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Dr. Ron Smith

Floating Nuclear Reactors: coming soon to a port near you?

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Here’s an idea to address our continuing power generation anxieties: a nice new floating nuclear reactor. Minimal infrastructure required; just tie it up in a convenient harbour and plug it in. The first of these is being built in St Petersburg, Russia, and they will ultimately be available to tow to anywhere in the world. The present design offers 70MW of low maintenance, environmentally-friendly power (enough to supply a city of 200,000) and on a platform about the size of a football field. Just the thing, one might think, when the rain hasn’t fallen and the wind doesn’t blow, and the Cook Strait link is uncertain and the Waikato River is too warm to cool Huntley. Power when you want it, with zero greenhouse emissions.

And, of course, this would be perfectly legal. The 1987 New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987 (Section 11) merely prohibits the entry into our internal waters of ‘vessels whose propulsion is dependent, wholly or partly, on nuclear power’. In this case the vessel (a large barge) is unpowered and would not contribute to the power of the towing vessel. There is a small irony here. The two reactors that provide the 70MW of electricity are of a design that originally powered Russian nuclear icebreakers, so that if they were to arrive here, installed in such a vessel, they would certainly be illegal. Sitting on a barge and ready to go, they would present no such problem.

It is, at present, uncertain what the unit cost of electricity from this source would be and it needs to be noted that such a power unit would operate continuously, not as an emergency or back-up facility. In our case, this latter capability would be better provided by a hydroelectric source. The point of adding nuclear capability to the system would be precisely to free-up hydro capacity for just this back-up purpose.

One of the many virtues of the floating nuclear reactor concept is that it requires very little onshore service support. Fresh fuel would come with it and the spent fuel would go with it at the end of the rental period (probably around twelve to fifteen years). As a consequence, this mode of nuclear power supply would be very positive from a non-proliferation point of view, since the hiring country would not have separate possession of nuclear material, or of any sensitive nuclear technology. Everything is retained on the barge and returned with it.

Initially, the Russian barges are intended for remote communities in the Russian far north but it is envisaged that they may be available world-wide. It is also possible that other providers will come into the market. The US company Westinghouse investigated this kind of facility as early as the 1970s and could be moved to do so again (as could other major nuclear suppliers), especially if the cost of power from this kind of source turned out to be at all competitive.

But for all the potential convenience of floating reactors, New Zealand would probably be much better off to begin serious consideration of more conventional land-based nuclear facilities. A plan to establish a permanent nuclear site, somewhere north of Auckland (perhaps in the Kaipara Harbour, as envisaged in the 1978 Royal Commission report on nuclear power), would open up the possibility of a secure and economic energy supply, which also ought to be of great consolation to citizens concerned about carbon emissions.

In the longer term, it would open up choices with regard to the use of our surface waters that presently we don’t have. For instance, we might decide to use more of these waters for tourism and for profitable agricultural enterprises, rather than conserving every drop against the ever-present danger of a power crisis. On present knowledge, a plan of this kind (for a land-based continuing nuclear capability) is probably better than floating reactors and certainly much better than the combination of hope and an ill-founded reliance on speculative ‘renewable’ resources.

As far as nuclear power for New Zealand is concerned, we just need the courage to think about it and begin to collect reliable information. Once we do this we will find that most of the grounds that are commonly held to count against nuclear power are not as substantial as they have seemed. In fact, experience around the world confirms that civilian nuclear power is safe, highly reliable, economically competitive and environmentally friendly. A vigorous nuclear industry does not detract from Switzerland’s appeal and the fact that France generates around 80% of its power by nuclear means does not prevent it from being the world’s number one tourist destination. It is, thus, not plausible to argue that the development of nuclear power here would reflect unfavourably on our tourist industry.