- Russia’s expansion in the Arctic is now called Akademic Lomonosov, the immense ship that must travel six thousand kilometers to begin drilling
NGOs defending the environment fear that the macro project will become a ‘Chernobyl on ice’, and warn that the model will be taken to other countries.
- The thaw has opened trade routes in the Arctic, new military and economic focus that Russia has been exploiting for years.
A cold summer morning in Kola Bay on the Bering Sea, on the deck of the Akademic Lomonosov ship, one of its chief engineers joked. “I feel like one of the first astronauts who went to space,” he said. The ship would become Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant, another step in its expansion in the Arctic, which will travel more than 6,000 kilometers through the North Sea.
If everything goes as planned, the Akademic Lomonosov will be towed to the Arctic port of Pevek this August. From there, thanks to its two twin nuclear reactors, it will provide energy to homes and mining and drilling operations in the Russian region of Chukotka, rich in mineral resources.
Russia argues that the project will offer clean energy to a remote location and will allow the closure of an aging nuclear power plant and a coal thermal power plant. However, Akademik Lomonosov raises questions about the economic viability of the power supply of floating nuclear power plants in isolated areas and has set off the alarms of environmental defenders. Organizations like Greenpeace fear that this new project may become a “floating Chernobyl”.
The North Sea route, opened by the melting of the Arctic caps, offers new commercial possibilities between Europe and China that Russia intends to open to navigation throughout the year. In the hope of the lucrative of these new trade routes and given the military importance that the Arctic region begins to play, icebreakers, submarines and all kinds of technologies related to nuclear propulsion proliferate.
Thomas Nilsen, director of Barents Observer, a newspaper in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, estimates that by 2035 the portion of the Arctic Ocean that belongs to Russia “will constitute the most nuclearized waters on the planet.” In that, floating nuclear power plants could play a role in that trend. Although there have been years and even the United States has already placed a small nuclear reactor on a small vessel in the Panama Canal area in the 1960s and 1970s, they have never been mass-produced.
Rosatom, the Russian state company for nuclear energy intends to sell floating nuclear power plants capable of adapting to different locations. The company has announced that it has already signed a project to develop a possible plant for Sudan, among other countries.
The Akademik Lomonosov is part of the business promotion plan of Rosatom’s growth strategy. The platform, freshly painted a bright white and stamped with a huge company logo, is a very expensive pilot project with details such as gym, pool or bar (in which alcohol is not served) for the crew. Safety on board is strict and journalists invited to visit it did so with security guards on their heels.
A nuclear Titanic
The construction of the Akademik Lomonosov has taken more than a decade and the ship carries on board two KLT-40S nuclear reactors similar to those used by Russian icebreakers. They feed on low enrichment uranium and have an electricity production capacity of 70 megawatts, which Rosatom says is enough to provide about 100,000 homes. Rosatom also states that the platform is “virtually impossible to sink” and capable of withstanding collisions with icebergs and waves of up to seven meters.
Greenpeace has described the project as a ‘nuclear Titanic’ or a ‘Chernobyl on ice’ at a time when the HBO series about the accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986 once again attracts attention. Neighboring countries such as Norway have pressed Rosatom not to load nuclear fuel on the platform until it was towed a certain distance from its territorial waters.
Rosatom officials, concerned about comparisons with previous nuclear accidents, have explained that the reactors in operation in Chernobyl were much larger and of different models. Nuclear technology aboard the Akademik Lomonosov has already been used in the fleet of Russian nuclear icebreakers in the past.
“[Akademik Lomonosov] and a ‘Chernobyl on ice’ are night and day, we talk about totally different systems. We must always approach [new technologies] with some skepticism but they are going too far. If they say a possible accident in the reactor must present evidence “, defends Vladimir Irminku, one of the chief engineers of the project.
In the event of an accident and a reactor shutdown, according to Irminku, the icy surrounding waters could be used to cool the circuits until help arrived.
The Bellona Foundation, specializing in the Arctic environment, stated in a 2011 published report that the waves caused by a tsunami could take the nuclear power plant out of the water and launch it against the coast, which would mean a “nuclear accident with serious consequences”.
However, Rosatom alleges that the danger of the waves is limited by a bridge built around the plant and that, if thrown into the ground, the reactor’s emergency systems can cool it without the need for any additional power supply for 24 hours.
Dmitry Alekseyenko, one of those responsible for the construction and operations of the platform, added that “we have studied closely what happened in Fukushima. What would happen if the platform receives the impact of a tsunami? Or is it thrown to the ground? According to our calculations, a tsunami caused by an earthquake of magnitude nine would not move it from its base. “
Anna Kireeva, of Bellona, pointed out that the organization has closely followed the development of the Akademik Lomonosov and although they are confident that Russian experts may be able to operate a floating nuclear power plant, they are worried about plans to franchise the technology.
“What really worries us is why they manufacture this floating plant. That they want to sell this technology to countries like Sudan,” Kireeva explains. “I am really worried that this nuclear technology can be used by countries where the safety, laws, and parameters related to nuclear radiation are not as high as in Russia. What will they do with nuclear fuel once used? How will they act in an emergency? “
Another issue to consider is the economic viability of floating plants. Although Rosatom invests assuming the interest of potential buyers, there is still no money on the table. Some detractors of the project refer to it with the term “frivolous.” Nilsen has called it a “public relations project” for the absence of orders and the fact that liquefied gas as an energy alternative to nuclear fuel is already available.
“If this were a very good way to supply electricity to the north coast of Siberia, we would have seen how they were built more … I think this project will not happen from a single platform,” he predicts.
Rosatom has not wanted to make public the cost of Akademik Lomonosov but it would be reduced as more platforms are built. In 2016, it was estimated that the floating nuclear power plant cost 267 million euros, and the necessary parallel infrastructure would cost another nine. After years of cost overruns and delays, Alekseyenko described the delivery of the plant as a milestone for Rosatom and the Russian naval industrialist. “It has been a long time since a commission of these dimensions was carried out,” he concluded.