By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
Russia continues to project its power north of the Arctic Circle with the launch of the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating barge with two 35-megawatt nuclear reactors. Icebreakers will tow the Akademik Lomonosov along the Northern Sea Route, from Murmansk to Pevek.
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Once the Akademik Lomonosov arrives at Pevek, the Russians will decommission the 48-megawatt, Bilibino land-based nuclear power plant that entered operation in 1974. Currently, this reactor generates most of the electricity for Russia’s autonomous, mineral-rich Chukotka region in the far northern area of Siberia.
The Akademik Lomonosov will be over 4,200 miles from Moscow but less than 1,250 miles upwind of Anchorage, Alaska.
Floating Nuclear Power Plants Have Been Used Before
The concept of floating nuclear power plants is not new. In the late 1960s, the U.S. Army placed a modified World War II Liberty Ship, the Sturgis, in the Panama Canal that provided electricity for both military and civilian use. The Sturgis, with its 10,000-kilowatt pressurized water steam plant, was the first floating nuclear power plant.
The Sturgis, with only .01-megawatts of generated power, provided enough power to allow an extra 2,500 ships to pass through the canal. But it was expensive to maintain and used a one-of-a-kind reactor. After seven years of operation, the Sturgis was shut down in 1976, defueled, decontaminated for long-term storage and sealed. Final decommissioning began in 2015 and was completed in 2018.
In 1969, New Jersey’s Public Services Electric and Gas Company considered placing 1,150-megawatt floating power plants off America’s east coast. Later, the company scrapped the plan due to public and government resistance and economic drawbacks.
Unlike the Sturgis, the 472-foot long Akademik Lomonosov will utilize the same type of reactors found in the Taymyr-class Russian icebreakers. This is good news since the ship will be situated in rough arctic terrain over 3,000 miles from the next closest land-based Russian nuclear reactor at Yekaterinburg with its nuclear technicians.
Use of Akademik Lomonosov Causing Environmental Concerns
Environmentalists are worried about the radioactive steam that the Akademik Lomonosov’s reactors will produce. The radioactivity could have adverse effects on the local populace.
Additionally, there is a concern about an earthquake-triggered tsunami destroying the Akademik Lomonosov. Such a tsunami would cause a release of radioactive material and fuel into not only the air but also the water, impacting marine life.
Russia Not Worried about Nuclear Disasters with the Akademik Lomonosov
Russia dismisses environmental concerns since it has over 50 years of experience in safeguarding nuclear-powered Arctic icebreakers. The ship will be moored in a manner that will prevent even a nine-point tsunami from seriously damaging it.
Regarding the issue of what happened in Chernobyl, Vladimir Iriminku, the chief engineer for the Akademik Lomonosov, stated, “what happened in Chernobyl cannot happen again…. And as it’s going to be stationed in the Arctic waters, it will be cooling down constantly and there is no lack of cold water.”
Dmitry Alekseenko, the deputy director of the Lomonosov plant, stated “and we’ve even considered that if it does go inland, there is a backup system that can keep the reactor cooling for 24 hours without an electricity supply.” However, this 24-hour backup is hardly reassuring.
Recently, there have been revelations that the Soviet nuclear submarine K-278 Komsomolets that sunk over 30 years ago is now releasing radiation levels 800,000 times higher than expected. As a result, there is a concern of what would occur if the Akademik Lomonosov was to sink into the Arctic waters that enter the Pacific near Alaska and then flow down our western coast.
Additionally, the recent fire on the unnamed Russian AS-12 submarine that occurred on July 1, resulting in the death of 14 crewmembers, reminds the world how dangerous nuclear power can be. According to a comment reportedly made by a high-ranking military official at their funeral, the servicemen averted a “planetary catastrophe” before they died.
The State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) is in charge of Russia’s nuclear projects and the third largest nuclear power generation company in the world. It is confident of the Akademik Lomonosov and considering the development of other floating nuclear plants.
These plants would provide an essential service by bringing carbon-free electricity to faraway settlements and towns unreachable by more conventional power sources. The company has already attempted to gain clients from Asia, Africa and South America.
2011 Japanese Nuclear Accident Serving as Disaster Model
While many people are newly aware of the incident at Chernobyl after the recently released miniseries, nuclear watchdogs are not drawing on it as a comparison, but rather the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan. After a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a subsequent tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to suffer a nuclear meltdown, there was a release of iodine-131, caesium-134 and caesium-137 into the environment.
This accident resulted in 160,000 people being evacuated from their homes and over two years later, only half of those residents were allowed to return.
A meltdown occurring on the Akademik Lomonosov or any future sister nuclear floating platforms could be much worse for the local population and the environment. While the remoteness of Pevek will complicate crucial security procedures, such as the routine disposal of nuclear fuel to rescue operations, it will also limit the spread of deadly radiation.
But with Rosatom avidly seeking future countries as partners in spreading nuclear power to areas with electrical needs, such as New Jersey considered doing in the 1960s, only time will provide us with proof that floating nuclear power plants are a potential solution to energy needs.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.