Last week China announced the launch of a company to build twenty (20) floating nuclear power stations. Russia continues to move forward with its floating nuclear power station, which are to be mass-produced at shipbuilding facilities and then towed to areas in need of power. In fact, it is working towards initial fuel load on its first floating reactor. Politics aside, these developments highlight a trend in nuclear power, which is the growing interest to power our cities with smaller, more flexible reactors—which could be located offshore.
China and Russia are not the first to suggest the concept of sea-based reactors. The world’s first operational nuclear reactors were naval reactors for submarines, and nuclear reactors continue to power submarines and aircraft carriers around the world. In the commercial power space, a floating nuclear reactor effort called the Offshore Power System project was explored in the 1970s to provide power onshore, although it eventually did not move forward. Since then, Russia has taken a lead role, constructing the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating reactor that will be towed to Pevek in Russia’s Eastern half for power generation. Private enterprise has also taken interest in the concept. For example, a company called ThorCon is proposing a molten salt reactor power that would be located on a ship and deploy-able around the world, called the ThorConIsle. However, China’s effort may ultimately prove to be one of the more extensive ones. The company will be formed by five entities including the China National Nuclear Power Corporation, and will have an initial capital of $150 million.
The legal, policy, and regulatory issues posed by floating reactors are as interesting as the technology. The location of the floating reactors next to other countries is of course a key concern. The Akademik Lomonosov had to change where it would be fueled due to concerns by Norway. Some are alleging that the Chinese reactor project is part of an effort to help boost control of the South China Sea. The transit of floating nuclear reactors–which do not propel the vessels they are on–by neighboring countries raises legal issues that would need to be navigated. In addition, just as the siting of wind turbines offshore has at times generated strong local opposition, similar grass-roots opposition could arise to challenge the siting of floating reactors located offshore. These challenges can be overcome, but should be considered early on in project development.
The regulatory framework in which a private company would construct a reactor would also need to be examined. For example, in the United States, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) Standard Review Plan for examining the safety of nuclear reactors does not necessarily envision floating reactors. That does not mean a floating reactor could not get licensed in the United States, however, and in fact the Offshore Power System, and the licensing of the NS Savannah provide some useful precedent. The NS Savannah was licensed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor agency of the NRC, and although this was built to be a “goodwill ship,” a goal in the construction of the ship was to meet civilian safety requirements so the vessel could be usable by the public. Moreover, the NRC works with the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide technical support for DOE’s oversight of the U.S. Nuclear Navy.
Extending civilian use of nuclear power to the ocean presents questions, but also significant opportunities, for both the developed and developing world. Please do not hesitate to contact the authors if you wish to learn more.