Friday, June 23, 2006

Floating Chernobyl?

Russia is set to launch the world's first floating nuclear power station, despite strong objections from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, who have dubbed it a "floating Chernobyl". The first of the fleet could be ready in just four years. The proposal has received the approval of the Kremlin, and work is due to start next year on two nuclear reactors, plus the platform for them. Nuclear industry leaders have reinforced that fears about the safety of the transportable nuclear facility are unfounded, and Sergei Kiriyeno, Chief of the Russian Atomic Power Agency, has stated in no uncertain terms that, "there will be no floating Chernobyl". His sentiments were echoed by another senior official at Rosenergoatom, who said that they would be as "reliable as a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which are a benchmark of safety." That's nice to know! Probably the issue is particularly sensitive in this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station unit 4 reactor, which until only recently looked to have put paid to any future nuclear development (see my previous postings about "Chernobyl" for further details).
Under an agreement between the state-controlled Rosenergoatom consortium and the Sevmash shipyard, in the far north of Russia, which is used to build nuclear submarines and is where this new facility will be constructed, the first electricity will be provided from the mobile power station in 2010, to supply electricity for the Sevmash naval facility. The cost is expected to be in the region of £183 million ($336 million) for the first unit, of which up to six are anticipated in total. From an engineering viewpoint, the project is fascinating. The structures will supply heat and electricity to far flung corners of Russia's far east and northern regions, which lie well above the Arctic Circle, and where it is consequently very difficult, expensive and unreliable to ship coal and oil. Once the technology is proven, Russia plans to sell the floating structures to other nations, in particular India and China. The structures are planned to have a service lifetime of 40 years. They will need a "crew" of around 70 souls, and could provide enough energy to power a "medium sized town." The initial power station will be moored in the White Sea, off the coast of the town of Severodvinsk in Russia's northern Archangel region.
I live in the village of Caversham, which borders the river Thames on the north side, with the medium sized town of Reading to the south of it. Perhaps we might see such an installation floating up-river from London, having traversed the North Sea, to provide local energy here, in the likely uncertain times forthcoming. However, I doubt that local environmentalists would be any more keen on the idea than are other environmental groups, who are now warning that these "floaters" could sink in stormy weather and that they could become a target for terrorists. A report from Bellona Foundation, an independent Norwegian research group, has accused the floating power station of being "a threat to the Arctic, the world's oceans, and the whole concept of non-proliferation".
Russia presently generates around 17% of its electricity from 31 nuclear reactors housed among 10 different sites, and President Vladimir Putin has said that he wants to increase this figure to 25%. It is interesting that all the major nuclear nations including the U.S., U.K., France and Russia are set to expand their nuclear programmes. This is not necessarily only in the interests of providing nuclear power. Yesterday's newspapers all bore a headline close to a picture of Gordon Brown, the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer (who may well become the next Prime Minister, if Tony Blair steps down before the next election), alluding to his statement this week that Britain should hold on to its "independent nuclear deterrent". This is in reference to the fact that the Trident weapons delivery system, supported adamantly by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980's, is due to be mothballed by around 2025. In order to maintain that "deterrent", work needs to be started pretty soon on whatever the "new" ("Trident Mark II") programme will be, to have it up and running, having sorted out any teething troubles - there are bound to be some - within 2 decades.
The warheads will require a nuclear explosive, irrespective of the means by which they are to be delivered to potential targets, and this is most likely to be in the form of plutonium. Hence, fast-breeder reactors might be employed in the "new generation" of nuclear reactors that coincidentally are also needed within about 2 decades, to make the available uranium fuel reserve go further by converting it into plutonium, which could also serve a secondary purpose of being loaded into warheads.
There is a lesson from history, that the U.K. atomic power programme was not really instigated to produce "electricity too cheap to meter", but to provide plutonium for atom bombs, thus securing our position in the world nuclear order in the aftermath of WWII. If there is ever a world consensus that we do need nuclear power, an alternative fuel to uranium could be introduced, namely thorium. Although far more of this is available as a nuclear fuel once "bred" into uranium-233 (see previous posting, "Thorium instead of Uranium?"), it is far less effective in terms of plutonium production: rather more being a good way of disposing of plutonium and other "nasty" actinides. Hence I envisage the uranium-plutonium based approach remaining popular for the forseeable future.


Anonymous said...

Given that modern nuclear warheads require 3-4 Kg of plutonium, that the UK currently has about 200 warheads (600-800 Kg of Pu worth) and that we have a reserve of 3.2 MT of weapons grade plutonium, the building of new reactors for military purposes would seem superfluous.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I quite agree - we are amply provided for in terms of plutonium. The reserve of weapons grade plutonium is, I believe, 3.2 "tonnes", i.e 3,200 kg, which altogether should be more than enough to provide a "military threat" unless the world is going to get itself into a horrible mess. My point is that of a mindset, which has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age - the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weaponary. I believe this is likely to persist, and reactors that "could" breed plotonium (whether we "need" it or not) will find some following among those amenable to the purpose of nuclear weapons. Hence there may be some "ideological resistance to e.g. "thorium", as well as that of the cost of re-tooling reactors for it, or building completely new ones.
What I have not been able to ascertain is exactly what kind of reactors the U.K.'s "new generation" are likely to be. Given that uranium is in relatively short supply (50 years at best, even at the present rate of consumption worldwide) as a fuel for fission reactors, which use only the uranium-235 (and even the enrichment of that is inefficient, throwing away around a third of the mere 0.7% of it that is contained in natural uranium), fast-breeders might be one means to eke-out the uranium supply by breeding the majority isotope (238) into plutonium: vide supra. If they are not "breeders", then how are the new reactors to be fuelled for any sensible length of time?
If you know the answers, I would appreciate the benefit of your knowledge.

Stewart Peterson said...

CANDUs (ACR-1000s) can run directly on light-water reactor waste, with no Sellafield-style reprocessing. That is an immediate solution.

Longer-term, more advanced fast breeders that don't produce weapons-grade plutonium, are inherently safe, and likewise require no Sellafield-style reprocessing have already been designed and finished the first step of the US approval process.