Homer Simpson Meets the Titanic

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Green, Product Developments

Or so said Ben Ayliffe, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace, when commenting on Russian plans to manufacture floating nuclear reactors. According to a Telegraph article, the Russians have just launched the hull of the Akademik Lomonosov into the Baltic Sea. The reactor is not complete, but the barge that will house the plant was launched on June 30 from the Baltyskiy shipyard in St Petersburg. Commissioning is expected in 2012. Greenpeace is horrified by the concept calling them floating Chernobyls but the Russians are adamant they will be safe and there will be a demand for the low output reactors to provide power and in some cases desalination in remote places. Six sites have been identified in Russia’s far north where oil, gas and mineral exploration is going on far from any national grid or indeed any local communities. The plants are being developed by Russia’s Rosatom and keen interest is apparently coming from China and Middle Eastern markets where access to large volumes of potable water for both agriculture and drinking water is as important as electricity supply. China is showing interest in a whole range of nuclear technologies from many western producers as well as Rosatom. China has 12 operating reactors as of August 1 this year, with 24 under construction. A total of 33 reactors are going through the planning stage, with a further 120 facilities according to data from the World Nuclear Association’s reactor database quoted in the article. At some 80 MW, the reactor is not a replacement for major power plants but designed to serve isolated communities mostly on a temporary basis being moved on after a few years. Nevertheless China is said to be working with the Russians the develop the concept.

A natural association is always made when discussing Russia and nuclear power with the Chernobyl reactor explosion in 1986. Chernobyl was actually in the Ukraine but in those days it was all part of the Soviet Union. Chernobyl is the only example of a “Level 7” event on the International Nuclear Event Scale the maximum level that can be reached. The scale was introduced by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1990. It is a logarithmic scale, similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes. Worryingly, the only Level 6 event was also in the Soviet Union, the Kyshtym disaster at Mayak, in Russia on September 29, 1957. A failed cooling system at a military nuclear waste reprocessing facility caused a steam explosion that is said to have exploded with the power of 75 tons of TNT and released 70-80 tons of highly radioactive material into the environment.

Nuclear technology has come a long way since then and no doubt Rosatom’s floating piles will be very much more reliable than early systems, but it does raise the question if a reactor experiences a significant problem at sea in a remote location it would be a major challenge to get support equipment and resources on site in a hurry. Unlike on land where problems can be relatively contained if a barge sinks with a damaged reactor on board, the resulting materials are released directly into the marine environment. As we have seen with BP’s rig in the Gulf of Mexico that can throw up a whole host of challenges previously unseen and demanding technological innovation on the hoof. Let’s hope Rosatom’s reactors are as reliable as they maintain.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (3)

  1. Oleg says:

    Right. What serious discussion about safety of nuclear power can be done without mentioning Homer Simpson, Titanic and Chernobyl together.
    What is the difference between nuclear powered ice breakers and floating power plants? Are the latter more dangerous because they are 4 times less powerful, 30 years more modern and don’t have to break through 2m thick ice?

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