Russia's Akademik Lomonosov joins the fleet of floating nuclear power plants on our oceans
Last weekend, Russia's floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, was towed out to sea for the first time, beginning its voyage from St Petersburg to Murmansk, where it will be eventually loaded up with nuclear fuel and started up sometime in 2019.
The reveal of this mammoth and imposing floating structure was unsurprisingly widely criticized, with Greenpeace calling it a "floating nightmare" and a potential "Chernobyl on ice." Of course, Rosatom, the Russian State Nuclear Energy Corporation, suggests its design, dubbed a Floating Nuclear Thermal Power Plant (FNPP) is safe and well-prepared for any potential disasters.
"The FNPP is designed with the great margin of safety that exceeds all possible threats and makes nuclear reactors invincible for tsunamis and other natural disasters," Rosatom claims in a statement. "In addition, the nuclear processes at the floating power unit meet all requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and do not pose any threat to the environment."
Despite the idea of floating nuclear power plants being somewhat unsettling in a time when we are still reconciling with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, the reality is there are dozens of nuclear reactors already floating around our oceans. Both the United States and Russia currently have a variety of warships, submarines and aircraft carriers that are powered by nuclear reactors. In fact, the Akademik Lomonosov is not nearly as large or powerful a generator as some found on larger vessels of the United States military.
The Akademik Lomonosov holds two KLT-40S reactor units, originally designed to power Russian icebreakers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The proposed floating power plant will reportedly be able to generate up to 70 MW of electric energy and 50 Gcal/hr of heat energy during normal operation. In comparison, the massive Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier revealed last year carries nuclear reactors capable of generating an estimated 700 MW.
Rosatom claims this modestly scaled floating nuclear power plant is designed to operate as mobile transportable power to remote areas in Russia's north and far east. It is reported it will be able to power a small city of up to 100,000 people and will initially be moored in the coastal town of Pevek.
This is not the first semi-permanent floating nuclear power plant either. Between 1968 and 1976, a nuclear barge dubbed STURGIS was managed by the US military and floated in Gatun Lake, powering the Panama Canal Zone.
So, while headlines labeling this a "Nuclear Titanic" abound, it is worth putting things into perspective. Floating nuclear power plants are not a new concept, and in fact we already have many sailing around the globe right now, some of which are not necessarily new. The Akademik Lomonosov may look like a monolithic beast, and is not exactly state-of-the-art technology, but it is just one of many nuclear vessels in our seas.