Floating Nuclear Plants – Don't cede the market to the Russians
Like the United States, Russia has a long history of operating nuclear powered ships and submarines. Russia, and its atomic ancestor, the Soviet Union, has experienced a few more major problems with the technology. They have not had quite the financial resources, political support, technical leadership and discipline that has helped to ensure the almost completely unblemished reputation of the American Navy’s Nuclear Power Program. The fact remains, however, that Russian scientists, engineers and operators have about 45 years worth of useful knowledge about how to build and operate nuclear power plants that have no permanent tie to land.
Recently, Russia has made quite a stir in the media with an announcement for plans to build at least seven floating nuclear power plants using modified versions of their proven icebreaker engines. The plants are initially destined for remote northern cities above the Arctic circle, where there are population pockets that currently must depend on expensively delivered diesel fuel and cranky diesel engines. (See, for example Floating Nuclear Plants
As I wrote those last few lines, I had a deja vu moment and realized I have been writing about this idea for quite some time. Back in August of 1996, I published an entire issue of Atomic Insights that contained several articles about floating nuclear power plants and included a story titled New Nuclear Power Barges: Russians build on icebreaker lead. If I go back through my archived news files, I find that the announcements of Russian projects to start building a series of floating nuclear plants have occurred at least three times since the fall of the Soviet Union.
That is not really a negative – I fully understand that things happen to good ideas that cause delays and restructuring. Heck, I have been telling the world that I wanted to build atomic engines since about 1993 and I have not quite gotten around to making that a reality – yet – either.
I believe that the idea is a great one. Nuclear power using light water reactors that float inside a ship hull is a proven way to supply power in places that have no grids and have complex, expensive fuel supply logistics requirements. It is a way to build infrastructure both at the place that receives the floating plant and at the shipyards that manufacture the plant.
It would be a useful development path for my own country, especially since we have several nuclear capable shipyards that are essentially starving for work. The US Navy’s appetite for nuclear powered ships is not large enough to support the already existing capacity. We build one aircraft carrier about every five years and build one submarine a year with work being contributed by two separate yards, just to keep both of them in business. We also have a number of currently non-nuclear yards that could develop capable, modern nuclear facilities at a moderate cost if their owners realized there is a market for their products.
We even have some experience in ship mounted nuclear plants – the Sturgis was a converted Liberty ship hull with a 10 MWe pressurized water reactor based electrical generation system installed. Sturgis was put together in Mobile, Alabama and then towed to the Panama Canal Zone where she provided reliable power for pumping water for the locks during the height of the Vietnam war. (See, for example Unique Reactors and look down the page for 1967.)