Later this month, a flotilla of tugboats will leave Murmansk, a port in Russia's northwest, towing the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating nuclear power plant. The ships will travel 3,700 miles east to Pavek, a remote port in Russia's northeast. There the plant's two small reactors will power homes, as well as mining and drilling operations.
It's an audacious and expensive undertaking and it may be only the start. China plans to launch as many as 20 floating nuclear plants in the next decade. U.S. investors hope to build an assembly line in South Korea to produce affordable seaborne reactors.
Worryingly, though, as the technology races ahead, regulations haven’t kept up. The less-than-forthcoming response of Russian officials to the fatal explosion of an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile near Moscow late last week shows what’s at stake. It's not hard to imagine the catastrophes that could result from parking a nuclear reactor in a tsunami zone, a busy shipping lane or a region vulnerable to piracy or terrorism. Getting new global rules in place quickly needs to be a priority.
The idea of sea-based nuclear power has been around almost since the dawn of the atomic age. Land-based reactors are extraordinarily expensive and take years if not decades to build. They require custom designs, large acreage, a continuous water supply and multiple, ongoing layers of regulatory review. A government with no prior nuclear experience typically needs ten to 15 years to start operating a new reactor.
By contrast, floating reactors are much smaller and are meant to be modular, lowering the cost of manufacturing and deployment. Moving them out to sea eliminates the need for land, while offering a means of delivering power to remote, undeveloped or disaster-stricken areas. Rosatom Corp., the Russian nuclear energy giant behind the Akademik Lomonosov, recently signed a memorandum of understanding to provide Sudan its own floating reactor.
The first and so far only such plant ever deployed was the MH-1A, a floating platform designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1968 it was sent to the Panama Canal when drought depleted the hydroelectric-generating capacity of the zone and put operations in jeopardy. The MH-1A kept the Canal operating for eight years, until the Corps deemed it too expensive to maintain.
Public opposition and a dearth of customers doomed a mid-1970s project spearheaded by Westinghouse Electric Co. to build an island-sized floating nuclear plant off New Jersey. Soviet officials long flirted with the idea of using mobile nuclear plants to deliver power to Russia's sparsely populated north and east, but never followed through.
Cost remains a challenge. When the keel for the Akademik Lomonosov was laid in 2007, Rosatom hoped that its compact design could be replicated relatively cheaply. However, years of overruns and delays (some caused by Russia's uncertain economic situation) have driven the project’s cost above $480 million. Mass production seems unlikely.
China may have better luck. Its first floating plant is currently under construction for deployment in 2021, with more to follow. Unlike Russia, China doesn't lack resources to devote to the project. More important, its seaborne reactors are based on already successful land-based designs. Meanwhile, Chinese developers are collaborating with the country's offshore oil industry, which is hoping to use nuclear power to expand exploration and drilling in the South China Sea. Given China’s interest in dominating that disputed region, any lingering cost concerns should be easily disregarded.
Safety issues are another matter. Advocates argue that, in the event of an accident, seawater could cool a damaged floating reactor until help arrives. But a Chernobyl-style disaster would still contaminate the ocean, perhaps for thousands of miles, impacting fisheries and coastal communities.
Likewise, a reactor that becomes untethered during a storm might wash up onto land, causing widespread contamination in populated areas. Worse, deploying floating reactors in a disputed zone such as the South China Sea will make them a target in the event of conflict.
Such concerns won’t stop China or Russia from sending mobile reactors to waters that they claim as their own. However, under the terms of the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety, they have to meet standards for the design, construction, and operation of civilian nuclear facilities, and submit regular reports on their nuclear programs for review by other countries. There’s no reason the treaty, which applies only to land-based reactors, couldn’t be amended to include offshore facilities, too.
At a minimum, that would create a safety baseline for this new technology and ensure that the community of nuclear nations has some oversight over how it's deployed. If that won’t entirely dispel concerns about a “floating Chernobyl,” it might make such a disaster a little less likely.