Russian Floating Nuclear Reactors – Proliferation Risks

Eduard Fesko
June 24, 2002

Russian Floating Nuclear Reactor, used with permission by

Russian Floating Nuclear Reactora,
Used with permission by

For the past 10 years, high-ranking officials from Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) and Rosenergoatom have been expressing unequivocal support for construction of floating nuclear power plants in remote areas of the Russian Far North and East. Construction of Russia’s first floating nuclear power plants is moving ahead. These small power plants would provide electricity and heat to regions with underdeveloped infrastructure or to the sites of big construction projects. The mobile nature of floating nuclear power plants would purportedly allow them to be moved to areas struck by natural disasters or other emergencies. The plants could also be used for desalination of sea water. In addition, Russian government officials believe that floating nuclear power plants possess significant export potential. However, since these plants will be powered by reactors running on highly enriched uranium (HEU, in which the share of the uranium-235 isotope is over 20%), exports of such plants increase the global proliferation of this especially sensitive nuclear material. HEU is more readily converted to weapon-grade material than low enriched fuels. Physical protection of exported plants and issues of ownership and liability are also difficult problems.


From 1991 to 1994, Malaya Energetika, a publicly traded company created under the auspices of Minatom, conducted a competition to determine the best design for a small capacity nuclear power plant. The winning project called for construction of a floating nuclear power plant with two KLT-40C pressurized water reactors, the type used in Russian Arktika- and Taymyr-class nuclear icebreakers. These reactors run on HEU. The project was developed by the joint stock company Atomenergo, which was created in 1993 by the Afrikantov Experimental Machine Building Design Bureau (OKBM) (Nizhniy Novgorod), the Nizhniy Novgorod Machine Building Plant, the Iceberg Central Design Bureau (St. Petersburg), the Baltic Shipyard (St. Petersburg), and Atomflot (Murmansk). (1) The floating nuclear power plants would be accommodated aboard barges (with dimensions of 140 meters (m) by 30 m by 10 m and a water displacement of 20,000 metric tons) that would be towed to their destination and anchored off shore. Each plant’s two turbo generators, powered by the two KLT-40C nuclear reactors, would produce 60 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Spent nuclear fuel would be stored aboard, and the vessel would also have all the necessary equipment for refueling the reactors during the 12-year periods between plant overhauls. A staff of 60 would service the plant. The service life of the plant would be 40 years and during this period the plant would undergo two major overhauls at a shipyard. (2)


Though government officials at both the federal and the local level hail the economic efficiency of floating nuclear power plants, it is unclear how much their operation or construction will cost. In the January 29, 2002 issue of Izvestiya, Grigoriy Vengerovich, technical director of the floating nuclear power plant construction project at Sevmash (Arkhangelskaya Oblast), was quoted as saying that it will cost three billion rubles (over $98 million as of January 29, 2002) to build such a power plant in Severodvinsk. (3) Construction costs for a similar power plant for Vilyuchinsk (Kamchatskaya Oblast) are estimated at $203.5 million. (4) In 2000, a group of Russian environmental and nuclear experts estimated that construction of a floating nuclear power plant for Pevek (Chukotskiy Autonomous Okrug) would cost $279.4 million, (5) while Minatom’s figures for the same project were over $300 million. (6) Construction costs in the Far East (Vilyuchinsk and Pevek) may be higher than in the European part of Russia due to higher transportation costs, but transportation costs alone do not explain the cost discrepancies. The same ambiguity also surrounds the price of electricity production. Vengerovich maintains that a kilowatt will cost no more than 36 kopecks (a little over one cent). (7) In October 2001, however, Kamchatskaya Oblast Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev said that a kilowatt produced by a floating nuclear power plant will cost just over one ruble (four cents as of October 29, 2001). (8) According to Greenpeace-Russia representative Ivan Blokov, Minatom expects to produce electricity at the cost of 10-12 cents per kilowatt. (9) It is unknown what factors Russian officials take into account when calculating the projected price of the electricity. It is unclear whether the cost of transportation of nuclear fuel, handling of radioactive waste, provision of plant security, development and maintenance of infrastructure, environmental protection and rehabilitation, etc., are included in the calculations or whether the real price is in fact much higher.

Current Plans

During an international seminar entitled “Small Power Plants: Results and Prospects,” held in Moscow on October 10, 2001, Minatom announced that 33 towns and villages in the Russian Far North would receive small nuclear power plants. Eleven of these power plants would be floating and are supposed to be constructed for Severodvinsk, Vilyuchinsk, Pevek (Chukotskiy Autonomous Okrug), Sovetskaya Gavan (Khabarovskiy Kray), Nakhodka (Primorskiy Kray), Rudnaya Pristan (Primorskiy Kray), Nikolayevsk-na-Amure (Khabarovskiy Kray), Olga (Primorskiy Kray), Dudinka (Taymyrskiy Autonomous Okrug), Onega (Arkhangelsk Oblast), and the construction site of the Trukhanskaya hydroelectric plant (Evenkiyskiy Autonomous Okrug). (10) The announcement at the seminar indicated that installation of the first floating nuclear power plant in Russia would begin in 2005 in Kamchatka. The technical design of the power plant – a barge with two KLT-40C reactors with a total output of 70MW – has been completed and awaits a construction license. According to the announcement, installation of the second floating nuclear power plant is scheduled to begin in 2006 in Severodvinsk. (11) After attending a government meeting on 18 December 2001, Arkhangelsk Oblast Governor Anatoliy Yefremov announced that in 2002 Minatom would spend 130 million rubles (almost $4.3 million on that date) to assess the technical and economic feasibility of building floating nuclear power stations in Severodvinsk. (12) It is unclear which plant will be built first. Local authorities are usually very enthusiastic about having a floating nuclear power plant since financing for its construction will come from Moscow, which means that the local economy will get a new power generating plant at no cost.

Proliferation Concerns: Russian Floating Nuclear Reactors

Minatom’s intention to export floating nuclear power plants (NPPs) adds to other concerns about these plants. Among possible buyers, Russian government officials identify China, (13) Indonesia, and the Philippines. (14) Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Russia is allowed to export such plants as long as it exports the plants and their fuel to countries that are signatories of the NPT and accept full-scope safeguards (monitoring activities that apply to all fissile material in a non-nuclear weapon state to ensure that those fissile materials are not used for military purposes) of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Thus, Russia cannot export its floating nuclear power plants to such countries as Cuba, India, Israel or Pakistan. But exporting HEU-fueled reactors undermines efforts to reduce global stockpiles of HEU and consolidate them in as few and secure places as possible.

The exact level of enrichment of the uranium fuel for the floating reactor is unclear. While Russia has alternate designs that would allow it to build a floating reactor powered by low-enriched uranium (uranium, in which the share of the uranium-235 isotope is under 20%, usually around 2-4%), this would entail a costly redesign of the KLT reactor. Instead, current plans call for HEU-powered reactors, which may use uranium enriched up to 90% (weapons-grade). (15) OKBM scientists will not reveal the level of of uranium enrichment for the floating reactor, but they indicated that it would be well above 20%. (16) HEU exports, especially to such politically unstable countries as Indonesia or the Philippines, would constitute a serious proliferation risk: nuclear material might be stolen or the floating nuclear power station could become the object of a terrorist attack. In either case, the floating reactor itself and the nuclear fuel must be properly guarded to ensure that the HEU does not fall into the wrong hands. It is unclear, however, whether it is Russia or the importer that will have to provide security for the floating NPP. In 1997, Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeniy Reshetnikov said “Russia will design (the floating nuclear power plant), build it, operate it, and take it away.” (17) He did not mention who will be responsible for protection of the plant once it is delivered to the customer. Russian officials say that exported floating nuclear power plants will comply with all security standards applied to land-based nuclear power plants in Russia. (18) Will Russia itself send its military to guard the plant? Or will the receiving side provide guards who will follow Russian regulations? If Russian military personnel are sent along with the plant, a host of questions must be resolved – what status will Russian soldiers have in a foreign country, what rules of engagement would apply, who will have the ultimate jurisdiction over the plant and its staff, etc.? If the importing country is to guarantee security, what happens if there is a regime change in that country and the new government does not want to honor the previous government’s obligations?

Environmental Concerns

Numerous environmental activists agree that floating nuclear power plants pose many risks to the environment and public health. They question the utility and safety of civilian electricity production through the use of a nuclear reactor designed for naval propulsion. Since there are technical limitations to implementing many of the safety features of a land-based NPP on a floating NPP (for example, their reactors cannot be hidden underground or behind high-impact concrete walls as is the case with land-based NPPs), they argue that the risk of a nuclear accident on a floating nuclear power plant is increased. The physical security of such a plant is also a big concern: how well would it be protected against a missile, torpedo or terrorist attack, falling plane, earthquake, tsunami, temperature changes and harsh weather conditions? The plants’ potential impact on the fragile Arctic environment through emissions of radioactivity and heat is not clear and remains a major concern. Although a floating nuclear power plant is supposed to be completely autonomous and provide storage for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste aboard, environmentalists fear that if additional radioactive waste is produced and there is no room for it aboard the vessel, that extra waste will be dumped into the sea or on shore nearby. (19)

Given these points, the use of HEU and the inherent vulnerability of floating NPPs to outside attack, Minatom’s plans to export floating nuclear reactors raises serious questions, especially given recent security lapses at nuclear power plants inside Russia.

(1) Vladimir Kuznetsov, “Perspektivy plavuchikh AES,” Yadernaya bezopasnost, No. 29-30, October-November 1999, p. 12.
(2) “Pervaya plavuchaya atomnaya teploelektrostantsiya,” OAO Malaya Energetika,
(3) Viktor Filippov and Irina Podlesova, “Nachinayetsya stroitelstvo pervoy v mire plavuchey AES,” Izvestiya, No. 15, January 29, 2002; in Universal Database of Russian Newspapers,
(4) Yevgeniy Sivayev, “Bespredelno mirnyy atom prigrozil Kamchatke mikrorentgenom,” Kamchatskoye vremya, October 29, 2001; in Russian Nuclear Non-Proliferation,
(5) “Svodnoye zaklyucheniye obyedinennoy obshchestvennoy ekologicheskoy ekspertizy proektnoy dokumentatsii ‘Obosnovaniye investitsiy atomnoy teploelektrostantsii maloy moshchonsti na baze plavuchego energobloka proekta 20870 s reaktornymi ustanovkami KLT-40C v g. Pevek’,” AtomSafe,
(6) “AES plyvet, odnako” Ekosvodka obozreniye,, No. 8 (2000).
(7) Filippov and Podlesova, “Nachinayetsya stroitelstvo pervoy v mire plavuchey AES.”
(8) Sivayev, “Bespredelno mirnyy atom prigrozil Kamchatke mikrorentgenom.”
(9) Filippov and Podlesova, “Nachinayetsya stroitelstvo pervoy v mire plavuchey AES.”
(10) E. Belova, “Malaya energetika. Itogi i perspektivy,” Atom pressa, No. 40 (467), October 2001, p. 1.
(11) “Minatom Plans to Build Small NPPs,” US Department of Energy, Moscow Office Weekly Report, November 5-9, 2001.
(12) “Novosti: 19 dekabrya 2001,”
(13) O. Ordin, “Novosti rynkov: Elektroenergetika,” Institut finansovykh issledovaniy,, October 15, 2001.
(14) V. Kuznetsov, A.Yablokov, V. Desiatov, I. Forofontov, and A. Nikitin, “Offshore Nuclear Power Stations,” CIS Environment and Disarmament Yearbook, 2000, pp. 28-43.
(15) CNS interview with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist (name withheld by request), May 30, 2002
(16) CNS interview with an OKBM scientist (name withheld by request), October 2001.
(17) Kuznetsov, Yablokov, Desiatov, Forofontov, and Nikitin, “Offshore Nuclear Power Stations.”
(18) Belova, “Malaya energetika. Itogi i perspektivy.”
(19) Kuznetsov, Yablokov, Desiatov, Forofontov, and Nikitin, “Offshore Nuclear Power Stations.”

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