Monday, May 04, 2009

Russia Floats Arctic Nuclear.

In its efforts to find oil and natural gas in the Arctic, Russia is looking to build floating nuclear power stations that can be propelled to strategic points to provide power for drilling etc. Five plants are planned, each carrying two reactors with a combined generating capacity of 70 MW. Since they are self-propelling, these vessels would enable the exploration of some of the most far-flung oil and gas fields in the Barents and Kara seas. Their design is such that they would need refuelling only once every 12 - 14 years and they would carry their own nuclear waste, which would finally need to be put somewhere.

I recall a newspaper headline from some while ago about "floating Chernobyls" which is probably rather unfair, but there are not surprisingly concerns about the safety of these devices. The Scandinavian watchdog group, Bellona, has voiced its reservations, saying that any radioactive leakage and indeed the heat output from the plants could impact on the fragile Arctic environment. Further fears from environmentalists are that the nuclear waste will simply be dumped into the sea. This is a somewhat time-honoured policy and there is supposed to be all kinds of nuclear detritus on the floor of the Barents sea, including abandoned nuclear submarines. Probably no one knows just what is down there, and most likely no one wants to know.

It is known that there are at least 12 nuclear reactors dumped on the islands of Novaya Zemlya and on its northern coast, along with 5,000 or so containers of nuclear waste. As I recall, Novaya Zemlya is where the Russians used to do their nuclear testing - I believe the atmospheric testing was done over the northern island and the underground tests on the southern island. It is likely as radioactive as hell there anyway.

As I have noted before when some pretty extreme proposals have been advanced to try and grab the world's remaining hydrocarbon reserves, the scheme does smack of desperation. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, perhaps 25% of the world's total oil and gas lie under the Arctic, and there are diplomatic issues as to rights of their ownership. Russia famously planted a flag underwater, to stake its claim to one potential field off the northern coast of Siberia, where incidentally, there are hotspots of methane emissions from permafrost that is melting at a surprising rate. I doubt there is any connection other than that there is a lot of methane there in the form of methane hydrate.

A prototype floating power station is being built in the SevMash shipyard in Severodinsk, and there is an agreement made to build four more of them between Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation and the Republic of Yakutiya in northern Siberia.

Impetus to find more gas may be in part connected with a recent fall in Russian gas production which sharpened steeply in April. Does this mean that the country is running out of gas, or are there other aspects of production or politics? If Russia's provision of gas is indeed less than has been thought, the impact on both east and western Europe could be as severe as that of the fall in oil once the giant Ghawar field begins to give up the ghost, i.e. perhaps 20 countries beginning to run short of fuel. Russian oil production remains firm, however.

In contrast, Gazprom's output of gas fell by 7% from 1.24 billion cubic metres to 1.15 billion cubic metres in April, in fact a fall by 28% from April 2008. Gazprom accounts for 80% of all gas in Russia and provides 25% of all gas used in Europe. Britain is trying to avoid being overly dependent on Russia for its gas, at a time of the poorest diplomatic relations between the two countries since the cold war. Instead, we are importing somewhere near to one fifth of our gas in liquid form from Qatar and are engaged in earnest discussions with our Norwegian friends to get them to bring a new gas pipeline to Britain rather than to mainland Europe.

We live in interesting times, as the countries of the world try to grab what is left of its plenty of oil and gas, even in such inhospitable regions as the Arctic, and inevitably the day will come when there is not enough to go around for all of us.

Related Reading.
[1] "Russia to build floating nuclear power stations," By John Vidal,
[2] "Russian gas output collapse in April," By Simon Shuster,

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