In the newest energy partnership between Russia and China, the countries may soon join forces to initiate the development of six nuclear power plants before the end of the decade. But these new facilities won’t just be your run of the mill nuclear power stations — instead, they will be floating versions that are stationed in bodies of water.
Following a $400 billion gas supply deal signed by the countries in May, the export sector of Russia’s state nuclear reactor company Rosatom penned a memorandum of understanding with China on Tuesday to develop waterborne nuclear power plants (NPPs) starting in 2019.
Rosatom previously announced that in 2018 it would implement the first floating NPP in the world, just offshore in the country’s eastern region of Chukotka.
“Floating NPPs can provide a reliable power supply not only to remote settlements but also to large industrial facilities such as oil platforms,” said Dzhomart Aliev, the chief executive of Rusatom Overseas, according to Reuters.
While the thought of nuclear reactors floating around the globe sounds like an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, these facilities have actually been designed with the purpose of making NPPs less vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.
“It’s really not a completely new idea,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor at MIT who is working with a team of scientists to research and design floating NPPs in the US, told VICE News. He explained that submarines and aircraft carriers already use nuclear reactors. “The underwater reactor is a positive thing for safety.”
According to Buongiorno, by placing an NPP out in the deep waters of the ocean, the facility would be less susceptible to massive waves produced by tsunamis, like the case of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 when a major earthquake triggered a tsunami that caused a meltdown, radiation leak, and other serious damage to the site. By being floated out to sea, Buongiorno said the risks of earthquake damage would also be minimized.
Another benefit lauded by Buongiorno’s research team is that the ocean would create a natural cooling source, which would help to prevent meltdowns. Plus, being miles away from shore means the plant is further away from civilian populations, in the event of a disaster.
However, Buongiorno explained that the Russian prototype is quite different to the design his team is working on, and thus may not see the same safety benefits.
Logistically, Buorgino’s floating NPP designs would be similar to offshore oil rigs and would be anchored on platforms, with the reactor submerged down below. Anchored to the ocean floor between five and seven miles out to sea, a cable attached to the structure would send the electricity being produced back to shore.
A cutaway view of a proposed plant via MIT. Illustration by Jake Jurewicz/MIT-NSE
The Russian prototype, on the other hand, is designed like a barge and would be fixed along the shoreline. According to Buorgino, when a tsunami hits, the waves peak and cause the most damage near the shore.
Critics are concerned about some of the design aspects of this type of NPPs. Edwin Lyman, a senior global security scientist at Union of Concerned Scientists, told VICE News that a lot of what needs to be done to make these plants deployable is the opposite of what the industry needs to do to make their land-based facilities safer. He explained that having to build lighter reactors for use in the ocean and accessibility issues are concerns with the floating plants.
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes indefinitely, while the waste that leaked into the Pacific Ocean forced fisheries to close, leading to the loss of millions of dollars. Buesseler said the question becomes whether it’s better to have 70,000 people unable to move back to their homes from a land-based accident, or shut more fisheries as nuclear waste moves up the food chain due to an incident with a floating structure.
While there aren’t any existing floating nuclear power plants to look to for insight on what could happen after an accident, there are nuclear submarines and ships that have been navigating the globe for decades. The instances in which these vessels have sunk provide an interesting look into what could happen with a nuclear reactor floating in the ocean.