In the newest energy partnership between Russia and China, the countries may soon join forces to initiate the development of six nuclear power plants before the end of the decade. But these new facilities won’t just be your run of the mill nuclear power stations — instead, they will be floating versions that are stationed in bodies of water.
Following a $400 billion gas supply deal signed by the countries in May, the export sector of Russia’s state nuclear reactor company Rosatom penned a memorandum of understanding with China on Tuesday to develop waterborne nuclear power plants (NPPs) starting in 2019.
Rosatom previously announced that in 2018 it would implement the first floating NPP in the world, just offshore in the country’s eastern region of Chukotka.
"Floating NPPs can provide a reliable power supply not only to remote settlements but also to large industrial facilities such as oil platforms," said Dzhomart Aliev, the chief executive of Rusatom Overseas, according to Reuters.
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While the thought of nuclear reactors floating around the globe sounds like an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, these facilities have actually been designed with the purpose of making NPPs less vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.
“It’s really not a completely new idea,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor at MIT who is working with a team of scientists to research and design floating NPPs in the US, told VICE News. He explained that submarines and aircraft carriers already use nuclear reactors. “The underwater reactor is a positive thing for safety.”
According to Buongiorno, by placing an NPP out in the deep waters of the ocean, the facility would be less susceptible to massive waves produced by tsunamis, like the case of Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 when a major earthquake triggered a tsunami that caused a meltdown, radiation leak, and other serious damage to the site. By being floated out to sea, Buongiorno said the risks of earthquake damage would also be minimized.
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Another benefit lauded by Buongiorno's research team is that the ocean would create a natural cooling source, which would help to prevent meltdowns. Plus, being miles away from shore means the plant is further away from civilian populations, in the event of a disaster.
However, Buongiorno explained that the Russian prototype is quite different to the design his team is working on, and thus may not see the same safety benefits.
Logistically, Buorgino’s floating NPP designs would be similar to offshore oil rigs and would be anchored on platforms, with the reactor submerged down below. Anchored to the ocean floor between five and seven miles out to sea, a cable attached to the structure would send the electricity being produced back to shore.
The Russian prototype, on the other hand, is designed like a barge and would be fixed along the shoreline. According to Buorgino, when a tsunami hits, the waves peak and cause the most damage near the shore.
Critics are concerned about some of the design aspects of this type of NPPs. Edwin Lyman, a senior global security scientist at Union of Concerned Scientists, told VICE News that a lot of what needs to be done to make these plants deployable is the opposite of what the industry needs to do to make their land-based facilities safer. He explained that having to build lighter reactors for use in the ocean and accessibility issues are concerns with the floating plants.
"It's already hard enough getting to site on land, so a ship on a barge would be harder to deal with," Lyman said. "That would introduce another wrinkle to the problem."
In terms of these facilities being out of danger for tsunamis and earthquakes, Lyman said while power plants are vulnerable to some things on land there are different, and perhaps increased, risks at sea.
'We have designed the plant in such a way that a large release of radioactivity could not occur even if the core melts down.'
Some eyebrows have also been raised over Russia's aggressive pursuit to build a floating NPP considering the country's previous handling of nuclear waste management.
"Historically, the Soviets and Russians have a dismal track record of nuclear waste management," Thomas B. Cochran, a nuclear expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told TIME in 2010. He added that these plants might not create "a particularly new concern, [but] more of the same."
While Jacopo stressed the fact that floating NPPs will be safer than those on land, he said his team is working to mitigate issues that present obvious threats. One major concern is how to thwart a massive terrorist attack or boat collision. According to Jacopo, they are designing a reactor that would remain intact even upon contact with the largest oil tanker.
"We have designed the plant in such a way that a large release of radioactivity could not occur even if the core melts down," he said, adding that "underwater netting and surface boons would protect the plant from terrorist attacks."
Lyman said that another concern for these plants is someone gaining unauthorized to the facility, raising questions they could be used as radioactive sabotage devices. "If you have a mobile nuclear power plant, the risk that it will be stolen or taken off course, it's ready made to be transported," he said.
Ken Buesseler, a marine chemistry scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told VICE News that it can be easier to contain a nuclear leak on land, but the fallout can impact and remain in the soil for however long it takes for the nuclear waste to decay. Buesseler explained that waste from nuclear leak in water would undergo dilution — but if it's close enough to shore it could take down fisheries.
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes indefinitely, while the waste that leaked into the Pacific Ocean forced fisheries to close, leading to the loss of millions of dollars. Buesseler said the question becomes whether it's better to have 70,000 people unable to move back to their homes from a land-based accident, or shut more fisheries as nuclear waste moves up the food chain due to an incident with a floating structure.
While there aren't any existing floating nuclear power plants to look to for insight on what could happen after an accident, there are nuclear submarines and ships that have been navigating the globe for decades. The instances in which these vessels have sunk provide an interesting look into what could happen with a nuclear reactor floating in the ocean.
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When nuclear subs have foundered in the past, they have been typically left in the ocean as they are extremely challenging to remove from deep waters. In most cases, the metal casing around the reactors is reportedly sturdy and unlikely to corrode anytime soon — at least not before the nuclear isotopes themselves decay. Buesseler explained that, in some cases, the isotopes don't mix very well with water and thus nuclear activity remains localized. Other more soluble isotopes can get into the ecosystem, he added, but dilution does begin to take effect.
Both the Russian and American efforts to develop new NPPs speak to a sector of energy experts, and even climate scientists, in favor of developing safe nuclear energy facilities and systems. In December, four well-known atmospheric scientists wrote an open letter asking other scientists, leaders, and climate change activists to consider the benefits of nuclear energy.
“Solving the climate problem means developing a near-zero emission global energy system,” Ken Caldeira, one of the letter's co-authors and an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution, told VICE News. “Nuclear power is one of a small handful of technologies that could potentially play a major role in helping us get to this goal.”
Caldeira said some of the issues that go along with nuclear power include things like nuclear proliferation, waste management, and lack of infrastructure. Critics of nuclear power highlight security concerns and high operating costs, saying that a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy would be more effective.
According to Caldeira, however, floating NPPs could at least help solve issues of security and infrastructure concerns in developing countries.
“A country like Nigeria has a need for electricity, but lacks the kind of good governance needed to make people feel comfortable that nuclear power risks are being kept as small as possible,” he said. “One possible alternative in these situations would be to have a ship with a nuclear power plant on board to anchor near Lagos and supply electricity.” This suggestion would, of course, present its own security concerns.
While it could be true that floating power plants might keep nuclear energy away from unstable governments, they do not currently fall under the International Atomic Energy Agency's Convention on Nuclear Safety. This agreement establishes safety standards for countries operating nuclear power facilities based on land, but does not have any jurisdiction over water-based facilities.
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Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB