Russians Building Floating Nuclear Plants to Aid Arctic Drilling

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The BBC has a fascinating story about the construction of floating nuclear power plants for the Russian arctic. Built on a dock, the ships could motor up to the Arctic and stay there for more than a decade providing light, heat and power. Russia has moved aggressively to secure possession of areas of the Arctic with good potential for oil and gas drilling.

It's worth noting that floating nuclear power plants were suggested in the United States during the mid-1970s. The response then, according to this AP report, was roughly equivalent to most people's response now.

"The very idea of putting a nuclear power plant on a huge barge, floating it off three miles off a crowded resort beach and piping its power ashore at 345,000 volts through underwater cables made some people nervous," the AP wrote. "To others, it's the greatest idea since ... well, since the nuclear power plant."

The U.S. plant would have been located off the jersey shore near Atlantic City, as seen in this drawing from the January 23, 1977, edition of the Sarasota Herald.

Floating nuclear power plant.jpg

The floating plant plan died in late 1978 when the New Jersey utility pushing the reactors canceled its order with Westinghouse.

The idea of offshore nuclear reactors went dormant for 25 years, when Russian authorities picked up the idea for use in the Arctic.

Here are the details on the new Russian plan:

"These [floating nuclear power stations] have very good potential, creating the conditions for exploring the Arctic shelf and setting up drilling platforms to extract oil and gas," says Sergey Zavyalov, deputy director of the operating company, Rosenergoatom. "Work in the Arctic is very complicated and dangerous and we should ensure there's a reliable energy supply."

He says each power station, costing $400m, can supply electricity and heating for communities of up to 45,000 people and can stay on location for 12 years before needing to be serviced back in St Petersburg. And while initially they will be positioned next to Arctic bases along the North coast, there are plans for floating nuclear power stations to be taken out to sea near large gas rigs.

Read the full story at the BBC.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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