Russia is deploying what critics call a “floating Chernobyl” to fuel its ambitions in the Arctic.
In a world’s first, Russia will ship a nuclear power plant on a barge from a point north of Moscow across the Arctic, thousands of miles, to an extremely remote area where it’ll power offshore oil and gas rigs.
The plant’s been under construction for almost 9 years, according to NPR, and is just finally ready to be commissioned. The plant’s two reactors sit atop a nearly 500-foot platform, which will be pulled by tugboats through the Northern Sea Route starting next month, according to CNN. Its path will take it north of mainland Russia in the Arctic Circle, to a tiny port town called Pevek some 3,000 miles away from where it is now in Murmansk. There, it’ll be used to power mining operations in the Chukotka region.
To critics, this nuclear-powered barge looks like a “floating Chernobyl,” as they’ve dubbed it, a reference to the Soviet nuclear plant that exploded in 1986. But to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it looks like a floating dollar sign: It’ll be used to fuel Russia’s ambition to develop the Arctic and mine it as its fossil fuel reserves in Siberia start to dry up, according to CNN.
Called the Akademik Lomonosov, the plant is key to Russian plans to develop the Arctic economically and tap into reserves of oil and gas in the region. Some of these towns in Russia’s arctic are extremely remote; Russian officials hope that using a floating nuclear plant might help power them.
Russia’s expansion into the thawing Arctic has created geopolitical worries for the U.S. As sea ice thins in the Arctic Circle, the U.S. is competing with nations like Russia, China, and Canada for supremacy in the region and control over oil reserves up there than have become accessible.
But it’s not just geopolitics that are playing out in the Arctic. Commercial interests are eyeing it too.
The Northwest Passage — the long sought-after sea route from Europe to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic circle — is quickly becoming more navigable. As it opens up, not only are governments competing for access to the contested region to assert their geopolitical power over it, commercial cruise ships are also setting sail on it. A partially battery-powered cruise will ship off from Norway this week, head through the Northwest Passage, and make a pit stop in Alaska before heading to the South Pole. Tickets start at about $9,000.
Besides the geopolitical concerns, some nuclear experts and environmental advocates warn that this particular plant, because it’s, well, floating, might not be equipped with all the features that would keep it operating safely. Environmental advocacy group Greenpeace has called it a “Chernobyl on Ice,” and opposes the very idea of a floating nuclear power plant.
But nuclear power has been put to use on ships and submarines before — and there’s actually a history of those subs and boats running on nuclear power getting plugged into electrical grids to power cities and towns on land. A U.S. warship from World War II was plugged into the grid in Panama, where it provided electricity to both civil and military uses until 1976, according to Ars Technica.
Still, the memory of Japan’s nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011 — where a tsunami struck and flooded a nuclear plant and led to three reactor meltdowns — is still fresh. Scientists working on the plant say they’ve learned Fukushima’s lessons. “This rig can't be torn out of moorings, even with a 9-point tsunami,” Dmitry Alekseenko, deputy director of the Lomonosov plant, told CNN.
Others aren’t convinced: Experts at Bellona, an environmental group that monitors nuclear projects, issued a report that noted that if the plant were struck by a tsunami, it could wind up getting washed ashore, landing near people without the ability to reliably prevent a meltdown.
Cover: World's first floating nuclear power plant (NPP) Akademik Lomonosov is towed to the port of Murmansk, Russia. Pavel Lvov / Sputnik via AP