EXPRESS #1 - December 13, 2018
Russia’s state-owned Rosatom announced the switch-on of the world’s only floating nuclear power unit (FPU), called the Akademik Lomonosov. A 70MW plant, it was turned up to 10% of its capacity during initial tests. All comprehensive tests and preparatory procedures are expected to be completed by March 2019, while the FPU is moored at its base in Murmansk. If successful, it provides an ideal answer for power generation to supply remote regions.
Rosatom CEO Alexey Likhachev said: “The floating nuclear power plant is an ideal solution to power remote areas. We consider this project as a new product, which is of interest not only for the grid-isolated Russian Arctic regions but also for a number of countries around the world.” Rosatom claims significant interest has come from the Middle East, North Africa and South-East Asia. Rosatom has a US$133 billion 10-years export order book, though it’s not known if this includes any firm orders for the FPU.
The FPUs can operate in regions with extended coastlines, power supply shortages, and limited access to electrical grids. The plant can be delivered to any point along a coast and connected to existing electrical grids.
Regardless of foreign sales, the FPU was designed to make it possible to supply electricity to hard-to-reach areas of the Russian Federation, at lower cost than the alternatives. Rosatom says: “Up to 40% of the cost of fossil fuel-based electricity generation is attributed to the price of coal, oil or gas, as well as to the cost of their delivery. This figure is even higher for especially remote locations. The small size, light weight, and fixed cost of the FPU eliminate many such challenges. These small nuclear reactors can operate non-stop without the need for refuelling for three to five years, thereby considerably reducing the cost of electricity generation“.
But is it safe?
There are pros and cons of floating your nuclear plant. The access to water makes cooling the plant much easier. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s TEPCO Jacopo Buongiorno (professor and associate department head, nuclear science and engineering) says: “One can use the ocean as the ‘heat sink’ for cooling the reactor under all circumstances via heat exchangers that allow removal of the reactor energy using seawater. You’re not going to run out of seawater.”
But can it withstand the harsh environment of the ocean, even close to shore? “There are ways to design the platform to minimise motion caused by waves and storms but, in principle, the fact that the platform moves means the reactor inside moves, so there are some technical questions related to support of components or even performance of components undergoing oscillatory motion,” says Buongiorno.
The Russians are never keen on too much scrutiny, but in October Rosatom invited the Norway’s Bellona to be the first foreign environmental group to inspect the Akademik Lomonosov on site. Despite the welcome, Bellona criticised the project at many levels. In the worst-case scenario of a tsunami, “the plant might not ride out the waves, but instead be torn from its moorings to barrel inland through buildings and towns until it lands, battered and breached, with two active nuclear reactors on board – well away from its source of emergency coolant.”
It looks like the fortunes of nuclear power will continue to swing in wildly different directions. While Germany is planning to decommission all of its 22 plants, and France has announced the decommissioning of 14 of its 58 plants, the Russians will keep on sailing on.