Could a Floating Nuclear Power Plant Prevent Another Fukushima?

MIT scientists argue that nukes can be tsunami-proofed by towing them out to to sea. 
MIT

A group of MIT scientists want to revive the nuclear industry in the post-Fukushima era by moving it offshore.

Literally.

In a paper to be presented at a conference this week, the MIT researchers argue that the way to make nuclear power plants impervious to earthquakes and tsunamis is to build them in shipyards and then tow the structures five to nine miles out to sea to the deep ocean.

These Offshore Small Modular Reactors (OSMR) would just generate 300 megawatts of electricity or less but would eliminate “the possibility of land contamination and public exposure from severe accidents, and reducing the risk from terrorist threats,” wrote the paper’s lead author Jacopo Buongiorno, an associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.

(The impact of an uncontained core meltdown on dolphins, whales and other marine life is another matter.)

When the seaborne nuke plants reach the end of their lives they can be simply towed ashore and decommissioned, note the authors, who include a University of Wisconsin, Madison, researcher and representatives from Chicago Bridge & Iron, which despite it’s 19th century-sounding name is a nuclear power plant and offshore platform builder.

Defending these “nuclear islands” from possible terrorist assault ­­– by attack ships and submarines – though would require some James Bond-like like machinations:

In addressing these scenarios, the guiding principles are as follows: first, use of automatic remote early detection systems and wide-area surveillance technologies to see and identify threats from a distance; second, increase the time for response to threats by introduction of delays to access to vital areas through the use of physical barriers and designing plant layout to minimize intrusion pathways (e.g., the deck is designed so that access to board from a small boat is extremely difficult); third, minimize security threats by reducing structures and systems needing essential protection, i.e., simplify safety systems and operational systems to concentrate points that must be defended; and fourth, improve threat response capabilities by providing physical deterrents (including use of automatic weaponry to the extent possible).

Floating nuclear power plants are not a new idea – one is under construction in Russia, for instance. But none have been built outside tsunami zones or have deployed two technologies that make the OSMR possible ­­– small nuclear reactors and offshore platforms like those developed for deep-ocean oil drilling. What could go wrong?

The OSMR would look more or less like a nuclear power plant plopped on top of an oil-drilling platform, except the reactor would be submerged.

Southeast Asia is an ideal region for nukes-on-the-sea, note the authors, not just due to its propensity for earthquakes and tsunamis but because it has limited energy resources and populations concentrated on coasts and thus relatively close to transmission lines that would be run from offshore.

Floating nuclear power plants, conclude the authors, “would broaden the number of suitable sites for nuclear plants, thus potentially opening vast new markets in East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America, Africa, small island countries, large mining operations, and [military] bases.”

Presented by

Todd Woody is an environmental and technology journalist based in California. He has written for The New York Times and Quartz, and was previously an editor and writer at FortuneForbes, and Business 2.0.

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