MOSCOW – The world’s only floating nuclear power plant, Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov, built to withstand tsunamis and crashes with icebergs, set sail this Friday en route to the Arctic Ocean despite criticism by environmentalists who consider it a time bomb comparable to the Chernobyl nuclear station.
The Akademik Lomonosov sailed on Friday from the northern White Sea port of Murmansk headed for the one at Pevek in the Chukotka region some 4,700 kilometers (2,900 miles) away, following an official ceremony during which the tricolor Russian flag was raised above its deck.
The floating nuclear power station measuring 144 meters (472 feet) in length and 30 meters (98 feet) abeam, and which is being towed by two icebreakers, will call in at its destination port in three weeks and will begin to generate electricity in December, the Rosenergoatom corporation announced.
The project, begun in 2006 but weighed down for years by the economic crisis, uses the same technology as the old Soviet atomic icebreakers, though it has two small KLT-40S naval propulsion reactors.
With a combined power of 70 megawatts and 50 gigacalories, the plant has the capacity to provide electricity for a city of almost 100,000 inhabitants.
Once it docks at Pevek, not far from the Bering Strait, it will be the northernmost nuclear plant on the planet, which has alarmed Greenpeace and other organizations like Norway’s Bellona, which consider it a danger to the fragile Arctic region.
“A floating plant is always more dangerous than one on land. Besides, this is not new technology, it’s a Soviet design with a few modifications,” EFE was told by Alexandr Nikitin, a former colonel of the Russian navy who was prosecuted for revealing official secrets after complaining about the northern fleet’s radioactive spills in the Arctic.
The 2011 Fukushima catastrophe had many environmentalists asking for an end to this project, whose image has also been tarnished by the recent radioactive leak following an explosion at a military base not far from Murmansk.
Greenpeace, which has not hesitated to call the power plant a “floating Chernobyl,” and other environmentalists, who have dubbed it the “Titanic on ice,” have proposed alternatives, such as hydroelectric, solar and wind power, to replace a project they consider too costly.
“Greenpeace has always opposed the project. We’re not convinced by the guarantees of safety. Though it might be less powerful than one on land, it can cause radioactive contamination,” said Alisher Alimov, the nuclear expert of the organization.
Meanwhile, the designers of the Akademik Lomonosov argue that its hull is twice as thick as that of traditional icebreakers, it has a hermetic compartment for storing slightly enriched and already used uranium, and can withstand a tsunami caused by a magnitude-9 earthquake on the Richter scale.
Once it begins operations, the nuclear power plant, which will remain at anchor but attached to port infrastructure on land, will remain active for 40 years.
“They want to use the plant as a strategy for getting assignments from other countries,” Nikitin said.
In fact, the Russian corporation Rosatom has already signed a memo in that regard with Sudan, while countries like Indonesia have expressed interest in the project, whose mission is to supply electricity to remote places that are disconnected from a general network, including factories and oil producing regions.
Over the next 10 years Rosatom expects to sell such floating nuclear stations to countries with access to the sea, and to island nations in both hemispheres, Alexey Likhachev, director of the consortium, said on Friday.
According to Nikitin, the installation of floating nuclear plants is an enormous risk in some countries, even more so if the transfer of technology is not included, since those countries have no laws regarding nuclear safety or the means to guarantee it.
Such plants can store large quantities of uranium, which makes them a prime target for terrorists, either for attacks or for stealing fissile material, according to Nikitin and Greenpeace.
Russia, meanwhile, says the plant will not leave a trace of pollution and will save hundreds of thousands of tons of oil and coal every year.
Nikitin believes the launch of the Akademik Lomonosov is also another step forward in the race to exploit the Arctic, though he predicts that a floating nuclear plant could next be installed in Crimea, which since its annexation by Russia has had serious problems with its electricity supply.
China at first chose to be a partner in the project, but dropped it soon afterwards to construct its own fleet of floating plants, while a US investor considers reactivating an idea that originated in the United States.
The US in 1968 launched Sturgis, the first floating nuclear power plant in history, in the Panama Canal, but scrapped it in 1976 due to the high cost of maintenance.