26 September 2019 15:27:32 IST

A pioneer port town powered by the first floating nuclear plant

Pevek, a Russian town near the Arctic, is a model for potential power farms located out in the ocean

High up in the icy north, on the fringe of the Arctic ocean, lies a small Russian town called Pevek. You may have heard of Vladivostok — the Pacific port city of Russia, which Prime Minister Modi visited recently. Pevek is 2,000 miles north of Vladivostok. If you ever happen to go there, remember to take something warm.

Not many people live in Pevek. In fact, nobody would have lived there at all if the Russians had not discovered tin and uranium in the region, creating a need for a settlement for miners and others. Once upon a time, this region had many gulags — which are Russian prisoner camps, where people are made to work hard under unimaginably harsh conditions.

Today, the gulags are, thankfully, not there and Pevek exists as a northern port town. I suspect that the people who live there would be very happy if global warming takes place good and fast, not just because of the warmth, but because it would melt all the Arctic ice, whereupon ships would ply in the Arctic ocean, shortening shipping routes from Russia to northern Canada and Europe.

A landmark port

Well, that is for the future, but you can bet that those few people who live in Pevek today are thankful that they have a port. For it is that port that has put the town in global news networks, and earned it a permanent place in history.

It is to that port that Akademic Lomonosov went last week. Now, who is this guy, Lomonosov?

Akademic Lomonosov is a ship, named after an 18th century Russian scientist called Mikhail Lomonosov. It has a very interesting cargo — a cargo that will never be unloaded but will sit on the deck permanently.

Ok, enough teasers. Let’s get to the heart of the news. Last week, Akademic Lomonosov reached the port of Pevek, carrying on its deck a 70 MW nuclear power plant that will provide electricity to the city — thus, ushering in an era of floating nuclear power plants.

Regular readers of this column will remember that the point has been repeatedly made in these columns, that in the future, energy for mankind will come from the seas. There will be offshore wind, offshore solar, a clutch of ocean energy plants and, as flagged by Akademic Lomonosov , floating nuclear power plants.

Nuclear plants out at sea

Floating nuclear power plants could well become ubiquitous in the near future. And why not? After all, the concept is nothing new. All the world’s nuclear submarines, including India’s own proud, INS Arihant , are powered by small on-board nuclear power plants. And indeed, barge-mounted conventional power plants aren’t so exotic either. India had Tanir Bhavi , a barge-mounted, 196 MW diesel-fired power plant that could be (and was) towed here and there.

Floating nuclear power plants (FNPP) have some key advantages. Conventional nuclear power plants need to be ringed with large tracts of no-man’s lands for safety. They need water supply to douse fires in the case of an accident — as we saw in Fukushima. Floating nuclear plants could be positioned far out into the sea. You’d only need cabling to evacuate the electricity. They can be linked to desalination plants to provide clean drinking water, they can be used to provide heat.

Think of the possibilities. All port cities can be powered by FNPPs. While Akademic Lomonosov has only 70 MW of capacity, future FNPPs can even be as big as 300 MW. Indeed, China Nuclear Power Group (CGN) is building a 200 MW FNPP. This plant will be used for production of electricity and desalination.

Delivery of power along the coast

Islands can be powered by FNPPs, rather than dirty and costly diesel generators. Here is what Rosatom, the company that owns Akademic Lomonosov has to say about FNPPs: “The reactors have the potential to work particularly well in regions with extended coastlines, power supply shortages, and limited access to electrical grids. The plant can be delivered to any point along a coast and connected to existing electrical grids.”

But what about the costs? Rosatom has not disclosed the cost of the FNPP or of the power it will generate, but has made a sensible observation that when the world standardises and produces more ‘small nuclear reactors’, costs will come down.

So, it is not too far-fetched to imagine an ‘energy city’, say, 10 km out into the Bay of Bengal, which will have wind and solar farms, wave energy plants, ocean thermal plants and a FNPP — all producing electricity that could go into an on-board substation and then be cabled to a coastal Indian city.

When this happens, do remember the cold Pevek, home to the first such trendsetter.