(Ken Stier/Time, 12 November 2010) -- Russians have always embraced the Arctic. Thriving communities dot the country's 4,300-mi (7,000 km) northern border, and the port town of Murmansk — home to 300,000 people — is the largest city north of the Arctic circle. America's closest competitor? Barrow, Alaska, which has some 4,000 souls. Servicing these far-flung communities has never been easy. The job has been handled largely by Russia's fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers, hulking vessels that have the massive horsepower needed to ram sea ice up to two meters thick and bring in needed supplies. Keeping these towns heated and lit has been another challenge — one made harder after the collapse of Soviet-era energy and transportation subsidies. Now however, the resourceful Russians have come up with an idea, one that they hope could not only secure the country's position as the preeminent Arctic power, but also blossom into a lucrative export business: floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs). The idea of FNPPs is simple, if a little scary: Outfit a barge with two 35-megawatts reactors, float them to a spot off the coast and run cables to land to distribute your power. An FNPP set-up this size could power a city of 200,000. ... FNPPs could help Russia expand its reach in another critical way: powering the country's efforts to exploit its off-shore petroleum reserves, 90% of which lie in its Arctic continental shelf. Portable reactors would eliminate the cost and headache of transporting diesel long distances in harsh weather. That has Gazprom, which is keen to develop the world's largest untapped gas field — Shtokman in the Barents Sea — signed up for several FNPPs from Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation. Other reactors are slated to be used in uranium mining. "The ultimate objective of the state policy is to transform the Arctic into 'Russia's foremost strategic base for natural resources' by 2020," notes a Norwegian Defense Institute study, citing Russian documents. Western energy and mining firms are expected to be among the first customers for small reactors — and a number of western vendors, who see a growing global market, have begun developing their own systems. Shell considered one for its energy-intensive exploitation of tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Toshiba has already interested the remote Alaskan town of Galena (pop.700) in a 'pocket nuke' of 10 MW, to unshackle it from diesel-fired electricity that costs about 10 times the price paid in the lower 48. So far though it is only Russia that is promoting water-based plants which, assurances aside, do present a host of new environmental, safety, liability and proliferation challenges.
Posted 21 November 2010; 2:03:58 PM. Permalink