Russia Put a Nuclear Power Plant on a Boat

Seaborne power station could provide heat and electricity to remote areas.

Russia recently launched the Akademik Lomonosov: a floating nuclear power station intended to provide nuclear power to remote population centers and offshore facilities.

The ship has two KLT-40C modular water reactors that generate steam for electricity—the same type used in Russian icebreakers. Each one is comprised of reactor proper, steam generators, reactor coolant pumps, heat exchangers, pressurizers, valves and pipelines.

The Lomonosov’s control center.

The Lomonosov’s control center.

Combined, the two reactors have a combined capacity of 70 megawatts and 50 gigacalories an hour of heat energy—enough to provide light and heat to a city of about 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, a new ground-based nuclear plant can generate up to 1,000 megawatts. Russian officials claim it can save 200,000 tons of coal and 100,000 tons of fuel oil each year.

Russia also boasts the Lomonosov is “virtually unsinkable” and able to withstand collisions with icebergs, tsunamis and the impact of a seven-metre wave. Each reactor is enclosed in a steel hermetic containment vessel to withstand internal and external pressures.

Inside the ship.

Inside the ship.

The Lomonosov is 459 feet long and 98 feet wide. It has a crew capacity of 70—and the crew will have some perks including a gym, pool and bar (with no alcohol, of course). In good weather conditions it can maneuver at 4 to 5 knots per hour.

The ship is expected to be operational for 40 years, with the plant undergoing servicing and maintenance every 12 years. The vessel will be refuelled every three years.

While Russia has not released exact figures, in 2016 an official connected to the project said the Lomonosov cost an estimated 21.5 billion rubles, or almost $335 million. The infrastructure needed to connect it to the grid would cost an additional 7 billion rubles, or about $110 million.

The Lomonosov’s maiden voyage.

The Lomonosov’s maiden voyage.

After departing St. Petersburg, Akademik Lomonosov travelled about 2,900 miles to the Arctic port of Pevek, where it will be loaded with nuclear fuel and connected to the power grid by the end of the year. Onshore and hydraulic structures for the vessel, and infrastructure to connect the floating power plant to the city’s power and heat network, are currently being built in Pevek.

The Lomonosov will provide power to the town’s 4,000 residents and surrounding region, including the Chaun-Bilibin mining complex. The ship’s power will replace the power output of the Bilibino nuclear power plant and the Chaunskaya coal-fired power plant, which will be decommissioned.

Russia’s floating nuclear power plant.

The Lomonosov could be a key element for Russia’s ambitious plan to bring power to the country’s harsh, remote but resource-rich Arctic territories. The region is home to small communities that are usually only reachable by ship or plane in favorable weather—but their economic activity makes up as much as 20 percent of the country’s GDP. But Russia’s northern sea route between western and eastern Russian ports is opening up for longer periods due to global warming, which could bring trade and growth—and increasing demand for power—to small ports like Pevek.

A mobile sea-based nuclear plant could supply energy to remote centers without needing the large sums of money, resources and long-term commitment that a land-based power plant would require.

The vessel could also power remote mining operations and offshore Arctic oil rigs. It could even be plugged into a desalination plant to produce fresh water—240,000 cubic meters a day—for island states and population centers.

Rosatom, the state nuclear power corporation, claims to be in talks with potential customers in developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

“It is perhaps a small step towards sustainable development in the Arctic — but it’s a giant step towards decarbonisation of remote, off-grid zones and a turning point in the global development of small modular nuclear plants,” said Rosatom head Alexei Likhachev.

Russia’s plan has its detractors, though. After all, the country has a history of nuclear power mishaps.

And critics also say the Lomonosov’s benefits could also be significant drawbacks. Its mobility and ability to function in remote areas makes it harder to dispose of nuclear fuel or conduct rescue operations and cleanup should the boat sustain damage. Greenpeace has called the ship a “nuclear Titanic” and “Chernobyl on ice.”

“Any nuclear power plant produces radioactive waste and can have an accident, but Akademik Lomonosov is additionally vulnerable to storms,” said Rashid Alimov of Greenpeace Russia.

Radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be stored onboard, which also worries detractors. In addition, the ship is towed by other vessels, increasing the risk of collision in a storm.

Rosatom insists that the vessel is safe, stating that the Lomonosov “is designed with a great margin of safety that exceeds all possible threats.”

But should a reactor malfunction, the Lomonosov has a unique advantage: it could in theory use the frigid Arctic waters as a coolant. “If you put the reactor core in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Russia, it would probably provide enough of a cooling sink that you don’t have to worry about the reactor concerns,” said Steven Biegalski, nuclear and radiological engineering professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Nuclear reactors have been put on ships for decades—but the Lomonosov is something new: a mobile nuclear power source. Not only is it an impressive engineering feat, it could enable remote communities in the Arctic and around the world to get access to reliable power. That would make it a true game changer in the global energy market.

Read more about the Akademic Lomonosov at Russia’s Floating Nuclear Reactor.