The northern coast of Russia is an area endowed with rich natural resources and vast mineral wealth but burdened with a limited infrastructure. Because of the extremely cold winters, transportation is difficult and infrequent.
During the Soviet era, finding workers to exploit the riches was not difficult; they had little choice in the matter. Once they were in place, they had little hope of finding a new place to live.
Supplying reliable electric power sufficient to achieve a comfortable level of existence was not a major state priority.
The situation changed with the fall of the Soviet Union. The natural resources still exist, but the workers have other opportunities. Mining organizations, forestry companies and other employers are beginning to pay competitive wages to attract increasingly scarce skilled laborers.
Workers and their families are demanding additional services as a prerequisite for agreeing to relocate to the remote outposts. One of the more common demands is for greatly increased amounts of electric power.
Expensive Diesel Power
Traditionally, electricity in remote areas is supplied by diesel engines that operate on a limited schedule in order to conserve their fuel. Even a highly efficient diesel will burn about 5 kilograms of oil for every kilowatt-day of power produced; the need to move this much material represents a heavy burden on the logistic support network.
In a cold, remote area that is ice locked for much of the year, diesel fuel can cost three to four times as much as it does in more accessible areas. Not only is transportation difficult, but storage is expensive because of the cost of heating and need to provide sufficient capacity to allow for long periods without resupply.
According to published estimates, the production cost of electricity in the remote northeast sections of Russia is the equivalent of 10 to 12 cents (US) per kilowatt hour. This might surprise some who are familiar with the region’s oil wealth, but diesel engines cannot run on crude oil.
Not surprisingly, Russian leaders have recognized nuclear energy represents a possible solution to the electricity needs of the Arctic. Problem solvers did not have to look far for evidence supporting the viability of nuclear energy in the Arctic.
Nuclear powered ice breakers have been a fixture in the Arctic for several decades; their performance superiority over diesel powered vessels is legendary. Ships like the Lenin have demonstrated the ability to operate in ice as thick as 20 feet. These enormous ice breakers are so well accepted in the region that they are used to conduct cruises to the North Pole during the summer, when their ice crunching service is not required to keep open shipping lanes.
Officials at the Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute have announced plans to build at least fifteen nuclear power barges, each with a total of 140 MW of electric power capacity. The power plants on the barges will be based on the successful KLT-40 nuclear ice breaker engine, a 70 MWe design that has proven its capability to operate in the harsh Arctic environment.
The cost of each two unit plant is estimated to be approximately $250 million, with a projected break even after ten years of operation. The design core life for the plants will be approximately 13 years, after which time the barge will be returned to the building yard for refueling. Spare barges for replacement power during the one-year refueling and overhaul period will be part of the system.
Active negotiations for similar plants are in progress with the governments of China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, all with similar needs for a reliable supply of electricity.
With the addition of a planned desalination capability, project leaders see the potential for dozens of additional customers in countries with coastal areas where fresh water supply problems are as common as electrical supply problems.