Russia Launches Floating Nuclear Reactor

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©. Akademik Lomonosov in Murmansk, May 19, 2019 ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

What could possibly go wrong?

There are many who believe that nuclear power has an important role to play in decarbonizing our electricity supply. Some have called it "the only proven climate solution; Mark Gunther has noted that "Sweden and France, with big investments in nuclear power, have far lower emissions and the cheapest electricity in Europe." He also mentions the province of Ontario, which has reduced CO2 emissions by 90 percent and eliminated coal.

being towed out of Murmansk

© Akademik Lomonosov in Murmansk, May 19, 2019 ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty ImagesAnd then we have the Akademik Lomonosov. It's a floating nuclear reactor built by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom. It has two 35 megawatt KLT40 pressurized water reactors, the same kind that has been powering Russian icebreakers for 30 years without a known disaster. It will be moored at the eastern end of Russia, and one might even make the case that a parked reactor is safer than one pushing a boat through the Arctic ice, and a floating reactor is safer than a land-based one because it is surrounded by so much cooling water.

Others are not so sure. According to the Guardian,

Greenpeace has described the project as a “nuclear Titanic” and “Chernobyl on ice”. Rosatom officials visibly bristled at the comparisons to previous nuclear accidents, arguing Chernobyl used far larger reactors of a different type and the nuclear technology onboard the Akademik Lomonosov had already been employed on Russia’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers.
Sturgis being towed to the breaker

Sturgis being towed to the breaker/ US Army Corps of Engineers/Public Domain

Floating nuclear power stations are not a new idea either; the first was American, the MH-1A reactor on the Sturgis, built in a converted Liberty Ship and used in Panama from 1968 to 1975.

Northeast Passage

Northern Sea Routes via Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

The real issue is that this is part of a much bigger picture about what happens as the Arctic warms and the Northeast Passage opens up for regular shipping traffic and development. The Akademik Lomonosov is being used to power mining and drilling operations, digging up gold and silver, and it is just the start. According to Andrew Roth in the Guardian,

The prospect of lucrative trade routes, as well as the region’s military importance, has led to a proliferation of nuclear-powered icebreakers, submarines and other high-tech nuclear technologies in the Arctic region. Thomas Nilsen, the editor of the Barents Observer newspaper, based in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, has estimated that by 2035, the Russian Arctic “will by far be the most nuclearised waters on the planet”.

As anyone since the late John Franklin can tell you, when something goes wrong up there, recovery and rescue is really hard. Fixing things is really expensive. Canadians have been opposing commercial use of the Northwest Passage for years, worried about the difficulty of cleaning up oil spills. Cleaning up nuclear reactor disasters would be even harder.

It's that bigger picture that is the real problem with the floating nukes. A thawed Arctic, a melted permafrost, all opened up for transport, mining, oil and gas drilling, exploitation and development. No wonder Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland; in 2035 it will be a hot property.