National Security

The Russians Launch A Floating Nuclear Power Plant

Fukushima Daiichi
Fukushima Explosion From Air
Fukushima Explosion From Air
| Photo: James Faddis | Nuclear, Reactors, Floating, Russian, Arctic,

This Won't End Well

The Russians are busy deploying a floating nuclear power plant designed to provide electricity for offshore gas and oil drilling. Designers argue that one advantage of floating reactors is the "infinite heat sink" of the ocean. I find that point without merit - just ask Japan.

There are also two design factors of this $500 million-dollar vessel which strike me as worrisome. The first is that the reactors, two per vessel, sit on a barge and must be towed into position. The second peculiarity is that the barge will be positioned very close to shore since it must be connected to the electrical grid to maintain control of the reactors.

Because these reactors will be so close to land, a tsunami can easily push the barge up out of the sea and onto the land. At that point all cooling will be lost. The Fukushima reactors were connected to the so-called "infinite heat sink" and were denied coolant because the pumps, along with the emergency diesel generators were destroyed by the tsunami. The same thing will happen to floating reactors when and if they are pushed ashore.

The Russian floating reactors are being built in the St. Petersburg shipyard, but the reactors won't be loaded with fuel until they are towed to Murmansk. This is the result of public outcry including intervention from Norway. The U.S. Department of State cites a significant number of industrial accidents in the Russian Federation which are attributed to inadequate enforcement of safety and health standards. The U.S. Department of State has also assessed St. Petersburg as being a "high-threat" location for terrorist activity.

The motive for using nuclear reactors in such a hostile environment is an effort to save money by not having to augment the land grid to the tune of an additional 70 megawatts of electrical power. That's equivalent to powering a small city of 70,000 homes. Therefore, small nuclear reactors represent a financial solution on paper, but come with significant global risks including terrorism.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is concerned about lax security of the nuclear fuel and waste on these barges. The spent fuel will be stored onboard for 12 years. Russian black markets have been dealing in nuclear materials since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is hard to believe that waste stored on a barge will not soon find itself into those same markets

Right now, the Russians plan to deploy about a dozen of these small Pressurized Water Reactor barges. These carry all of the risks associated with the Three Mile Island style reactor plus those risks associated with floating on the sea. The risks are about to grow exponentially as nations race to claim oil and gas fields made accessible by melting ice on a warming Arctic Ocean.

At least fifteen nations have their eyes on this latest use of nuclear reactors for utilization at oil and gas fields around the world. One U.S. design by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology even boasts that it can survive a tsunami. We aren’t talking about the risk from a single floating reactor. We are talking about the risk from what may ultimately be dozens.

Three months ago, the U.S. and Canada held a training exercise called "Arctic Eagle 2018". The exercise was designed around a response to aa accidental release of radioactive materials in the Arctic. The drill included a mock scenario in which a fallen satellite spreads nuclear material such as plutonium across a portion of the Arctic. If that sounds outlandish, then recall what happened in 1978 when the Soviet's Kosmos 954 crashed into northern Canada and required an expensive and lengthy cleanup.

Portions of that wreckage were emitting lethal levels of radioactivity. Even more importantly, over 100 pounds of HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) commanded the attention of U.S. and Canadian forces before terrorists or rogue nations could retrieve it. I'm certain that our military has not forgotten the incident and that there is significant concern within our armed forces about nuclear barges and the new Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile which releases radioactivity as it flies.

In a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory report on national security and the global diffusion of submarines and related technologies, the authors state, "In regard to 'expect the unexpected,' an effort by terrorists, anti-nuclear activists, or a rogue state's special forces to seize a [ballistic missile nuclear submarine] ... cannot be wholly discounted."

How much greater are the various threats to floating nuclear power reactors? This nuclear proliferation is bound to be a curse instead of a blessing.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:27 PM EST | More details


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