ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
ABOUT FLOATING NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS
WHAT IS AN FNPP AND WHY DO WE NEED IT?
FNPP stands for a floating nuclear power plant. It consists of a floating power unit (FPU) – based on
Russian nuclear shipbuilding technologies, it is a special barge equipped with advanced safety and
reliability parameters to the reactors on board – as well as coastal infrastructure implemented at the
mooring site (breakwaters, power lines, etc.). The “Akademik Lomonosov” FNPP is the lead project in a series of low-power transportable power units.
What makes FPUs unique is that they are built, from start to finish, in shipyards, using the same expert construction technology as on nuclear icebreakers and Navy ships. Moreover, the floating design of the power plant lowers capital cost construction in the area where the nuclear power plant (NPP) is located.
Essentially, the FNPP is like a large nuclear-powered icebreaker (it is installed with the same type of
reactors that have decades of safe operations on icebreakers). The only difference is that the power from the reactor isn’t used for safe passage through the Arctic sea but to power remote regions, where it is practically impossible to transport electricity mains to by land.
FNPPs can be used to provide power to islands, desalination facilities, and hard-to-reach coastal areas both in the North and the South.
BUT WHY IS IT NECESSARY TO INSTALL FNPPS – OR NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS
IN GENERAL – IN THE ARCTIC?
Half of the 4 million people who live in the world’s Arctic regions are in Russia. Most of the settlements in the Far North are hard-to-reach; they are isolated “energy islands”, cut off from the national grid. Currently, their main source of fuel comes from coal and oil, which has an extremely negative impact on the environment. Air and water pollution harms valuable ecosystems, leading to a reduction in human life expectancy, as well as the extinction of entire species and living organisms.
ARE THERE REALLY NO SAFER AND CLEANER ENERGY SUPPLY OPTIONS
Those who oppose nuclear energy argue that it is possible for people in the Arctic, especially off the Siberian coast, to completely rely on renewable energy sources – replacing oil and coal with solar panels and wind farms. Their argument, however, is untenable.
In most of the inhabited territories along the Siberian Arctic coast, the average daily wind power is extremely low - the annual average speed does not exceed 3 to 3.5 metres per second (m/s) (or 6.7 to 7.8 mph). Power cannot be generated from wind turbines at wind speeds below 3 m/s. Moreover, permafrost makes installing wind turbines extremely difficult and expensive. High humidity and low temperatures cause wind turbine blades to be covered in ice. The experience of operating such wind farms in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago and the Yamal Peninsula, despite the high cost of installation and maintenance, has shown that the farms only operate at 15-20% capacity maximum and have to rely on backup energy sources – oil and coal – when wind intensity is low.
As for solar panels, they would only be operational for half of the year when the Arctic experiences what’s called the polar day (when the day lasts more than 24 hours). They also require constant maintenance – snow cleaning and de-icing. During polar night periods (when the night lasts more than 24 hours), and in times when the sun is obstructed by heavy snowfall, the lack of electricity generation from solar panels again must be compensated by burning coal and oil. On the other hand, small nuclear energy, namely floating nuclear power plants, can reach inaccessible Arctic areas and provide remote settlements and facilities with an uninterrupted source of clean energy. Therefore, reducing the region’s dependence on oil and coal, leading to a reduction of harmful pollutants, substances and millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
HOW WILL THE "AKADEMIK LOMONOSOV" FNPP CONTRIBUTE TO REDUSING HARMFUL EMISSIIONS IN THE ARCTIC?
The “Akademik Lomonosov” FNPP will not only replace the decommissioned Bilibino NPP, but also the working Chaunskaya Power Plant that uses brown coal as fuel – probably the most harmful type of fuel. There are over 50,000 people who live and work in the region, so, this is not only about long-term sustainable development – which is impossible without a stable energy supply – but also about the region’s energy security. So, as well as ensuring the elimination of harmful emissions in the Arctic ecosystem, “Akademik Lomonosov” is also a guarantee that the region’s inhabitants will not be left without light and heat in the freezing Far North.
WILL "AKADEMIK LOMONOSOV" CONTRIBUTE
TO THE NORTHERN SEA ROUTE PROJECT?
The Northern Sea Route (NSR) will connect European and Far Eastern Russian ports, including those located in the mouths of navigable Siberian rivers. It is predicted that the NSR will reduce traffic on the ‘traditional’ Suez Canal route by about 34%. However, the Arctic region can only be made safely navigable with the existence of an appropriate infrastructure and stable regional energy supply.
The city of Pevek, where the FNPP will be moored, is one of the key ports along the NSR. The deployment of the FNPP in Pevek will provide the right conditions for accelerated socio-economic growth in the Chukotka region, as a whole, to fit the needs of the NSR project.
The FNPP will, therefore, be a key infrastructural element in the NSR development programme, as not only will it provide energy but also heat to the Far North ports, where it is planned for NSR traffic to pass through.
BUT DON’T THEY SAY THAT THE FNPP WILL BE USED TO POWER DRILLING PLATFORMS THAT PRODUCE CARBON FUEL? IS THERE NOT A CONTRADICTION HERE: YOU BOOST CARBON FUELS EXTRACTION WHILE CLAIMING THAT ARE HELPING TO CUT EMISSIONS?
This is a fallacious argument.
The FNPP provides remote regions with clean energy, which can be used both to supply energy to households and to industrial facilities. If the mineral resources sector is a significant part of the economy in any given region, then electricity will be consumed by that sector, regardless of the energy source. The same would apply if the source came from wind and solar power. Applying the same logic, one can argue that installing solar panels on oil tankers is contrary to sustainable development goals – yet it is obviously not the case.
The absence of the FNPP will not force oil and gas companies to abandon mining ambitions. Instead, they would rely on diesel-generated drilling platforms – a source of additional CO2 emissions.
Besides, oil and gas are primary resources for advanced petrochemical products vital to our daily lives, including medicines, agricultural fertilisers and so on; according to the International Energy Agency, petrochemical products are also found in “solar panels, wind turbine blades, batteries, thermal insulation for buildings, and electric vehicle parts”, all of which are pivotal to sustainable development.
Nuclear energy saves hydrocarbon resources for better and cleaner use.
BUT DOESN’T NUCLEAR ENERGY POSE A RISK IN TERMS OF ACCIDENTS THAT MAY OCCUR AT THE PLANT? IS IT IRRESPONSIBLE TO PLACE A NUCLEAR REACTOR ON WATER, AS, SURELY, IF THE REACTOR EXPLODES THEN IT WILL BE ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO RECTIFY THE CONSEQUENCES?
The mere placement of nuclear reactors on ships is nothing fundamentally new. Nuclear icebreakers have been operational in the Arctic for many years now, installed with the same small nuclear reactors as the one that will be operating in the FNPP.
In short, FNPP reactors have been tested and proven to operate safely over decades on nuclear icebreakers. Yet, “Akademik Lomonosov” has the added benefit of operating in safer conditions than icebreakers. Icebreakers float through thick ice many kilometres from the coastline, but the FNPP will never be in motion, as it will be moored to a special pier and stay there. Additionally, the FNPP has a simpler design to the nuclear icebreakers and submarines. The FNPP will be moored and secured to a special pier, without any in-built motion capabilities (no motor or propeller functions). This means that there is no risk to the FNPP of any self-propelling system failure or any other emergency situations related to mobility functions.
The FNPP is designed in such a way that even in the face of a severe accident the probability of radioactive substance leaking into the environment is absolutely negligible.
BUT BEFORE CHERNOBYL, EVERYONE WAS ALSO SURE THAT THE REACTORS WERE ABSOLUTELY SAFE! YET, THE EXPLOSION HAPPENED! WHAT ARE THE GUARANTEES THAT THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN AGAIN IN THE CASE OF THE FNPP?
Firstly, FNPP reactor technology (pressurised water reactors) is fundamentally different to the RBMK-type reactors (graphite reactors) that exploded at the Chernobyl NPP. Pressurised water reactors are the most widely used and safest nuclear technology in the world. Unlike the RBMK, the reactor core of a pressurised water reactor – i.e. the part of the reactor where nuclear fuel generates energy – is surrounded by a protective containment shell, which ensures that Chernobyl-type release of radioactive substances simply cannot occur with these types of reactors. It is also important to remember that the accident at the Chernobyl NPP occurred when the main reactor safety systems were deliberately shut off – modern systems have been designed to eliminate such risk.
Secondly, the nuclear energy industry, as a whole, learnt its lessons from the Chernobyl accident and improved technologies and regulations accordingly. Similarly, IAEA and national regulator requirements were further tightened after Fukushima. Adhering to both post-Chernobyl and post-Fukushima safety requirements, the FNPP meets the highest safety standards.
All Russian and international safety standards were observed when designing the “Akademik Lomonosov” FNPP. In particular, the safety parameters followed the Russian regulatory document “General Safety Provisions for Nuclear Power Plants on ships” and the IAEA post-Chernobyl INSAG-3 “Basic Safety Principles for Nuclear Power Plants”.
According to these documents, the probabilistic safety assessment (PSA)-estimated cumulative probability of core damage should not exceed 10-5 reactor-years.
Peer-reviewed PSA modelling showed that the damage probability to the “Akademik Lomonosov” FNPP reactor core, as a result of initiating events occurring internally when operating at full power, does not exceed 10-7 reactor-years – i.e. the chances of a serious accident at the FNPP are less than one hundred thousandth of a percent.
For comparison, astronomers estimate that the probability of a giant asteroid destroying our planet in the coming decades is 1,6 х 10-5 – in other words, it is twice more likely for that to happen then for there to be a severe accident at the “Akademik Lomonosov” FNPP.
BUT THERE HAVE BEEN ACCIDENTS ON RUSSIAN NUCLEAR-POWERED ICEBREAKERS AND SUBMARINES! HOW DID SUCH RELIABLE SAFETY SYSTEMS FAIL
TO PREVENT THESE?
The last radiation accident on nuclear floating facilities in Russia happened in 1985 on the K-431 submarine (before the accident at the Chernobyl NPP and all changes made to safety requirements since). In the last 34 years, not a single incident has led to a nuclear reactor related accident, nor to any leak of radioactive substances. This includes the K-141 Kursk nuclear submarine tragedy which suffered severe damage due to a torpedo explosion. The lack of nuclear-related accidents is a testament to continuous nuclear technological advancements, especially in the field of safety and security. During the development and production of the “Akademik Lomonosov” FNPP all safety design parameters were applied to all stationary and operational elements of the project.
OK, BUT EVEN IF THE FNPP IS SAFE FROM INTERNAL FACTORS, EXTERNAL FACTORS SUCH AS EARTHQUAKES, TSUNAMIS AND ICEBERGS REMAIN. WHAT, FOR EXAMPLE, WOULD HAPPEN TO THE FNPP IF IT WERE TO COLLIDE WITH AN ICEBERG OR IF WAVES CRASH THE PLANT ONTO THE ROCKY COAST?
Determined to ensure the safest and most environmentally friendly source of power for the area, we took into account all possible and even the most unlikely extreme scenarios when developing the FNPP’s design and strength of its structures.
As the FNPP is on water, it is not at risk from earthquakes. Coastal and hydraulic structures have been installed to provide additional protection against tsunamis. Dams and breakwaters have been installed, making colliding with icebergs practically impossible, and coastal infrastructure prevents any possible impact either against the shore or the sea floor.
The maximum height of waves off the Siberian coast can come to 3 metres. We have tested the reliability and stability of the FNPP to withstand waves 20 times higher than 6 metres. In addition, the vessel can remain stable under winds of up to 80 m/s. The maximum list of the vessel is only 3°-5°, which means that any strong storms, waves or flooding will not cause the ship to capsize, and thus will not require the reactor to be shut off.
The foundations are designed to withstand earthquakes of 7 and 8 on the MSK scale (estimated to occur every 100 and 10,000 years, respectively), and safety systems have been installed to shut down the FNPP without risk of accident.
Despite all these fail-safes, we, nevertheless, simulated a situation should the FNPP be torn off the pier, thrown ashore and turned upside down. Even in such an unlikely event, all safety systems will continue to function normally, and the reactors will be reliably protected from any damage.
THE TITANIC WAS DEEMED UNSINKABLE AND LOOK WHAT HAPPENED!
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF THE FNPP GETS FLOODED?
The FNPP is divided into 10 watertight compartments and will remain afloat even if two of them are flooded (even if the two compartments are adjacent to each other). The maximum list of the vessel in this case will only be 3°. The reactor itself is located at the centre of the ship’s hull, strongly protected by heavy-duty materials. It is worth noting, that the FNPP can withstand a crash, or deliberate ramming, from another ship and still stay afloat.
In the extremely unlikely event of the FNPP sinking, emergency reactor shutdown mechanisms have been installed. The reactor will be shut off automatically without an operator having to intervene, thanks to passive safety systems.
In case of flooding, using special springs, one of these passive safety systems instantly and automatically discharges emergency protection rods into the reactor core. This ensures that the reactor remains at a safe level of subcriticality, thereby preventing a Chernobyl-type accident. The FNPP is also equipped with a basic passive safety system installed on all land based NPPs where protection rods are discharged by gravity. This passive safety system will come into effect if the Plant is not flooded and under normal gravitational conditions.
In the case of flooding, natural coolant (water) circulation ensures that the reactor core will not melt. This coolant removes any residual energy from the reactor core and does not rely on pumps or human intervention to do so.
In short, any system failure that the FNPP may suffer will not lead to an accident. Even in the absolutely unbelievable event that all active (operator-driven) safety systems fail simultaneously, the passive safety systems ensure reactor shut down and makes it watertight, preventing any radioactive substance leak.
WHAT ABOUT THE FNPPS SECURITY SYSTEMS? HOW CAN YOU GUARANTEE THAT TERRORISTS WON’T INFILTRATE THE PLANT OR CRASH A SHIP OR PLANE INTO IT?
“Akademik Lomonosov” is a secure facility, subject to the same security measures as any ‘traditional’ land based NPP.
The security system of the FNPP is divided into three zones: ‘water’ (protected by dams, breakwater
and other structures), ‘ground’, and ‘floating power unit (FPU)’.
The ground and the FPU zones can only be accessed with an approved security pass. There are video
surveillance systems and alarms, as well as emergency communication channels. We have a long history of guarding land based NPPs, as well as sensitive facilities in the Far North, the organisation of our posts and patrols, therefore, will be based on this experience.
In the water zone, monitoring and radar systems, that have been repeatedly tested on nuclear-powered icebreakers and submarines, deny unauthorised penetration and defend against unexpected attacks from sea and air. Security services have all the military equipment required at their disposal to eliminate any risk of a plane or ship crashing into the FNPP.
OK, BUT ARE THERE ANY SYSTEMS IN PLACE TO DEAL WITH THE WORST-CASE-SCENARIO? EVEN WITH A 1 TO 10 MILLION CHANCE THAT A MAJOR ACCIDENT OCCURS, THE SAFETY SYSTEMS FAIL, ALLOWING FOR A CHAIN REACTION TO MELT THE REACTOR CORE LIKE IN CHERNOBYL, WHAT WILL HAPPEN THEN?
In the extremely unlikely event of an accident, water supplies give the operator time to take the necessary actions, and passive cooling systems (natural circulation) are in place to cool the reactor unit, keeping the molten fuel inside the unit so that it is not damaged.
In the unlikely event of a severe fuel melting accident, the most important task is to keep the molten mass inside the reactor vessel - containment shell. The FNPP has been installed with a special emergency cooling system for the hull, which fills the reactor shaft with cold water (passive reactor vessel bottom cooling system). It is designed (and has been verified by calculations and bench tests) to prevent the reactor vessel from melting, ensuring that the reactor vessel remains intact even if the core melts, thus preventing any chance of a leak.
There is also an independent alternative reactor vessel cooling system which, in the event of a severe accident, will inject additional volumes of water or, if necessary, a special cooling solution inside the vessel to keep it from melting.
BUT WHAT MEASURES ARE IN PLACE TO DEAL WITH A HYDROGEN EXPLOSION, AS WAS THE CASE IN FUKUSHIMA? EXPERTS SAY THAT UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF IONISING RADIATION, THE WATER IN THE REACTOR AND AROUND IT SPLITS AND FORMS AN EXPLOSIVE MIXTURE OF ATOMIC HYDROGEN WITH ATMOSPHERIC OXYGEN. ALSO, COOLING THE REACTOR WITH WATER CAN CAUSE VAPOUR CONDENSATION AND AIR LEAKS INTO THE COMPARTMENT WHERE THE REACTOR IS LOCATED. IF A HYDROGEN OR STEAM EXPLOSION OCCUR, THE REACTOR VESSEL WILL BE DAMAGED, AND LEAKAGE WILL OCCUR.
All emergency scenarios were repeatedly modelled and tested.
The reactor’s design is such that, even in a severe accident and core melting, the intensity of ionising radiation and the volume of water in the area during radiolysis (the decay of chemical compounds as a result of radiation exposure), given the FNPP reactor’s capacity range, will prevent atomic hydrogen from forming to the amount necessary for such an explosion.
The reactor compartments have also been specially designed to withstand any increased pressure produced by excessive steam, eliminating any risk of a steam explosion.
DON’T NPPS PRODUCE NUCLEAR WASTE THAT WILL POISON THE ARCTIC ENVIRONMENT? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL?
Nuclear fuel will need to be reloaded every 3 years. The unloaded fuel will remain on board the FNPP. First, it will be stored in a storage pool and then in dry containers – at no point will it be taken ashore. There is a whole complex for spent fuel storage on board the FNPP. Once the FPU is towed to a special facility for planned maintenance (this will occur several times during the FPU’s lifecycle, the first of which is planned 10-12 years after start-up), the fuel is discharged from the FPU and sent for processing. After the repair is completed, the empty FPU will be sent back to Pevek (or wherever it is moored).
This spent fuel and waste management system completely eliminates the risk of any radioactive leakage into the environment.
CRITICS SAY THAT THE FNPP IS UNREASONABLY EXPENSIVE. IS THIS TRUE? HOW MUCH DOES BUILDING A NUCLEAR POWER PLANT COST AND WHAT IS THE EXPECTED PRICE OF THE ELECTRICITY GENERATED?
Small nuclear, both on land and water, is the most economically viable and low-carbon energy solution for the Arctic. In hard-to-reach areas the price and cost of electricity is much higher than in the average national grid – it ensures enough revenue to make a fair return on investment in FNPP when they are built in series.
Anti-nuclear activists usually take out of context capital expenditure figures for the construction of the FNPP and compare it with alternatives, claiming that nuclear energy is more expensive and, thus, is unable to compete. This is nothing more than an exercise in manipulating numbers.
Yes, the plant requires more upfront investment but, unlike wind turbines and solar panels - which normally only operate at 15-20% of their installed capacity with a service life, especially in the Arctic, of just 20-25 years - a nuclear power plant operates at 90% of its capacity for about twice as long. If you divide the amount of upfront investment by the number of kilowatt-hours output over the entire life of the plant, the FNPP is cheaper than alternatives. Moreover, if we compare the numbers that come from adding up the costs of diesel backup generation, or energy storage, to the cost of renewable energy (in the event of there being no wind or sun, there should always be backup generation available), then the cost benefits of the FNPP which doesn’t require such back-up and balancing costs - become obvious.
Overall costs of the “Akademik Lomonosov” FNPP have not been disclosed as the project is yet to be completed. It is a pilot project, so-called First of a Kind (FOAK), and as such (as with any pilot project in any industry) it will be more expensive and take longer to build than subsequent serial projects will. This rule is not just applicable to the nuclear industry but was also true of the first solar panels ever constructed. Cost reduction comes with the economies of scale and the learning curve.
The target price for the serial version of FNPPs installed with a RITM-200 reactor are aimed towards successfully competing with both fossil fuels and renewables, as well as with the possibility to enter the national grid through long-distance power lines.