Despite a spate of headlines to the contrary, the Russian behemoth currently tied to a dock in Murmansk is not the world’s first floating nuclear power plant. That honor went to the MH-1A Sturgis, built by the US Army and towed to the Panama Canal Zone more than 50 years ago to be used as a portable electricity supply. It is currently being dismantled in Galveston, Texas, a four-year job that is nearly done.
That makes the Akademik Lomonosov, which is basically a giant barge housing two nuclear reactors of the type used on submarines, “for now the only one of its kind,” as the New York Times reported earlier this week. Commissioned by the Russian state nuclear company Rosatom, the floating facility has been under construction since 2010. Its reactors will be loaded with nuclear fuel and started up this autumn, according to Rosatom, and then towed to the seaport of Pevek—about 500 miles from Alaska—where it will replace two aging, smaller power plants and generate up to 70 megawatts of electricity.
Rosatom says the floating plant is designed to provide power to remote port cities, industrial plants, and offshore gas and oil platforms in Russia’s Extreme North and Far East. It will carry enough enriched uranium to power its two reactors for 12 years before it will have to be towed back to Russia for refueling and waste processing. China is also planning to build as many as 20 floating nuclear power plants, which would be similar to the Russian design.
Proponents say that floating nuclear plants have major advantages over land-based power plants: They have easy access to cooling water and can be quickly installed near coastal cities with rapidly growing energy demands. And unlike other types of energy that produce relatively few climate-altering emissions, nuclear power plants can run 24/7.
But as with onshore nuclear reactors, the closely related issues of safety and economics could be showstoppers. Rosatom isn’t saying how much it is spending on the Akademik Lomonosov—a project conceived in the early 1990s, when nuclear power did not have to compete with cheap natural gas.