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Russia May 4, 2007
Radioactive Flotsam
Why Russia's plan for floating reactors is a very bad idea By Yasha Levine Browse author Email

Floating nuclear power plants have been the wet dream of Russia's nuclear establishment for decades. Finally, this April, the dream became reality. Despite complaints from environmental groups about a slew of unaddressed risks, Russia's Federal Atomic Agency (Rosatom) has received the Kremlin's go-ahead to build the world's first-ever floaters - or FNPPs.

Russia plans to export these things as soon as they roll off the line, and a number of developing countries have already put in orders. First in line: Indonesia, off whose shores Russia plans on plopping a few floaters in the next decade. Indonesia, home to no less than 100 known terrorist groups, is famously surrounded by some of the most pirate-infested waters in the world. Needless to say, it is not an ideal environment for poorly guarded reactors containing enough weapons-grade uranium to make a dozen nuclear charges and still have enough left over for a few dirty bombs.

But other than a few usual-suspect green groups calling foul, the story has pretty much sunk dead in the water.

Rosatom openly began marketing the idea of FNPPs more than a decade ago as the only viable solution to the energy crunch plaguing Russia's hard-to-reach northern and eastern territories, where harsh weather and a lack of roads make deliveries of coal and oil inefficient if not impossible. The best model the agency could come up with was a gutted and expanded version of a Soviet-era nuclear icebreaker ship. There is no new technology involved, just an extra nuclear reactor that brings the barge's power output to 70MW, roughly enough for a settlement of up to 200,000 people. Besides highly classified naval nuclear technology, the ship's most prized possession is also the biggest cause for concern: roughly a ton of uranium-235, enriched anywhere from 20 to 60 percent.

At a projected cost of less than $250 million, Russia is calling their product a bargain and pimping them as a ready-to-use energy solution that every country can afford. But FNPPs have a dirty little secret. Eager to push their project through, Rosatom glossed over critical safety issues that led the U.S. to shut down a similar program begun in the 1950s. America deemed floating nuke plants inefficient and risky. Safety-wise, floating reactors are not nearly as easily protected as their land-based counterparts. Once in place, FNPPs become sitting ducks for attack. The possibilities are endless: 9/11-style Kamikaze runs, hijackings, torpedo strikes, suicide bombers decked out in scuba gear. All it took was a small rubber dingy to blow a 35-by-36-foot hole in the USS Cole. If that's done to a nuclear reactor, the results won't be pretty. But none of this has stopped countries like Zimbabwe, China, India, South Korea and Malaysia from lining up with their orders. If all goes according to plan, the world is going to be dotted with dozens of FNPPs bobbing up and down off the densely populated coasts of various developing countries.


In Russian Naval Nuclear History

Late 1960s Reactor meltdown aboard icebreaker NS Lenin. Up to 30 people dead, many others irradiated.

1966 Leak in the reactor shielding of a submarine. Some of crew sent to a "special" center on an isolated island near Murmansk. They never came back. Number of casualties unknown.

1967 Icebreaker Lenin experiences a reactor leak. Level of irradiation and number of casualties unknown.

1970 Submarine sinks in Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain due to a malfunction in its nuclear propulsion system. The Soviet navy is seen guarding the area continuously for six months. Irradiation levels and number of casualties unknown.

1973 Nuclear submarine develops 9ft gash after it collides with a fellow Soviet ship during maneuvers off the coast of Cuba. Number of casualties unknown.

1978 Nuclear sub spotted dead in the water off the coast of Scotland. Unknown problems with its nuclear reactor. Number of casualties unknown.

1980 At least 9 crew members die as a result of unknown malfunction aboard their submarine. Examination of air and water reveals radioactive contamination.

1980 In the port of Severodvinsk, an unauthorized start of a nuclear reactor aboard a submarine leads to emission of radioactive substances and irradiation of the crew. Number of casualties unknown.

1985 Chain reaction starts during reactor core maintenance on submarine K-431. 290 people irradiated, 10 known deaths.

1993 Malfunction causes radioactive emissions on icebreaker NS Arktika which lasted for several days. Irradiation of the crew. Number of casualties unknown.

It's fitting that Rosatom announced the FNPP kick-off on the eve of the Chernobyl disaster's 21st anniversary. According to nuclear experts, Chernobyl would pale in comparison to a meltdown at sea. If a nuclear reactor drops down into the water, it would create a huge radioactive steam explosion. Because water is absorbed more easily by the human body than ash, the subsequent radioactive vapor cloud could cause even more damage than Chernobyl's fallout. Irradiated H20 molecules are not blocked by a person's skin, but quickly absorbed and used by every living cell. If set off next to a densely populated coastal city like Bombay, the human casualties would be staggering. So too are the long-term secondary effects of widespread radiation.

Somehow, Rosatom chinovniki manage to keep a straight face while touting FNPPs a safe energy alternative. Citing Russia's half-century of experience in naval nuclear technology, they insist that the possibility of malfunction is so small as to be insignificant. And it's true that over the years, the country's scientists have designed a score of field-tested nuclear reactors for its massive nuclear submarine and icebreaker fleets.

But Rosatom is bluffing. Russia's extensive naval nuclear experience is grist for concern, not reassurance. According to numbers complied by Greenpeace, Russia has had about 100 serious accidents with their nuclear fleet since the 1960s. The accidents have come with alarming regularity - about one every few years. Most of the documented cases involve irradiation of both the crew and surrounding environment. A majority of them resulted in radiation-induced fatalities. And these are just government stats. The real number is certainly much higher.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom, isn't flinching. At the keel laying ceremony of the FNPP prototype, Kiriyenko cynically batted off skeptics by citing the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster. He pointed out that although an internal explosion destroyed the front section of the nuclear submarine and dragged 118 crew to the bottom of the Barents Sea, the submarine's nuclear reactor remained unscathed. According to Kiriyenko, if you looked at the catastrophe as a test of Russian naval nuclear technology, it was a success.

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Yasha Levine is an editor at The eXile. You can contact him at

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