Are Floating Reactors The Future Of Nuclear Energy?

The future of nuclear energy is either gloomy or promising depending on the country or region in question. In the developed world nuclear power is in decline. Especially after the disaster at Fukushima in Japan, the nuclear power industry is fighting an uphill battle. Tokyo became the world’s largest importer of LNG following the closure of several of its nuclear facilities. Germany is planning to decommission all of its 22 plants until2022. Also, heavyweight France which derives 75 percent of its energy from nuclear, has announced the decommissioning of 14 of its 58 plants. Only the UK intends to construct a new power plant with Chinese and French help.

In other parts of the world, however, nuclear energy is a highly sought-after prize. Russia’s state-owned Rosatom has emerged as the global leader when it comes to constructing nuclear power plants. The company has an international order book worth $300 billion spread over 12 countries in the developing world. Traditional plants take over a decade to build and are definitively fixed to the grid, but Rosatom intends to provide alternative technologies to overcome these liabilities.

In order to maintain its competitive edge, the company has invested approximately $400 million in developing a unique kind of nuclear power plant, a floating one. The secretive nature of the project in the first years of its development didn’t help assure critics concerning the safety of the facility. In recent years, Rosatom has disclosed some of the construction methods in order to prove to potential customers the value and safety of its technological breakthrough.

Besides Russia, others also intend to develop floating nuclear power plants of their own. Two Chinese state-owned companies are developing the necessary technology to start constructing up to 20 facilities over the coming years. American scientists are also at it, but according to Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology “the Russians are light-years ahead of us”.

Rosatom is convinced of the safety of its floating nuclear power plant. The company points out that the floating aspect of the facility provides it with an infinite amount of cooling material. The reason why the disaster at Fukushima was exacerbated was the flooding of the backup diesel engines which prevented it from pumping water. A floating power plant shouldn’t have this problem. Environmentalists, however, are not convinced.

They point out that a tsunami could move the plant deep in-land and leave it battered and stranded far away from the required cooling material. Rosatom has pointed out that during emergency situations the reactors can be cooled for 24 hours without access to outside resources. During that period an emergency evacuation needs to transport the reactors to safety. In comparison in the U.S. regulators require on-land reactors to operate for 72 hours without external water supplies in an emergency shutdown.

Possible buyers aren’t yet convinced though. One reason for this could be Moscow’s not so clean state of record when it comes to accidents with nuclear reactors on seafaring vessels such as submarines and icebreakers which the design of the reactors is based on. Apparently, Sudan is the only country until now interested in a floating nuclear power plant. According to the Sudan Tribune, the minister of water resources and electricity has shown interest for the country to become the first foreign customer.