Russia Floats Plan for Arctic Nuclear Plants

WORLD

Russia is moving ahead with plans to build a vessel that would contain a pair of small nuclear reactors capable of generating enough electricity for a city of 200,000 people, as well as heat and desalinated water. But it is clear that a major impetus behind the effort is Russia’s drive for oil and gas exploration in remote reaches of the Arctic. (National Geographic News, great article!)

Use our resources to make sense of nuclear energy.

A new Russian plan may use nuclear energy to explore oil and gas resources in the Russian Arctic. This platform, off the coast of Alaska, uses diesel fuel to explore oil and gas resources in the American Arctic. Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic

A new Russian plan may use nuclear energy to explore oil and gas resources in the Russian Arctic. This platform, off the coast of Alaska, uses diesel fuel to explore oil and gas resources in the American Arctic.
Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Watch our video “Making Sense of Nuclear Energy,” which spotlights how popular misconceptions can make teaching about nuclear energy difficult. How do the concerns from students in the video align with concerns from scientists quoted in the Nat Geo News article?
    • They’re all worried about safety and radioactivity, although the scientists are much more practical in their concerns.
      • Students bring up the concept of radioactivity almost immediately, although they’re not quite sure what radioactivity is. (It is not explained in the video.) Read the first, short section of our encyclopedic entry on nuclear energy for an outline of how nuclear power plants actually operate, and this lesson plan for an excellent guide to teaching about radiation.
      • Scientists bring up the concept of radioactivity, too. Russian scientists say the plant’s toxic radioactivity will be safely contained, while critics worry severe weather (earthquakes, tsunamis) might compromise the containment. Other scientists are concerned that nuclear fuel will fall into the hands of terrorists.
  • As the Nat Geo News article notes, there are already dozens of nuclear vessels in the Arctic—mostly American and Russian fleets. For example, take a look at our photo of this beautiful, high-tech Russian icebreaker. It is an enormously powerful ship, fueled by two fission reactors. These reactors use enriched nuclear fuel (uranium) to produce 171 megawatts of power each. (The icebreaker also has a world-class gym, swimming pool, library, restaurant, saunas, and music salon.) The proposed floating power plant will use similar nuclear reactors, fueled by lightly enriched uranium—arguably making it less dangerous than the icebreaker or other nuclear-powered vessels. Why, then, are scientists more concerned about the floating power plant than the nuclear-powered icebreaker?
    • The icebreaker is self-propelled, and can maneuver out of dangerous weather or other threats. The proposed power plant would have to be towed into place, making it more vulnerable to natural and man-made threats.
    • Some scientists doubt the floating power plant could economically run on lightly enriched uranium, and would instead have to rely on highly enriched uranium, just like the icebreaker. Highly enriched uranium can be diverted for use in nuclear weapons, and the material is tightly regulated the the International Atomic Energy Commission for this reason.
    • Unlike the icebreaker, the proposed power plant would likely fuel Russia’s energy ambitions. Drilling in the Arctic is incredibly controversial, for both environmental and political reasons.

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