Underwatertimes.com News Service - October 16, 2006 19:49 EST

A digital artist's conception of this world's first floating nuclear power plant. (Credit: Sevmash)

A Russian energy company has plans to construct a floating nuclear-energy plant on a football-field size barge to deliver electricity to inhabitants of northern territories near the White Sea.

Rosenergoatom said the 200 million U.S. dollar facility will be constructed next year and will provide relatively inexpensive, reliable energy to 200,000 people in a region where harsh weather makes regular coal and oil fuel deliveries unreliable and expensive.

It's not a new idea, and the technology has been available since the 1970s when U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Company built a huge dry-dock facility in Jacksonville, Fla. Westinghouse had planned to construct nuclear plants that would be floated north along the Eastern Seaboard, providing electricity to needy customers.

Engineers would standardize construction for multiple plants in an offsite factory with increased quality control and reduced production costs before tugging a plant to its port of call.

But ultimately, says retired Westinghouse consultant Richard Orr, energy conservation following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo killed the project.

The Russian plan is to mount two reactors on a barge, float it to a port, connect power lines to the mainland, and turn on the reactors, providing communities with affordable electricity.

The plant will store waste and spent fuel in an onboard facility that workers will empty every 10 to 12 years during regular maintenance overhauls. After 40 years, the normal life span for a nuclear plant, the decommissioned plant would be towed away and replaced with a new one.

The reactor and spent fuel would go to a storage facility, but the barge could be recycled.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Norwegian foundation Bellona say they ware worried about the plan to bring back to life the Westinghouse project because of safety concerns.

One concern is that a boat could ram the plant and spill waste into the water.

An even bigger fear is that a storm could cut the plant off from the land-based power supply required to run plant operations. Should emergency generators fail, says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Chernobyl-like disaster could ensue.

In a worst-case scenario, an overheated core could melt through the bottom of the barge and drop into the water, creating a radioactive steam explosion. Such a cloud could do far more damage than the plume of nuclear fallout kicked up by the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former U.S.S.R., Lochbaum notes, because the human body absorbs radioactive water droplets more easily than it does radioactive ash.

"Its worst day would be much worse than a land power plant's," he says.

Rosenergoatom has permission and intends to have the facility afloat in the port city of Severodvinsk in the southeastern White Sea by late 2010.

"The Russians have learned a lot about safety from the U.S. Department of Energy, Sweden and Norway -- who probably all wish [the Russians] would focus on things other than a floating nuclear power plant," says Cristina Chuen, a Russian nuclear-energy specialist with the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California.

"Maybe it will turn out great, but I just hope they did all the research to make sure it's safe."