What is a floating nuclear power plant?
In depth

What is a floating nuclear power plant?

floating nuclear power plant is a site with one or more nuclear reactors, located on a platform at sea.

It is an autonomous site that can provide electricity and heat to areas with difficult access, such as the cold Northern territories. It can also provide drinking water to dry areas, via desalination techniques.

It has a very low environmental impact and the dismantling can be done in a specialized site

Advantages

Experts consider that this type of plant offers many advantages. To start with, it can be built at a factory or shipyard, eliminating the need to set up a special site for its construction. Location is also simplified, since it is not necessary to carry out viability studies on the land and land environment. Additionally, it has a very low environmental impact and the dismantling can be done in a specialized site. The sea environment, however, makes it necessary to take a few factors into account, such as access for the staff and the equipment, as well as the need to make sure that the radioactive material is never leaked to the sea.

The first floating nuclear power plant, in Russia

The world’s first floating nuclear power plant is currently being built at the Baltiysky Zavod shipyard in Saint Petersburg, Russia. This site, known as Akademik Lomonosov, is the property of the Russian nuclear operator Rosenergoatom. It contains two KLT-40C naval propulsion reactors with a 35 MWe capacity each. These are mounted on a barge that is 144 meters long by 30 meters wide. The plant does not self propel, but must be towed to its destination and dock at the required port. Operation is previewed for 2017 at the Chukotka district, in Northwestern Russia.

What is a floating nuclear power plant?
Artist's depiction of the Russian floating nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonosov, currently in construction (Image source © Rosatom)

Another floating nuclear power plant in China

On the other hand, China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) is planning to complete its construction of a small modular multifunction floating reactor by 2020. It will be the first Chinese floating reactor, with design known as ACPR50S. Construction will start in 2017 and it is expected to start generating electricity by 2020.

What is a floating nuclear power plant?
Artist's depiction of CGN's future floating nuclear power plant (Image source © CGN)

According to CGN, this 200 MW (60 MWe) reactor is designed to provide electricity, heat and desalination. It can be used on islands or coastal areas, and also for offshore oil and gas exploration.

The plant uses a small modular reactor and is based on the offshore version of the 100 MWe ACP1000S design from China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).

The sea water absorbs the movements of the sea floor and protects the plant from earthquakes and tsunamis

Research for the future

In the field of research, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is currently developing a small offshore nuclear power plant (OFNP) which would be located at a minimum distance of 12 km from the coast. The plant combines two established and proven technologies: the nuclear reactor and the offshore oil platform. It would be placed on deep waters far from coastal populations, and would only be connected to land by an underwater energy transmission line. By placing the platform on an area with a depth of at least 100 meters, the sea water absorbs the movements of the sea floor and protects the plant from earthquakes and tsunamis. The sea can also be an infinite source of cooling water in case of an emergency.

The design consists of a cylindrical platform. The smaller version is 45 meters wide and would produce 300 MW of electricity. An alternative, larger design could reach 1100 MW, with 75 meters of diameter. In both cases, and in the same way as oil platforms, these sites include staff accommodation and a heliport for transport.

The site would be entirely built in a shipyard, and at the end of its operative life it would return to the shipyard for dismantling.

What is a floating nuclear power plant?
Artist's depiction of the floating nuclear power plant proposed by MIT (Image source © MIT)

MIT’s research team believes that its future floating site has enough potential to generate positive change in the economy of nuclear power. It has the economic advantage of “factory” production of multiple units, but each unit is big enough to benefit from economies of scale. Additionally, since it is mobile it can be transported wherever it is needed.

MIT considers that, if the project thrives, the first OFNP could go into operation in about 15 years, just on time to contribute to the massive growth in the use of nuclear energy that will be necessary to fight climate change.

Sources: World Nuclear News, MIT, Foro Nuclear