Critics call a floating nuclear power plant bound for a Russian city in the Arctic Circle "Chernobyl on ice". While there is not enough information to perform a specific risk assessment, a floating nuclear reactor is not in itself. It is not necessarily a cause for alarm: nuclear reactors have been feeding submarines for more than 60 years.
The floating power station, called Akademik Lomonosov has been being built since 2009. Russian state-owned nuclear company Rosatom launched it on its first trip on Saturday. At this moment, the Akademik Lomonosov is being towed slowly from St. Petersburg, Russia, to the city of Murmansk, where its two nuclear reactors will be fueled this fall.
The plan is for the barge to go to the city of Pevek sometime in the summer of 2019, where it is supposed to provide enough electricity to 100,000 people, according to a Rosatom press release. The two nuclear reactors on the barge can produce up to 70 megawatts of electricity, says Rosatom. That's about seven percent of what typically produces a large commercial reactor in the United States, according to John Kotek, vice president of policy and public affairs development at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Greenpeace, who coined the phrase "Chernobyl on Ice", fears that the reactors will endanger the environment and that there will not be sufficient supervision of the plant. We have certainly seen devastating accidents before, such as in 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine, spitting so much radiation that children are still not allowed to live within 18 miles of the plant. In Fukushima, Japan, the massive earthquake and tsunami of 2011 caused a nuclear accident that forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, and many have not yet returned.
But we have also seen nuclear reactors that go to the sea since 1955, when the submarine USS Nautilus made its first trip. In fact, the US Navy. UU It has more than 80 nuclear-powered warships, including aircraft carriers and submarines, according to a 2015 report from an independent working group of the Federation of American Scientists. Russia, too, has a nuclear-powered fleet that includes icebreakers, which designed to ply the ice with nuclear reactors on board.
The idea of using floating nuclear reactors to power an electrical grid on the ground is not out there either. The US Navy UU He suggested disconnecting the Kauai network from a nuclear submarine after a hurricane destroyed the energy system of the Hawaiian island in 1982. And Megan Geuss in Ars Technica discovered that a World War II ship became in a floating nuclear power station at Gatun Lake in Panama until 1976.
Still, designing a nuclear reactor that works safely in open water is not easy, says Dale Klein, who was the former Head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President George W. Bush and is now associate vice president of research for the University of Texas system. In ground-based nuclear power plants, for example, the nuclear core is usually contained in a dome made of reinforced concrete about four feet thick, says Klein. "So, if you have a massive pipe jump, all that material would be contained inside that container, inside that containment building," he says.
That would be quite heavy for a mobile nuclear power plant, which is something that designers should keep in mind, says: "What kind of scenarios are you planning? What kind of pipes could be broken, and how would you make sure?" that the reactor be switched off and cooled safely? "
The Verge spoke with Klein about safety, security and scare tactics for floating nuclear power plants.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
In general, nuclear energy works by using the heat of a nuclear reaction to generate steam, which drives a turbine to generate electricity. How should a nuclear reactor be adapted so that it can operate at sea?
So in a terrestrial system, you know all the time where gravity is. Normally, when you heat something, the hot water will increase and your steam will be generated in a very predictable way.
When you have a reactor that will not always be in the same vertical orientation [like on a submarine or aircraft carrier] then your fluid flow characteristics will be a little different, and you'll just have to analyze that to make sure that your systems are designed to handle the elimination of the heat so that it is always with safety margins.
What are some of the challenges? make a nuclear reactor that can be mobile, especially in the sea?
The real challenge, from my point of view, is the amount of containment you have in the core of that reactor. [Stationary] the reactors that we have in the USA UU They have huge containers for the radiation to be contained in the unlikely event of an accident. As in the case of Three Mile Island, very little radiation escaped due to that massive containment structure.
So, when you have a containment structure, that usually means that it's going to be heavy. And for the Russian reactor, I have not seen his designs, so I do not know if it's a single wall or a double wall. If you think about it, it will be very heavy. So that means you probably have to have a very big boat. The alternative is that if it has a not very solid containment, then it would be lighter. I do not know the design, but that is going to be one of the challenges.
The other challenge is the unusual events: if you have some kind of massive wave movement, any kind of hurricane, adverse weather, you'll have to analyze how to keep the ship stable, and how to keep all the components running when the ship could be bouncing The other big problem would be security. How can you ensure a situation in which you have a fairly large goal, but there are people who could access from the water and may not see it coming?
I've been seeing people call it "floating Chernobyl" – is that name reasonable?
No, not at all. It's just a scare tactic. It's just to make people think of an accident of some kind. Therefore, it has no basis in science, and in reality it only aims to scare people when it uses such statements.
What does science say about the risks here?
As in aircraft carriers and submarines, it does a very detailed analysis so that the core of the reactor is always covered [with water] has safety margins in all systems, has backup pumps, has backup systems, has operators well trained, and then operate our aircraft carriers and our submarines in a way where the reactor is not always vertical, because the boats will go up and down from one side to the other. So, when you do all your analysis, you just have to say how far the ship is likely to swing, and how much it will rise and fall as you go through the waves.
If you were running this boat, what kind of security operations would you like to have in operation?
A lot of backup systems, so you simply have many options, basically. If one team fails, you have another one ready to start. For pumps, batteries, your own electrical supplies, water, refrigeration, thermal capacity, all those things that generally tend to go into a safety analysis study.
Security is going to be a challenge, because if you look, you say, for your aircraft carriers and your submarines: when they enter the dock, they are usually in highly secure installations. There is a lot of military security and many other types of detection systems so you can know if someone is trying to hurt you. So, if you enter a normal civil area, then how do you prevent a terrorist, for example, from trying to enter to damage that facility? So, security would be a challenge, as well as: how do you handle storms, hurricanes and typhoons and that sort of thing?
If there were a radioactive spill in the ocean, would it be diluted? How much trouble would it be?
If there was a problem in the middle of the ocean, you would probably never see it on land, or you could measure it, but it would be such a minimal impact [on land] because the ocean is so big. But if you have this barge anchored to provide electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you have a spill, you could enter the environment locally on land, so you should make sure that never happens.