Russia says "da" to floating nukes

The Russian Federation plans to start building a floating nuclear power plant this year. According to the country’s atomic energy agency (Rosatom), the first plant will be small (3 MW) but could lead to the development of offshore plants with capacities of several hundred megawatts.

The pioneering plant will be sited off the coast of Severodvinsk, a city of 210,000 on the White Sea in northwestern Russia. Severodvinsk is home to the Russian State Center for Atomic Shipbuilding and two huge shipyards covering an area of 8 square miles. Because much of the design, construction, testing, repair, and decommissioning of Russia’s nuclear-powered ships is done at the shipyards, Severodvinsk was an obvious choice for hosting the ambitious project.

Rosatom says KLT-40S reactor blocks will be used for the prototype plant, which is expected to cost $20 million to build. Production costs are predicted to be 5 to 6 cents/kWh. If necessary, the plant also will be able to supply heat and desalinate as much as 8.5 million cubic feet of seawater a day.

According to Rosatom, the floating nukes are being designed to last 40 years and go three years without refueling. Because the uranium to be used as fuel will be enriched less than 20%, the initiative won’t run afoul of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s nonproliferation rules.

Might Russia license the floating nuclear plant design to other countries? "Of course not," said Yevgeny Kuzin, general director of the public joint-stock company Malaya Energetika, which has an interest in the project. "Russia will only sell the plants’ products—electricity, heat, and fresh water," he explained. "But we do envision floating a plant flying the Russian flag up the coast of a state that had signed the necessary nonproliferation agreements. Only after dropping anchor in a harbor protected from potential natural disasters and contracting for local engineering services would the reactors be started up."

Talk of any new kind of nuclear-power design—let alone one as unusual as this one—always generates some skepticism. But those who conceived of the proposed plants say that the project’s underlying technological principles have passed the acid test during the 30 years that Russia’s civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers have operated on the Northern Sea route. Kuzin explained that the vessels have proven to be as benign as they are reliable. "So after a floating nuclear power plant is decommissioned and sets sail, it will leave absolutely no pollution behind," he said.