Hurricane Earl ... and Floating Nuclear Plants

It was supposed to happen off the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was scuttled because of skyrocketing costs, public opposition, and a lack of need. But the concept of floating nuclear power plants is back. Russia, copying the U.S. plan, recently launched the first of what it says will be many floating nuclear plants that it will moor off its coastline and sell to nations around the world.
Consider, with Hurricane Earl moving up the Atlantic Coast, the situation if floating nuclear power plants were, as planned, moored off it.

Consider the Russia program in terms of accident consequences -- the plants are being called "floating Chernobyls" -- and as a terrorist issue. The fuel the plants are to use is weapons-grade uranium. Nations which Russia's state nuclear corporation has been talking to about buying the plants include Malaysia, Algeria and Indonesia.

I ran into the U.S. floating nuclear plant 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." As an investigative reporter for the Long Island Press, I called the laboratory and was told that the government set up the station to study the impact of radioactive discharges from floating nuclear plants to be moored to the south: the first four plants were to go 11 miles northeast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. They were given the names Atlantic 1, 2, 3 and 4. I pursued the U.S. program for years.

"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 being launched on June 30 in St. Petersburg.

But David Lochbaum, senior safety engineer at Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientist, is highly critical. Lochbaum describes an accident at a floating nuclear power plant as "worse" than at a land-based one. "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," he explains. "It would be like a bomb going off." A large plume of radioactive poisons would form and "many more people would be put in harm's way," says Mr. Lochbaum, for 18 years an engineer in the nuclear industry and an instructor for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"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."

Describing the plants as "floating Chernobyls in waiting," the main office of Norway-headquartered Bellona declares that "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."

A group of Russian scientists -- including nuclear physicists and engineers and noted Russian biologist Dr. Alexey Yablokov -- has written a book on the Russian undertaking titled: Floating Nuclear Power Plants in Russia: A Threat to the Arctic, World Oceans and Non-Proliferation. "One would have imagined that the Chernobyl catastrophe would have taught us to treat nuclear technologies with caution," states the book. 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." 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 U.S. floating nuclear plant scheme was hatched, interestingly, while a vice president of Public Service Electric and Gas Co. of New Jersey, Richard Eckert, was taking a shower. Company literature spoke of Mr. Eckert having a revelation while showering of the sea supplying the massive amounts of water nuclear plants need as coolant. The utility convinced Westinghouse to build floating nuclear plants. A huge facility was constructed on an island off Jacksonville, Florida with the plants to be towed into position. The project was canceled in 1984 after $180 million was blown.

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."