Polar Notes

Apr 2020

Floating nuclear power for the Arctic

Earlier this year, the Russian government granted an operating licence to the Akademik Lomonosov, the world’s only floating nuclear power plant. Once in position, the twin-reactor plant will provide electricity and heat to the city of Pevek, situated on the coast of the East Siberian Sea. The Lomonosov’s arrival follows the decommissioning of the world’s most remote nuclear power plant in Bilibino, Chukotka, earlier this year.

The project to build a series of at least seven floating nuclear power plants for the Arctic began 20 years ago as Moscow revitalised its interest in the region. Construction started on the Lomonosov in 2007, but the build has been plagued by delays. In 2015 work began on a second floating plant.

Floating nuclear power plants offer Russia several advantages in the Arctic, where many communities are disconnected from the electrical grid. The platforms, which are smaller and cheaper to build than conventional nuclear power plants, will likely also be used in the longer-term to help Russia expand resource extraction and increase shipping in the Russian Arctic Zone (as demanded by President Putin earlier this year).

The prospect of an Arctic ‘Chernobyl’ has prompted environmental groups and others to question whether the use of floating nuclear power plants is safe. Rosatom has described the Lomonosov as ‘virtually unsinkable’ and the plant will be protected by Russia’s internal security forces. However, critics have pointed to design flaws that suggest the Lomonosov will be at risk in the challenging waters of the Arctic, especially in the East Siberian Sea, where some of the worst ice conditions occur. A proposed pier, designed to protect the plant, has yet to be built.

Concerns have only heightened further since an explosion near Arkhangelsk in northwest Russia. Reports of increased radiation levels followed, suggesting that the accident was likely nuclear-related (and military-related). Meanwhile, another nuclear-related accident is now thought to have taken place in Russia in 2017 at a nuclear reprocessing plant in the southern Ural mountains. The Soviet Union’s poor record of accidents involving nuclear reactors and its practice of dumping enormous quantities of nuclear waste in Arctic waters (which the post-Soviet leadership continued to do throughout the 1990s), have further reduced confidence in Russia’s ability to use nuclear power in a safe and responsible way. Even so, those criticisms are unlikely to deter Russia from continuing to expand its use of nuclear power in the Arctic (there are also new nuclear-powered icebreakers under construction in St Petersburg). Some have estimated that Russian Arctic waters will be the most nuclearised on the planet by 2035.  

Russia’s interest in developing floating nuclear power plants also goes well beyond the Arctic. Several other countries have been exploring the construction of small-scale nuclear reactors, such as those used by the Lomonosov. Rosatom claims that it already has potential buyers of its technology from Latin America, Africa and Asia. However, Russia is likely to face competition from China, which reportedly plans to launch up to 20 floating nuclear power plants in the next decade, and US investors hoping to build affordable seaborne reactors in South Korea. Whether Russia can fend off the competition is therefore likely to depend on the success of the Lomonosov.

Polar Notes is written by Dr Duncan Depledge and endorsed by
 James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions). 

Please send any comments, queries, or suggestions to info@appgpolarregions.uk. 

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.