Small modular reactors (SMRs) defined as nuclear reactors generally 300MWe equivalent or less. SMRs have generated global interest, and potential future applications are a subject of international research directives. Their are around 50 different SMR designs worldwide according to the IAEA. Project proposals include use of SMRs for desalination, process heat generation, biofuel conversion and military base installations.
In general, land-based NPPs have several inherent limitations including extensive land requirement, sophisticated infrastructure for connection to the grid, and continuous and high demand for cooling water. Therefore, floating NPPs have long been considered the alternative technological solution for electricity, heating, or water desalination in remote coastal towns and small islands, as they have been designed mostly based on reactors of less than 300 MWe and to be transportable with the use of barge or ship. For example, a floating NPP using an ACPR50 reactor can provide enough electricity for a community of about 100,000 people, or the daily water consumption for at least 60,000 people.
Russia has launched the world’s only floating nuclear reactor, beating countries like the US and China to the post. It has been fully commissioned at a port in Siberia’s Far East, the nuclear utility Rosenergoatom reported in May 2020.In a statement, Andrei Petrov, the company’s head, said that that construction of the floating plant “could be considered complete,” and the Akademik Lomomosov was “now the eleventh commercially operating nuclear power plant in Russia and the northernmost worldwide.”
Since May 2020, the world’s first floating nuclear power plant has been supplying electricity to the town of Pevek, and since the end of June, it has also been securing heating. The living conditions are harsh. The cold season lasts from September to June. Temperatures as low as minus 33 degrees Celsius are common and the Yushak, a wind that can be very harsh all year round, transforms the landscape into a snow desert within minutes in winter. Nevertheless, Pevek will boom, even if the population decreased from 12,000 people to about 4,000 between the 1980s and the 1990s. The reason is its location as a port on the Northeast Passage. This news, which at first glance seems unspectacular, proves to be a milestone in the economical development of Siberia. Although critics see the mobile nuclear power plant as a “floating Chernobyl,” the “Akademik Lomonosov” will become a driving force for the economic development of the region and for the exploitation of Siberian mineral resources for the next 40 years.
Besides Russia, China has been the most promising candidate to have an operational floating NPP since the country started the construction of its first plant in 2016, which would be followed by up to 20 floating NPPs to be operated in the South China Sea once the demonstration unit is completed and deployed for trials in the Bohai Sea by 2020. China has said it will develop floating nuclear power plants on a priority basis in the South China Sea as it seeks to beef up electricity supply to the islands in the disputed maritime region. The floating nuclear reactors could also power Chinese underwater mining operations, in which China has already invested heavily, and deepwater logistical bases for naval usage.
In 2016 China announced its first Chinese floating nuclear project using a 200 MWt (60 MWe) ACPR50S reactor designed indigenously by the China General Nuclear Power (CGN), which was followed by a joint-venture led by the main competitor of CGN in the domestic nuclear market – the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) in 2017 based on its own 310 MWt (100 MWe) ACP100S model. Aside from CGN and CNNC, other types of floating NPPs based on fast reactors have also been under research and development in China.
The U.S. Army built the world’s first floating reactor, the SS Sturgis MH-1A, a 10-megawatt converted Liberty Ship, in 1967. It supplied power to the Panama Canal Zone from 1968 to 1975, before being defueled in 1977. Decades later, in 2010, Russia launched the 21,000-ton, 70 megawatt Akademik Lomonosov, which is expected to deploy in 2018 or 2019 to Vilyuchinsk, on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula.
On November 2, 2020, UK-based Core Power announced that it is working with Advanced Reactor developers, Southern Company, TerraPower, and Orano USA, to meet the demand for disruptive energy technology in ocean transportation. According to Core Power, the four companies have applied to the U.S. Department of Energy to be considered for its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) to create a prototype molten salt reactor (MSR) technology. ARDP is a new DOE cost-sharing endeavor where selected projects share a 50/50 financial burden. Core Power believes that MSRs could be used for propulsion or electricity generation to decarbonize the world’s commercial shipping fleet, while also increasing shipping speed and efficiency.
TerraPower’s Natrium MSR project (in partnership with GE-Hitachi) was granted $80 million by ARDP to build a 345 MW reactor. In 2018, the International Maritime Organization created a strategy focused on reducing climate change impacts from ships. It set a goal that the carbon intensity of international shipping be cut by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050, when compared to 2008 levels. It further directed that the international shipping industry cut total annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 from 2008 levels.
According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power is well suitable for vessels at sea for long periods without refueling, or for powerful submarine propulsion. After all, nuclear power is at the core of United States’ naval strategy. Nuclear reactors power our navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines and enable them to conduct the long-term blue-water operations necessary for sustaining global peace and security. Indeed, there are already over 160 ships operating around the world powered by more than 200 small nuclear reactors.
Russia’s plan of ‘floating’ nuclear power plants
In Nov 2018, it was reported that Russia’s floating nuclear power plant has for the first time achieved a sustained chain reaction of one of the two reactors at its mooring in Murmansk harbour. Akademik Lomonosov is 144 metres in length, 30 metres wide and has a displacement of 21,000 tonnes. The loading of fuel into the two reactors aboard the floating plant began on 24 July and was completed on 2 October 2018. Any industrial project in the Artic would require tons of electric energy, and this is why Russia is developing floating nuclear power plants. Russian company Rosenergoatom (part of Rosatom state-owned corporation) launched a project in 2006 to build floating NPPs in regions with limited energy capabilities. One of these projects is the Baimsky copper and gold mines, which is supposed to be a deposit for 23 million tons of copper and 2,000 tons of gold, as the Barents Observer reported in 2018.
According to Rosatom, the Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power unit (FPU) is the main project of the series of mobile transportable power units of low power.
The Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power unit moored at the port of Pevek. Alexander Ryumin/TASS/Getty Images
IN May 2019, Russia launched a nuclear-powered icebreaker at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg in an apparent attempt to boost its ability to tap the Arctic’s commercial potential. The icebreaker, dubbed the Ural, was floated out from the Baltic dockyard in the northwestern port city on Saturday, during a float out ceremony with hundreds of people in attendance, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
The ship, designed to be crewed by 75 people, is one of a trio, codenamed Project 22220, that when completed will be the largest and most powerful icebreakers in the world. “Today we are floating the third ship, or the second serial one of Project 22220 – the Ural. They are the ships from new generation icebreakers of that class that we pin our hopes on in exploration of the Northern Sea Route. It is a principally new ship,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov at the ceremony.
The advanced icebreakers are powered by a new module nuclear reactor, which is far more powerful than those mounted on previous vessels of Project 22220, said Baltic Shipyards Director General Alexei Kadilov. He said that these ships were also equipped with a brand-new Russian-made electric propulsion system. “And the most important thing is a new turbine which will provide 40-year operation for the icebreaker,” Kadilov added at a presser on Saturday. The two other icebreakers, dubbed the Arktika and the Sibir vessels, are currently under construction at the Baltic Shipyards.
After being put into service, the trio will keep navigation in the Arctic open all year round, capable of breaking through ice up to three meters thick to make way for convoys of ships. They are also expected to help ensure transportation of hydrocarbons from the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas to Asia Pacific.
In May 2018, Russia also unveiled the Akademik Lomonosov, a brown-and-mustard-painted floating nuclear power station, to meet its increasing electricity needs in its bid to develop oil resources in remote Arctic regions. The floating power plant was also built in St. Petersburg.
Russia’s ‘Project 20870’ involves placing two nuclear reactors on 140-meter long, 30-meter wide barges. The plan would use these nuclear barges’ 300MWt (thermal energy production) or 70 MWe (electrical energy production) to power remote cities and industrial sites throughout the Russian Arctic. The nuclear power plant has two KLT-40C reactors, which have a capacity of 35 megawatts each that can generate up to 70MW of electric energy and 50 Gcal/hr of heat energy during normal operation. The state-owned company responsible for building the Akademik Lomonosov, Rosatom Corporation, says it will be used to power a desalination plant, oil rigs, and the Arctic town, Pevek, with its 100,000 inhabitants. It will replace the Bilibino and Chaunskaya thermal power plants, which currently provide the region’s energy. The cost of the floating plant is estimated at around 30 billion rubles (US$480 million), according to Sergey Zavyalov, head of the plant construction.
The construction works on the dock, which will host the floating nuclear power plant ‘Akademik Lomonosov’, have started and completed by 2019. The severity of weather conditions (in winter, the temperature drops down to minus 60 degrees Celcius) obliging, the onshore facilities will be forced to endure ice impact and squalling winds.
The 21,000-tons unit will have two Russian-designed KLT-40S reactors, low-enriched uranium-fueled reactors used in some of Russia’s icebreakers, and two steam-driven turbines. One unit is able to provide enough electricity to power a city of 200,000 people. It can also produce 300 megawatt of heat that can be transferred onshore, equal to saving some 200,000 tons of coal every year.
The FPU is not self-propelled and must be towed to the location of operation. It is a barge consisting of three decks and 10 compartments. Apart from reactors, it is equipped with storage facilities for fresh and spent nuclear fuel, as well as liquid and solid nuclear waste. Experts have praised floating power plants for being secure from earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as from meltdown threats, as the reactor’s active zone is underwater.
“Reactor units are small and self-contained. They are nothing like those installed at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, of course. A scenario like that at the Fukushima power plant is also excluded,” Professor Georgy Tikhomirov of the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute recently told EFE news agency.“The advantage of the floating nuclear power plant is that it can be moored almost anywhere where there is a power line,” Tikhomirov said.
Akademik Lomonosov’ is to become the first of a proposed fleet of floating nuclear power plants that can provide heat and energy to the country’s remote regions, and assist in natural resource extraction. Russia also plans to lease the plants to other countries, where they will be used for electricity production and water desalination, as the facility could be converted into a desalination plant with production capacity of some 240,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day.
Pavel Ipatov, Deputy CEO (Special Projects) in Russia’s state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, told IANS in an e-mail interview from Moscow that an FNPP is basically a mobile, low-capacity reactor unit operable in remote areas isolated from the main power distribution system, or in places hard to access by land.
“FNPPs are designed to maintain both uninterruptible power and plentiful desalinated water supply in remote areas,” he said. The Russian explained that floating units are components constructed for transport by sea or river to areas that are otherwise inaccessible or difficult to reach by land.
“The plant is constructed as a non-self propelled vessel to be towed by sea or river to the operation site. Its mobility will make it possible to relocate it from one site to another, if necessary,” he said. “The first floating NPP is to operate in Russia’s extreme northeastern region of Chukotka, where there is plenty of oil and gas exploration, gold mining and other mineral resource enterprises,” he added.
The FNPP has an electric capacity of 70 MW and is equipped with two reactors of 150 MW thermal capacity each. “A vessel like that can provide electric supply to a city of 200,000 and heat supply to a million-plus city,” Ipatov said. An FNPP’s operational life span ranges from 35 to 40 years.
In line with conventional onshore nuclear plants that are often equipped with desalination units for freshwater, the FNPP has a desalination unit producing up to 240 cubic metres of water per hour. Besides, as regards safety, the Russian said that FNPPs would be governed by the same advanced safety parameters put in place after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.
“We see significant potential in Southeast Asia and other regions of the world. Memorandums of cooperation on floating nuclear power plants projects have been signed with China and Indonesia,” he said.
Iceberg Design Bureau won the tender of the Ministry of Industry and Trade for project development of a multipurpose nuclear maintenance ship. The ship is needed for servicing of Project 22220 icebreakers and the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov. Baltiysky Zavod shipyard keeps on building of Project 22220 nuclear-powered icebreakers Arktika, Sibir and Ural. The ships are expected to join Atomflot in 2019, 2021 and 2022 respectively.
China’s marine nuclear power platform to start by 2020 in S.China Sea
A shipbuilding firm in Central China’s Hubei Province has announced it is set to start construction on a marine nuclear power platform which is designed to supply power for the country’s offshore oil drilling platforms and islands. The technical design has been finalized, and the project is moving to the construction phase, local media the Hubei Daily reported. China National Nuclear Power (CNNP) is partnering with Chinese shipyards and electric machinery companies to develop a $150 million project. China has had some overseas success already with its Hualong reactor, with Pakistan currently building a plant using the technology.
The primary focus of China’s offshore nuclear platforms – reportedly to be commissioned before 2020 – will be for civil use on islands in waters such as the South China Sea, and as the technology matures, it could be applied to military nuclear vessels, Chinese analysts said. The platforms have two modes – floating and submersible, and the platforms will focus on solving power supply issues in the Xisha Islands and other islands in the South China Sea where infrastructure construction is underway, and urban agglomerations after that, Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert and also a TV commentator told the Global Times.
China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is set to launch a small modular reactor (SMR) dubbed the “Nimble Dragon” with a pilot plant on the island province of Hainan, according to company officials. CNNC designed the Linglong, or “Nimble Dragon” to complement its larger Hualong or “China Dragon” reactor and has been in discussions with Pakistan, Iran, Britain, Indonesia, Mongolia, Brazil, Egypt and Canada as potential partners. China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has said that China is expected to build 20 floating nuclear power stations in the future, which will significantly beef up the power and water supplies on the South China Sea islands, another official daily Global Times reported. Sun Qin, former chairman of the National Nuclear Corporation, said in March 2016 that the facility is scheduled to be put into operation in 2019.
China has said it will develop floating nuclear power plants on a priority basis in the South China Sea as it seeks to beef up electricity supply to the islands in the disputed maritime region. China will prioritise the development of a floating nuclear power platform in the coming five years, in an effort to provide stable power to offshore projects and promote ocean gas exploitation, Wang Yiren, vice director of the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence. Wang told Science and Technology Daily that Chinese authorities have already carried out research on relevant core technologies as well as the standardisation of maritime nuclear power plants. The floating nuclear reactors could also power Chinese underwater mining operations, in which China has already invested heavily, and deepwater logistical bases for naval usage.
“Floating power stations are less susceptible to natural disasters. In an emergency, the station could pump seawater into a boat to prevent core melting. Besides, the platform is small and can be dragged to a suitable place for maintenance,” reported in February, quoting an expert.
China General Nuclear, the company behind the new project, stresses the flexible nature of a ship-based nuclear reactor. “The 200 MWt (60 MWe) reactor has been developed for the supply of electricity, heat and desalination and could be used on islands or in coastal areas, or for offshore oil and gas exploration.” Other potential uses could be for new, large-scale industrial installations and flexible emergency power to regions in the event of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis
Zhang Jinlin, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and an expert at the CSIC 719 Research Institute, told that the platform is a typical civilian-military integration project, as its design fully takes civil demands into consideration, as well as tackling issues including safety, radiation protection and waste processing. The nuclear reactor-related technology, when successfully reduced in size, could be later applied to the country’s military vessels, including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or next generation nuclear submarines, Song said.
While the benefits of small nuclear reactors are promising, there remain many unsolved disadvantages. From a technical standpoint, new small-scale reactor designs are immature. The current fleet of large-scale light water reactors has demonstrated decades of successful operation at very high standards, and new small reactor designs will need to undergo rigorous testing to prove their worth. New control and safety systems, non-traditional components, and unconventional fuel and cooling materials are examples of design features that will take many years to develop to commercial viability.
SMR designs powered by spent nuclear fuel are an international research focus. Developments based in the U.S. include SMR models such as the General Atomics Energy Multiplier Module; the X-energy 100; and the General Electric Hitachi Power Reactor Innovative Small Module.
Other challenges to small nuclear reactors are non-technical. First, too many competing designs in the market create confusion and delay the ability to achieve the standardization that will be necessary for widespread adoption. Greenpeace has voiced concern about what effect massive storms could have on ocean-based nuclear reactors.
Others worry ocean-based reactors would be more susceptible to terrorist attacks and increased proliferation risks. Operating nuclear reactors in an Arctic climate is complicated to say the least, and another concern is that barges like those used in the Russian project might not be as protected from earthquake or tsunamis as reactors further out at sea.
Rosatom says the floating nuclear power plant is suited to remote areas and “island states” which need stable and in its own words, “green,” sources of energy. But Bellona has said that these aspirations to operate the plant in remote regions are part of what makes it so dangerous. Rescue operations in the event of an accident would be complicated by distance.
Greenpeace has dubbed it a “floating Chernobyl” and a “nuclear Titanic.” The reactors on this plant are smaller than conventional land based nuclear plants and will need refuelling every two to three years. The nuclear waste will be stored onboard until it returns after 12 designated years of operation. That means that radioactive waste will be left floating around in the Arctic for years at a time, according to Greenpeace. In the case of a collapse, the core will be cooled by the surrounding seawater. While this seems like a good idea, when melting fuel rods come into with seawater, it will first lead to a seawater explosion and potential hydrogen explosions that will spread a large amount of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. A damaged reactor could contaminate much of the marine wildlife in the near vicinity. That means that fish stocks could be contaminated for years to come.
Memories of Fukushima’s waterlogged reactors have also failed to fade, and the thought of a nuclear power plant as vulnerable to tsunamis as the Akademik Lomonosov strikes an anxious chord among environmentalists. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to abate the consequences of a nuclear accident in the harsh environment of the Arctic. For its part, Rosatom has said that its floating nuclear power plant has been designed with a “great margin of safety” which exceeds “all possible threats” and makes the nuclear reactors invincible to tsunamis and “other natural disasters.” It adds that the nuclear processes at the facility meet requirements from the International Atomic Agency and don’t pose an environmental threat.
Rosatom is said to be mulling the build of a second floating nuclear power plant, with twin 50 megawatt reactors. The company has previously claimed t that interest in the technology has come from North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.