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, the Academic Lomonosov looks the part as the vanguard of Russia’s “nuclearification” of the Arctic, at least now that its rusty hull has been repainted in the white, red and blue of the national flag.
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 solution to electricity needs in Africa and Asia.
“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. It has been fuelled up and tested in Murmansk rather than 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”.
To be fair, while flammable graphite slowed down the neutrons for fission in the Chernobyl reactors, water performs this function in most reactors today, including on the Academic Lomonosov. Its KLT-40 reactors are similar to those that power three of Russia’s five atomic icebreakers.
After previously complaining that it was only allowed on board to check the plant once a year during construction, Russia’s technology oversight agency 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 against intruders, Rosatom said.
After the Fukishima nuclear disaster in 2011, all Russian nuclear power plants including the Academic Lomonosov were upgraded with new safety systems, it added. The company has declared that the floating plant’s 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.”