The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia says its sea-based nuclear power plant is safe. Critics call it a ‘Floating Chernobyl.’

Placeholder while article actions load

If a Russian state-owned company has its way, remote regions of the world will soon see giant, floating nuclear reactors pumping power to port cities and drilling platforms in a real-life version of the Soviet reversal jokeIn Russia, 70-megawatt nuclear reactor comes to you. 

The reactor in question is called Akademik Lomonosov. Once the barge is wired into the electrical grid in the northern town of Pevek in 2019, it will be the world's northernmost nuclear reactor, capable of powering a town of 100,000 people (almost the population of Green Bay, Wis.) with what its manufacturer, Rosatom, calls “a great margin of safety” that is “invincible for tsunamis and natural disaster.”

But environmental groups have other names for the barge: “Nuclear Titanic” is one. Another is “Floating Chernobyl.”

Critics say that pretty much the worst thing you can do to a nuclear reactor is expose it to the high waves and fierce winds of the Arctic Ocean. Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear expert for Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe, called it a “shockingly obvious threat to a fragile environment.”

The world will see who is right sometime next year.

Lomonosov, named after an 18th-century Russian scientist and poet, was towed out of the St. Petersburg shipyard on Saturday for its meandering, year-long journey, the Associated Press reported.

“The floating energy plant has incorporated all the best qualities of traditional nuclear plants,” Vitaly Trunev, the head of Rosenergoatom, a nuclear power station subsidiary of Rosatom, told Reuters during the launch, addressing the most obvious question. “It is protected from all kinds of natural and technical harms.”

There are skeptics, including 11,000 people who have signed a petition hoping to sink plans to launch the vessel.

And, for a time, the vessel made a sizable chunk of St. Petersburg nervous. The barge was supposed to be equipped with nuclear fuel at the city's shipyard, Rosatom said, but city leaders thought better of fueling a first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor in the middle of a city of nearly 5.3 million people.

And Russia's Baltic Sea neighbors worried about what would happen if a nuclear reactor en route encountered bad weather or technical issues too close to their fjords.

So the ship — sans nuclear fuel — will be pulled through the Baltic Sea, around the northern tip of Norway to Murmansk, a Russian city of more than 300,000 residents, where it will be fueled.

It will ultimately be anchored near the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeast Russia, and moored off the coast of Pevek, where it will replace an aging reactor.

There’s a small chance an asteroid will smack into Earth in 2135. NASA is working on a plan.

By 2019, the first-of-its-kind rig will provide power for the port town and for oil rigs.

For Rosatom, it is buoyant proof of concept that a floating sea-based reactor can work. Rosatom is in talks with potential buyers in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, according to Russian television station RT, which estimates that 15 countries have shown interest in the floating plants.

Greenpeace has several concerns about the plan, Haverkamp said. It has written reports about what it calls Rosatom's checkered past and criticized the company's plans to use its latest venture to drill for fossil fuels. Rosatom, a conglomeration of nuclear-related industries under the Russian government, produces nearly 20 percent of Russia's electricity, according to its website. Among its activities, the company also mines uranium.

But Greenpeace says Rosatom's latest venture, the floating nuclear barge, is dicey.

For land-based nuclear power plants, “there are thousands and thousand of measures that have been taken in order to prevent things from going really wrong,” Haverkamp told The Washington Post. “If you look at the possibilities of a barge … the possibilities are a lot more limited. Most of the lessons of the land-based reactors cannot be adapted to this small space. You're limited to what you can do if things go wrong.”

But Rosatom insists that the nuclear barge and the concept are safe and “meet all requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency and do not pose any threat to the environment.”

And there are, of course, dozens of nuclear-powered vessels that spend almost their entire life at sea. According to the World Nuclear Association, about 140 ships — mostly submarines, but also icebreakers and aircraft carriers — prowl the world's oceans. The first nuclear-powered submarine was launched in 1955.

That could be a point for either side: Some nuclear-powered submarines have been in service for years. But accidents involving nuclear-powered submarines have occurred.

In one case, an explosion killed 10 and injured 49 in 1985 on Russia's Pacific Coast, according to the Maritime Executive:

“Two thousand people were involved in the ensuing cleanup, 290 of which were exposed to high levels of radiation. It was later discovered that the nuclear fuel had rocketed out of the Echo II class submarine and onto neighboring vessels, further onto the shore and into the water. Portions of the seabed are still contaminated even now.”

The post originally gave an incorrect location for the final destination of Akademik Lomonosov. This post has been updated. 

Read more:

British government to anyone near site of nerve agent attack: Keep calm and wash your stuff

Hawaii brings back Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid fears of North Korea strike

Search for a missing submarine is stymied by new challenges: 20-foot waves and 50 mph winds

Nuclear sub sailors fired after ‘absolutely disgraceful’ parties with a prostitute and cocaine