Floating Russian nuclear plants: am I the only one who thinks this is a really bad idea?

Floating Russian nuclear plants: am I the only one who thinks this is a really bad idea?

Summary: What worries me (in addition to everything else) is this: it's a project that's already run out of money once in a country known to cut corners on safety.

TOPICS: Security, Government
Image courtesy RT.com and www.okbm.nnov.ru.

Let's get one issue out of the way: I am not anti-nuke. I think nuclear will continue to be a comparatively inexpensive, safe and plentiful energy source, and our power needs are not going down.

Given that, let's do a short exercise together. Picture a large barge. Now, stick a nuclear reactor on it. So far, there's nothing much to worry about. Navies around the world have been running nuclear-powered vessels for years and they're surprisingly safe.

Let's take it one step further. Instead of powering the ship, the floating reactor has to power a city. Are you feeling it yet? Do you have that little tingle on the hairs on the back of your neck?

Okay, fine. Let's punch it up. It's a floating Russian nuclear reactor that's supposed to power an entire city. We're talking a floating reactor brought to you by the same people who originally thought Chernobyl was safe.

Apparently, the Russians have wanted to build one of these for years.

I'm also betting that the producers of Bond flicks could build an entire movie around this premise: "See, okay, This evil villian Leonid Arkady has become the head of Spectre and wants to make his own power."

"He doesn't want to be dependent on other countries for power ever again, see, so he's gonna launch this floating nuke plant and then destroy the world and start civilization over, all living off the power of his floating nuke plant."

"Of course, 007 comes in and saves the day. It'll be a blockbuster, I tell you. A blockbuster."

But it's not a movie plot. It's one of those truth is stranger than fiction things.

According to RT.com (which, for the record, is Russia Today — a propaganda arm of the Russian government), the country is getting ready to launch the first of what it hopes will be a fleet of floating nuclear power plants.

The idea is that if power is needed in a part of the country that is lacking a power plant, all that has to be done is float in a spare nuclear generating platform and shoot the energy from ship to shore.

See what I mean? It sounds like a Bond plot, doesn't it?

RT.com reports the first floating bad idea will be launched in 2016. The first platform will not be as much a ship as a barge. It will displace 21,500 tons and will need to be towed into location.

So, yeah, now we have a floating Russian nuclear plant on a leash, being towed around the always-volatile North Sea.

If the train consisting of the floating nuke barge and its transport comrades make it to their destination, it will theoretically be able to pump out 70 megawatts of electricity or 300 megawatts of heat, enough to power a city the size of Yonkers.

RT claims, "The floating nuclear power plants are expected to be used in remote regions of Russia’s high north and Far East, which currently see economic growth suffering from a lack of energy."

So, basically, if something goes very, very wrong, there will be a long wait for help.

This wouldn't be a good Bond film plot if there weren't co-conspirators. Back in the early Bond days, you could picture serious-looking representatives from various nations sitting around a table, plotting their fleet of floating nukes.

Now, however, we'd probably have a scene with Skype open, and each national representatives would be a talking head in a window.

Think this homage to Bond flicks is far-fetched? Nope. RT reports, "15 countries, including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Namibia, Cape Verde and Argentina, have previously expressed interest in acquiring such power stations."

Throughout this column, I've glibly mocked the whole concept of a floating nuclear power plant, when the world's oceans make up the majority of the surface of the planet and we're desperate for new solutions. It's not the idea of pushing technology that worries me. It's the implementation.

Russia is known to have cut corners in nuclear plant protection and while the RT article claims that this floating design is safe, there's one fact that's been haunting me ever since I first read about the Russian scheme.

Apparently construction on the Akademik Lomonosov (the first floating plant) was started in 2007, but stalled for a few years because the project ran out of money. In December, the plant's builders and Russian state company Rosenergoatom inked a financing deal for the project.

What worries me (in addition to everything else) is this: it's a project that's already run out of money once in a country known to cut corners on safety. If one thing is true about building floating nuclear power plants, it's this: you can't cut corners. And yet, this one has run out of cash once. Who knows where the builders are cutting costs to get this thing out of dry dock?

Oh, goody. That makes me feel even safer. Here's hoping 007 is out there somewhere, just waiting for orders to swoop in and save the day.

Topics: Security, Government


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Paranoia 101

    This is like saying a train of tanker cars is safer than a buried pipeline!
    I don't agree with you on this one!
    • The citizens of Lac Megantic in Canada....

      sure wish the oil being transported past their houses last week had been in a pipeline and not in the trains cars that exploded killing 13 and leaving dozens missing.

  • Chernobyl blew with safty OFF...

    Nowadays they make nuclear plants with OFF switch for safety only in movies, or when they want to make atomic bomb facilities (which double as nuclear plants..).

    What I'm worried about is that if that ship sink, it will be a hell of environmental hazard... Submerged, with plent of watter and other chemicals present in everyday water from river in industrial region...

    How to secure that?
    • Silly

      Yeah and Fukushima was safe unlike the pesky Russian designs also.

      Oh no sorry Fukushima was not new and was unsafe but our new ones are safe now.

      Oh no sorry they also have Spent fuel pools that will be just like reactor 4 at fukushima.

      So Thorium - that'll be safe - no Uranium. Oh wait U-232 and U-233 in THorium reactors.

      Oh I know micro-reactors everywhere - that'll be safe.

      etc. etc. etc.

      The No safety off switch is just nonsense - total nonsense.

      You can turn all safety systems off on any reactor - and often reactors in the US come close to disaster when multiple levels of safety systems get bypassed. Read the NRC incident reports!
    • All modern nuclear reactors have safeguards built-in ...

      ... to prevent a runaway. Problems come up when there is a failure of the cooling system in a nuclear reactor. Poorly maintained facilities lead to cooling system failures. Cooling system failures lead to core meltdowns. Electric generation requires vast amounts of water in order to generate steam (for generation or electricity).

      A properly maintained floating plant will have access to the water needed to prevent a meltdown. Chernobyl was using graphite, not water, for core temperature regulation. NO ONE still builds reactors that way.

      Breeder reactors - for turning yellow-cake (Uranium-235) into plutonium-239 for weapons - use liquid metal (usually sodium) for cooling. These reactors have proven safe because they are fully regulated by the DoD and DoE. The stakes are just too high with these kind of reactors.
      M Wagner
  • Why does David always feel the need to attack other nationals

    Whilst I can't shake the slightly worrying feeling that a floating nuclear power station brings, I think David has slightly forgotten that the cold war has finished and the "Russkies" are technically allies(ish) now.

    Similar to the China is evil and hacking us, whilst the USA is squeaky clean articles earlier in the year (and we all know how that turned out).

    I'd be worried (a bit) if any country was using and deploying theses, not specifically Russia. Nuclear subs are one thing, but a reactor large enough to power NY is just a touch bigger.

    Corruption and cutting corners happens everywhere it can me got away with (unfortunately), not just in the ex-Soviet block.
    • Uhm - does it matter whose flag is on the stupid thing?

      A floating nuclear powerplant is by definition a bad idea. A floating nuclear powerplant on a BARGE, without any propelling power of it's own, is a freaking CATASTROPHE waiting to happen.

      Forget politics, forget how 'safe' nuke power is on land - a floating nuke plant is 20 different kinds of crazy. If you thought Fukushima was bad - imagine if instead of Fukushima, the area was powered by one of these barges. Remember the pictures of all those boats floating into the middle of town? Now imagine one of those boats is the NUKE barge...happily floating into the middle of town, and settling in there...

      That's not a Bond flick, that's a disaster movie akin to Earthquake or The China Syndrome.
    • Not exactly Allies. They don't trust us, we still don't trust them!

      Our two nations still have enough thermonuclear warheads pointed at each other to guarantee mutually-assured-destruction. Too bad President Reagan could not have completed his initiative to completely eliminate the threat of nuclear war.
      M Wagner
  • For reference

    Read the transcripts of the NRC conference calls about the Fukushima disaster as it happened.

    Frightening quotes like "SBO will always result in loss of containment".

    Translation: Station Blackout (Loss of offsite power past backup gen times) will be a disaster no question.

    So the NRC thinks reactors are not able to cope with a loss of power - no matter what safety switches exist or don't. Loss of offsite power is very very likely in a major event like a flood.

    A flood over a wide area will very likely prevent the use of the new pooled backup resources to keep the backup power running.

    Sorry US but you are living under threat of weather events anyway. 24 hours from a Fukushima event or likely worse.

    Fukushima was saved by a leaky gate and a failure to drain the reactor 4.

    A floating reactor - well maybe you can sink it if it loses offsite power? Otherwise nasty!
  • I think he is right

    You may not like what he says but a lot of it makes sense. Russia does not have a great safety record here which goes back decades and their workmanship is often shoddy. Now the argument can be made that Russia has been doing this type of thing for years with their nuclear fleet but even there they have a higher accident rate then any other nuclear fleets. This all points to poor workmanship and sloppy maintenance. Again, this is a bad idea for any country but especially bad with Russia involved.
  • Great idea

    Moor one on the Thames in London instead of building it in the countryside near me.

    a) is more efficient - less in the way of power line losses
    b) no power lines to spoil out beautiful countryside - they claim it is too expensive to bury them in especially scenic parts, but the cost of this pales into insignificance when compared to the cost of the nuclear power station
    c) we will soon see how safe it really is. The UK has clusters of cancers near every nuclear site, but these are all officially statistical anomalies. We have inferior health services to those in the cities, so it makes far more sense to put the risks where the hospitals are.

    At least a floating power station will rise when a tsunami hits, and with a bit of care with the design, you only have to sink it when the cooling fails and use vast amounts of water convection cooling.

    Tsunamis are discounted here in the UK, but back in the 1600s one went several miles inland and drowned quite a few people, and would likely have affected the nuclear plant built on the shoreline.

    Plans to build a new nuclear station next to the existing ones seem to overlook the fact that the environment agency is giving up on flood defences for that part of the coast - so the power station needs to be able to float anyway.

    Personally I think it is a great idea.
  • Strange propaganda remark about RT?

    Not sure why that remark was squeezed in the story?
    Presumably, you should be using a similar remark on every occasion you happen to be citing CNN, them being at the forefront of the American propaganda!

    Or are you simply trying to update our Stereotypes!?
    • Not the same

      CNN is NOT an arm of the US government.
      • Or so you believe!

  • Outlandish

    You do realize J. Bond is a fictional character? That is to say he never existed.
    BTW, the country that cuts corners on safety seems capable of putting safely people in space for quite a while now.
    • Yeah. But satellites...

      Recent rocket crash that dumped tons of toxic fuel?

      Just luck it wasn't a manned shot?
      • Yeah and two Space Shutles

        And they were manned. And shoddy. And no, they were not Russian
  • Providing ...

    1 ... the Russians agree to deploy C2's only on their own soil.
    2. Steven Segal has the rights to the film. (Cook = heat ... at sea ... get it?)
    3. The team planning the implementation do a resource plan for energy requirements in Russia first, and then build land-based reactors.

    ... then I'm happy with the IDEA ;-)
  • People seem to forget the USS Enterprise...

    I seem to recall it did power a city once during an emergency (could be wrong on this - it is possible it was "had enough energy to power a city" type of thing). It did have five nuclear power plants, and it did float.

    And was as large if not larger than the proposed barge.