Russia has launched the world’s only floating nuclear reactor, beating countries like the US and China to the post.
The Akademik Lomonosov set off from a port in St Petersberg on Saturday and will now cross the Baltic sea where it will follow the Norwegian coast before arriving at Murmansk, a town in Northwest Russia. There, it will pick up fuel and undergo testing before making the journey to its final destination, Pevek, in 2019. To get there, it will be towed by two boats, which – provided there are no delays and conditions are favorable – will travel along at around 3.5 to 4.5 knots.
The state-owned company responsible for building the Akademik Lomonosov, Rosatom Corporation, says it will be used to power a desalination plant, oil rigs, and the Arctic town, Pevek, with its 100,000 inhabitants. It will replace the Bilibino and Chaunskaya thermal power plants, which currently provide the region’s energy.
This floating power plant might not be the world’s first, period, as some media outlets have suggested (that prize goes to the SS Sturgis, or MH-1A, a US-owned 10-megawatt converted Liberty ship, which was de-commissioned in 1977) but it is the first to have a dual reactor – and at 70 megawatts, it is also the biggest.
While it’s certainly an impressive engineering feat, it has also been highly controversial.
The company initially planned to have it packed with fuel and tested on-site in the center of St Petersberg rather than Murmansk but reconsidered after facing pressure from the Baltic countries and a Greenpeace Russia-led petition.
“To test a nuclear reactor in a densely populated area like the centre of St Petersburg is irresponsible to say the least,” Greenpeace nuclear expert Jan Haverkamp said in a statement.
“However, moving the testing of this ‘nuclear Titanic’ away from the public eye will not make it less so.” He has also described the project as “Chernobyl on ice”. “Nuclear reactors bobbing around the Arctic Ocean will pose a shockingly obvious threat to a fragile environment which is already under enormous pressure from climate change.”
Haverkamp highlights concerns over the ship’s flat-bottomed hull and lack of self-propulsion, which could make it particularly vulnerable to extreme weather like cyclones and tsunamis.
Despite these concerns, Rosatom has already announced plans to build a second floating power plant, which could be launched as early as 2030.