Nukes at sea

Staff Columnist

I’ve written in these pages about windmills.  These are thought by some to be the answers to our renewable energy craze.  If there is such a craze.  I have not been encouraging about these large noisy contraptions.  The one I really dislike is standing and turning in a beautiful marshland in the seacoast town of Scituate, Mass.  I later read, and passed on the idea of engineers at the University of Maine to place these windmills off shore where the prevailing winds are better.  This is being tried.  Ah, but that was yesterday’s story.

“ There are many things people do not want to be built in their backyard, and nuclear power stations are high on the list.  But what if floating reactors could be moored offshore, out of sight?  There is plenty of water to keep them cool and the  electricity they produce can easily be carried onshore by undersea cables.  Moreover, once the nuclear plant has reached the end of its life it can be towed away to be decommissioned.  Unusual as it might seem, such an idea is gaining supporters in America and Russia.”           (All at Sea, The Economist, April 26th 2014)

I found this idea fascinating.  I even discussed it with my nuclear trained submariner son, Sean.  His thoughts helped me in drafting this piece.

The potential benefits of building nuclear plants on floating platforms, much like those used in the oil and gas industry offshore,  were presented at a symposium hosted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers by Jacopo Buongiorno with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, others from the University of Wisconsin, and Chicago Bridge & Iron – a company involved in both the nuclear and offshore industries.

“Floating nuclear power stations would have both economic and safety benefits, according to the researchers.  For one thing, they could take advantage of two mature and well-understood technologies: light-water nuclear reactors and the construction of offshore platforms.  The structures would be built in shipyards using tried-and-tested techniques and then towed several miles out to sea and moored to the sea floor,” the Economist writes.

“Another benefit of being offshore is that the reactor could use the sea as an ‘infinite heat sink,” says Dr. Buongiorno.  This means that the core of the reactor, lying below the surface, could be cooled passively without relying on electric pumps – which could fail. In Japan in the 2011 earthquake  a tsunami inundated the Fukushima power plant .  This wrecked the backup generators necessary to run the pumps.  This set off a melt-down in three of that plant’s reactors.

A floating nuclear power station would be protected against earthquakes and tsunamis.  The same MIT researcher, Dr. Buongiorno, says that, “the expanse of the ocean would shield the structure from seismic waves in the seabed.”   Provided the power station was moored in about 100 metres (328 feet) of water the swell from a tsunami  should not be large enough to cause any serious damage.

“Rosatom, a Russian state-controlled energy company is already building a floating nuclear power station.  This is the Akademik Lomonosov, a large barge carrying a pair of nuclear reactors capable together of generating up to 70 megawatts (MW) – enough to power a small town.  The vessel is due to be completed in 2016 and is said to be the first of many.”  The Economist notes that some think the project’s primary mission is for the expansion of Russia’s oil-and-gas industry in remote areas, including in the Arctic.

“The American researchers think there is no particular limit to the size of a floating nuclear power station and that even a 1,000 MW one – the size of some of today’s largest terrestrial nuclear plants – could be built.  They believe the floating versions could be designed to meet regulatory and security requirements, which would include underwater attack,” according to Dr. Todreas of MIT.

“The idea is not new.  In the late 1960s Sturgis, a converted Liberty ship containing a 10 MW nuclear reactor, was used to provide electricity to the Panama Canal Zone.  In the 1970s there was a plan to build 1,200 MW nuclear power stations off America’s east coast.  These would float on giant concrete barges surrounded by a breakwater.  The scheme got as far as constructing a huge manufacturing yard near Jacksonville, Florida.  But the idea faced opposition and was scrapped, in part because of technical and regulatory uncertainties.”

The Economist notes that a newer generation of floating reactors would be safer and cheaper, but that they are unlikely to set sail without a fight.

Sean wades in, “ Given the rabid opposition to the wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts I somehow doubt that people would allow this to be built off their coastline…but I could be wrong.  But if people get freaked out about windmills turning in the breeze… I think a small nuke off their shore would really set them off.”

“Which is a shame as the U.S. Navy operates a couple of hundred small nukes off the shores of this country every day without incident.”

He adds, “part of the success would hinge on the standardization of a reactor plant design so that you would mass produce these suckers and also have a standard plant to cross-train operators to work on them.”

We are likely seeing a fine engineering idea subject to development by a lot of very bright people working in mature industries.  What we might see is  opposition  develop, as it often does, especially to anything nuclear.  It looks worth watching.


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