Summer Quarterly 2018
By John LaForge
Joke: Did you hear the one about the Exxon Valdez-Fukushima-Chernobyl-Gulf-Oil-Titanic? Yeah: Russia towed a floating double reactor barge 3,000 miles in the Arctic Ocean to power off-shore oil rigs and nothing went wrong!
Announced with sarcastic headlines around the world, Russian engineers launched a giant ocean-going nuclear power barge, carrying two reactors, on a lengthy voyage over the Arctic Ocean from Russia’s far northwest to its far northeastern reaches.
Sailing from St. Petersburg April 28, the one-of-a kind Akademik Lomonosov presents such an obvious and appalling risk to sea life and seacoasts that even Newsweek magazine said in an April 30th headline, “Russia’s ‘Nuclear Titanic’ Raising Fears of ‘Chernobyl On Ice.’”
The barge has no propulsion of its own and must be tugged and towed for a year-long journey of over 3,000 miles. Its manufacturer, the Russian corporation Rosatom, said at the send-off celebration that it has built in “a great margin of safety” that is “invincible for tsunamis and natural disaster.” Chortles of “Titanic!” couldn’t be resisted since it’s been reported that when White Star Line Vice President P.A.S. Franklin was informed that Titanic was in trouble, he announced “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable.”
The teetering, 12-story-tall Akademik Lomonosov has travelled through the Baltic Sea and the North Sea—having so far avoided collisions with icebergs, shoals, or oil tankers—and docked May 17 at the far-northernwestern city of Murmansk, where planners intend to load its two reactors with uranium fuel and conduct startup tests. The government initially intended to load and test the reactors in downtown St. Petersburg, a city of 5.3 million. But Greenpeace activists and others successfully petitioned to have the dangerous operation done far away from the metropolis. The fueling and startup will still be done close to Murmansk, a city of 300,000 in Russia’s far northwest. Greenpeace reported: “Only a petition by 12,000 St. Petersburg citizens, questions in the city’s legislative assembly, and major concerns from Baltic Sea countries about transporting two reactors filled with irradiated fuel, without its own propulsion, along their rocky coasts, caused Rosatom to use some common sense and shift loading plans to a less densely populated area.
If the fission reactor tests go as planned, the barge is to be towed some 3,000 miles through the Arctic Ocean to the far northeastern Siberian city of Pevek and go online sometime in 2019.
In what could be called a Faustian Rube Goldberg scheme, the “floating Chernobyl” is supposed to provide electric power to oil drilling platforms. The breath-taking self-destructive carbon footprint of this fossil fuel-consuming, pollution-spewing sea monster can hardly be exaggerated. The mining, milling, processing and reactor fissioning of uranium, the production of radioactive wastes that need managed isolation for a million years, all done to drill for oil which is then transformed into pollution, cannot be smarter or cheaper than conservation and efficiency that cost next to nothing and are pollution-free.
As a public relations cover, the Nuclear Titanic will also provide electricity to the city of Pevek (pop. 100,000) and to a desalination plant, replacing four small reactors called the “Bilibino” complex, which is set for decommissioning beginning in 2021.
Undersea earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricane winds and rogue waves are dangerous, unpredictable and inevitable, but they are natural disasters. Placing hot, bobbing vulnerable nuclear reactors directly into a pristine wilderness like the Arctic Ocean in the face of such enormous risks is not just tempting fate, but constitutes reckless endangerment of the public commons. The Bellona Foundation in Oslo warned, using more diplomatic and understated terms, that “far-flung locations present hurdles to proper disaster response in the event of an accident.”
Most governments with nuclear stationary reactor operations understand them to be uniquely dangerous. Ordinary reactors stand alone among all the world’s potentially disastrous industrial operations in being required to have evacuation plans before powering up. But how to evacuate the oceans?