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Russia’s Development Of Floating Nuclear Power Plants Presents Unique Threats – Analysis

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Just about one year ago, the Baltiskiy Shipyard in St. Petersburg completed the Akademik Lomonosov, Russia’s first Floating Nuclear Power Plant (FNPP). Over the next four years Russian officials are planning to build seven to eight more FNPPs for use across the Arctic.1 In addition to domestic customers, at least seven countries have expressed interest in leasing such vessels.2 With the pending deployment of the Akademik Lomonosov in 2012 and the imminent construction of more FNPPs, it is important to briefly assess the unique set of proliferation, security and environmental threats posed by Floating Nuclear Power Plants.

Prior to a discussion of the potential threats, it is necessary to describe why Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear regulatory body and state-owned nuclear power company, has pushed for the development of these vessels since the early 1990s. While Russia’s Far North possesses rich deposits of natural resources, from the nickel and palladium mines in Norilsk to oil and gas fields in the Barents Sea, it is extraordinarily difficult to power the necessary infrastructure to develop these regions. For instance, Rosenergoatom, a subsidiary of Rosatom, notes that it costs over 100 million USD per year just to deliver fossil fuels to remote Arctic regions.3 The development of Floating Nuclear Power Plants could provide these remote settlements and large-scale industrial projects with cheap and reliable power. In addition to on-shore energy use, FNPPs are poised to play an integral role in deep water Arctic oil and gas exploration. According to a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic Ocean and its gulfs and bays may contain up to a fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves.4 Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas and oil giant, believes that FNPPs could help solve one of the many logistical hurdles of drilling in the Far North and they have expressed interest in ordering three FNPPs for its operations in the Arctic.5

In terms of its construction, the vessel is essentially a barge that houses two KLT-40S reactors. The reactors are a variant of the KLT-40 used on Russian nuclear icebreakers; however, the Russian government has stated since 2005 that the reactors will run on low enriched uranium (LEU) as opposed to the highly enriched uranium (HEU) that is used in the conventional KLT-40 reactor. Official statements regarding the exact level of enrichment have ranged from 14 to 19.7%, but it appears the first plant will be loaded with fuel containing 19.7% U-235.1 Each unit produces 35 megawatts of power for a total of 70 megawatts per FNPP. In addition to the reactors themselves, the floating barge will contain living quarters for the crew and storage areas for spent fuel and radioactive waste. The proposed lifespan of the FNPP is 38 years with scheduled refurbishment at the Baltiskiy Shipyard every 12 years. The plants can provide water desalination services capable of supplying up to 240,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day.2 The Russian government believes that the plants will pay for themselves through cost savings over the course of 11 to 12 years.3

The design and deployment of FNPPs raise several questions regarding the proliferation threats posed by such vessels as well as the potential environment risks. FNPPs pose two unique security challenges that do not exist with nuclear power plants on land. Compared with conventional nuclear power plants, it is more difficult to establish a secure perimeter around as well as underneath the vessel. While Russia has experience with safeguarding nuclear powered icebreakers, the icebreakers are confined to the sparse, harsh environs of the Arctic Ocean. Rosatom, however, hopes to deploy FNPPs to areas, such as Indonesia, China, Cape Verde and Malaysia, which would be much more susceptible to sea-based attacks.4 Russia could mitigate security concerns by employing a “build-own-operate” regime for leases that would keep the FNPPs under the control of experienced Russian professionals, but each deployment location will bring a unique set of security and environmental challenges.

In terms of environmental threats, a sea-based core meltdown may generate large quantities of radioactive steam, which could have disastrous consequences if it is near a population center. Furthermore, as FNPPs are likely to be located close to remote population centers, it will be more difficult to initiate prompt, comprehensive evacuations.5 Seismic activity around Russia is also a concern, particularly in Kamchatka, where the Akademik Lomonosov will be deployed next year. An earthquake-triggered tsunami could carry a FNPP on shore and radioactive material, from nuclear waste and fuel, could be released.1

If one believes the PR from Rosatom, Floating Nuclear Power Plants will soon provide reliable, cheap energy to remote regions of Russia and will be an export boon for Russia’s nuclear energy sector. While it is uncertain whether such vessels will match the aspirations of Rosatom’s officials, next year’s deployment of the first FNPP will present new set of proliferation, security and environmental threats for the international community.

Gregory Zalasky is a Research Specialist for the Center for Naval Analyses’ Center for Strategic Studies

Notes:
1. “Atomic Energy to be safe and affordable, Rosatom chief says,” ITAR-Tass, 6 June 2011, http://www.itar-tass.com/en/c35/159089.html
2. “Russia relocates construction of floating power plant,” World Nuclear News, 11 August 2008, http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Russia_relocates_construction_of_floating_power_plant-1108084.html
3. “Prospects of floating NPP. Ongoing projects,” Rosenergoatom Concern OJSC, http://old.rosenergoatom.ru/eng/development/floating_npp/prospect/
4. Jad Mouawad, “Oil Survey Says Arctic Has Riches,” New York Times, 24 July 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/24/business/24arctic.html
5. Galina Raguzina, “Floating nuclear power plants attracting interest from oil industry in Russia and abroad,” Bellona, 12 February 2008, http://www.bellona.org/articles/articles_2008/floatingNPPs_oil
6. Thomas Young, “Isolated Criticality: Russia’s Floating Nuclear Power Plants, Concepts and Concerns,” 5 November 2008, http://www.nti.org/e_research/e3_floating_nuclear_power_plants.html
7. Tatyana Sinitsyna, “Russia will build floating nuclear power plants,” RIA Novosti, 16 July 2007, http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20070716/69015156.html
8. “Prospects of floating NPP. Ongoing projects”
9. “Russia relocates construction of floating power plant”
10. Young

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