Picture floating nuclear reactors sailing the seven seasgenerating emergency power at disaster sites, providing fresh water during droughts, and warming the shivering citizens of Siberia.Now, add indomitable ice floes, highly enriched uranium, hellacious weather, and terrorists slavering over lightly guarded nuclear fuel. Apply a "Made in Russia" stamp and file these titans under Technological Terrors.On June 14 the Severnoye Mashinostroitelnoe Predpriyatie (more commonly known as Sevmashpredpriyatie, or Sevmash shipyard, one of many Russian sites bursting with nuclear waste, signed a contract to construct a floating nuclear power plant. Sevmash will install pairs of KLT-40S reactors (also sometimes called KLT-40C because of transliteration errors, or just KLT-40) on barges. The Russian icebreaker fleet uses the same KLT-40 reactor type, fueled by high-enriched uranium (roughly 40% enriched). However, according to the Uranium Information Center, the floating reactors have been modified to use low-enriched fuel. Other specific differences between the reactors on the icebreaker fleet and those on the floating plants remain unclear.(Note: the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a short blurb [titled "Russias Sea Change"] about these floating plants in its latest issue. However, their piece asserts the reactor design will tentatively be a VBER-300. My sources almost uniformly say that the KLT-40S will definitely be the reactor for this initial, pilot project. The VBER-300 is being discussed for use in a proposed larger floating reactor, but the larger version is, as of now, only hypothetical.)At full capacity, the two reactors together will provide up to 70 megawatts of power. They are also capable of desalinating water, though it is unclear whether this can be done at the same time as power production. There are 11 other possible sites for these plants in Russia, but very few regional leaders have expressed interest. Rosatom, the Russian civilian nuclear power agency, now hopes to sell them to interested countries in Asia once the design has been successfully demonstrated. China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have already expressed interest.On the surface, this may not seem such a bad idea. Proposals for mobile nuclear plants as desalinators have a long history they dont produce greenhouse gases and they could get to remote locations easily. Such a humanitarian sheen takes the edge off nuclear jitters, too. Fuel will be stored onboard and, to assuage proliferation concerns, the Russians claim that the barges will come back to Russia every 4-12 years for fuel disposal.All indications, though, point to (dare I say typically Russian?) poor planning, with potential for serious problems.
The most glaring problem: the barges wont be able to move without help. According to a Russian general cited in Pravda Online, a small squadron of tugboats (likely 8-10) will move the plants around. For most of their lives, these plants will sit, barnacle-like, in shallow waters, and their emergency usefulness will be nil.Barnacled behavior also makes for a precarious security situation: in a civil war, for example, the plants would be prime, immobile targets for rebels or terrorists. No one knows whether Russias overstretched navy or the host countrywhatever it may bewill provide security.It also seems that no plans exist to harden the barges against ice, even though the first dozen or so will be used off the often-icebound northern coast of Russia. Perhaps officials figure a couple more drowned reactor cores will be mere drops in the ocean of radioactive waste already dumped in the region.And while the fuel, which will formally remain in Russian custody, is supposed to be low-enriched uranium, it could be switched out for highly enrichedeven weapons gradefuel with relatively minor changes to the reactor. The use of a design that originally used HEU makes this possibility even more worrisome. Russia already has massive stocks of HEU, which, if used, would let the reactor run longer without refueling. Though HEU is admittedly easy to blend down, if Russia runs out of money, or gets lazy, using the HEU as is might be an attractive alternative to tugging the barges back to the motherland for more fuel every few years.China has offered funding in exchange for a role in building the barges, but Russian officials declined because of technology transfer concerns. They were probably concerned that China would learn enough to build its own plants and steal market share from the Russian project.Interestingly, Rosatom decided not to capitalize strongly on the need for desalination capacity, but rather to focus on the much more emotionally charged nuclear power generation capability of their plants. Im at a loss for why this might be. Focusing on the humanitarian aspects of these plants would improve their marketability for buyers abroad.Moscow will fund the first few plantsto be sited in the frigid, poor northern states of Russia, who scarcely need convincingbut the viability of the project depends on finding foreign buyers. Since Russian experts believe the desalination market alone will reach $12 billion by 2015, the focus on power production is baffling. Perhaps there is more to the project, but it is hard to tell for now.Scanty reliable information on these plants exists, but we know they are being built. Rosatom officials have so far only offered broad, vaguely condescending platitudes as reassurance that these plants will be safe. Some claim that security will not be a problem because Sevmash is located in a high-security zone, but Pravda Online reports the plant will actually be open to the public. Others say the plant will have "five independent safety barriers," and that "[l]eakage wont occur even if a plane or a helicopter crashes into the floating block." The Russians will perhaps forgive me if I dont find these reassurances effective, especially in light of their usual utter frankness.Rosatom acting director Sergey Obozov stated that "the reliability of offshore NPP [nuclear power plants] will be the same with the Kalishnikov gun." Even if reliability is not an issue, the comparison to AK-47s is unfortunate. Do we really want cheap floating nuclear plants proliferating into volatile regions, used indiscriminately by terrorists and despots?-- Eric Hundman(Eric Hundman is a research assistant at the World Security Institute's Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC. He graduated from Yale University in 2006 with degrees in physics and political science.)