Saturday, September 11, 2010

Russians Building Floating Nuclear Power Plants

Photo courtesy:

In political science, the acronym NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard. It's the sentiment expressed by a local community when a dangerous or undesirable facility – say, a nuclear power plant – is being planned nearby. In a curious turn of events, Santa and his reindeer friends will soon have reason to take up this mantra.

Last year, Russia began constructing a floating nuclear power plant. It is scheduled for deployment in the Arctic in 2012 and eleven additional units are currently planned. (Hat tip to Richard Galpin at BBC News.)

I know what you’re thinking: Might there be some remote risks associated with floating nukes in the Arctic? Well, relax, because there actually aren’t any risks whatsoever. Not one. At least not according to a Russian spokesman for the project: “We can absolutely guarantee the safety of our units one hundred percent, all risks are absolutely ruled out.”

Great news, folks, the Russians have unlocked the secret of zero-risk nuclear technology: remove solid land from the equation. Voila! Energy crisis solved.

Other than the obvious safety benefits of the Arctic Ocean (nothing ever sinks there…), you might be wondering why anyone wants a floating power plant. Well, for one, it does address NIMBY concerns. And on the technical side, there would be an ample supply of water to cool the plant (a recent report found that roughly half of the water America draws, more than 200 billion gallons per day, is used to cool power plants).

But there is a bigger draw. You may have heard that the Arctic is melting. Unsurprisingly, reshaping our planet’s poles will have broader geopolitical consequences than drowning polar bears.

America has been slow to act against climate change because our political system is literally indebted to wealthy fossil fuel lobbies. Yet Russia, another powerhouse climate obstructionist, has resisted action in part because a warming world could make them very rich.

The Arctic seafloor is estimated to hold vast supplies of mineral resources and large untapped reservoirs of oil and natural gas. Among the sizable yet unrecognized Russian claim beneath North Pole is a formation that could hold 75 billion barrels of oil.

Floating power plants would facilitate and accelerate efforts to reach these resources, which makes them well worth their $630 million-per-unit price tag. Russia is in a rush because the five Arctic nations (Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway) have yet to decide what really belongs to whom. Extracting those resources first would anger other countries but make ownership a moot point.

Personally, I find it a little disturbing that a seaworthy Russian reactor costs a tiny fraction of the roughly $10 billion it currently takes to build a U.S. reactor on land.

So let us return to the now apparently obsolete notion that nuclear power is risky. To be fair, nuclear technology has advanced in the last few decades, and we have nuclear reactors at sea right now. Much of the modern U.S. Navy is nuclear-powered, and the Russian Navy is as well.

Yet there have been many accidents. The 2000 sinking of the Kursk was the most recent, but there have been dozens of other maritime nuclear accidents; the hulks of six nuclear-powered submarines (four Russian and two American) are already irradiating the ocean floor.

Without additional explanation, Russia has made the impossible claim that it has not only minimized the risks, but done away with them completely.

You can tell Rosatom, Russia's State Atomic Energy Agency, to slow or halt this project by signing this petition: Not in Santa's Backyard. And, an interesting follow up: Check out this 1976 AP article in the Palm Beach Post exploring the possibility of floating nukes in the U.S.


No comments: