Floating Chernobyls

They would be floating Chernobyls. Russia has embarked on a scheme of building floating nuclear power plants to be moored off its coasts and sold to nations around the world.

"Absolutely safe," Sergei Kiriyenko, director general of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation, told Reuters as the barge that is to serve as the base for the first floating plant was launched recently in St. Petersburg.

However, David Lochbaum, an instructor for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, director of the Nuclear Safety Project and senior safety engineer at the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, describes an accident at a floating nuclear power plant as "worse" than at a land-based plant:

In a meltdown, a China syndrome accident, the molten mass of what had been the core would burrow into the ground and some of the radioactive material held there. But with a floating nuclear plant, all the molten mass would drop into the water and there would be a steam explosion and the release of a tremendous amount of energy and radioactive material. It would be like a bomb going off.

"With a floating nuclear plant you have a mechanism to significantly increase the amount of radioactive material going into the environment," A large plume of radioactive poisons would be formed and "many more people would be put in harm's way." Further, he notes, there would be radioactive pollution of the sea.

Nuclear experts in Europe -- including Russia -- are as critical as Lochbaum about floating nuclear power plants and their special accident potential. Other issues raised include the floating plants being sources of fuel for nuclear weapons and easy targets for terrorists.

"This project is clearly a risky venture," said Alexander Nitikin, former chief engineer on Soviet nuclear submarines and a senior radiation inspector for its Department of Defense. He now heads the St. Petersburg branch of the Bellona Foundation, an international environmental organization. "Safety shouldn't be neglected for the profits Rosatom wants to get from selling floating nuclear power plants to the troubled regions. Such Rosatom activities simply violate the idea of non-proliferation."

In a statement describing the plants as "floating Chernobyls in waiting," the main office of Norway-headquartered Bellona declares:

Russia has neither the means nor infrastructure to ensure their safe operation, has made no plans for disposing of their spent fuel, and has not taken into consideration the enormous nuclear proliferation risks posed.

Greenpeace Russia, in a report to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), advises that the export of the floating nuclear plants, particularly to countries in Southeast Asia with numerous terrorist groups, "creates a serious threat of terrorism and piracy on the high seas."

The floating nuclear plants would use a far more volatile fuel than land-based plants: weapons-grade uranium containing 40 percent Uranium-235. The U-235 enrichment level in land-based plants is 3%. There would be two reactors on each floating nuclear plant providing a total of 70 megawatts of electricity.

A press release by Rosatom issued with the June 30th launch of the football field-sized barge at St. Petersburg said "there are many countries, including in the developing world, showing interest" in the plants. According to the the Times of London they include nations such as Malaysia, Algeria, Namibia, Cape Verde and Indonesia.

The notion of a floating nuclear power plant being pursued by Russia originated in the United States. I ran into the scheme in the Hamptons on Long Island in 1974. Driving down oceanfront Dune Road in Hampton Bays, I came upon what looked like a weather station, but on the chain link fence surrounding the various meteorological devices was the sign: "U.S. Atomic Energy Commission -- Brookhaven National Laboratory." I called the laboratory and was told that the government set up the station to study the impact of radioactive discharges from floating nuclear power plants to be placed off New Jersey. The first four plants had already been given names: Atlantic 1, 2, 3 and 4 and were to go 11 miles northeast of Atlantic City.

BNL was using a 75-foot-long landing craft on loan from the Navy, a chartered Cessna plane and a trawler. Clouds of smoke were sent up at sea. Doing investigative reporting for the daily Long Island Press, I pursued the floating nuclear plant story for years.

The scheme was conceived while a vice president of Public Service Electric and Gas Co. of New Jersey, Richard Eckert, was taking a shower, according to company literature. It spoke of Eckert having a revelation while showering of the sea supplying the massive amounts of water that nuclear plants need as coolant. The utility convinced Westinghouse to build floating nuclear plants. Westinghouse and Tenneco set up Offshore Power Systems to fabricate them at a facility constructed on Blount Island off Jacksonville, Florida. The plants were to be towed into place. But the project was scuttled because of skyrocketing costs, public opposition and lack of need. In 1984, Offshore Power Systems dissolved after $180 million was spent on the failed venture.

The most comprehensive analysis done on the floating nuclear power plants Russia is now building is a book researched and written by a team of Russian scientists and titled: Floating Nuclear Power Plants in Russia: A Threat to the Arctic, World Oceans and Non-Proliferation. Its authors include nuclear physicists, engineers and noted biologist Dr. Alexey Yablokov.

"One would have imagined that the Chernobyl catastrophe would have taught us to treat nuclear technologies with caution," the book begins. It says "trouble-free operations of floating nuclear power plants cannot be" and "the only question is how serious the emergency and its consequences." In a chapter on the plants as "an attractive object of nuclear terrorism," the book cites an impossibility of providing "protection from...underwater saboteurs and on the surface from a rocket-bombing strike." Further, the "spreading" of the floating plants "all over the world will allow" this to be done "much easier and with more efficiency." Each floating nuclear plant will contain "the ready material for ten nuclear bombs in the way of enriched uranium of weapon quality." It notes "the idea of creating floating nuclear power plants originated in the USA" but was dropped and recommends Russia do the same.

The floating nuclear plant scheme is backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "as part of a program to raise the portion of Russian electricity generated by nuclear power."

Kiriyenko, Rosatom's director general, also was Russia's prime minister -- but only briefly, from March to August 1998. He was forced to resign for his role in financial machinations that led to a devaluation of the Russian ruble and a major financial crisis. He was appointed to head Rosatom in 2005.

There is strong opposition in the area off which the first floating nuclear plants would be moored -- the Murmansk Region. The Romir polling agency has found some 71 percent of respondents there said they were "strongly negative." And, "protests against the project have already occurred," says Vitaly Servetnik, chairman of the organization Nature and Youth.

Of the floating nuclear plants, Vladimir Chuprov, energy projects chief for Greenpeace Russia, says: "It is better to invest in solar and wind energy rather than produce time bombs." Indeed, there are plans now proposed for the U.S. mid-Atlantic, not far from where Atlantic 1, 2, 3 and 4 were to go, for offshore wind farms. They would safely and cleanly harvest the power of the wind.

That's a good U.S. initiative that Russia should emulate.