Next month, a floating nuclear power plant called the Akademik Lomonosov will be towed via the Northern Sea Route to its final destination in the Far East, after almost two decades in construction.
It’s part of Russia’s ambition to bring electric power to a mineral-rich region. The 144-meter (472 feet) long platform painted in the colors of the Russian flag is going to float next to a small Arctic port town of Pevek, some 4,000 miles away from Moscow. It will supply electricity to settlements and companies extracting hydrocarbons and precious stones in the Chukotka region.
A larger agenda is at work too: aiding President Vladimir Putin’s ambitious Arctic expansion plans, which have raised geopolitical concerns in the United States.
The Admiral Lomonosov will be the northernmost operating nuclear plant in the world, and it’s key to plans to develop the region economically. About 2 million Russians reside near the Arctic coast in villages and towns similar to Pevek, settlements that are often reachable only by plane or ship, if the weather permits. But they generate as much as 20% of country’s GDP and are key for Russian plans to tap into the hidden Arctic riches of oil and gas as Siberian reserves diminish.
In theory, floating nuclear power plants could help supply energy to remote areas without long-term commitments — or requiring large investments into conventional power stations on mostly uninhabitable land.
But the concept of a nuclear reactor stationed in the Arctic Sea has drawn criticism from environmentalists. The Lomonosov platform was dubbed “Chernobyl on Ice” or “floating Chernobyl” by Greenpeace even before the public’s revived interest in the 1986 catastrophe thanks in large part to the HBO TV series of the same name.
Rosatom, the state company in charge of Russia’s nuclear projects, has been fighting against this nickname, saying such criticism is ill founded.