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Here's What We Know About Russia's New Floating Nuclear Power Plant Heading To The Arctic
MAY 1, 2018
Russia has begun towing the first of its new floating nuclear power plants, the Akademik Lomonosov, to Murmansk, where it will receive the nuclear fuel for its two reactors. The only one of its kind in service today, the program’s progress is yet another example of the Kremlin's active push to expand its presence in the increasingly strategic Arctic region, but the concept could find use in various roles elsewhere, as well.
The Lomonosov left the Baltic Shipyard in Saint Petersburg on April 28, 2018. The Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk on the White Sea in northern Russia had first laid down the barge in 2007, before transferring it to the Baltic Shipyard the following year. The vessel will first test its reactors by the end of 2018 and it will enter formal service in Pevek in Russia’s Far East region in 2019, according to a press release from the shipyard. The Russian government plans to buy at least seven of these power barges in total.
When it becomes operational, the nearly 500-foot long Lomonosov will have a displacement of around 21,500 tons. Inside the warehouse-like superstructure is more or less a typical nuclear power plant, with a reactor complex, control facilities, and the necessary equipment to generate electricity and safely transfer it ashore. There’s a helipad on top to help ferry technicians to and from their jobs onboard.
Each Lomonosov-class vessel will have two KLT-40S pressurized water reactors, a derivative of the standard KLT-40 and improved KLT-40M, the latter of which powers Russia’s Taymyr-class icebreakers. Each S variant can produce up to 35 megawatts of electricity or 150 megawatts of thermal energy.
According to the press release from the Baltic Shipyard marking the departure from Saint Petersburg, the thousands of miles long voyage to Murmansk will be relatively slow going. At the very best, the four tugs belonging to Russia’s Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport, or Rosmorrechflot, will be able to move the power plant at around four knots, or just over four and a half miles an hour.
But the lumbering Lomonosov is significant in a number of ways. Most importantly, it represents the first of a class of floating nuclear power plants, which is also known as the Project 20870, that engineers designed from the very beginning to be mass produced. The first nuclear power ship, the Army’s MH-1A Sturgis, which provided power in the Panama Canal Zone between 1968 and 1975, was a conversion of an existing World War II-era Liberty ship.
As such, Russia has suggested that if this type proves successful that it could export it to other nations with significant populations situated along coastal areas. As of 2008, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom claimed that China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Namibia, Cape Verde, and Argentina had all expressed an interested in the Project 20870 vessel or similar designs.
For the Russian government specifically, the ships will significantly allow it to significantly expand its activities in the Far North and Arctic regions, which can often be isolated from communities further south for months at a time. As a result, it can be difficult to support fossil-fuel powered power stations in these areas, as it requires the prepositioning of large quantities of coal, oil, or natural gas.
At the same time, shifting permafrost and other terrain features, as well the generally harsh climates, can often make it difficult to quickly and safely erect complex structures, such as nuclear power plants, to support even civilian communities near or above the Arctic Circle. A mobile, floating power station helps get around these issues.
In Pevek, Lomonosov will be able to quickly replace the Soviet-era Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and the Chaunskaya coal-fired power plant. Of the other six planned Project 20870 floating power stations, five are already set to help Russia’s state-run oil and gas company Gazprom expand its off-shore activities in and around the Arctic region. The last one could go to Dudinka on the Taymyr Peninsula or Vilyuchinsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, both also in the country’s far north.
If the concept proves sound, though, it seems likely that the Kremlin could look to expand the number of floating nuclear power plants, either of Project 20870 type or separate designs, to support additional efforts in the Arctic region, including supporting new or rehabbed military facilities. Starting in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to refurbish various abandoned sites in the area, as well as build entirely new air, ground, and naval bases. This decision was part of a generally more assertive Russian force policy that had already become apparent with the illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region earlier that year.
In April 2017, Russian officials unveiled one of the first of its all-new Arctic sites, called the Arctkicheski Trilistnik, which translates variously as Arctic Trefoil or Arctic Shamrock, which sits on Alexandra Land, an island in the Franz Josef archipelago, and is north of the Arctic Circle. It is unclear whether this base’s own power plant, which helps it remain self-sufficient during the winter months when it is largely cut off from the mainland, is conventional or nuclear.
On top of that, the Kremlin has reportedly already been expanding its military use of nuclear power, including developing smaller underwater nuclear power stations as part of expanding undersea sensors networks in the Arctic region. This makes sense if Russian officials are looking to better monitor foreign submarine movements and otherwise secure territorial claims in the area.
Floating nuclear power plants such as Lomonosov could similarly help provide the critical power for permanent, semi-permanent, or temporary stations in remote areas, on ice floes, or even on the water’s surface over protracted periods of time. Typical portable generators using fossil fuels might be enough to sustain basic life support in these locations, but could require a significant and regular logistical pipeline and wouldn’t necessarily be able to run power-hungry sensor or weapon systems. With more robust bases with these types of assets, the Russians would be better positioned to actually limit foreign military activities, especially in a crisis, rather than just monitor them.
That’s not to say there aren’t potential limits to or concerns about the fleet of nuclear power barges. As noted, these floating platforms are not particularly easy to move and once in place, they may essentially take on the role of a fixed power plant. With tugs only able to move them at a top speed of four knots, it could take an immense amount of time and effort to bring them back to Murmansk or Saint Petersburg for any necessary heavy maintenance, as well.
The plan for the Lomonosov with its 70-megawatt output to fully replace the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant, with its top generating capacity of 48-megawatts, as well as the Chaunskaya generating plant might be optimistic, as well. It would no doubt require the ship to run regularly and without incident in order to provide that steady stream of power to the communities in and around Pevek.
And while Russian authorities insist that the KLT-40S reactor design is both proven and reliable, it is based on a decade's old design. In 2011, the icebreaker Taymyr suffered a coolant leak on one of its KLT-40Ms that resulted in a release of radiation into the atmosphere in spite of various redundancies and other safety features found on that already updated design.
Combining it with a floating platform in a region where weather can quickly turn extreme has long prompted concerns about the potential for a major radiological incident and environment disaster, as well. Russia claims that the Lomonosov is sufficiently hardened against a variety of natural disasters and accidents, reportedly being strong enough to even brush off a small plane crashing into it.
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