Russia's Nuclear Gamble


U.S. environmental groups are calling for a cessation of licensing agreements for nuclear power plants, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered a halt to new reactor construction and the closing of some existing ones in the wake of the apparent meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima power plant.

Russia, however, is moving the opposite direction, working to commission a series of ocean-going nuclear plants that have critics expressing alarm over the possible dangers and calling the idea a recipe for disaster.

The first such floating power plant already is under construction in St. Petersburg and will be completed in 2012. It is scheduled to become operational in the earthquake and tsunami-prone Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East of Russia.

Kamchatka is not far from Japan, which since March 11 suffered one of the greatest environmental disasters in history when the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant failed, apparently because of the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the region.

With the world’s attention on the dangers of nuclear power plants running out of control, the decision by the Russian government to continue the construction of a fleet of floating nuclear reactors has elicited concern worldwide.

The first project has been dubbed the Academician Lomonosov, and the 144 meter-long (472 foot) barge is designed to sit offshore and produce 70 ­megawatts of electricity, which will be transferred to the shore via cables.

The generators from the plant will be capable of powering a city of 100,000 people and carrying out seawater desalinization projects. The use of these reactors would augment Russia’s plan to extract oil and gas reserves from the Arctic. Also, these reactors could generate up to $550 million in foreign sales.

Russia’s state nuclear-energy giant Rosatom has plans to build a total of 12 floating plants, which it hopes to sell for export. More than 20 countries already have expressed interest thus far, including Malaysia, Indonesia, China, South Korea, the Philippines, Chile, and Brazil.

Several of these countries have only limited experience in operating nuclear facilities, and the proposed locations for these floating facilities are in areas that are vulnerable to piracy and terrorism.

Where land-based nuclear power plants are protected by defenses such as “guns, gates, and guards,” reactors at sea would be more vulnerable to attack.

The reactors also could become a source for terrorists seeking spent nuclear fuel for use in “dirty” bombs. The reactors will use fuel rods composed of 18.5 percent uranium. It would take little effort to increase that level to 20 percent, elevating it to the level of highly-enriched uranium. Igor Kudrik, a think tank analyst on the Russian nuclear industry, said:

The plants are an environmental time bomb, and production costs are going to be sky high...Russia’s plans for floating nuclear power plants represent enormous environmental and safety hazards and the current form will be disastrously expensive. The risk of serious accidents with severe consequences is always present at nuclear power plants. They are not exactly small when you set them to sea—and this in areas of high volcanic activity.

Another reason for the increased concerns over these nuclear reactors is that the facilities likely would be located where there is not much of an accompanied infrastructure. An emergency situation such as what happened at the Fukushima plant would be even more catastrophic because it would be cut off from electrical power needed to implement any emergency response measures.

Assurances from the Baltisky Shipyards, the builders of the reactors that “all possible emergency situations have been tested” are not wholly reassuring.

Placing these reactors on the open sea anywhere in the Pacific, especially those areas prone to tsunamis, is “simply crazy,” said Bulat Nigmatulin, Russia’s deputy minister for atomic energy between 1998 and 2002. Nigmatulin is one of the men who first authorized the project but now doubts the logic behind it. Nigmatulin went on to say that floating plants have no potential market and are a waste of state funds.

There is an additional concern that any nuclear waste generated by the plants simply will be dumped at sea. Russia says it will dispose of any nuclear waste produced by any plant it sells. But currently there is no way to process the highly radioactive spent fuel. Under the current plan, the fuel will be frozen and stored along with the reactor cores. Hundreds of those spent fuel rods are scattered across the Russian Arctic to-day—a remnant of the Soviet submarine program.

Nuclear accidents are, by their very nature, extremely dangerous—we’ve witnessed Chernobyl and now Fukushima Daiichi.

Even four months after the March 11 accident in Ja-pan, a satisfactory solution to the accident has not been found. A Dow Jones report states that, as a temporary measure, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) plans to cover Fukushima with a giant tent. Polyester covers soon will be placed around the damaged reactor buildings at the complex to help contain the release of radioactive substances into the atmosphere. TEPCO is in-stalling the first cover at the No. 1 reactor, the reactor experiencing the worst damage.

This solution probably means that TEPCO examined the concrete shell option and realized it would not work. The problem is that by now the melted core material probably is seeping into the soil rather than in the complex. Analysts say with all the problems still facing the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the idea of a nuclear dis-aster out at a remote corner of the sea with no access to emergency services is unthinkable.

Steve Elwart, P.E. is a senior analyst with the Koinonia Institute and a Subject Matter Expert for the Department of Homeland Security.

This article originally appeared in World Net Daily’s “G2 Bulletin” and is reprinted by permission.