The first Russian floating nuclear power plant for civil use.


Russia already has the first floating nuclear power plant. In a country with cities in some of the most inhospitable regions on the planet, this type of small installations would offer a more flexible alternative to the construction of other types of electricity production plants. The ship, named Akademik Lomonosov, in honor of the 18th century Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov, was built between 2007 and 2018 and has two reactors of 35 MW each. With that capacity, they could supply electricity to a population of about 100,000 inhabitants.

After the first experimental reactors and the construction of atomic bombs, the initial uses of nuclear energy were developed aboard submarines and aircraft carriers. In fact, the choice of a Pressurized Water Reactor to include in the USS Nautilus submarine, a decision in which Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover had great influence, guided for decades the path that the nuclear industry would follow for civil uses.

The ship was built during the last decade in the Baltic shipyards of Saint Petersburg and from there it left for the city of Murmansk, the largest city on the planet north of the Arctic Circle. This city housed the base of icebreakers and nuclear submarines during the years of the Soviet Union and where, after the fall of the communist empire, more than 200 nuclear reactors remained to be dismantled. The vessel was towed to its destination, the Arctic town of Pevek, the northernmost town in Russia. Once there, it was connected to the electrical and heating networks. Its energy will replace that produced by the Cháunskaya thermal power plant and the Bilíbino nuclear power plant.

Rosatom, the state corporation that regulates nuclear operations in the country, had long had plans to launch small mobile plants, with the aim of meeting the needs of the most remote locations. For them, nuclear energy would also be a way to reduce greenhouse emissions that cause climate change and also provides flexibility and remarkable autonomy. The Akademik Lomonosov reactors can operate without refueling for more than three years.

Moscow is not the only country that has considered the construction of floating nuclear power plants, although, with permission from the US, it has been the first to carry out the plan. More than half a century ago, the North American country built the MH-1A Sturgis, a traveling nuclear power plant that was towed to the Panama Canal area, where it produced electricity between 1968 and 1976. Also in North America, the Westinghouse company designed two floating plants to placed on the coast of the state of New Jersey, but were never built

Potential business

Now, two Chinese companies are building similar facilities and in the US, institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also have teams that have designed similar projects. In the opinion of these experts, the placement of nuclear reactors on ships can help reduce production costs in the experience of recent years, at least in the US, project cost overruns and political opposition have practically stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants. The possibility of assembling these floating plants in shipyards would make them cheaper. Furthermore, these facilities could produce energy without greenhouse gases and with a production that does not depend on environmental circumstances like wind or solar energy. For Rosatom, this plant will serve as a model for potential business, such as building similar ones for other countries, both to sell them the ship with the reactors and to place it next to the territory to which they want to provide electricity and sell it.

As explained by those responsible for the project, "the technological solutions for the components of the floating nuclear power plant are based on technology used in nuclear icebreakers since 1988." The icebreakers Taimyr and Vaigach, with extensive experience plying the frozen waters of the Arctic, were used as prototypes. Rosatom officials assure that the reactors on these ships have operated without failure for several decades in the extreme conditions of the pole and a similar unit has operated for many years without problems on the Sevmorput ship. "In addition, it should be noted that reactor installation technologies for the icebreaker fleet are constantly being improved and have experienced quantitative advances since 1988," they add

Environmental impact

Another objective of the construction of the ship is to reduce the environmental impact of electricity production. It is estimated that each day of operation of the floating plant reduces coal consumption by 200,000 tons and oil consumption by 120,000, directly or through gas savings, something to which the Russian authorities attribute great importance due to the agreements of the Paris climate. In addition, the energy from Lomosonov will improve the energy conditions of residents of remote regions and facilitate the expansion of mining industry projects. "The main advantage is that once the start-up stages of a new project, which require a greater amount of energy, have been passed, the floating nuclear installation can be moved to the place where another project is being started," they explain. those responsible for the initiative.

One of the essential issues in any nuclear energy production project is safety and proponents of floating nuclear power plants believe that this concept will be safer than plants built on land. The ship has been built thinking about the possibility of colliding with icebergs, something that would not be strange in the Arctic region, to resist the impact of seven-meter waves or winds of up to 200 kilometers per hour. In case a tsunami drags the ship inland and suffers flooding, it has a cooling system that would work for 24 hours. In addition, the reactor compartments are protected by the ship's double hull and special shields prepared to prevent the emission of radiation to the outside in the event of a hypothetical accident.

Atomic plants will not be the only power plants that take advantage of the advantages of being built on board ships. The Russian organization Iceberg Central Design Bureau, which designs all types of vessels and also created the Akademik Lomonosov, recently announced a bid to build a floating power plant fueled by liquid natural gas. The offer stipulates that just over 600,000 euros will be paid for the feasibility study, preliminary design and the possibility of deployment, according to Kommersant. These types of plants, which could be cheaper than nuclear plants, although they would emit greenhouse gases, are already a reality. The Finnish company Wärtsilä has sent one of these power plants to the Dominican Republic.

Russia has major industrial development plans for the Arctic region, including the Northern Sea Route and the northern Obi, Yenisei and Lena rivers. In that region, the nuclear option would offer an autonomy that is difficult to match, but the natural gas reserves in the northern waters also facilitate the supply to a power plant of this type.

Goodbye to Bilibino

The story of the arrival of Akademik Lomonosov to Pevek will also be that of the dismantling of the most isolated (and smallest) nuclear power plant in the world. The Bilibino power plant in Chukotka, more than 5,600 kilometers from Moscow and separated by eleven time zones, has four small reactors and has been in operation since 1976. The Russian nuclear organization Rosenergoatom received permission to operate reactor number one of the Bilibino plant without generating electricity for 15 years, a requirement of the country's regulatory process that must be met before decommissioning begins. The reactor was unplugged from power and its fuel was removed and stored.

Bilibino was founded in the 1950s to exploit gold in the eastern end of the country, and the plant, which served to satisfy the energy needs of mining activity, began to be built by volunteers from the communist youth, the Komsomol, in 1974. That industry brought the town's population to 15,000 inhabitants during the eighties, but the fall of the Soviet Union and the depletion of gold reserves caused an abrupt decline in the population, which today is around 5,000 inhabitants. To get to Bilibino from Pevek, where the Akademik Lomonosov is moored, you have to travel along a road built on ice that only melts when summer arrives.

Among the criticisms that have been raised about this new floating nuclear power plant is the real interest of its arrival in the Russian Far East. Although already greatly reduced, the population of Bilibino is largely dedicated to maintaining the nuclear power plant. The comparatively small crew that the ship would need would be a further blow for the inhabitants of the area who, in addition, would not be able to consume the amount of energy that the Akademik Lomonosov will produce, capable of providing electricity to a city of 100,000 inhabitants.

Some critics have argued that this energy would actually be used to fuel the drilling activities that are proliferating in the Chukchi Sea, a practice that would bring new hydrocarbons to the market and call into question Rosatom's arguments in favor of the nuclear ship as a tool to reduce CO2 emissions. Added to these doubts about the convenience of this type of floating plants is the remoteness of the operation area, which would require traveling long distances to remove the spent fuel for storage. Added to the distance are the hostile conditions of the Arctic, which will make it difficult to react in the event of an accident.

Other projects

Despite these criticisms, the interest of other great powers in this type of floating nuclear power plants has not diminished. Last summer, China began working on its own project in the eastern city of Yantai. This project, which will cost less than 200 million euros, should be completed and ready to produce energy in 2021. The objective of the Asian power would be, in principle, to facilitate access to electricity on the islands and coastal cities of the South Sea. South China but also to power offshore industrial or mining facilities.

The company responsible for the project, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), already has a preliminary design of the reactor, named Yanlong, based on the design of its experimental pool-type reactors with which it has worked for the last five decades. In 2016, the CNNC had already announced that it plans to build 20 floating atomic plants.

Other countries are considering applying the technology that Russia has already placed on board the Akademik Lomonosov. *At the G20 meeting that took place in Buenos Aires, Rosatom representatives signed an agreement with Argentina to expand their cooperation in the field of nuclear energy for peaceful uses. In this agreement, the two countries raise the possibility of jointly operating a fleet of floating nuclear power plants designed by Russia.*

By the time the Akademik Lomonosov begins producing electricity in the Arctic, the Sturgis, which in some ways was the first floating nuclear power plant, will already have been decommissioned. That happened more than 40 years after it stopped working. Its reactor was deactivated and more than 680 tons of nuclear waste removed. During the eight years of operation, it used its 10 megawatts of power to power the 80 kilometers of locks of the Panama Canal.

But this ship was not designed to become a floating power plant. Between 1945 and 1963 she was used as a cargo ship and known as the SS Charles Cugle. Later, it was split in two and equipped with a nuclear reactor and a turbine to generate electricity. When it gained its ability to produce nuclear energy, the Sturgis lost its ability to move and, like the Akademik Lomonosov, had to be towed. In the 1960s, the US proposed the ship as the first among many similar roving plants, which would be easily deployed to places difficult to reach or generate energy.

Among the positive aspects of the Sturgis's teaching we can highlight that it operated without any problems during the eight years in which it was necessary to refuel on several occasions. According to its engineers, their work allowed the release of more than three billion liters of water for other uses in the Canal area that were previously used in part to power an inefficient hydroelectric plant.

A negative interpretation of the Sturgis experience is that, in the end, it was the only floating nuclear power plant built by the US. The military program that prompted its development was canceled in 1977 and it was decided that such projects were too expensive. Time will tell whether or not Russia's new push for floating nuclear energy has a future.

Text: Daniel Mediavilla - Font: CSN, España - Edition: Pablo Gabriel Miraglia