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Floating Chernobyls

by KARL GROSSMAN

They would be floating Chernobyls.

Russia has embarked on a scheme to building floating nuclear power plants to be moored  off its coasts—especially off northern and eastern Russia—and sold to nations around the world.

“Absolutely safe,” Sergei Kiriyenko, director general of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation, told Reuters as the barge that is to serve as the base for the first floating plant was launched recently in St. Petersburg.

However, David Lochbaum, senior safety engineer at the Union of Concerned

Scientists, describes an accident at a floating nuclear power plant as “worse” than at a land-based plant. “In a meltdown, a China syndrome accident, the molten mass of what had been the core would burrow into the ground and some of the radioactive material held there. But with a floating nuclear plant, all the molten mass would drop into the water and there would be a steam explosion and the release of a tremendous amount of energy and radioactive material. It would be like a bomb going off,” said Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at Washington-based UCS.

“With a floating nuclear plant you have a mechanism to significantly increase the amount of radioactive material going into the environment,” said Lochbaum, who worked 18 years as an engineer in the nuclear industry and also for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A large plume of radioactive poisons would be formed and “many more people would be put in harm’s way.” Further, there would be radioactive pollution of the sea, he noted.

Nuclear experts in Europe—including in Russia—are as critical as Lochbaum is about  floating nuclear power plants and their unique accident potential. Other issues raised include the floating plants being sources of fuel for nuclear weapons and easy targets for terrorists.

“This project is clearly a risky venture,” said Alexander Nitikin, a former chief engineer on  nuclear-powered submarines of the Soviet Union and senior inspector for the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Inspection Department for its Department of Defense. He is now head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Bellona Foundation, an international environmental organization. “Safety shouldn’t be neglected for the profits Rosatom wants to get from selling floating nuclear power plants to the troubled regions. Such Rosatom activities simply violate the idea of non-proliferation.”

“Such installations could heighten the risk of radioactive contamination of the sea and shore zones…by many times,” said Andrei Ponomarenko, coordinator for the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Project of Bellona’s chapter in Murmansk.

In a statement describing the plants “floating Chernobyls in waiting,” the main office of Norway-headquartered Bellona said that “Russia has neither the means nor infrastructure to ensure their safe operation, has made no plans for disposing of their spent fuel, and has not taken into consideration the enormous nuclear proliferation risks posed.”

“It is better to invest in solar and wind energy rather than produce time bombs,” said Vladimir Chuprov, energy projects chief for Greenpeace Russia.

Greenpeace Russia, in a report to Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, had declared that the export of the floating nuclear plants, particularly to countries in Southeast Asia with numerous terrorist groups, “creates a serious threat of terrorism and piracy on the high seas.”

The floating nuclear plants would use a far more volatile fuel compared to land-based plants: weapons-grade uranium containing 40 percent Uranium-235. The U-235 enrichment level in land-based plants is 3 percent. Each would include two reactors providing a total of 70 megawatts of electricity.

A press release by Rosatom issued with the June 30th  launch of the football field-sized barge at St. Petersburg said “there are many countries, including in the developing world, showing interest” in the plants.

The Times of London has reported countries interested in buying them include China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria and Argentina (“Floating Nuclear Power Stations Raise Spectre of Chernobyl at Sea.”) World Nuclear News  in its article added Namibia and Cape Verde to the list

The notion of a floating nuclear power plant being pursued by Russia originated in the United States where it was scuttled because of excessive cost, public opposition and lack of energy need. Public Service Electric and Gas. Co. of New Jersey, in its literature, has related that while taking a shower in 1969 the idea of floating nuclear plants came to its vice president for engineering and construction, Richard Eckert. In the shower, Eckert thought that the sea could supply the mammoth amounts of water nuclear plants need as coolant.

PSE&G convinced Westinghouse Electric Co. to build such plants. In 1970, Westinghouse and Tenneco set up Offshore Power Systems to fabricate them at a facility it built on Blount Island off Jacksonville, Florida. The plants were to be towed into position with the first four moored l.8 miles off Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, 11 miles northeast of Atlantic City. Costs skyrocketed, there were protests—in both Jacksonville and New Jersey as well as national opposition. And because of the 1973 oil crisis energy conservation reduced PSE&G’s need for more power. In 1984, Offshore Power Systems cancelled the undertaking and dissolved after spending $180 million on the failed venture.

The most comprehensive analysis which has been done on the floating nuclear power plants Russia is now building is a book researched and written by a team of Russian scientists and titled: Floating Nuclear Power Plants in Russia: A Threat to the Arctic, World Oceans and Non-Proliferation. Its authors include: Vladimir Kuznetsov, formerly of the Russian Federal Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety; Alexey Yablokov, a biologist, former environmental advisor to the Russian president and president of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy; Yevgeney Simonov, senior engineer at the Obninsk nuclear power plant; Vladimir Desyatov, an engineer who worked in nuclear submarine construction; and Alexander Nitikin.

“One would have imagined that the Chernobyl catastrophe would have taught us to treat nuclear technologies with caution,” begins the book. It notes that the reactor to be used on the floating nuclear plants is a version of the reactor built for Soviet nuclear-powered icebreakers and provides information on “at least six serious accidents” involving it.

As to accidents, the book says that there can be no “guarantee that” the floating nuclear power plants “will operate in the way the developers suppose. Trouble-free operations of floating nuclear power plants cannot be in principle. The only question is how serious the emergency and its consequences.” It considers the “radioactive cloud” that would be formed in an accident, and for a plant off eastern Russia, says it would impact on a “considerable proportion of Alaska.” Moreover, in the “case of such emergency, the engaging of any serious rescuing forces and means will be extremely difficult because of remoteness and usually unfavorable weather conditions…Thus, it is completely clear that [a} floating nuclear power plant creates [a] serious threat to the nature and the population.”

In a chapter on the floating plants as “an attractive object of nuclear terrorism,” the book cites an impossibility of providing “protection from torpedo attack or from underwater saboteurs, and on the surface from a rocket-bombing strike.” Further, the “spreading” of the floating plants “all over the world will allow” this to be done “much easier and with more efficiency.” Moreover, each floating nuclear plant will contain “the ready material for ten nuclear bombs in the way of enriched uranium of weapon quality.”

It speaks of officials in several Russian regions saying they welcome the floating plants “with their desire to receive funds from the federal budget” but they do “not imagine perils and negative consequences” of the plants’ operation.

The book includes a chapter on economics asking whether the floating plants can be profitable and concludes they cannot: that the cost of construction and operation of a plant would exceed the value of the electricity it would generate. It states: “During the Soviet era, the costs of constructing a nuclear power plant were covered by governmental funding and nuclear engineers were not overly concerned about providing accurate cost calculations since they knew that any additional expenditures incurred would eventually be covered.” Now, “purely ideological arguments can no longer take precedence over economic feasibility.”

“The idea of creating floating nuclear power plants originated in the USA, but did not come to fruition due to obvious inherent economic drawbacks,” it adds.

The floating nuclear plant scheme is backed, it has been reported, by now Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “as part of a program to raise the portion of Russian electricity generated by nuclear power.”

Kiriyenko of Rosatom is extremely bullish on the project. Kiriyenko’s background is in politics: he, too, was Russia’s prime minister, but only briefly, from March to August 1998, when he was forced to resign after his financial machinations led to a devaluation of the Russian ruble and a major financial crisis that year. He was appointed as head Rosatom in 2005.

There is strong opposition in the initial area off which the first nuclear plants would be moored—the Murmansk Region. The Romir polling agency has found some 71 percent of respondents there said they were “strongly negative.”

And, “protests against the project have already occurred,” said Vitaly Servetnik, chairman of the organization Nature and Youth.

KARL GROSSMAN, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has focused on investigative reporting on energy and environmental issues for more than 40 years. He is the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (www.envirovideo.com) and the author of numerous books.

 

 

 

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