While nuclear power isn't the public's first choice of energy, it does hold the most promise for quickly and drastically reducing the world's carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel energy sources. The good news is that there is no shortage of innovative technologies being developed, from thorium-fueled reactors in Europe to waste-fueled designs created by General Electric Company (NYSE: GE ) . Even billionaires such as Bill Gates and start-ups are getting in on the action.
However, one concept floated around recently caught me completely off-guard. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have proposed building a floating nuclear power plant roughly five to nine miles offshore. Huh? Is that even possible?
I'm all about American innovation, but the idea was not originally conceived by MIT researchers, although their designs are novel. The original idea for floating nuclear power plants was actually developed in Russia. More surprising is that its more than just an idea -- designs are being constructed and commercialized as you read this article. Is the world really ready for floating nuclear power?
The Russian designs for floating nuclear power plants were created by Rosatom, which originally planned to build up to eight facilities by 2015. Those plans were proven overly ambitious, but the first two reactors were installed (non-operable) last October and are expected to be deployed in Pevek.
Each power plant will consist of two nuclear reactors ranging from capacities of 35 MWe to 325 MWe each and boasting a lifetime of 38 years. The plan is to tow the facility back to port every 12 years for one year of maintenance and fuel reloading. Some will produce power exclusively for the grid in remote locations lacking access to Russia's abundant natural gas reserves and extensive pipeline network through underwater transmission cables, while others will act as cogeneration facilities capable of feeding the grid and desalinating large quantities of seawater. Meanwhile, the ship hulls are being constructed in Russia, although South Korea and China have been rumored to be possible partners in future facilities.
It's not difficult to imagine the ambitious and pioneering projects experiencing cost overruns -- and that's exactly what has happened. Planned facilities have been canceled, moved, sold, bought, and resold in their relatively short existence. Whether the floating nuclear power plants can produce power economically remains to be demonstrated, although the cost is expected to drop with each new facility.
The projects may raise your eyebrow, but why is the country with the largest land mass in the world attempting to build floating nuclear power plants?
To build or not to build?
After Fukushima, it's easy to see the advantages of a sea-based nuclear power plant. A floating facility would be resistant to tsunamis, earthquakes, and protestors (good luck picketing while swimming in the Arctic Circle), in addition to offering protections against meltdowns and radiation fallout in disaster scenarios. One of the biggest problems at Fukushima was the inability to cool the reactor core. Well, if a facility is surrounded by water, that wouldn't be that difficult. In an absolutely worst-case scenario the core could even be sealed off and sent to the bottom of the ocean. Problem solved (kind of). Similarly, if facilities are miles away from population centers, then contaminated cities and farm land becomes much less of an issue (Fukushima's "no-go zone" covered a 12-mile radius from the epicenter of the disaster).
The potential risks are numerous, although that's also the case with land-based nuclear power, which has proved to be very safe over the past several decades. Unfortunately, the risk increases for unproven and unverified designs. There would be unique threats such as terrorists, pirates, or stray tankers, as well as familiar threats such as equipment malfunctions. While environmentalists would be sure to interpret proposed designs as humanity's disregard for marine life, consider that ocean water is actually a critically important tool for neutralizing radiation. In fact, marine life has been found to be thriving near the Marshall Islands, where 66 nuclear tests were conducted.
That's not to say that the risks to marine life are insignificant -- they should absolutely be accounted for -- I would just caution against letting your imagination go wild.
Foolish bottom line
Should the world follow Russia's lead and consider floating nuclear power plants? While I'm a firm believer that nuclear power holds the key to a low-carbon future, I'm not quite sure floating facilities are a better option than land-based designs. I'm not against the idea because of risks, but because I don't see a reason to fund floating facilities over other novel technologies being pursued today, such as General Electric Company's novel Generation IV reactor that could power civilization with nothing more than used nuclear fuels. What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.
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