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World's first purpose-built floating nuclear plant Akademik Lomonosov reaches Murmansk

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jan Haverkamp

On May 19, the world's first purpose-built floating nuclear power plant was moored at the Atomflot wharf on the edge of Murmansk, a port city in north-western Russia, with extensive celebrations. The arrival of the Akademik Lomonosov two days earlier in the bay of Murmansk was met a lot more critically by environmental NGOs Greenpeace, Socio-Ecological Union (Friends of the Earth Russia) and Ecodefense. The groups asked Rosatom, the Russian Ministry of Environment and Russian nuclear regulator Rostechnadzor, as well as the cooperation body the Arctic Council to assure that the further development of the project will be submitted to an environmental impact assessment and will take place under full, independent and peer-reviewed nuclear regulatory oversight.1

A month earlier, it looked like the Akademik Lomonosov was going to start its 8,000 km voyage from St. Petersburg to its final destination Pevek in the Russian far north-east province of Chukotka without a lot of attention. A year ago, hefty protests in St. Petersburg and from the countries around the Baltic Sea and Norway had taken out the most vulnerable sting. The construction of the barge with two 35 MW ice-breaker type nuclear reactors was finalised at the Baltiysky shipyard in the centre of St. Petersburg. Plans to load and test the reactors on that spot and then tow them in an irradiated state along the rocky coasts of the Baltic Sea and Norway triggered a 12,000 strong petition in St. Petersburg, and a flurry of diplomatic visits and letters.

Rosatom gave in and shifted loading and testing from 2.5 km from the St. Isaac Cathedral to the nuclear shipyard at Murmansk. The fuel was to be shipped by train. And with that, attention fell away.

However, on the 32nd anniversary of Chernobyl, April 26, Greenpeace pointed out fact that the project was going ahead without proper nuclear regulatory oversight, without a transboundary environmental impact assessment and without guidance that was promised by the IAEA years ago under the London Convention.

The attention grew when the Akademik Lomonosov departed on April 28 in a convoy consisting of the unloaded nuclear barge, towed by the tug Umka and accompanied by a second tug Jasny and a rescue tug Karev. Through Danish waters, it was escorted by the Greenpeace vessel Beluga II and the passage of the Storebelt bridge – the longest bridge in Denmark – was observed by dozens of small boats filled with journalists.

Shortly after the Beluga II had made contact with the flotilla, the rescue tug Karev tried to push the Beluga out of the way, fearing direct actions against the Akademik Lomonosov. The Swedish coast guard had to intervene when the Karev went on a dangerous course towards the Beluga. Rosatom reacted with a press release in which it accused aggressive environmental activists of attacking the Akademik Lomonosov and praising the Swedish and Danish coast guards for 'protecting' the convoy.2

In reality the protection was the other way around, with attempts from the Karev and Jasny to spray the Beluga and its accompanying inflatables, even though they maintained at all times safe distance from the difficult-to-navigate combination of tug and barge.3 Greenpeace also noted that, contrary to Rosatom's claims, it maintained regular contact with Rosatom and with the Russian nuclear regulator Rostechnadzor before and during the construction of the Akademik Lomonosov, and that many other environmental NGOs severely criticise the increased introduction of nuclear technology into the Arctic region.

The cat-and-mouse game did, however, deliver beautiful pictures in front of one of Denmark's off-shore wind parks, Nysted I, that produces three times as much electricity as the Akademik Lomonosov will. Further media attention in Norway with critical comments by the environmental NGO Bellona increased the pressure.

The 144 metre long and 30 metre wide barge is to be the first in a series of floating nuclear reactors that Rosatom intends to build for the Arctic. Like the Akademik Lomonosov, these power stations are to power the further expansion of oil, gas and coal exploitation that now becomes possible because of the climate change-induced retraction of the ice. Greenpeace for that reason strongly objects when 'ecomodernist' Ben Heard echoed Rosatom's claims that the Akademik Lomonosov will be good for nuclear safety and the climate because it will replace the ageing Chernobyl type Bilibino nuclear power station and a smaller coal power plant.4

Greenpeace argues that locking the planet into decades of new fossil fuel exploitation and doing that with the introduction of a fleet of floating nuclear plants is a double whammy of risks, and that alternatives in the form of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources are amply available. It furthermore criticises Rosatom's plans to export floating nuclear plants to 15 countries including Indonesia, the Philippines and Sudan.5

Greenpeace, the Socio-Ecological Union and Ecodefense raised three demands during the voyage.5 The first relates to the lack of nuclear regulatory oversight of the project. Because of a gap in the nuclear law, the Russian nuclear regulator Rostechnadzor only has access once a year for an inspection, and that pre-announced. It has no further regulatory mandate until the barge is moored and made operational in Pevek. This is seen as a critical flaw by the organisations, and they demand immediate, full and unrestricted oversight by Rostechnadzor with peer-review from nuclear regulators from the Arctic region.

Secondly, the potential impacts of this nuclear adventure were not assessed and reviewed by other Arctic countries, as was agreed for new activities in the Arctic region by the cooperation body the Arctic Council in the form of a transboundary Arctic Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The organisations call on Russia and the Arctic Council to carry out such an EIA before the Akademik Lomonosov will be loaded and tested in Murmansk. It has to assess all further preparation, the transport to Pevek, operation, but also further transports in 12 years' time with spent nuclear fuel on board back to Murmansk for maintenance and refuelling, final decommissioning after three or four operational periods and management of radioactive waste.

Thirdly, the organisations expressed their dismay that guidelines for floating nuclear power plants ‒ promised by the IAEA under the London Convention ‒ have still not been presented, while the construction of the Akademik Lomonosov is already finalised.

Jan Haverkamp is expert consultant on nuclear energy for WISE, Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe and is vice-chair of Nuclear Transparency Watch.







5 reasons why a floating nuclear power plant in the Arctic is a terrible idea

A longer, referenced version of this article is online: Jan Haverkamp, 2 May 2018, '5 reasons why a floating nuclear power plant in the Arctic is a terrible idea',

1. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen: This nuclear titanic has been constructed without any independent experts checking it. This plant's flat-bottomed hull makes it particularly vulnerable to tsunamis and cyclones. A large wave can pitch the power station onto the coast. It also can't move by itself. If it comes loose from its moorings, it can't move away from a threat (an iceberg or a foreign vessel, for example) increasing the risk of a deadly incident. A collision could damage its vital functions and lead to a loss of power and damage its cooling function, and that could lead to a release of radioactive substances into the environment.

2. Imagine how hard it will be to deal with the consequences: There are so many things that could go wrong here: it could flood, or sink, or run aground. All of these scenarios could potentially lead to radioactive substances being leaked into the environment. In the case of a collapse, the core will be cooled by the surrounding seawater. While this seems like a good idea, when melting fuel rods come into with seawater, it will first lead to a seawater explosion and potential hydrogen explosions that will spread a large amount of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. A damaged reactor could contaminate much of the marine wildlife in the near vicinity.

3. The terrible track record of nuclear ships, icebreakers and submarines: There is a very long list of incidents and accidents with existing nuclear submarines and icebreakers. The very first nuclear icebreaker, Lenin, had a cooling accident in 1965, resulting in a partial meltdown of the core. The damaged radioactive core was dumped in the Tsivolki Bay near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in 1967. In 1970 the reactor of a nuclear submarine (K-320) started up by itself at Krasnoye Sormovo wharf in Russia, releasing large amounts of radiation and causing hundreds of people to be exposed. An accident during fuel loading of the reactor of a nuclear submarine in Chazma in 1985 irradiated 290 workers leading to 10 casualties and 49 people injured. The list goes on.

4. A nuclear dumping ground on water: We already have more nuclear waste than we know what to do with. We don't need any more. The reactors on this plant are smaller than conventional land-based nuclear plants and will need refueling every two to three years. The nuclear waste will be stored onboard until it returns after 12 years of operation. That means that radioactive waste will be left floating around in the Arctic for years at a time. Not only is this incredibly risky, there is still nowhere secure for the spent fuel to be transported to once it's on land. No power source should create waste that takes millennia to be safe.

5. It's using nuclear power to help extract more fossil fuels: As if this floating nightmare wasn't absurd enough, the reason it's being towed to the Arctic is to help Russia dig for more fossil fuels. The main reason it exists is to provide northern oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction industries with power. And we don't need to repeat the reasons why more fossil fuels are terrible news for the climate. We just need to protect the Arctic from this potential disaster.