The Case for Floating Nuclear Power Plants

As we consider the future of nuclear power in meeting America's energy needs, there are several compelling reasons for including a large number of floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) in the menu -- to be located not "offshore," but along our rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and carefully selected coastal backwaters.

  • America already has scores of floating nuclear plants in service and performing beautifully.  Collectively, they are called the U.S. Nuclear Navy, which has many decades of highly reliable and safe operations to its credit.
  • By avoiding the building of land-based plants only, which must be impervious to both earthquakes and tsunamis -- particularly following Japan's recent disaster -- FNPP units afloat in double- or triple-hulled barges in 20- to 30-foot-deep "slips" along inland waters might require less than half the funding and half the time to build and bring online.
  • Even in the event of an earthquake, the ruggedly fabricated vessels in which the nuclear unit (or units) is installed would be greatly cushioned by flotation in a small, strongly walled pool -- and even if that pool were to lose its water, the FNPP would simply sit in the mud until routinely re-floated.
  • With regard to both cost and time of construction, such plants would be built in all-weather, climate-controlled sections of American shipyards -- both several existing yards and new, specially designed ones -- with the nuclear power units per se (which might be built elsewhere) to be inserted toward the very end of the manufacturing process, or even after the multi-unit "barge" has been positioned onsite.
  • The relatively small nuclear power units themselves could be any one of several designs which have already been (or might soon be) approved by the NRC -- plus the option of declassified versions of mature Navy designs, and the new "pebble bed" and small, site-specific "Hyperion" plants as well.  The following excerpt from an April 6, 2011 Wall Street Journal article by MIT's head of nuclear science and engineering, Dr. Richard Lester, speaks directly to this point:
Today's most advanced designs go even further toward the goal of ‘walk-away safety,' that is, reactors that can shut themselves down and cool themselves off without electric power or any human intervention at all. Longer term possibilities include lifetime fueling, which would allow a single charge of fuel to power a reactor for its entire life -- making it in effect a nuclear battery.

  • Plant positioning (which is normally on or near water anyway) would be relatively easy and inexpensive -- and would even allow for repositioning onsite or for relocation to an entirely different site in years to come, or for easy replacement of an entire reactor module.

Pulling all of this together, the design approvals by the NRC, the shipyard construction, the delivery, the installation, and the start-up timeframes -- not to mention the costs -- would be cut in half or even more.  Nearby "land side" facilities, state and federal environmental permitting, Power Grid connections, and other peripheral matters would be undertaken simultaneously.

Unforeseen delays with any of these -- which might be known well in advance -- could probably be accommodated by simply arranging for taking later delivery of the FNPP on order.  This might not be inexpensive, but it would not be fatal, either.

With the likelihood of standardization of such plants, a delayed delivery or installation at a particular site might well allow for an earlier start-up at some other ready-to-go site.  Flexibility would be the order of the day -- a welcome development in an industry where there is zero flexibility today.

Small FNPPs for the Russian Arctic

Finally, although Russia, Japan, Korea, and other nations have been "talking about" the FNPP option for several years, only two or three small units intended for remote, site-specific units have been completed and deployed -- the most recent of which is the Russian vessel "Academic Lomonosov," about which a TIME-Online article of November 12, 2010 commented, in part, as follows:

Now however, the resourceful Russians have come up with an idea, one that they hope could not only secure the country's position as the preeminent Arctic power, but also blossom into a lucrative export business: floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs).

The idea of FNPPs is simple, if a little scary: Outfit a barge with two 35-megawatts reactors, float them to a spot off the coast and run cables to land to distribute your power. An FNPP set-up this size could power a city of 200,000.

The concept has some people screaming about "floating Chernobyls," but the technology is safer than that. For one thing, the portable reactors are fairly proven hardware, derived from those used on the icebreakers. And while any nuclear reactor poses real dangers if something goes wrong, the FNPPs are comparative pipsqueaks - their 35 MW output only a fraction of the Chernobyl plant's 4,000.

A prototype vessel has already been launched at a St. Petersburg shipyard; after reactors are affixed it will be towed to Vilyuchinsk, a city (pop. 25,000) in the Russian Far East that is home to a squadron of nuclear submarines. It is expected to be operational in 2012.

Although, it might take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Coast Guard, the Department of Energy, and others three or four years to settle on hull designs and on the particular nuclear plants best installed in at least three prototypes, these same years can be spent

(a)  gearing up the shipyards, suppliers and skilled labor;

(b)  selecting and preparing the most appropriate plant sites;

(c)  seeking the state and local, EPA, NRC, and other operating permits; and

(d)  selecting the prototype customers and the financing required -- with the first three prototypes scheduled for delivery and installation in four or five years, which is much faster than current practices provide.

But before these organizational and operational steps are taken, it is necessary for the national leadership -- the Congress, the White House, the governors, and the energy and construction industries -- to make an informed decision that this is indeed an option which needs to be urgently explored, defined, and robustly acted upon.

A presidential-congressional commission of a dozen authentic, apolitical experts -- with half its members from government and half from industry and science, and with a reporting deadline of no more than six months -- might be a good way to expedite the initiative.  The subsequent six months could be devoted to designing the three prototypes' production phase and legislating a formal structure.

The strategic goal -- why not ten FNPPs built, delivered, installed, and operating by 2020, and why not at least twenty more by 2030?

A DC-area attorney, writer and national security strategist, Jim Guirard was longtime Chief of Staff to former US Senators Allen Ellender and Russell Long.   His TrueSpeak.org Web site is devoted to truth in language and truth in history in public discourse.
As we consider the future of nuclear power in meeting America's energy needs, there are several compelling reasons for including a large number of floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs) in the menu -- to be located not "offshore," but along our rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and carefully selected coastal backwaters.

  • America already has scores of floating nuclear plants in service and performing beautifully.  Collectively, they are called the U.S. Nuclear Navy, which has many decades of highly reliable and safe operations to its credit.
  • By avoiding the building of land-based plants only, which must be impervious to both earthquakes and tsunamis -- particularly following Japan's recent disaster -- FNPP units afloat in double- or triple-hulled barges in 20- to 30-foot-deep "slips" along inland waters might require less than half the funding and half the time to build and bring online.
  • Even in the event of an earthquake, the ruggedly fabricated vessels in which the nuclear unit (or units) is installed would be greatly cushioned by flotation in a small, strongly walled pool -- and even if that pool were to lose its water, the FNPP would simply sit in the mud until routinely re-floated.
  • With regard to both cost and time of construction, such plants would be built in all-weather, climate-controlled sections of American shipyards -- both several existing yards and new, specially designed ones -- with the nuclear power units per se (which might be built elsewhere) to be inserted toward the very end of the manufacturing process, or even after the multi-unit "barge" has been positioned onsite.
  • The relatively small nuclear power units themselves could be any one of several designs which have already been (or might soon be) approved by the NRC -- plus the option of declassified versions of mature Navy designs, and the new "pebble bed" and small, site-specific "Hyperion" plants as well.  The following excerpt from an April 6, 2011 Wall Street Journal article by MIT's head of nuclear science and engineering, Dr. Richard Lester, speaks directly to this point:
Today's most advanced designs go even further toward the goal of ‘walk-away safety,' that is, reactors that can shut themselves down and cool themselves off without electric power or any human intervention at all. Longer term possibilities include lifetime fueling, which would allow a single charge of fuel to power a reactor for its entire life -- making it in effect a nuclear battery.

  • Plant positioning (which is normally on or near water anyway) would be relatively easy and inexpensive -- and would even allow for repositioning onsite or for relocation to an entirely different site in years to come, or for easy replacement of an entire reactor module.

Pulling all of this together, the design approvals by the NRC, the shipyard construction, the delivery, the installation, and the start-up timeframes -- not to mention the costs -- would be cut in half or even more.  Nearby "land side" facilities, state and federal environmental permitting, Power Grid connections, and other peripheral matters would be undertaken simultaneously.

Unforeseen delays with any of these -- which might be known well in advance -- could probably be accommodated by simply arranging for taking later delivery of the FNPP on order.  This might not be inexpensive, but it would not be fatal, either.

With the likelihood of standardization of such plants, a delayed delivery or installation at a particular site might well allow for an earlier start-up at some other ready-to-go site.  Flexibility would be the order of the day -- a welcome development in an industry where there is zero flexibility today.

Small FNPPs for the Russian Arctic

Finally, although Russia, Japan, Korea, and other nations have been "talking about" the FNPP option for several years, only two or three small units intended for remote, site-specific units have been completed and deployed -- the most recent of which is the Russian vessel "Academic Lomonosov," about which a TIME-Online article of November 12, 2010 commented, in part, as follows:

Now however, the resourceful Russians have come up with an idea, one that they hope could not only secure the country's position as the preeminent Arctic power, but also blossom into a lucrative export business: floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs).

The idea of FNPPs is simple, if a little scary: Outfit a barge with two 35-megawatts reactors, float them to a spot off the coast and run cables to land to distribute your power. An FNPP set-up this size could power a city of 200,000.

The concept has some people screaming about "floating Chernobyls," but the technology is safer than that. For one thing, the portable reactors are fairly proven hardware, derived from those used on the icebreakers. And while any nuclear reactor poses real dangers if something goes wrong, the FNPPs are comparative pipsqueaks - their 35 MW output only a fraction of the Chernobyl plant's 4,000.

A prototype vessel has already been launched at a St. Petersburg shipyard; after reactors are affixed it will be towed to Vilyuchinsk, a city (pop. 25,000) in the Russian Far East that is home to a squadron of nuclear submarines. It is expected to be operational in 2012.

Although, it might take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Coast Guard, the Department of Energy, and others three or four years to settle on hull designs and on the particular nuclear plants best installed in at least three prototypes, these same years can be spent

(a)  gearing up the shipyards, suppliers and skilled labor;

(b)  selecting and preparing the most appropriate plant sites;

(c)  seeking the state and local, EPA, NRC, and other operating permits; and

(d)  selecting the prototype customers and the financing required -- with the first three prototypes scheduled for delivery and installation in four or five years, which is much faster than current practices provide.

But before these organizational and operational steps are taken, it is necessary for the national leadership -- the Congress, the White House, the governors, and the energy and construction industries -- to make an informed decision that this is indeed an option which needs to be urgently explored, defined, and robustly acted upon.

A presidential-congressional commission of a dozen authentic, apolitical experts -- with half its members from government and half from industry and science, and with a reporting deadline of no more than six months -- might be a good way to expedite the initiative.  The subsequent six months could be devoted to designing the three prototypes' production phase and legislating a formal structure.

The strategic goal -- why not ten FNPPs built, delivered, installed, and operating by 2020, and why not at least twenty more by 2030?

A DC-area attorney, writer and national security strategist, Jim Guirard was longtime Chief of Staff to former US Senators Allen Ellender and Russell Long.   His TrueSpeak.org Web site is devoted to truth in language and truth in history in public discourse.

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