Are we ready for floating Chernobyls?
Summary: Moscow’s Indo-Pacific “step up” involves a long-term strategy to sell small modular nuclear reactors to energy insecure states in our neighbourhood.....
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For now, these compact, floating nuclear reactors are prohibitive in terms of cost and lead time. That hasn’t stopped Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, Rosatom, from showcasing the potential of floating nuclear power.
Last month Rosatom launched with much fanfare the world’s first floating nuclear power plant — the Akademik Lomonosov — to demonstrate its viability for emerging energy markets. China and the US also are developing SMRs for domestic use (China is building its own class of SMRs to float offshore and power its South China Sea islands), while Russia appears to be targeting international markets. Rosatom claims to have several Southeast Asian clients already lined up.
Russian nuclear power plants have a coloured history, yet Rosatom still accounts for 30 per cent of global nuclear power construction. Floating nuclear power plants are, according to Rosatom, “mobile, safe and self-contained”. Theoretically, they can be towed to remote locations, moored offshore and connected to the electrical grid. A nuclear core meltdown is unlikely given the endless supply of water from the ocean.
The International Energy Agency views nuclear power as a central component of any global quest to reduce carbon emissions and notes nuclear energy development out to 2040 will be concentrated in the Indo-Pacific region, led by China and India.
When questioned on safety aspects of the Akademik Lomonosov, Rosatom representatives claimed (with ominous Titanic connotations) that the floating plant was “virtually unsinkable”. It is all very well that the barge is iceberg hardened and designed to withstand 7m waves. However, floating nuclear plants in the Asia-Pacific present a suite of different operational challenges. Not to worry, Rosatom confirms that its SMR concept has been tested to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake and resulting tsunami.
Yet stark challenges remain unresolved. What if the mooring breaks, erodes or is tampered with and the reactor simply floats off into international waters? Who is responsible? Could these platforms be weaponised and sent purposefully on to a collision course with enemy coastlines? No doubt floating nuclear power plants will be critical infrastructure at risk, requiring state protection of the asset — will this lead to the militarisation of offshore energy infrastructure?
Rosatom’s land-based nuclear power plant sales are also flourishing, with the strongest global demand coming from Asia with its growing electricity demand.
The largest nuclear power plant deal to date between China and Russia has Rosatom building four plants for Beijing. The Chinese and Indian markets are diversifying their energy mix away from Australian coal towards liquefied natural gas and nuclear power. Delhi has signed on with Rosatom for a further six nuclear power plants.
Russia is not only servicing large clients; several Southeast Asian markets also are engaging, with memorandums of understanding signed with Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. Rosatom’s efforts to expand its nuclear power plants into Indonesia have been a long slog, but they appear to be paying dividends. Since 2015, Rosatom has had a MoU with the National Nuclear Energy Agency of Indonesia to work towards nuclear energy development. Indonesia this year undertook a feasibility study to determine exactly where, on the earthquake-prone archipelago, would be best to build.
Perhaps Indonesia will move straight to the floating nuclear option. A Brookings Institution study revealed Indonesia’s Gorontalo province is in talks with Russia to moor a floating plant off the coast. Given the proximity, a nuclear-powered Indonesia is a security concern for Australia.
Our neighbourhood’s move towards nuclear power isn’t surprising. Nuclear power is one of the cleanest forms of energy and Russia’s product is further sweetened by debt-for-asset style contracts in which Russia finances, builds and operates plants in exchange for handsome interest rates and, in effect, ownership of the client’s strategic energy infrastructure. Moscow is no stranger to this approach, particularly in the energy industry — just look to the former Soviet republics and how much of their domestic energy infrastructure the Kremlin still controls.
These debt-for-asset arrangements are tempting for cash-strapped emerging markets in the region and a looming strategic nightmare for us. Part of Australia’s Pacific “step-up” plan is playing a more active leadership role.
Russia’s nuclear energy strategy for the Indo-Pacific highlights critical vulnerabilities for Australia. As it is, Canberra’s position as the largest LNG exporter may be relatively short-lived thanks to surges in US LNG and cheaper Russian Arctic LNG supplies flooding the market. Australia plans LNG terminals to import our exports to meet domestic demand, while others forge ahead with nuclear power plants and we remain incapable of having a serious nuclear power debate.
Floating Chernobyls aside, in at least considering nuclear power options our neighbours are viewing energy security through a national security lens, illustrating that Russia and our neighbours have something Australia still doesn’t: an energy strategy and an appetite to face our own nuclear power potential.