that its compact design could be replicated relatively inexpensively. However, years of excesses and delays (some caused by Russia’s uncertain economic situation) have raised the cost of the project over US $ 480 million. Mass production seems unlikely.
China could have better luck. Its first floating plant is currently under construction for deployment in 2021, and more will follow. Unlike Russia, China does not lack resources to devote to the project. More importantly, its maritime reactors are based on already successful land designs. Meanwhile, Chinese developers are collaborating with the offshore oil industry in the country, which expects to use nuclear energy to expand exploration and drilling in the South China Sea. Given China’s interest in dominating that disputed region, any cost concerns are easily ignored.
Security issues are another matter. Proponents argue that, in the event of an accident, seawater could cool a damaged floating reactor until the necessary help arrives. But a Chernobyl-like disaster would contaminate the ocean, perhaps for thousands of kilometers, and affect fisheries and coastal communities.
Similarly, a reactor that breaks out during a storm could reach land and contaminate populated areas in a generalized way. Worse, deploying floating reactors in a disputed area, such as the South China Sea, will make them a target in case of conflict.
Such concerns will not prevent China or Russia from sending mobile reactors to waters they claim as their own. However, under the terms of the 1994 Nuclear Safety Convention, they must comply with the standards of design, construction and operation of civil nuclear facilities, and submit periodic reports on their nuclear programs for review by other countries. There is no reason why the treaty, which applies only to terrestrial reactors, cannot be modified to also include offshore installations.
At a minimum, that would create a security baseline for this new technology and guarantee some kind of supervision for the community of nuclear nations over implementation. If this does not completely dispel concerns about a “floating Chernobyl,” it could at least reduce the chances of such a disaster.