Russia and China Are Planning Something Big -- and It Floats

China's growing military ambitions have pushed it to develop a built-for-purpose, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The country's growing energy demands are now following the same atomic and seaward path.

Nuclear power: coming to an ocean near you? Source: Jeremy Atherton/ Wikimedia Commons.

That's right; China wants to develop floating nuclear power plants -- and it's joining forces with Russia to make it happen. The latter has already laid out ambitious plans for the unproven concept, but has been smacked with setbacks and cost overruns. While China may hold a big enough checkbook to see development through, some may wonder if offshore nuclear holds a place in the future of atomic energy, especially with novel and seemingly more feasible designs being pursued by General Electric Company (NYSE: GE  ) , Babcock & Wilcox (NYSE: BWC  ) , and even Bill Gates.

Say what?
While floating nuclear power plants seem outrageous enough to most, the prospects of Russia and China finding common ground for a massive energy deal seemed exponentially slim just one year ago. Yet, despite a relatively shaky energy relationship in recent years, the two countries have been cozying up since late spring when a $400 billion natural gas supply deal was finalized. Less than three months later the pair is extending its reach to offshore nuclear power. Apparently, the abundant energy reserves and know-how of Russia and the choking population and air of China were all the common ground needed to forge a deal.

Russia has plans of its own before China gets involved. Nuclear leader Rosatom aims to deploy the world's first floating nuclear power plant in Russia's eastern city of Vilyuchinsk in 2018. The facility will have two nuclear reactors, each about 35 MWe, and sport a planned lifetime of 38 years -- roughly in line with traditional nuclear facilities. However, the floating facility will be built on a massive barge and moored to the shoreline, which will inevitably forfeit some of the major safety advantages of a floating facility in the first place.

Source: World Nuclear Association.

In 2019 Rosatom and China will begin developing up to six offshore nuclear facilities. While details have yet to be announced, Russia's original national blueprints called for floating nuclear power plants with up to 650 MWe of capacity. Whether or not reactors combine for that output will depend on the location of each new facility, but the scrapped plans do hint at power plants much larger than what is planned for 2018.

Is this the future of nuclear power?
At a time when General Electric and Hitachi are plowing ahead with novel Generation IV designs that consume nuclear waste, floating nuclear power may seem like quite the head-scratcher. It's expensive and time-consuming enough to develop novel reactor designs onshore, so why take concepts offshore? Similarly, many atomic energy leaders such as Babcock & Wilcox are moving toward smaller, modular nuclear reactors, which would also represent a solution for remote regions and large industrial complexes -- two major markets for floating designs.

However, it's important to note that two factors inflating the high cost of construction for new nuclear power plants are land and insurance. Facilities must be built close to bodies of water, which typically support higher real estate prices and larger populations, therefore making insurance costs exorbitantly high. A nuclear power plant towed offshore and surrounded by inexpensive real estate in the open ocean would not face the same problems. Additionally, in the event of an accident the core could easily be flooded with an endless amount of cold seawater. Decommissioning would also be much easier since reactors could be towed to a centralized location -- restoring the natural environment to normal nearly instantly.

The concept is actually not that new. Similar designs have been developed in the United States by researchers at Westinghouse and MIT, although the latter proposes building floating nuclear power plants far offshore and with reactor cores fully submerged -- both for added safety over the first Rosatom design.

In addition to increased safety, there's substantially more ocean available for nuclear power development than land. That's potentially great news for the planet, which will need an expedited build-out of its atomic energy capacity to make the nearly overnight changes required to stem climate change and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It may seem foreign now, but offshore nuclear may be the norm for energy generation by mid-century.

Foolish bottom line
Russia is obviously attempting to divest from the West (or at least increase its investment in the East) after the growth-restricting sanctions slapped on its economy over its role in the Ukrainian upheaval. However, floating nuclear power plants could provide real and meaningful energy capacity for Chinese cities and industry in a relatively short amount of time. In the longer term, similar concepts may even be deployed in the United States next to novel, next-generation reactor designs by General Electric and Babcock & Wilcox. It may be our only real hope to quickly stabilize the atmosphere's carbon imbalance.

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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 August 16, 2014, at 8:43 PM, pjw01 wrote:

    So we have the active nuclear reactor in Japan that exploded during their tsunami that is still falling into the sea that nobody wants to talk about and make more targets for more natural and manmade disasters, BRILLIANT ISN'T IT!!!!!!!!! NOT!!

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 8:51 PM, weworkforamerica wrote:

    This concept if based on uranium or plutonium fuel is incredibly risky and dangerous. Just imagine an accident where the radiation is carried by currents to an entire continent and lasting for hundreds of thousands of years. It is an idea crafted by Satan in hell for the destruction and suffering of mankind.

    Now if this uses the far safer and more energy efficient and abundant, proven technology of a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). then that is different.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 9:28 PM, Stelios22 wrote:

    Nuclear power is the future, but in the US there's just too much uninformed public opposition fueled by overblown radiation fears to make it happen. Say one thing for more authoritarian systems, they get things done. Once it works over there, then our "competitive spirit" will lead us to follow suit and save the world despite ourselves.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 10:16 PM, Whatcangowrong wrote:

    A floating nuclear power plant? What can possibly go wrong?

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 10:29 PM, Bigfootmouse123 wrote:

    i suppose they're planning to name the first of these things "THE 3 MILE ISLAND"?

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 10:40 PM, Theinsultedelf wrote:

    This was an idea I suggested 20 years ago for California. LOL

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 10:50 PM, nickmaxell1 wrote:

    sooner or later nobody will want russian gas anymore and then the crap hits the fan - most of western europe is independent anyways but russia needs the hard currency - bad luck mr putin - cuddeling up with china already?

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 11:52 PM, jrhc wrote:

    Rusia and China are relying on Thorium technology which by definition precludes nuclear weapons. Big difference with U.S. using Uranium allowing to atomic bombs.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 1:22 AM, TOWTRUCK10 wrote:

    Hmmm let's see what could go wrong with this crazy idea. You have a nuclear power plant that is floating on water and close to land. Great, can youi imagine the madness that would occur if it were to sink? Millions upon millions of tons of now highly toxic irradiated water tht will flow with the tides and currents around the world; making their problem everyone else's as well. Oh and by the way, arn't typhoons an almost yearly problem in this ariea of the world? Hey, it a great idea; what could go wrong?

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 1:42 AM, DerekVance wrote:

    A Russian/Chinese built Nuclear Reactor floating around in the Ocean.....

    What could POSSIBLY go wrong..? PffffffT.....

    I have actually seen a Russian reactor on a Soviet era submarine... I would feel safer if Spencer and Eugene from the reality show Hillbilly Blood were to build this Offshore Maritime disaster in the making rather then the Russians......

    As for the Chinese....

    Have you ever driven a Chinese made automobile..?

    If not... Put some extra cash in the offering plate on Sunday.....

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 3:19 AM, chefp wrote:

    Stelios22 "in the US there's just too much uninformed public opposition fueled by overblown radiation fears to make it happen."

    The uninformed are actually more on the nuclear kool-aid drinkers. Right NOW, the reactors in operation are a horrible, bone-headed design adapted from nuclear subs. In the case of a meltdown, it's easy to flood the reactor with endless amounts of seawater, because the sub is IN a vast ocean of water. On land it's a completely different scenario because there's just not enough water to cool a meltdown scenario.

    If you're referring to Gen4 reactors, those aren't ready and won't be for another decade+. So, what are you promoting? Wait around for Gen4 to be up to snuff, or build old gen reactors based on terribly outdated designs?

    Look in the mirror before pointing the finger at others being uninformed.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 4:10 AM, hamidkhanjadoon wrote:

    China and Russia are building and why the hell others are worried or other nations..... They have the right to do so...

    China knows better how to safe guard the nuclear fall outs and so as Russia... China is a very responsible country and its there right to have it ... so hew and cry over there plan is ridiculous..... Every nation has the right to develop what ever they want for there national interests.....

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 4:41 AM, doawithlife wrote:

    And this is exactly why we can't all "just get along".

    It's like having a neighbor who has a meth lab in their house. Do you call the police before it blows up or should you be a good neighbor and let your kids inhale all the toxic chemicals?

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 5:05 AM, bizzyroc wrote:

    I will give it to them, they are smart. They both are making big waves so while everyone is watching their left hands they are secretly moving their chess pieces with their right.

    Those floating nuclear power plants are what they are going to use to power those islands they are trying to steal in the South China sea and the ones they are in disputes with Japan. Those two are either very stupid or very smart. Look for those two and others to start World War III 15 years from now, give or take a couple of years.

    Those are some very smart idiots :-)

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 5:16 AM, rocket7777 wrote:

    Greedy General Electric was responsible for fukushima since GE ignored 3 GE nuclear scientist who QUIT GE in protest of VERY unsafe design.

    As for russian, I think they need power to liquidify natural gas as well as extract from sea floor.

    Also, area is free from hurricane but winter storms and icebergs.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 6:08 AM, JoeD522 wrote:

    No fellow Americans, and anyone else that cares about having this planet survive. Post your responses in Russian. So they can read it.

    Like This,

    Приветствую Commrads и congradulations на вашем начинании с вашими новыми китайскими commrads.

    Однако! Мы опасаемся, ваша ядерная технология может быть испорчен помните Chenobobyl и ваши АПЛ неудач?

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 8:25 AM, rightwaystan wrote:

    Great

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 8:32 AM, danbhart wrote:

    And now, yesterday's discussion about why the US needs to upgrade it's nuclear attack sub fleet is answered..........now it can torpedo floating Russian and Chinese power plants! Seriously!

    And, by the way.....upgrading the attack subs is a GREAT and NECESSARY idea.

    Floating nuclear power plants? What a great way for Russia to throw away money it can't afford and for China to waste a great deal of it's slave labor profits!

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 10:27 AM, 41ForFreedom wrote:

    A permanently moored, submerged platform at a depth of, say, 400 feet would mitigate surface upsets. Pressure hull could simply be cast concrete. Staffing requirements would be minimal and current submarine support equipment could be used for fresh water, cooling water, O2 gen, etc. Personnel transfer via DSRV equivalent. It would be necessary to provide purpose-built vessels combining topside security and support.

    The big questions revolve around technical mastery, both of command and control and basic metallurgy/construction techniques. The US has operated submerged and surfaced nuclear reactors since January '55, with nary one hull loss due to propulsion systems. The Russians, not so much. The operational success of the Navy's program may be directly attributable to the irascible old gentleman, Hyman G. Rickover, a man who genuinely understood the genie-in-a-bottle nature of nuclear power.

    Given the combination of the Russian record vis-a-vis nuclear power and the Chinese record in basic metallurgy, I would have serious concerns regarding the ultimate success ( read - non-disaster ) of such a venture.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 1:41 PM, macjon55 wrote:

    This would not be the first floating nuclear power plant. The Army Corp of Engineers had one back in the 60s on a barge (converted Liberty Ship). It was called the Sturgis MH-1A. It was used in the Panama Canal zone. It produced 10 MWatts of power from 1967 to 1975. Look it up on Wikipedia.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 1:55 PM, MPA2000 wrote:

    So if these things are built, stationed in international waters, they are not under the authority of the NON- Proliferation treaty?

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 3:51 PM, 41ForFreedom wrote:

    Ummm, I kinda thought non-proliferation referred solely to nuclear warheads?

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 7:54 PM, lonerange wrote:

    This will work out very good. When the reactor starts to melt down, they can simply cut the mooring lines and let it float away. Out of sight, out of mind. It can then become someone else's problem.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 9:03 PM, mrgravity wrote:

    I don't see the big deal about floating nuclear power plants. The absolute easiest way to do it, in my opinion, would be to copy what the Navy has done with submarines and aircraft carriers. There you have numerous successful examples of floating nuclear power plants.

  • Report this Comment On August 18, 2014, at 1:13 PM, watson14 wrote:

    "overblown radiation fears" from which one - Cherynobl, 3 mile Island, or Fukashima? How about we solve the Japanese problem (over the next 30 years) first?

  • Report this Comment On August 18, 2014, at 4:04 PM, davidmdebs wrote:

    There was a major investment in this concept in the United States forty years ago. Offshore Power Systems (OPS) was a 1970 joint venture between Westinghouse Electric Company, which constructed nuclear generating plants, and Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, which had recently merged with Tenneco, to create floating nuclear power plants at Jacksonville, Florida.

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