According to Kaz Minerals, Russia is building a floating nuclear reactor fleet to power remote projects, with the Akademic Lomonosov being the first.
Keel-laying ceremonies were held in August at Wilson Heavy Industry Shipyard in China for the first of four barges that would eventually house not one, but two nuclear reactors. The barge will be Russia’s second floating nuclear power plant once it is finished.
The first, the Akademic Lomonosov, was the first floating nuclear power station since the 1960s and was put into operation in 2020. It is also the only floating nuclear reactor in existence and a crucial part of Russia’s attempt to build a major shipping route over the Arctic.
Vladimir Putin’s idea for floating nuclear power reactors, however, goes much further than just a shipping lane. Putin received a reported $2.3 billion proposal from the Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom last year to construct up to five floating nuclear reactors.
Russia’s easternmost province is home to a copper and gold mine, which is thought to be the largest untapped deposit in the world, in addition to opening a Northern Sea Route. Due to the lack of power and roads in the location, an unique power source is required.
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Nuclear Fuels Expansion
The United States Army Corps of Engineers created the first floating nuclear power plant in the 1960s by converting a decommissioned World War II Liberty Ship. The MH-1A STURGIS, a single-loop pressurised water reactor, produced electricity in the Panama Canal at a period when constructing a new energy plant was neither practical nor cost-effective.
The Army Corps shut down the STURGIS in 1976 after the Panama Canal Company established long-term power sources in the region, despite the fact that it had proven to be a practical and dependable source of electricity for an onshore grid used for military and civilian purposes. According to the American Nuclear Society, no floating nuclear power facilities have been constructed or proposed between 1976 and Russia’s most recent efforts.
In 2020, Pevek, a remote and poorly inhabited Russian town off the northern coast of Siberia, saw the completion of construction and the launch of its first floating nuclear power station. Because Pevek is adjacent to Chukotka, a region rich in copper, lithium, gold, and silver, and because Putin sees it as a potential central shipping hub, Pevek is a key location for his expansion aspirations.
A merchant ship sails along the Panama Canal on March 23, 2015.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2019, Putin said, “[Artic expansion] is a realistic, well-calculated, and concrete task. We need to make the Northern sea route safe and commercially feasible,” according to RadioFreeEurope.
Only four months of the year are currently available for accessing Pevek’s harbour. Putin is still optimistic that a Northern Sea route and an economically viable North-East transit between Russia and the West will someday be possible, according to the Arctic Institute.
More importantly, Putin’s viewpoint is shared by others. The US, Norway, Denmark, and Canada are all proponents of a potential Northern Sea route and are aware that they must contend with each other for control of the region.
In 2017, then-U.S. defence secretary Jim Mattis said of Russia’s Arctic expansion, “The Arctic is key strategic terrain. Russia is taking aggressive steps to increase its presence there. I will prioritise the development of an integrated strategy for the Arctic.”
Floating Nuclear Power
According to legend, the world’s day begins in Chukotka, which is located in the far northeastern corner of Siberia. It has a large reindeer population and shares a marine border with Alaska. Putin aims to change this with his Arctic mining enterprise since the primary agricultural activity in the area is reindeer herding.
The mining project Baimskaya, which is situated in Chukotka, is reportedly home to “the world’s most significant undeveloped copper assets with the potential to become a large scale, low cost, open pit copper mine,” according to Kaz Minerals, the company in charge of the project. The deposit was found in 1972, but due to a lack of infrastructure and roads, it remained undeveloped. Using its floating nuclear power plants, Russia is addressing some of the problem.
Even after complete ramp-up in 2023, the Academic Lomonosov won’t be able to provide all the required power for Putin’s Arctic expansion plan in Chukotka. As a result, Russia started up four additional floating nuclear power facilities.
“The required infrastructure is being processed with the Russian government in accordance with the Complex Development Plan for the Chukotka region. … Carbon-free power will be supplied to the site from a nuclear facility to be constructed and operated by Rosatom, enabling the Group to produce very low-carbon copper,” Kaz Minerals reports.
It adds, “The project is located in a region identified by the Russian Government as strategically important for economic development and is expected to benefit from the provision of tax incentives.”
The World Nuclear Organization estimates that the Baimskaya development will require about 300 megawatts of electricity. Rosatom intends to supply the energy through its three planned floating nuclear power units. A pair of pressurised water nuclear reactors on each ship will be able to generate 55 megawatts of electricity. The fourth ship will be kept on standby and will be utilised for maintenance and emergencies.
A Danish start-up company called Seaborg Technologies is creating a Seaborg Power Barge in response to the possibility for Arctic growth made feasible by floating nuclear power stations. The European Union provided a subsidy that allowed for the development.