The Potential and Challenges of Off-Shore Nuclear

In December of 2019, Russia connected its first offshore nuclear power station to an electrical grid. Other countries have shown interest in this new technology. Could it come to the U.S.?

In December 2019, Russia connected its first floating nuclear powerplant (FNPP), named Akademik Lomonosov, to the electricity grid at the northeastern city Pevek: a rather isolated, Artic port town located in the Chaunskaya Bay of the East Siberian Sea. Built and operated by the Russian state-owned cooperation “Rosatom,” this is the first of seven or eight planned powerstations, each 145 meters long and 35 meters wide. The aim of these FNPPs is to supply both electricity and heat sustainably and reliably to isolated arctic areas that are usually cut off from traditional power sources.

Figure 1: The Akademik Lomonosov: Russia's first floating nuclear power plant.
Figure 1: The Akademik Lomonosov: Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant.

Construction of the first FNPP started in April of 2007 and fuel loading was complete by October of 2018 costing Russia about 7.631 billion rubles (248 million USD). These FNPPs can go three years without refueling and have a total lifetime of 40 years, with each being able to provide 70 MW of electricity and 300 MW of heat; enough to supply 200,000 people with energy. Other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Cape Verde, and Argentina have shown interest in purchasing similar plants from Rosatom.

China has also shown great interest in this technology and in May 2014, the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) signed an agreement with Rosatom to construct FNPPs for China’s offshore islands. These FNPP are being built in China but are based on Russian technology. The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) included FNPPs in their 13thfive-year plan for innovative energy technologies. Similar to Russia, China is building these to supply energy reliably to geographically isolated areas that lack consistent access to traditional power sources; specifically, they’re meant for distant, artificial islands in the South China sea. Traditionally, these isolated regions have been powered by fossil fuels and diesel generators. These methods are not only insufficient in meeting the demand of the expanding population but are also environmentally detrimental. However, transmitting cleaner electricity from mainland power sources is expensive. As such, future offshore nuclear power plants can act as both a greener and cheaper alternative.

Will we see more western countries investing in this new type of technology? I don’t think so.  One of the greatest barriers in the way of nuclear energy is public opinion. Russian public opinion on nuclear energy is substantially more positive than in other developed nations that utilize it. Approximately 74% of Russian citizens have a positive outlook on the energy source and believe that their government should maintain and develop the nuclear energy industry. However, a Gallup poll in 2019 found that Americans were evenly divided on this issue, with 49% in favor of and 49% opposing the use of nuclear energy. Some European countries such as Germany are looking to phase out their nuclear energy by 2022 due to mass public opposition: 81% of German citizens are in favor of their government exiting nuclear. If countries won’t even keep their current nuclear powerplants running, development of new offshore powerplants is unlikely.

Figure 2: American Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy Over Time. Source: Gallup.
Figure 2: American Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy Over Time. Source: Gallup.

The fear of nuclear disaster is only further augmented when discussing the prospects of putting these plants in open ocean where there is a perception of even less control over operations. Similarly, western countries don’t seem to have the same need for these vessels. As mentioned earlier, China and Russia are using them to supply isolated areas and islands with energy; an issue many western countries aren’t facing.

For these reasons, I think FNPP’s are likely to remain a technology only utilized in the Eastern hemisphere for some time. However, if pro-nuclear attitudes become more prevalent and technology continues to advance rapidly, western countries might ultimately consider FNPPs for tackling unique energy challenges. 

Jonathan Szeto

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Jonathan Szeto is an undergraduate student studying earth science and political science in the College of Arts and Sciences. Szeto was also a 2020 Undergraduate Student Fellow.