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Analysis: Russia to build floating nuclear power plants

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent

WASHINGTON, May 4 (UPI) -- With the majority of the world's scientists and countries now acknowledging global warming as a reality, its impact on the world's climate is coming under increased scrutiny, particularly in the world's polar regions.

Global warming has opened up previously inaccessible areas along the Norwegian, Canadian, U.S. and Russian coasts and triggered a rush to define regional waters and exclusive economic zones in order to stake claims to the region's largely untapped energy reserves. Now Russia is taking its intentions a step further by planning to build a series of floating nuclear power stations in order to provide electricity to a number of hydrocarbon development projects in what the Kremlin calls "energy-unavailability areas."

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Moscow's plans have aroused the concerns of environmental organizations worldwide, which fear that an accident at an FNPS could release massive amounts of radiation into the arctic. Whether the Kremlin will heed the concerns remains to be seen, as the policy is driven by specialists' observations that depletion of the reserves of oil and gas in Russia's accessible "heartland" localities such as Western Siberia is not so far off.

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According to Rosatom's public relations department, on April 21 Rosatom Director Sergei Kiriyenko held a conference at the Baltiiskii Zavod, or Baltic Shipyards, to mark the start of the filling of a contract to build Russia's first FNPS prototype.

Rosatom Nuclear Energy State Corp. is the Russian Federation's regulatory body for the nation's nuclear complex, with responsibilities similar to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The FNPS is a 21,500-ton vessel, 472 feet long and 98 feet wide, housing two KLT40-S marine reactors with an aggregate power of 70 megawatts. Rosatom calculates a tentative cost of FNPS construction at $274 million. According to Rosatom, the FNPS will be able to be based in any coastal areas and used to generate electricity and heat, as well as desalinate seawater. The FNPS design specifications project a reactor service life of 38 years and maintain it can be operated for 10-12 years without replacing its nuclear fuel, while its engineering will provide an enhanced radiation-safety level. As an added bonus, waste heat from the reactors will be able to desalinate up to 220 tons of seawater daily.

Interestingly, the FNPS contract was initially awarded to Severodvinsk's Severnoe Mashinostroitel'noe Predpriiatie -- also known as the Northern Machine-building Enterprise, or Sevmash -- shipyard on the White Sea, which specialized in the manufacture and repair of submarines and military ships and, since 1991, the civil production of offshore oil technology and platforms. Construction actually began on the FNPS at Sevmash, but authorities subsequently transferred the contract to the Baltiiskii Zavod because of a lower bid, and the unfinished construction was transferred there. If all goes according to plan, the FNPS will start working in Vilyuchinsk in 2011, providing power to state energy firm Gazprom for its drilling operations in the Barents and Kara seas.

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Bland assurances about FNPS safety aside, the world's ocean floor is already littered with six sunken nuclear-submarine hulls. While the Kursk, which killed 118 submariners after an onboard explosion sank the boat on Aug. 12, 2000, is the Russian navy's best-known maritime disaster, six nuclear-powered submarines are currently irradiating the seabed as a consequence of either accident or extensive damage. Two are American -- the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion -- and four are Soviet -- K-8, K-219, the K-278 Komsomolets and K-27. Nor are current nuclear operations without hazard. BarentsObserver reported March 16 that the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal collided with the 16,000-ton tanker Indiga during ice escort in the Kara Sea in the Gulf of Yenisei, with the tanker receiving a 31-foot crack on its main deck from the impact of the collision. No damage to the Yamal or its nuclear reactor was reported, but the incident underlined the hazards of navigation in such a challenging environment.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation began to use its arctic waters as a dumping ground for radioactive waste from more than 160 decommissioned nuclear submarines. In 1993 a white paper sponsored by the Russian Federation's Government Commission on Matters Related to Radioactive Waste Disposal at Sea, or Yablokov Commission, reported that 16 nuclear reactors and more than 10,000 containers of nuclear waste had been deposited in the Barents/Kara Sea region off Russia's northern arctic coast and in the waters around Novaia Zemlia in the Barents Sea. Ironically, in July 1954, the Novaia Zemlia Test Site was established, which from 1955 to 1990 was used as one of the Soviet Union's major nuclear-weapons testing sites, including the Oct. 30, 1961, detonation of the 27-ton RDS-220 hydrogen bomb; with an estimated yield of 50 megatons, the RDS-220 was the largest nuclear weapon ever tested.

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In spite of such a record of ecological vandalism, Russian environmentalists will have their hands full beyond the first FNPS prototype, as on Feb. 24 Kiriyenko said that Rosatom was examining 10 further potential sites in Russia for the floating stations, "mainly areas of the extreme North -- Yakutia, Chukotka, Yamal, and port cities along the Northern Sea Route."

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said that while the current global economic crisis has resulted in some weakening of interest in nuclear energy, by 2030 the long-term demand for atomic energy will grow 66 percent above today's output from 436 nuclear reactors in 30 countries.

Kiriyenko is upbeat about the FNPS's export potential, telling journalists, "If the works are done on schedule, the Baltiiskii Zavod will make a series of floating nuclear power plants. We will not only make new generating facilities but also export our products and thus raise our competitiveness. Foreign representatives willing to order similar floating NPPs will start visiting the Baltiiskii Zavod this year. This power plant can produce not only electric power and heating but also a large amount of fresh water. Foreigners tell us that they want to see the NPP with their own eyes and to make an order. It will be possible to lease floating NPPs together with their personnel." According to Rosatom, more than 12 countries have already expressed interest in the FNPS.

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During the Cold War, the Soviet arctic, despite its isolation, was a front-line test zone for nuclear weapons, with pollution from the Soviet military program leaving a cavalier legacy of what one scientist has called a "slow-motion Chernobyl" in excess of 3 billion curies of radioactivity; for comparison, the total radiation release from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was estimated at 100 million curies. If Rosatom presses forward with its FNPS building plans, then future Russian governments will see many more reports by successors to the Yablokov Commission, along with a possible dozen other aggrieved governments.

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