The wind and rain whipped by at several feet per second as crew members stepped outside for a quick smoke, but the world’s only floating nuclear power plant barely shifted in the choppy waves of the Kola bay.
The length of one-and-a-half football pitches, with its once rusty hull repainted in the white, red and blue of the national flag, the Academic Lomonosov looks the part as the vanguard of Russia’s “nuclearification” of the warming Arctic.
Later this month it will be towed 3,000 miles from the northwestern corner of Russia to the Chukotka region next to Alaska, where it will provide steam heat and eventually electricity to the coastal gold-mining town of Pevek, population 4,000.
The state corporation Rosatom is trumpeting the Academic Lomonosov as the next big step in nuclear energy and a possible solution to electricity needs in Africa and Asia. It’s part of a surge in nuclear vessels along what Russia hopes will be a major new Arctic trade route including icebreakers, warships and even an underwater drone.
“This is like launching the first rocket into space because it’s a pilot project, the first in the world,” Vladimir Irimenko, senior engineer for environmental protection, said before showing journalists the reactor control room.
But the floating plant took more than a decade to build at high cost and has been dubbed the “nuclear Titanic” over safety concerns. Many wonder why Rosatom didn’t simply build it on land, like the ageing nuclear power plant it’s meant to replace in Pevek. That wouldn’t get quite the same publicity, of course.
It has been fuelled up and tested in Murmansk, 1,000 miles from its home port of St Petersburg, after 11,000 signed an angry petition and Norway objected to two reactors full of enriched uranium being dragged along along its entire coastline.
A dinghy of Greenpeace activists unfurled a “no to floating Chernobyl” banner next to the plant on the 31st anniversary of the disaster in 2017. This group and others have wondered about the wisdom of sending what is essentially a giant nuclear barge into some of the harshest and most remote conditions on earth, where any cleanup operation would be exceedingly difficult.
“If there’s a storm or something, it can’t move anywhere, it’s helpless,” said activist Konstantin Fomin. “We did an action and boated up to it to show that if we can boat up to it, then terrorists can boat up to it.”
It’s not exactly true that this floating nuclear power plant is the “first in the world,” as a US army reactor installed on an immobilised cargo ship provided electricity to the Panama Canal zone in 1968-75.
The Academic Lomonosov, however, is the first floating nuclear power plant designed for regular production, as Rosatom has claimed that southeast Asian countries are interested in buying such stations for electricity and South American and Middle Eastern countries for desalination.
It has argued that the floating station meets higher safety standards than land-based nuclear plants and said any allusion to Chernobyl is like “comparing a 100-year-old automobile to one today”.
There have been some welcome updates. While flammable graphite slowed down the neutrons for fission in the Chernobyl reactors, water performs this function in most reactors now, including on the Academic Lomonosov. Its KLT-40 reactors, enough to power a city of 100,000, are similar to those that drive three of Russia’s five atomic icebreakers.
After complaining that it had only been allowed to check the plant once a year during construction, Russia’s technology oversight agency nonetheless issued it a 10-year operating license in June.
The floating plant will be protected from waves and ice by a pier, and national guardsmen will be deployed to defend against intruders, Rosatom said.
Following the Fukishima nuclear disaster in 2011, all Russian nuclear power plants including the Academic Lomonosov were upgraded with new safety systems, it added. In response to worries the floating plant could sink or be thrown onshore, the company has declared that its reactors are “invincible for tsunamis and other natural disasters”.
Yet overweening statements like this, as well a Rosatom official’s promise last year that the reactors would be tested “at 110 per cent” of their capacity, hardly alleviate safety concerns. (The company later said the official misspoke.)
During construction in 2017, a fire started on the Academic Lomonosov and spread over 170 square feet, according to state media.
Asked about the incident, director Kirill Torkov said sparks from welding had caused a diesel generator to “start burning,” but claimed that what resulted was “smokiness” rather than a fire.
“There are several systems for fire safety on the vessel,” he said.
But safety precautions can never completely eliminate the risk of human error or natural disasters, and Russia has had a spotty nuclear record in the Arctic. In Soviet times, 14 reactors were simply sunk in the Kara Sea, and thousands of iron containers of spent fuel were dumped overboard.
“They might not sink right away, so we’d take a rifle and shoot them,” recalled Andrey Zolotkov, who worked for Atomflot for 35 years before joining the environmental group Bellona in the 1990s.
The nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Arctic 2000 and K-159 sank in 2003, and last month a fire on a nuclear deep-sea submersible near Murmansk almost caused a “catastrophe of a global scale,” an officer said at the funeral of the 14 sailors killed.
While a mishap in Pevek could result in local contamination, what observers really fear is when the Academic Lomonosov is towed the 3,000 miles back to Murmansk for maintenance and refuelling 12 years from now. It will enter the Barents Sea, the source of much of the cod and haddock for British fish and chips shops, full of spent nuclear fuel.
“In case of an accident, the reactor can be shut down, but the storage of spent fuel on something like an unpowered vessel is wild to me,” Mr Zolotkov said. “That object can’t be completely airtight.”
Countries like Sudan, which signed an agreement with Rosatom to “explore the possibility” of a constructing a floating plant, have no experience with nuclear power.
Perhaps the most serious issue facing Rosatom’s plans to sell these vessels around the globe is not “Chernobyl on ice” protests but rather cost.
While Rosatom has refused to put a price tag on the Academic Lomonosov as a pilot project, insurance filings and media reports have revealed that it took at least £360 million to build including coastal infrastructure.
Thomas Nilsen, editor of the Norway-based Barents Observer news site, said there are much cheaper alternatives.
“The coastline of Siberia is a wonderful spot for developing wind power, during the summer there are 24 hours of sun a day, and there’s geothermal energy like Iceland and China are developing,” he said.
Such alternatives are unlikely, however, now that Rosatom has been put in charge of all new infrastructure along the “northern sea route”.
As climate change melts the sea ice, Russia hopes this route can challenge the Suez Canal for a share of shipping to and from China, and Vladimir Putin has promised its atomic icebreaker fleet will increase to nine by 2035.
It’s all part of Moscow’s grand plans to conquer the warming Arctic on the back of nuclear power: An extensive new report by the Barents Observer estimated that in the next 15 years, the number of military and civilian reactors in the Russian Arctic would double from the 62 in operation today.
Besides ballistic missile submarines already being built, ideas under consideration include nuclear-powered destroyers and an aircraft carrier, transportable reactors and even autonomous reactors installed on the sea floor to power gas and oil drilling.
Perhaps the greatest nuclear threat to the Arctic environment is posed by the secretive Poseidon underwater nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered drone announced by Mr Putin last year, which has been photographed on a ship near Arkhangelsk.
Given its small size, the drone almost certainly can’t hold a closed-circuit reactor and will emit nuclear waste. The same can probably be said of Russia’s nuclear-powered cruise missile with “unlimited” range that was tested on Novaya Zemlya—and crashed, according to US intelligence.
In this atmosphere, the Academic Lomonosov looks more like a geopolitical PR stunt than an market-beating power source.
Mr Irimenko said six floating nuclear power stations and one replacement would have to be produced for the project to be profitable, but admitted that this was not the most crucial aspect.
“A military ship isn’t profitable, a space rocket isn’t profitable,” he said, “but it’s important for the country’s development.”