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Floating Nuclear Plant Draws Concern

Monday, August 19, 2019

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Set to begin its 4,000-mile ocean trek to the Russian town of Pevek, floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov was recently placed under further scrutiny in light of the country's safety record.

The latest reason for concern: a mysterious radioactive explosion off the coast of Nenoksa Missile Test Site, resulting in several deaths and a spike in radiation levels in the surrounding atmosphere.

About Akademik Lomonosov

Having received a 10-year operating license for two onboard reactors from Rostechnadzor, Russia’s Federal Environmental, Industrial and Nuclear Supervision Service, the Rosatom-commissioned project was set to be towed to its operating location this month.

The vessel was built by Baltisky Yard at Baltiysky Zavod—a St. Petersburg-based Baltic Shipyard—over a nine-year period and was first launched in April 2018. The facility measures 144 meters (472 feet) long, 30 meters wide and encompasses a displacement of 21,000 tons.

According to Rosatom, the floating nuclear power unit has two KLT-40S reactor units capable of generating up to 70 MW of electric energy and 50 Gcal/hr of heat energy during normal operation, enough to “keep the activity of the town populated with 100,000 people.”

Last summer, the vessel was towed around Scandinavia and had its first uranium fuel elements loaded into the reactors in Murmansk in July. By November, one of the reactors was successfully started and by late April of this year, the FNPP tested to 100% capacity.

Arctic Today reported that the vessel’s hull was coated at the Atomflot base using an ice-resistant coating under the barge’s classification assigned by the Russian Maritime Register. However, no details pertaining to the ice class for the Russian flag-themed paint job were provided.

Prior to HBO TV miniseries Chernobyl, the project has received much criticism from environmentalist group Greenpeace, who has dubbed the project "Chernobyl on Ice" and "floating Chernobyl,” and even went as far to collect 11,000 signatures against the original plan.

Once towed to the Arctic port of Pevek this month, the vessel’s twin nuclear reactors will provide heat and energy to roughly 55,000 people, in addition to supporting various mining and drilling operations in Russia’s mineral-rich Chukotka region.

Newest Safety Concerns

Although multiple reports express uncertainty—as Russian authorities have revealed delayed and even changed reports about the accident—suspicions around the deadly explosion point towards nuclear missile testing.

According to the Associated Press, first reports of the Aug. 8 blast came from the Russian Defense Ministry, describing that a liquid-propellant rocket engine exploded, killing two people and injuring several others. The statement also claimed that no radiation had been released; however, a nearby city administration in Severodvinsk reported a brief rise in radiation levels—pointing some to believe the possibility of another Chernobyl-like cover-up.

In an announcement published by Rosatom, “as result of an accident at a military training ground in the Arkhangelsk region, five employees of the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom were killed while testing a liquid propulsion system.” Although, others have reported that the death count could be higher, totaling up to seven casualties. A death toll is uncertain at this time.

The statement goes on to add that three other colleagues experienced injuries and burns of varying severity.

However, intelligence officials in the United States suspect that the blast was more likely the result of a failed test of prototype SSC-X-9 Skyfall—code-named by NATO in reference to a nuclear-powered cruise missile technology announced by Russian President Valdimir Putin in March 2018.

The case is backed by observers noting, on various satellite imagery, the presence of nuclear scientists during the blast (as regular missiles don’t require nuclear fuel) and the presence of Serebryanka—a nuclear fuel cargo ship—near the location of the explosion, rumored to be recovering nuclear waste and missile debris.

Regardless of the reason, Russia’s state weather and environmental monitoring agency reported that in one of Severodvinsk’s neighborhoods, peak radiation levels after the explosion read 1.78 microsieverts per hour—about 16 times the average. Readings in other parts of the city varied between 0.45 and 1.33 microsieverts per hour.

Levels reportedly returned to normal after two and a half hours but didn’t stop various community members from requesting iodine tablets (used to prevent radiation consumption in the thyroid).

Since the accident and after attending the funeral for the five confirmed worker deaths, Sergei Kirienko, first deputy chief of staff to Putin, announced that the deceased workers would receive posthumous state awards.

In other fear-inducing nuclear failures, just last month top-secret Russian nuclear submersible Losharik caught fire, killing 14 high-ranking naval officers.

What’s Happening Now

Despite the recent nuclear-technology-related tragedies to have occurred in Russian territories, the Rosatom nuclear group still plans to take Akademik Lomonosov through the Artic Sea. In fact, the country hopes to one day mass-produce similar floating power plants for other nations.

Equipped with a backup system able to cool reactors without electricity for 24 hours, Rosatom has gone as far to say that the floating nuclear power plant is “invulnerable to tsunamis.” However, this has invited further skepticism and warnings from Greenpeace and other environmentalists, giving a new name to whole operation, calling it a “nuclear Titanic.”

Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear-energy expert at the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace, told Business Insider that he is concerned about the stockpiling of spent nuclear fuel onboard the vessel, as the station intends to keep its spent fuel for up to 12 years, without having easy access to a nuclear-waste storage facility while creating energy along the rocky coastline, among other things.

While Rosatom continues to push back on the claims, the vessel remains on schedule as it continues its journey along the Northern Sea Route. The Akademik Lomonosov is expected to begin producing power for Chukotka in December.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Asia Pacific; Completed projects; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Fatalities; Government contracts; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; Latin America; North America; Nuclear Power Plants; Offshore; Port Infrastructure; Program/Project Management; Safety; Ships and vessels; Z-Continents

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