Russia's floating nuke plants: cheap now, costly later?

Naysayers cite potential for accidents and weapons proliferation from Russian mobile power stations.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To Washington's consternation, Russia is building floating nuclear stations that are meant to bring cheap energy to remote areas - but are potential waterborne "Chernobyls" that easily could be raided by terrorists.

The units would serve as huge atomic batteries moored off coastlines. Each would be able to provide enough power for a town of 50,000. Construction has begun for components of the first mobile station, which is due to start up within four years in Pevek, 600 miles west of Alaska.

If successful, it would be followed by half a dozen more in Russia's far east and extreme north - and possibly others in Indonesia and the Philippines.

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This unnerves Russian ecologists, who warn that the stations equipped with the same type of reactors as nuclear-powered icebreakers are accident-prone. A leak during a monsoon or earthquake, or near an Arctic ice floe, could leak radiation across the planet.

Dangerous 'ifs'

Just as dangerous, they say, is the risk of nuclear proliferation to politically unstable or rogue countries. It would be difficult to safeguard the units. And the uranium to be used is 60 percent enriched - which could be reprocessed to build bombs.

"These floating stations would be absolutely dangerous from the ecological point of view," says Andrei Yablokov, one of Russia's leading environmentalists. "The project does not envisage how to guard these stations against terrorists. They could spread nuclear weapons throughout the world, changing the geopolitical picture."

The project is illegal as well as hazardous, he says. He cites four Russian federal laws that have been violated because the work is proceeding without requisite approval by independent environmental experts.

Other objections are cited by Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former state nuclear inspector turned whistle-blower on the project.

"Where would the nuclear waste be dumped? Who would make up the crews? Who would train them? Who would protect the stations? They could be stormed under water. Plus there has been inadequate research into the danger of heat emissions," he says.

Moneymaker for Russia

Officials from the Nuclear Ministry and Malaya Energetika, the state enterprise developing the stations, refused to comment, saying that they feared bad press. But in the past, they have stressed convenience and low energy costs.

Each unit would fetch $200 million to $300 million, including transport. This is a bargain compared to the $1 billion needed to build conventional land stations. Russian authorities insist that nuclear technology has improved since the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, when an exploded reactor killed thousands of people.

Russian authorities say customers would not have to worry about radioactive waste. Every 12 years the stations would be towed back to Russia to dump it and carry out repairs. There is also the potential for powering desalination for drinking water via the mobile stations, something Mediterranean and African countries are especially interested in.

The arguments have been enough to convince authorities where new units are planned after Pevek - in Dudinka (Kara Sea), Tiksy (Laptev Sea), Equekinot and Providenya (Bering Sea), Ensk (Okhotsk Sea), Vilyuchinsk (Kamchatka peninsula) and Rudnaya Pristan (Sea of Japan).

Potential client countries

Indonesia has expressed serious interest too, pending success at Pevek. The Philippines is another possible client. Kuznetsov said other countries registered interest at a 1995 presentation by Russia, attended by representatives from Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Malaysia, India, and Egypt.

But the negatives outweigh the pluses and the US has made that clear, says Chuck Serpan, a US liaison officer with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. "In principle it's a neat idea. But there are too many ways for it to go wrong and too few for it to go right," he says. "Their systems are not safe. They are old Soviet designs, only somewhat upgraded."

Indeed, Russia's naval nuclear record has been dismal. There have been seven major accidents on nuclear submarines since the Soviets launched their first 46 years ago. These incidents killed 40 people and contaminated at least 1,000 others. Authorities report 25 icebreaker accidents since 1965, with no statistics available on casualties.

That's the official story. Ecologists believe that the full extent of nuclear damage has been covered up. The KGB-successor Federal Security Service discourages those who spill the beans with harassment, jail, or raids. Former Navy Capt. Alexander Nikitin and Navy Capt. Grigory Pasko were arrested after exposing mishandling of radioactive materials. They were charged with treason but later acquitted.

Despite growing opposition, Russia appears determined to press ahead with the floating stations. They are part of a larger strategy to increase nuclear exports, including multibillion-dollar plans to build nuclear plants in India, China, and Iran.

Profits, not safety, are what matter to the Nuclear Ministry, says Igor Forofontov, a nuclear expert from Greenpeace Russia. "Its logic is that official statistics show more victims from smoking than from nuclear energy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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