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Amid Nuclear Scare, Russia Pushes Ahead With Controversial Floating Reactors

One environmentalist group says the technology used in seaborne plants, which is based on Cold War submarine technology, has caused at least 10 accidents on Soviet submarines.
The global scare sparked by Japan's nuclear meltdown has prompted many countries to scale down their nuclear programs, putting a damper on the global "nuclear renaissance" touted by the industry in recent years.

Russia, in contrast, is plowing ahead with its vast nuclear ambitions.

Its state atomic agency, Rosatom, aims to double the country's nuclear capacity over the next two decades. It is also building nuclear power plants in India, China, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and elsewhere.

And as the world anxiously watches the scramble to contain radiation at the tsunami-crippled reactors in Fukushima, Russia is preparing to launch the world's first-ever floating nuclear plant -- a prospect that is sending shivers down many spines.

"This idea is completely absurd, dangerous, and immoral after what happened in Fukushima," says Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia's energy program.


The first floating plant, scheduled to be operational by the end of next year, will be anchored in a closed military bay off Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula.

Although the region is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko this week said the facility would be designed to withstand a Fukushima-like scenario.

"I know Fukushima has sparked many inflammatory rumors and gossip, including on the floating nuclear plant," he told Russian television. "Some people say that if a ground plant could not withstand a tsunami, what would then happen with a waterborne nuclear plant. But nothing will happen. Everything will be just fine."

Rosatom has plans to build 12 seaborne plants and hopes to sell some of them for export.

The plants' main purpose will be to provide energy to far-flung regions or isolated facilities such as military bases without the need for expensive energy grids.

These so-called "plug-and-play" miniature plants will be placed on barges that are either docked or anchored close to shore so they can be hooked up to cables to transmit electricity.

Russia puts the cost of building its first floating reactor at around $550 million -- a fraction of the price tag for a tradition reactor.

Security, Safety Fears

But environmentalists say the project is a disaster waiting to happen.

The environmental group Bellona says the technology used in seaborne plants, which is based on Cold War submarine technology, has caused at least 10 accidents on Soviet submarines. Such plants may also prove vulnerable to proliferation and terrorism.

The "Academician Lomonosov," the ship set to be the first floating nuclear power station, is set afloat in St. Petersburg last June.
"These mobile plants pose a huge number of new risks," Greenpeace's Chuprov says. "Firstly during transportation; towing this barge through open seas is already dangerous. Such a reactor floating in the sea is also an ideal target for terrorist attacks. It also poses the risk that the ton of highly enriched uranium onboard these barges falls into the wrong hands."

Critics warn that the countries that have so far expressed interest in purchasing floating plants -- China, South Korea, the Philippines, Chile, and Brazil, among others -- have only limited experience in operating nuclear facilities.

The isolation of the sites considered for the plants "raises certain security and safety issues," says Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based nuclear expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Perhaps not in the Russian Federation, but in remote parts of Asia or Indonesia there would be questions asked about how safe the installation would be if there were a serious accident: would the remoteness make it impossible to mitigate the accident? The other question is: does the remoteness of the reactor site increase the threat that it could be subject to an attack from terrorists and pirates?"

Hibbs says the United States and a number of European countries have already cautioned Rosatom about the dangers of supplying quick-fix nuclear plants to developing countries.

In addition, Greenpeace warns that most countries on Rosatom's list of potential clients are currently seeking access to nuclear submarine technology and could misuse the reactors to pursue military goals.