Russia's 'floating Chernobyl' nuclear plant begins voyage north

"It could flood or sink or run aground. All of these scenarios could potentially lead to radioactive substances being leaked," Greenpeace warned.
Image: Russian floating atomic power plant Mikhail Lomonosov is pictured at state company Rosatomflot base in Murmansk
Russia's floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov on Thursday.Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

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By Matthew Bodner and Linda Givetash

MURMANSK, Russia — Russian dancers pranced and a naval band played as a floating nuclear power plant dubbed "Chernobyl on ice" by its critics cast off from one of the world’s northernmost ports Friday.

The stations "are badly needed, not only in Russia but elsewhere," Sergei Ivanov, Russia's special presidential representative for environmental protection, ecology and transport, told the gathered dignitaries and reporters as Akademik Lomonosov — painted red, white and blue for Russia’s national colors — set off for the Arctic port town of Pevek.

For its supporters, the launch heralds a new era of development in the inhospitable Russian Arctic. If all goes according to plan, Lomonosov will be the first of several floating nuclear reactors powering remote outposts dotting the northern coast.

But despite the promises of much-needed clean energy for Arctic communities, environmental groups have raised the alarm.

The floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov sets off on a 4,000-mile journey along the Northern Sea Route to Chukotka in Murmansk, Russia on Friday.Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

"Nothing is invincible," Greenpeace International has warned. "It could flood or sink or run aground. All of these scenarios could potentially lead to radioactive substances being leaked into the environment."

Greenpeace Russia has led protests against its development since it was announced in 2017, calling it dangerous. A Russian union representing the victims injured in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster that resulted in thousands of cases of childhood cancer alone has also voiced fierce opposition to the plant with concerns it could put millions of lives at risk.

Greenpeace has called the project "Chernobyl on ice" and "floating Chernobyl."

But Russia's state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, said the floating plant is safe.

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“Greenpeace has, for a number of years, made claims against the Akademik Lomonosov, and it is important to recognize that it has never been able to support these claims with expert science or peer-reviewed sources,” Rosatom said in a statement given to NBC.

“Nuclear icebreakers have been a feature of the Arctic for many years, and the Academic Lomonosov’s high level of safety is one of the features that makes it so well suited to this environment," the statement said.

Not quite a ship but certainly more expansive than an average barge, the Lomonosov measures about 1,548 feet in length with a width of 98 feet and displacement of 21,500 tons. It has a helicopter pad and a command deck. Inside, it smells, feels and looks like a ship with narrow corridors and winding mazes of piping caked in the dull yellow preferred by Russian sailors.

It is equipped with two pressurized water reactors — a version of naval reactors used by Russia's atomic icebreakers, Dmitry Alekseyenko, the deputy head of floating nuclear power plant construction and operation, told NBC News.

But the design of the naval reactors has been modified, he said, in order for the reactor to power operations on land.

Unlike a ship, the Lomonosov cannot move anywhere on its own, lacking a propulsion system, and instead requires tugboats to guide it.

Basic utilities, such as power grids, are lacking in the remote region and what little is there is gradually deteriorating. Pevek was chosen as Lomonosov’s destination to compensate for the closure of its traditional northern nuclear power station at Bilibino.

Infrastructure is desperately needed for Russia to coax more traffic through its Northern Sea Route — a shipping lane that historically requires an icebreaker to traverse for much of the year. But in 2017, as seasonal ice receded amid rising global temperatures, a tanker cleared the route without an icebreaker for the first time.

The concept and its potential adoption by other jurisdictions have raised safety concerns.

"Russia has high standards of nuclear safety but some of these potential customers do not," Anna Kireeva, press secretary for the environmental organization Bellona Foundation, said. She also raised concerns of the facility having to store nuclear fuel and waste at sea until it can be towed back to shore.

However, Rosatom said the refueling and waste management system it designed for the plant, requiring towing to shore every 10 to 12 years, "completely eliminates the risk of any radioactive leakage."

High standards of practice aren't a guarantee in preventing accidents.

Tied to the same pier where the Lomonosov launched from Friday was Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, looking dilapidated from an incident last year that saw the ship nearly sink with the dock it had been anchored to while undergoing repairs.

Last month, concerns of a Chernobyl-style incident at sea were stoked when a nuclear submarine operating out of Severomorsk suffered a fire, killing 14 sailors. Concerns were heightened again two weeks ago, when a mysterious explosion in neighboring Arkhangelsk released radioactive particles into the air.

Also last month, a Soviet nuclear submarine which sank off the coast of Norway in 1989 was discovered to be emitting radiation.

CORRECTION (Aug. 23, 2019, 1 p.m. ET) A previous version of this article misstated the name of Russia's "floating Chernobyl." It is the Akademik Lomonosov, not Admiral Lomonosov.

Matthew Bodner reported from Murmansk, and Linda Givetash from London.