Russia’s Rosatom shipped its first floating nuclear-power reactor on Friday, setting the unit off on a barge journey among Arctic ice caps, raising concerns in the wake of a recent military accident that caused a brief spike in radiation.
The vessel Akademik Lomonosov, named after an 18th century Russian scientist and poet, departed from Russia’s northwest port of Murmansk, according to the state-owned company. Three tugs are towing the unit on its 4,700-kilometer (2,900-mile) trip east to Chukotka, where it will dock at Pevek and generate power for the remote region that’s closer to Alaska than Europe.
The voyage is taking place only two weeks after a mysterious blast in the Arkhangelsk region in Russia’s northwest killed five atomic scientists during the test of a missile engine. That accident led to heightened radiation levels at monitoring stations. Russian officials have divulged few specifics about the incident, with President Vladimir Putin saying only that it posed no risk when grilled during visits this week to Finland and France.
Russian reluctance to divulge information about incidents has been a hallmark of its atomic program dating back to the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. That nuclear accident in Ukraine was the world’s worst and resulted in new monitoring and reporting rules, and subsequent Russian mishaps have drawn intense international scrutiny. Anti-nuclear activists at Greenpeace have already labeled the Akademik Lomonosov “Chernobyl on ice.”
“Nuclear detractors tend to overlook the fact that nuclear energy is the only low-carbon source of energy available in the Arctic region,” Rosatom said in a statement. “Neither solar, nor wind could ensure uninterrupted electricity supply in polar night, when there is no wind and temperatures are well below zero.”
The Akademik Lomonosov is equipped with two KLT-40C reactor systems, each with a capacity of 35 megawatts -- enough electricity to power a city of about 100,000 people. The Chernobyl reactor was about 30 times that size. The floating plant is expected to replace outgoing capacity at the Chaun-Bilibino energy hub, which includes a small-scale nuclear power plant.
While the idea of floating nuclear power isn’t new, Rosatom is trying to become the first manufacturer to commercialize the technology. The U.S. powered swathes of the Panama Canal from a ship for about a decade, according to the World Nuclear Association. About 140 floating nuclear reactors are deployed around the world to power ships.
The cost of Rosatom’s unit, construction of which began in 2007, was estimated at almost 30 billion rubles ($458 million), including costs for onshore facilities, according to a company estimate three years ago. The floating reactors can be configured to desalinate water and could be attractive to markets with scarce land resources or infrastructure to maintain traditional atomic plants.
China General Nuclear and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among others that have looked into manufacturing floating nuclear reactors.
The Middle East, North Africa and South-East Asia have shown “significant interest” in the technology, Rosatom said Friday. Sales of the floating reactor are expected to commence within the decade.
The company has already started works on the second generation of the floating power unit, which will have greater capacity, be smaller than its predecessor, and be available for export.