Russia's Plans for Floating Nuclear Power May Surprise You

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?

Russia's plans
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.

Source: World Nuclear Association.

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.

Bikini Atoll witnessed 23 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958. Source: NASA/ Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Are you ready to profit from this $14.4 trillion revolution?
Every investor wants to get in on revolutionary ideas before they hit it big -- like buying PC maker Dell in the late 1980s, before the consumer computing boom, or purchasing stock in e-commerce pioneer in the late 1990s, when it was nothing more than an upstart online bookstore. The problem is, most investors don't understand the key to investing in hypergrowth markets. The real trick is to find a small-cap "pure play" and then watch as it grows in explosive fashion within its industry. Our expert team of equity analysts has identified one stock that's poised to produce rocket-ship returns with the next $14.4 trillion industry. Click here to get the full story in this eye-opening report.

Read/Post Comments (1) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 05, 2014, at 3:02 PM, ManoftheRepublic wrote:

    Which idiot came up with this idea,,, How many oil platforms are in danger from hurricanes and other bad weather EVERY year...

Add your comment.

Sponsored Links

Leaked: Apple's Next Smart Device
(Warning, it may shock you)
The secret is out... experts are predicting 458 million of these types of devices will be sold per year. 1 hyper-growth company stands to rake in maximum profit - and it's NOT Apple. Show me Apple's new smart gizmo!

DocumentId: 2942510, ~/Articles/ArticleHandler.aspx, 9/2/2015 11:10:47 AM

Report This Comment

Use this area to report a comment that you believe is in violation of the community guidelines. Our team will review the entry and take any appropriate action.

Sending report...

Maxx Chatsko

Maxx has been a contributor to since 2013. He's currently a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University merging synthetic biology with materials science & engineering. His primary coverage for TMF includes renewable energy, renewable fuels, and synthetic biology. Follow him on Twitter to keep pace with developments with engineering biology.

Today's Market

updated Moments ago Sponsored by:
DOW 16,160.04 101.69 0.63%
S&P 500 1,925.60 11.75 0.61%
NASD 4,663.47 27.36 0.59%

Create My Watchlist

Go to My Watchlist

You don't seem to be following any stocks yet!

Better investing starts with a watchlist. Now you can create a personalized watchlist and get immediate access to the personalized information you need to make successful investing decisions.

Data delayed up to 5 minutes

Related Tickers

9/2/2015 10:55 AM
GE $23.84 Down -0.04 -0.17%
General Electric C… CAPS Rating: ****