Floating Nuclear

05/28/2014 01:49 pm ET | Updated Jul 28, 2014

Recently, The Economist reported on the concept of floating nuclear power stations suggested by researchers from MIT, the University of Wisconsin, and private industry in a paper presented to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The idea is to locate nuclear reactors on floating platforms constructed similarly to ocean oil rigs and located in areas not subject to the real estate costs, local opposition, and other vulnerabilities of a land-side installation.

Many advantages were noted: the proven construction experience and cost efficiency of such projects built in existing shipyards; the reduction of land-side opposition and regulation; the ease of transport, mooring, maintenance, and access at sea; the transfer of generated power through cables on the ocean floor into the land-side grid; the submergence of the heat intensive core and availability of an infinite volume of passive cooling water requisite to the technology; the consequential diminished need for expensive 24-hour pumps; the purported safety advantage of such a structure in the face of extreme wind and wave, earthquake or tsunami; the ease of service, refueling, decommissioning, and disposal of the nuclear waste -- although whether on shore or in the ocean was not made clear.

The Economist article indicated that this was not a new idea, having been previously proposed in the 1960s with a reactor installed on a surplus ship or, in the 1970s, with a plan to construct a 1,200-megawatt nuclear plant on concrete barges located off the east coast of the United States. This project was scrapped as a result of local opposition, although a specific construction facility was built in Jacksonville, Florida, and never used.

The article goes on to report that:

"Rosatom, the Russian state-controlled energy company, is already building a floating nuclear power station. This is the Akademik Lomonosov, a large barge carrying a pair of nuclear reactors capable of together generating up to 70 Megawatts--enough to power a small town. The vessel is due to be completed in 2016 and is said to be the first of many."

The article continues, "Some people believe that the project's primary mission is to provide power for the expansion of Russia's oil-and-gas industry in remote areas, including the Arctic."

This proposal contains several of the usual assumptions about the ocean. First, the belief that because we relocate the potential problem offshore that somehow mitigates its impacts, justifies, decreases concern and regulation, and obviates all the legitimate questions about safety and controls and accidents that characterize the land-side questions about nuclear power. Second, the proposal implies that somehow an accident offshore will mitigate or dilute the consequences of radiation leaking into the air or the water, that by being on the ocean the distribution of health impacts will somehow differ or be less detrimental to human populations within the natural distribution areas, both local and worldwide. Third, that somehow our diminishing faith in complex engineering proposals in ever more critical and challenged conditions (a concern raised by failure after failure on land) will no longer prevent legitimate concerns about the safety of the nuclear industry everywhere. And fourth, that we should somehow accept the idea that such engineering applied without comparable testing, regulation, inspection, safety procedures, and enforceable accountability for clean-up and reparation of resultant disaster is not necessary for an installation at sea.

Even as our engineering becomes more sophisticated, there is a parallel loss of faith in engineering based on public awareness of failures, fair or unfair. There is no doubt that we have benefited from such progress, and that technology applied to energy generation no longer based on fossil fuel consumption and its consequence is devoutly to be wished.

One can frequently look to insurance companies for actuarial analyses of new technologies. With regard to coastal flood insurance or offshore installations private premium costs are high for a reason. Companies and governments self-insure for a reason. Ask the residents of Fukushima, Japan, about the value of insurance or the reality of adequate reparation for property, employment, personal loss, and societal dislocation resulting from nuclear accident. If we make such choices, we must do so with the most protections, the highest standards, the highest probability of prevention, the most legitimate consideration of what happens when things go wrong.

Just because the proposal is located in the ocean, presumably out of sight, it must not be out of mind. The reviews and guarantees must be more strict, not less. There is much at stake, not just the health and safety of human life, but the health and safety of a natural system on which the whole earth depends.