Considering the tsunami-spawned Fukushima disaster, the idea of a floating nuclear plant doesn’t sit well with everyone.
By 2016, Russian waters will welcome a new type of watercraft, one that will serve not as a transportation vessel but as a nuclear power plant, representing a new danger in an era of nuclear malfunctions.
The floating nuclear facility has been in the works for quite some time. After a delay in operation from 2012 to 2016, United Industrial Corporation’s Baltic Plant shipbuilding company is preparing Russians for what the company boasts as an efficient method of providing power to northern and eastern portions of the country, areas where the economy is growing faster than energy-producing capabilities.
Yet not everyone is so optimistic about the future floating atomic energy source, especially after the devastation seen in the nuclear meltdowns of Fukushima and Chernobyl.
“One would have imagined that the Chernobyl catastrophe would have taught us to treat nuclear technologies with caution,” Environmental Green Cross Russia stated in the introduction of a report regarding the potential side effects of the floating power source.
The report, authored by leading nuclear power experts, highlights the potential concerns — and they’re rather significant. Green Cross claims the floating power plant would be a threat to the Arctic, ocean wildlife and human health, as well as a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Russia is a party.
“Floating nuclear power plants pose a potential danger to the environment; their profitability is highly questionable; the realization of the FNPP project would create a situation in which nuclear fissile materials suitable for the production of nuclear weapons were much more easily available, thereby undermining the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; and the potential for international nuclear espionage and terrorism would be greatly increased,” Green Cross stated in the report.
The proposed floating power plant would be located near Russia’s eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, an area experts say is susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis. The intent is to build a facility capable of powering the northern and eastern portions of Russia, where the economy is growing at a rate that could overrun current energy supplies. It will also serve as a model of Russia’s capabilities, which could lead to floating nuclear facilities in the Arctic and other oceanic areas.
Avoiding another Fukushima
Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 has served as an example of just how bad the meltdown of a nuclear power plant can be. Considered the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the meltdown of the facility led to the evacuation of more than 100,000 people. While no deaths were reported from radiation, the full impact has yet to be seen, as radiation exposure is linked to high rates of cancer.
This week, Tokyo Electric Power Company indicated its groundwater had been contaminated with toxic radioactive substances at more than 10 times the allotted capacity.
What’s more alarming for those questioning the safety of the floating nuclear facilities is the possibility that it could happen again. Considering the main cause of the Fukushima disaster was an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the idea of a floating nuclear plant doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“I know Fukushima has sparked many inflammatory rumors and gossip including on the floating nuclear plant,” Sergei Kiriyenko, Russia’s atomic agency chief said, according to Radio Free Europe. “Some people say that if a ground plant could not withstand a tsunami, what would then happen with a waterborne nuclear plant. But nothing will happen. Everything will be just fine.”
According to a 2011 Reuters report, the Russian vessel is being built with Cold War submarine technology.
“All possible emergency situations have been tested,” Andrey Fomichev, head of the shipyard where it is being created, told Reuters. “Safety testing began under the Soviet Union.”
Not so, according to skeptics.
“This idea is completely absurd, dangerous and immoral after what happened in Fukushima,” Greenpeace Russia’s Vladimir Chuprov said in a 2011 interview with Radio Free Europe.
The Bellona report on the proposed nuclear facility indicates “there are no absolutely safe energy installations in the world — no such reactors exist where the probability of development of a nuclear accident is infinitesimally small, much less equalling zero.” The report goes on to specifically identify the floating power plant as vulnerable to accidents.
The concern is exacerbated by the proposed location of the floating nuclear plant — the bay near Kamchatka Peninsula, located in an area susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis. In 1952, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the region, causing a tsunami that eventually struck the Hawaiian Islands, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Along with concerns over another major earthquake in that area, skeptics of the proposal claim the area of the Kamchatka Peninsula is uncharted in terms of seismic activity monitoring.
“Forecasting seismic activity for particular regions — or even correctly assessing the intensity of temblors in a given location — is still beyond scientists’ grasp at this time,” the Bellona report states.
Alexander Nikitin, who formerly served as a Soviet submarine naval captain, claims tsunamis are the big threat for floating nuclear facilities.
“The danger is not an earthquake itself, but the tsunami it generates,” he told Reuters in 2011. “If a working floating nuclear reactor were dashed against the shore in a tsunami, it would mean an unavoidable nuclear accident.”
The Bellona report, to which Nikitin contributed, indicates that very concern. While earthquakes have occurred near the proposed nuclear facility site, earthquakes elsewhere and their subsequent tsunamis also present a threat to the Kamchatka coastlines.
What’s the real intent, and what are the security concerns?
In 2009, United Industrial Corporation announced it would begin manufacturing the first floating nuclear plant. In 2010, the vessel that will eventually house the nuclear facility made its oceanic debut.
In a story published in The New York Times, nuclear experts claimed the reactor was intended to power oil and gas drilling missions from the Arctic. The U.S. Geological Survey pegs the Arctic as home to 25 percent of the world’s yet-to-be-discovered oil and gas reserves.
That’s a different tale than the one being told by United Industrial Corporation. The company said in the midst of its 2009 announcement that the power was intended to benefit northern areas of Russia — a claim it continues to make.
The true intent remains to be seen, but the project is moving ahead with some international support.
According to the Bellona Foundation, there are plans to deploy the vessels to the Arctic. A Russia Today report indicates 15 countries have shown interest in similar nuclear power plant vessels, including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Namibia and Argentina.
This creates concern over potential violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Russia is a party. If a Russian plant is stationed in another nation’s territorial waters, it could compromise the security of the vessel and violate Russia’s involvement in the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
However, with plans to partner with 15 other nations still in the distant future, there are ways in which the country could attempt to work around the rules. As noted by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, it could operate under a “build-own-operate” policy.
“Under this arrangement, Russia will tow the plant to the designated location, provide electricity and desalination services, and then tow it back to Russia at the end of the 12-year cycle for defueling and maintenance,” it states in a 2011 report. This, as the Initiative notes, would eliminate the need for the recipient company to gain ownership, which would not require the recipient country to develop its own nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure.
While the U.S. has not jumped on the bandwagon, the idea isn’t entirely foreign to Americans. In 1974, a floating nuclear facility was proposed for the Eastern Seaboard, less than 15 miles off the New Jersey coast. According to a report published by the Bellona Foundation, the plan folded in the wake of public protests and high costs.