They would be floating Chernobyls. Russia has embarked on a
scheme to build floating nuclear power plants to be moored off its coasts and sold to nations around the world.
"Absolutely safe," Sergei Kiriyenko, director general of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation, told Reuters as the barge that is to serve as the base for the first floating plant was launched recently in St. Petersburg. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6600MV20100701
However, David Lochbaum, senior safety engineer at the Union of Concerned
Scientists, describes an accident at a floating nuclear power plant as "worse" than at a land-based plant. "In a meltdown, a China syndrome accident, the molten mass of what had been the core would burrow into the ground and some of the radioactive material held there. But with a floating nuclear plant, all the molten mass would drop into the water and there would be a steam explosion and the release of a tremendous amount of energy and radioactive material. It would be like a bomb going off," says Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at Washington-based UCS.
"With a floating nuclear plant you have a mechanism to significantly increase the amount of radioactive material going into the environment," says Lochbaum, for 18 years an engineer in the nuclear industry and an instructor for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A large plume of radioactive poisons would be formed and "many more people would be put in harm's way." Further, he notes, there would be radioactive pollution of the sea.
Nuclear experts in Europe--including Russia--are as critical as is Lochbaum about floating nuclear power plants and their special accident potential. Other issues raised include the floating plants being sources of fuel for nuclear weapons and easy targets for terrorists.
"This project is clearly a risky venture," said Alexander Nitikin, former chief engineer on Soviet nuclear submarines and a senior radiation inspector for its Department of Defense. He now heads the St. Petersburg branch of the Bellona Foundation, an international environmental organization. "Safety shouldn't be neglected for the profits Rosatom wants to get from selling floating nuclear power plants to the troubled regions. Such Rosatom activities simply violate the idea of non-proliferation."
In a statement describing the plants as "floating Chernobyls in waiting," the main office of Norway-headquartered Bellona declares that "Russia has neither the means nor infrastructure to ensure their safe operation, has made no plans for disposing of their spent fuel, and has not taken into consideration the enormous nuclear proliferation risks posed."
Greenpeace Russia, in a report to Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, advises that the export of the floating nuclear plants, particularly to countries in Southeast Asia with numerous terrorist groups, "creates a serious threat of terrorism and piracy on the high seas."
The floating nuclear plants would use a far more volatile fuel than land-based plants: weapons-grade uranium containing 40 percent Uranium-235. The U-235 enrichment level in land-based plants is 3 percent. There would be two reactors on each floating nuclear plant
providing a total of 70 megawatts of electricity.
A press release by Rosatom issued with the June 30th launch of the football field-sized barge at St. Petersburg said "there are many countries, including in the developing world, showing interest" in the plants.
According to the The Times of London http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article1662889.ece and World Nuclear News http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Russia_relocates_construction_of_floating_power_plant-1108084.html they include nations such as Malaysia, Algeria, Namibia, Cape Verde and Indonesia.
The notion of a floating nuclear power plant being pursued by Russia originated in the United States. I ran into the scheme in the Hamptons on Long Island in 1974. Driving down oceanfront Dune Road in Hampton Bays, I came upon what looked like a weather station, but on the chain link fence surrounding the various meteorological devices was the sign: "U.S. Atomic Energy Commission--Brookhaven National Laboratory." I called the laboratory and was told that the government set up the station to study the impact of radioactive discharges from floating nuclear power plants to be placed off New Jersey. The first four plants--they had already been given names: Atlantic 1, 2, 3 and 4--were to go 11 miles northeast of Atlantic City.