Questionable assumptions underpin Russia’s latest move to open up its Arctic territory – and attract in European and Chinese business.
In June, the Russian government granted an operating licence for the world’s only floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov. Russian tugs will shortly be making the long journey towing the twin-reactor plant 5,000 kilometres – from Murmansk in European Russia to the tiny port of Pevek on the Russian Far East coastline of the Arctic Ocean. Once there it will rest offshore and, from December this year, the Lomonosov will begin pumping out electricity as the world’s northernmost nuclear power station.
The floating nuclear energy plant has not been met with universal welcome, to say the least: off the coast of Norway a Greenpeace ship protested with a sign that simply read: “Floating nuclear plant? Seriously?”
But this development does not exist in isolation: the Russian government is intent on developing its Arctic zone, a region whose thawing ice has presented the country with new opportunities. The Lomonosov is a significant part of that effort. Russia’s plans contain some questionable assumptions as they respond to needs the Russian state has identified as important for its future development.
A blemished record
Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation, is not insensible to the alarm this action has caused. To allay safety concerns, it has stated that the Lomonosov’s KLT-40S reactors are “tried and tested”. Similar reactors, it notes, have operated in the Arctic since 1988 on Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet. It further claims that the reactors are designed with a “great margin of safety” and that they are “invincible from tsunamis”. The agency also argues that the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean provide an ample source of coolant in the event of an emergency.
But Russia’s environmental record in the Arctic region provides scant comfort
But Russia’s environmental record in the region provides scant comfort. During the cold war, the Soviet Union would often dump radioactive waste into the Arctic Ocean – including, on occasion, entire nuclear submarines. Between 1960-1991, at least 45 accidents occurred at floating Soviet nuclear sites, including icebreakers and submarines. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, it abandoned 22,000 nuclear fuel caskets at Andreyeva Bay on the Arctic; and Russia only began cleaning these up in 2017.
It is not hard to foresee other such problems or accidents. For instance, the environmental NGO Bellona warns that a massive wave – like the tsunami Rosatom says is no worry – could tear the 21,000-tonne Lomonosov from its moorings and launch it towards the shore, where it would be beached and completely out of the ice-cold water. Its backup coolant system, which prevents reactor meltdown, lasts only 24 hours. The remoteness of the area would complicate evacuations and emergency operations, which could then have catastrophic outcomes. Greenpeace has even gone so far as to dub the Lomonosov “Chernobyl on ice”.
The benefits of a floating Chernobyl
So why have the Russians done it?
There are several potential reasons. Firstly, Lomonosov is part of an emerging inclination within the nuclear industry towards the use of small and medium-sized reactors, with the former defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as a plant with reactor units under 300 MW. The United States, the United Kingdom, and China have declared they believe these to be of great use. A 2015 World Nuclear Association report described the “enormous potential” of small nuclear reactors, noting that their smaller size and increased construction efficiency could make them easier to finance than larger plants. Rosatom echoes these claims, citing the added benefit of bringing “economic development to remote and hard-to-reach territories”. A floating small reactor is perfect, then, for the Russian Arctic.
However, Russia’s small reactor design has failed to secure the foreign orders necessary to justify its continued production. Even some Rosatom officials have accepted this market verdict. Regrettably for Russia, other countries seem more eager to imitate the technology than to buy it. Nothing demonstrates this better more than a tentative 2014 memorandum of intent between China’s Atomic Energy Authority and Rosatom which committed each side to cooperating on building floating nuclear power plants based on Russian technology. Back then, China saw potential for the Russian design to bring power to its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Now, it has chosen instead to rely on its own domestic technology as a surer bet.
A second reason for Russia to create a floating nuclear power plant is the contribution it hopes the facility will make to one of its top priorities: developing its Arctic zone. Vladimir Putin has grand ambitions for the region. Arctic sea ice levels have reduced by 40 percent since the late 1970s, opening up the northern sea route as a transport artery. Putin wants to quadruple the amount of cargo carried this way by 2025, which would bring it up to 80 million tonnes.
Some basic statistics explain why this region is so crucial to Russia. An estimated two-thirds of Russia’s oil and gas reserves are in its Arctic exclusive economic zone, and the region accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. Use of the Arctic would also cut the shipping time from Europe to China by 40 per cent. Russia’s two-pronged Arctic strategy is thus to reap the benefits of resource extraction and increased shipping.
A sea lane with growing traffic helps open up new economic development opportunities, which is where Pevek and the Lomonosov come into play – and Rosatom itself. In fact, a new Russian law adopted in December 2018 tasks the state nuclear company with operating the northern sea route. Alexei Likhachev, the company’s chief executive, heralded this as a “logical step” for Russia’s Arctic development, claiming that it would help “join efforts” between business and the state. Pevek is located both along the northern sea route and in a region rich in minerals and hydrocarbons. Indeed, 10,000 tonnes of building materials have already poured into Pevek to build the necessary hydraulic structures and onshore facilities. Port development – and a new, large energy supply – are important first steps in developing the whole region.
This turn of events should come as no surprise – the country made public its ambitions in its Arctic policy in 2017. Should the Lomonosov plant fail, this would hardly be the first grand scheme in Russia to go the same way. But the overall trajectory is not going to change any time soon: a new territory is opening up; it is providing Russia with new opportunities and resources; and European and Chinese companies will likely be interested in it, particularly now that China is investing in the so-called “Polar silk road”. A floating Chernobyl in Europe itself would likely have mobilised public opinion against it. But in one of the remotest points on the earth, the risks may be less outweighed by the advantages than merely obscured by them – and quietly forgotten.
Oscar Voss studies Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He is currently a communications intern at ECFR Berlin.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.