Are Floating Nuclear Reactors the Next Innovation in Electricity Generation?

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Russia’s plan to build floating nuclear reactors. I am a sucker for new and innovative technologies especially those involving the ocean so I thought I would explore the topic a bit more.

Apparently, the idea emerged in the 1970s among U.S. utility companies who wanted to go around challenges they faced while looking for potential nuclear power plant sites. Other challenges arose ranging from lack of funding to objections from coastal communities who felt uneasy with that possibility. Last year, Russia revived the idea with plans to build the Akademik Lomonosov, an offshore nuclear power plant with the potential to supply electricity to roughly 200,000 people.

The reactor would be built in a shipyard and then towed offshore several miles away from the coast where it would be anchored. There, it could supply electricity to coastal communities using submerged electric transmission lines. There are even potential applications in water desalination, which requires substantial amounts of energy.

What seems really cool about the idea, however, is the fact that the cold ocean water surrounding the reactor would prevent the internal rods from ever overheating. As discussed in class, the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor poses a major safety issue. For instance, the March 2011 tsunami and the resulting Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, caused three of the six Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s reactors to melt and release substantial amounts of radioactive materials.

Equally thought-provoking is the potential negative impact that could result from the unlikely meltdown of such a power plant at sea. On the one hand, the plant could vent radioactive gasses underwater rather than releasing them in the atmosphere, which could again cause the tragedies we have witnessed at Fukushima and elsewhere. On the other hand, we would have to contend with the damage that would occur to marine ecosystems, which support several important ecological functions both inside and outside ocean waters.

The idea is exciting and merits continued consideration especially as we attempt to diversify our energy sources. We just have to leave very little room for mistakes as we delve into it further. Once that work is done, we would also need to work through objections from potential NIMBY’iers who, let’s face it, would have a fair axe to grind on this subject! — H. T.

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