Russian officials believe they have come up with an innovative way to enhance their position in the global civilian nuclear energy market. But environmentalists are cautioning that the initiative, in which two small reactors are mounted on what is essentially a large barge, risks becoming an atomic Titanic – a catastrophe in the making.
The Akademik Lomonosov, whose relatively small twin reactors can produce up to 70 megawatts of electricity, was towed into the northern port city of Murmansk on May 19, following a three-week trip from St. Petersburg. In Murmansk, it will be loaded with nuclear fuel and undergo testing. Once deemed to be functioning properly, the vessel will be towed along Russia’s northern coastline to Chukotka, a region that sits across the Bering Strait from Alaska.
The vessel is designed to serve as a floating power plant for Pevek, a settlement of almost 5,000 inhabitants (map here). The Lomonosov’s power will replace that generated by reactors at the nearby Bilibino facility, which are due for decommissioning in 2019.
During the Soviet era, the Pevek area hosted several gulags where prisoners were kept busy mining for uranium. These days, Pevek is known more as a source of oil and gas.
The floating reactor has been over a decade in the making. Work on the project began in 2006, and its initial target-completion date was a full decade ago. Cost estimates vary widely, but Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy agency, is promoting the floating reactors as a relatively cheap power source for remote areas, or for those that lack the necessary infrastructure for a land-based nuclear power plant.
The project has attracted plenty of critics, both inside and outside Russia. Many complaints have focused on Rosatom’s lack of transparency about the project. The decision to fuel the barge’s two reactors in Murmansk was a response to public opposition to Rosatom’s initial plan to load the nuclear fuel in St. Petersburg.
A leading critic has been the global environmental organization Greenpeace, which has warned that the lack of transparency significantly raises the odds of an atomic mishap. “If this development is not stopped, the next nuclear catastrophe could well be a Chernobyl on ice or a Chernobyl on-the-rocks,” said an April commentary posted on the organization’s website, referring to the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
The group is calling for stricter oversight of the Lomonosov’s operations, including monitoring mechanisms for other Arctic countries and an environmental impact study.
The nuclear reactors on the Lomonosov will reportedly require refueling every two to three years. Spent fuel will supposedly be stored on the vessel, which is planned to operate in Pevek for about 12 years.
The Lomonosov’s voyage across the Baltic Sea after its departure from St. Petersburg on April 28 provoked a wide array of complaints. Estonia’s Maritime Administration, for example, said that the barge disrupted shipping routes. And on May 3, as the Lomonosov entered Danish waters, Greenpeace activists approached the support vessels accompanying the barge and provided a “peaceful escort.”
Rosatom criticized the Greenpeace action in Danish waters, contending that “antinuclear extremists” had at one point been on a collision course with the Lomonosov’s convoy. The Rosatom statement went on to claim that the barge’s reactors possess the “most cutting-edge safety and security systems.”
Rosatom also denied receiving any requests from Greenpeace for information about the Lomonosov’s operational or safety standards. It insisted that nuclear energy was the most realistic power source in the Arctic, where the long, hard winters make it difficult to implement renewable-resource strategies that rely on solar or wind power.
“We think that those attacking the project do not deserve to be called ‘environmentalists’ or ‘green activists’; they are the hostages of antinuclear bigotry,” said the Rosatom statement.
Despite heaping scorn on Greenpeace, the Rosatom statement is consistent with a shift in the agency’s messaging toward clean energy, including nuclear energy. The agency has recently begun to invest in wind power, and in February 2018, it announced plans to build a wind farm in Krasnodar region.
The Lomonosov’s voyage comes at a time when Rosatom is vying with other Russian government entities to gain a leading role in the development of the Russian Far North. Warming seas have meant that the northern route for vessels is now navigable year-round. The floating power plant, then, provides Rosatom with an important tool that it can use to retain its dominant presence in a region that not too long ago was dependent on the agency’s atomic icebreakers.
Emma Claire Foley is a research and policy intern for Global Zero, a group advocating greater safeguards over civilian nuclear facilities.