Given the controversy of all things nuclear power in the post-Fukushima era, it was no surprise that the April launch of Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant (FNPP), the Akademik Lomonosov, drew polarizing responses immediately (in spite of the fact that its nuclear fuel was only loaded earlier this week). Russia’s state-owned nuclear utility Rosatom, claimed that the Akademik Lomonosov’s safety precautions exceed “all possible threats,” granting it “invincibility against natural disasters,” and highlighted the enhancements to economic development efforts in Russia’s far-flung territories. Conversely, environmental organizations like Greenpeace labeled the Akademik Lomonosov a “nuclear titanic” or “Chernobyl on ice,” a serious risk to the global environmental and human security. Observers ought to regard warily the sensationalist claims of advocates and opponents of FNPPs alike. Even so, it is difficult not to view Rosatom’s “invincibility” claim without incredulity.
Rosatom has previously claimed in safety briefings to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the Akademik Lomonosov could withstand a magnitude-10 earthquake, tsunamis powerful enough to cast the barge ashore, and even the impact of a 10-ton aircraft. However, disasters such as that at Fukushima in March 2011 show the perils of blind faith in the integrity of nuclear technology and existing safety regimes that claim to preclude all possible disaster scenarios, particularly those where consecutive or compounding disaster events may present unforeseen challenges. That the Akademik Lomonosov is essentially the first of its kind (the comparatively small USS Sturgis aside) means that practitioners and observers alike have little historical experience to draw upon in offering completely watertight safety assessments. Commentators have pointed to nuclear-powered carriers and submarines to counter criticisms that seaborne reactors are inherently dangerous, yet several such vessels have sunk in the past, along with their radioactive cargo. There is, however, no precedent for a reactor complex the size of the Akademik Lomonosov’s going down in coastal or blue waters, nor for the sorts of short- or long-term hazards that may result or the responses that may be required.
These unknown risks are particularly accentuated when framed in the Northeast Asian context. Either the Akademik Lomonosov or one of its successors will reportedly head for the seismically-active Kamchatka Peninsula, which lies north of the Kuril Island chain presently disputed by Japan and Russia. The Sanchi oil tanker disaster in January demonstrated that the region’s geopolitical faultlines can complicate multilateral responses to industrial-environmental threats when they occur in or impact upon disputed territories, even when multilateral fora designed to facilitate collective risk management response to ocean-born hazards already exist. As far as FNPPs are concerned, these mechanisms do not presently account for potential radiological crises. In short, Northeast Asian states will need to move quickly and recalibrate existing institutions accordingly if they are to preclude another serious geopolitically-charged, potentially radiological, environmental disaster.
The Akademik Lomonosov features two KLT-40C reactors (variants of the military-grade KLT-40M model used aboard Russian icebreakers), capable of generating 70MWe — enough energy to provide power and desalinated water for between 100,000–200,000 people. These impressive statistics aside, however, neither the KLT-40C model nor Russia’s overall nuclear safety record are entirely reassuring. In May 2011, for example, the Russian icebreaker Taymyr experienced a severe coolant leak, releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere, and needed to be towed into port for urgent repairs — all this despite recent safety upgrades. There are also several cases of Russian nuclear submarines sinking with hundreds of kilos of uranium and/or nuclear-tipped missiles still aboard, most notably the K-159 wreck in the Barents Sea, though what threat these might pose to the local environment remains unknown.
Furthermore, the appeal of FNPPs as a portable baseline power source for developing distant territories could become a significant setback in the event of a crisis of “unforeseeable” circumstances. Remote territories are just that — remote. In the event of a serious crisis, and considering the absence of local Russian nuclear infrastructure, it may take considerable time for a response team to reach the vessel. That would translate into more time for said crisis to spiral further.
Compounding the tyranny of distance is the region’s geological volatility. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the Kamchatka Peninsula last July, while magnitude 8 quakes struck the Kuril Islands in 2006 and 2007, generating 50-foot tsunamis. While none of these instances resulted in major damage, in 1952 a massive earthquake and tsunami killed thousands and wrought destruction on settlements across the peninsula and the Kuril Islands. In fact, recent research has also demonstrated that seismic and volcanic activity in Russia’s Far East poses a serious natural disaster threat to the entire Pacific Rim. As far as the Akademik Lomonosov is concerned, some argue that its flat-bottomed hull design and lack of self-propulsion increases its vulnerability to impending or sudden disaster events. With a registered top speed of only 4 miles per hour with the assistance of tugboats, the task of avoiding an oncoming threat would become all the more difficult. For the sake of comparison, nuclear-powered carriers can hit anywhere between 55-92 kilometers (34-57 miles) per hour unassisted.
In a worst case scenario, a damaged or sinking FNPP could pose a regional radiological threat, one quickly compounded should the vessel be cast toward or into disputed territories or those of another state. Events in January suggest that Northeast Asia is unprepared for such an event. A slow response to the Sanchi oil tanker incident saw the burning vessel drift out of recognized Chinese waters and into those adjacent to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, where it eventually sank. Neither Beijing nor Tokyo moved to assume control of clean-up operations because of these geopolitical tensions, yet their inaction ironically saw the corruption of adjacent common fishing grounds.
In response, commentators (including myself) called for the creation of a regional disaster response agreement capable of bypassing competing territorial claims in the interests of containing similar catastrophes in the future. Though a multilateral disaster mechanism already exists — the Northwest Pacific Action Plan (NOWPAP) — it does not encompass the region’s primary geopolitical hotspots, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islets (or, for that matter, the Kuril Islands), within its geographical jurisdiction nor does it account for radiological contingencies despite the high concentration of nuclear power plants across the region. Though the top nuclear regulators from China, South Korea, and Japan hold annual summits under the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, these meetings have remained largely ceremonial and protocol-centric, short on action beyond limited information sharing. Notably, they also exclude Russia.
In order to address the unprecedented challenges that FNPPs could potentially pose to regional security, Northeast Asian states will need to work together to refresh existing mechanisms for disaster prevention and response. Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s 2014 proposal for a Northeast Asian nuclear safety group modeled on the European Atomic Energy Community was a decent proposal, but experts suggested that the creation of another regional forum would overlap with other jurisdictions and could prove counterproductive unless specifically oriented toward joint response readiness in case of “another Fukushima-like incident,” rather than “nuclear regulation” writ large. Instead, expanding NOWPAP’s geographical scope to encompass the aforementioned disputed territories, as well as recognizing the common threat posed by on- and off-shore nuclear catastrophes, and developing a radiological variant of the Regional Oil Spill Contingency Plan of 2008, appears to be the most logical and direct plan of action, notwithstanding the difficult political negotiations that would be required. In any case, given the current and projected concentration of nuclear power plants in Asia, a serious overhaul of regional disaster response mechanisms is needed.
None of the above is to detract from the developmental utility and relative carbon neutrality of FNPPs. Yet history shows that without adequate regulation, preparedness, and accountability, nuclear power plants — floating or not — can decimate the very same interests they are designed to support. The likely arrival of FNPPs in Asia in the future will bring with them unprecedented risks that should not be discounted if states are serious about avoiding, or at least preparing for, an unprecedented radiological crisis of regional proportions.
Tom Corben is a research assistant with the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the aforementioned institutions.