Wednesday, 8 September 2010

'Floating Chernobyls' to hit the high seas

"Floating Chernobyls-in-waiting" are coming to a sea near you after a major
international agreement was signed last week, according to critics of
nuclear power.
China and Russia agreed to expand co-operation over nuclear power,
specifically on uranium exploration and safer power plants - but also on
floating nuclear reactors. "It's a case of Homer Simpson meets the Titanic," says Ben Ayliffe, a senior
climate campaigner at Greenpeace. "The idea is just mind-boggling." Unsurprisingly, he is appalled by the idea. Russia has been planning floating reactors for quite some time, but reached
a recent milestone when the hull of the Akademik Lomonosov was launched into
the Baltic Sea. The reactor is not complete, but the barge that will house the plant was
launched on June 30 at the Baltyskiy shipyard in St Petersburg - and China
has been watching developments very closely indeed. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's nuclear agency Rosatom said the plant
would be "absolutely safe" and predicted "big interest from foreign
customers - especially in developing nations". Floating reactors can be used in inaccessible places where there is no
electricity grid - including exploring for oil in the Arctic or Antarctic. The current aim of the projects is to create "a reference plant to become an
innovative product for the international market," Rosatom said. "Adding a
desalination capability to an energy system... promises an additional
improvement in the project's economics when deployed in localities with
scarce fresh water supplies," the nuclear body added. This statement is clearly aimed at Middle Eastern nations that are flush
with petrodollars. As well as providing power in remote locations without having to build a
vast grid system, nuclear energy can be used in the energy-intensive
desalination of water. The population explosion that is widely expected in the coming decades is
largely going to happen in developing countries. The Middle East has a structural shortage of water - one of the most vital
commodities - and floating reactors could provide an answer to this problem.

The water issue is intrinsically linked to current concerns about a looming
food crisis, as well as providing potable water. The Middle East has been a
net importer of food since the 1970s - so a ready supply of fresh water
would be strategically important - and nuclear desalination has been proved
to work in areas as far apart as California and Kazakhstan. But environmentalists remain far from convinced of the benefits. "There is an inherent risk with any nuclear plant... but you multiply the
risk significantly by towing the plants to the Middle East or to remote
areas," Mr Ayliffe argues. "Then there's the intractable problem of nuclear
waste in an age of heightened security," he adds. "It's incredibly rash." Greenpeace understands that there will be issues in providing fresh water to
a growing population in the future, but believes that there are other ways
of generating electricity. Mr Ayliffe also pointed out that a major proposed use of the Russian reactor
is to help explore for oil in remote areas. "We are using risky reactors to
continue our dependency on oil," he said. The floating reactor should be ready late in 2012 and it will have the
capacity to produce 80 megawatts of electricity. Mr Kiriyenko said at least six potential sites for such plants had already
been chosen in northern Russia. However, the history of Soviet-era nuclear accidents has prompted some
critics to refer to the reactors as "floating Chernobyls-in-waiting" after
the meltdown at the plant in Ukraine in 1986. The accident is the only
example of a "Level 7" event on the International Nuclear Event Scale - the
maximum level that can be reached. The scale was introduced by the
International Atomic Energy Agency in 1990. It is a logarithmic scale,
similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes. The fire at Windscale, now
Sellafield, in the 1950s would have been classified as a Level 5 event. China is making a big push for nuclear power and is testing different
nuclear technologies from France, Canada, Russia and the US. According to the World Nuclear Association's reactor database, China had 12
operating reactors on August 1 this year, with 24 under construction. A
total of 33 reactors are going through the planning stage, with a further
120 facilities proposed. The new accord between Russia and China means that projects such as the
Akademik Lomonosov will be accelerated. As the world's thirst for energy
continues, a new threat has emerged on the high seas. Despite the benefits,
concern remains that these new plants will be a magnet for terrorists or

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