Floating nuclear power plant fuels Russia’s Arctic ambitions

Anchored off the tiny Arctic town of Pevek is Akademik Lomonosov – the world’s first floating nuclear power plant and a sign that President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for Russia’s far east are taking shape. Fort.

This port on the north coast of Siberia was once notorious as a Soviet marsh. These days, it’s part of Moscow’s plan to open up a major shipping route across the Arctic and make natural resources more accessible.

Pevek’s harbor is only ice-free for four months a year but is intended to become a hub for trade on the Northern Sea Route as climate change gradually softens the Arctic route. And the energy provided by Akademik Lomonosov helps make Pevek the gateway to Chukotka, a region near Alaska and rich in gold, silver, copper, lithium and other metals.

“Without the NSR, without the port, there would be no Pevek,” Maxim Zhurbin, the deputy mayor of Pevek, said in an interview in the town in October.

Two nuclear icebreakers are under construction in St. Petersburg. They will accompany commercial ships across the Arctic © Nastassia Astrasheuskaya / FT

Few in Pevek seem concerned about the nuclear reactor in the harbor. “Fear? We don’t have. Maybe Russians fear nothing anymore. We’ve seen and lived through everything. We have to be optimistic,” said Igor Ranav, a locally-born businessman. “We were told that the factory was made with the latest technology and that it was safe, and I hope so.”

“It’s amazing that it’s here,” said Natalia Koveshnikova, a retired accountant who has lived in Pevek most of her life. “This is the first year we have year-round heating and hot water.”

The development of the NSR is in the hands of Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation. In addition to operating the Akademik Lomonosov, Rosatom is also in charge of nuclear-powered icebreakers that the company hopes will help open up year-round navigation in the Arctic by the middle of the decade.

Rosatom did not disclose how much it is investing but insists its Arctic businesses will turn a profit. “For us it is mainly business. And to facilitate the current projects, we base it on the ability to invest”, said Alexei Likhachev, head of Rosatom.

Once fully ramped up in 2023, the nuclear plant in Pevek is expected to power a number of resource projects including Mayskoye, a gold mine developed by mining company Polymetal’s England and Pyrkakay, one of the country’s largest tin mines.

The Akademik Lomonosov Floating Nuclear Power Plant docks at Pevek Port © Alexander Ryumin / TASS / Getty

Rosatom plans to install four more floating nuclear plants by the end of the decade across Chaunskaya Bay to power the Baimskaya copper mining project. Large deposits – metals that are now in high demand for use in renewable energy technology – were discovered in Soviet times but a lack of technology, equipment and infrastructure slowed the development. its development.

“The project is in the middle of nowhere. Oleg Novachuk, chief executive officer of KAZ Minerals, who is in charge of the $12 billion project, which is expected to start production in 2028, said there is no electricity, no roads, no roads.

With floating reactors, the project will have a predictable cost of electricity for about 60 years.

Developing Chukotka along with the rest of the Arctic has long been a goal of Putin and Russia, which will hold a plenary meeting this week. Arctic Council, where representatives of eight countries in the region.

“Russia should expand through the Arctic, because this is where the main mineral resources are,” Putin said in 2017, when Russia first produced liquefied natural gas in the Arctic and exported it via the NSR. .

NSR shipments increased from 1.5 million tons in 2000 to 33 million tons last year, mainly gas and oil. After his most recent re-election in 2018, Putin said the volume would reach 80 million tonnes by 2024.

Rosatom expects the volume of all Russian exports passing through this route to reach 110 million tons over the next decade, while also attracting international shipping, which it estimates will begin around 2020. 2025 and reach at least 30 million tons by 2030.

Map showing the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic Ocean.  Using the southern route from Busan to Rotterdam via the Suez Canal takes 40 days.  Northern route takes 27-28 days

Rosatom believes stalemate in the Suez Canal this year, when commerce was disrupted by a container ship running aground, prompted its case for the NSR. It said the route is usually shorter and therefore competitive, although it is necessary to hire an icebreaker to escort the ship during the winter.

For example, a trip from Busan in South Korea to Rotterdam in the Netherlands would take 27-28 days via the NSR compared to 40 days via the Suez Canal, according to Rosatom. “A difference of 12 days, when you ship $1 billion worth of goods, is a pretty big number,” said Kirill Komarov, first deputy director of Rosatom. said.

DP World, the UAE’s logistics company and port operator, became the first international company to sign an NSR shipping partnership agreement with Rosatom in July, pledging to invest $2 billion in infrastructure and additional fleet.

A Russian meteorologist with weather and climate monitoring equipment in Pevek. The average annual temperature in the town has increased and the warming trend is expected to reduce maritime © Nastassia Astrasheuskaya / FT

Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chief executive officer of DP World, said the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted global supply chains, is also showing the need for additional routes.

Efficient year-round transportation management remains a challenge for Rosatom, although climate change in general is playing some role. Over the past 40 years, the Arctic ice cap has halved in the warmest month of September and by 10% in the coldest month of March, according to the Institute of Arctic and Antarctic Studies. By mid-century, the institute expects ice to lose two-thirds more in summer and halve in winter.

Warming oceans are expected to help cut shipping costs. Less ice means fewer icebreakers and faster journeys.

Weather forecasting and winter safety remain an issue, especially on the eastern leg of the NSR. Ice covered the Arctic waters earlier than expected in November and left 24 ships stranded.

Rosatom’s Likhachev attributed the situation to incorrect weather forecasts, increased demand for the route, and altered transportation schedules due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Pevek’s residents are getting a rare sense of being part of a growing economy. “We came to a dark city. For the first few years, life here was gone, people left and rumors spread that the town was going to close,” said Pavel Rozhkov, an IT specialist who came from Moscow 9 years ago as a missionary. Baptist, said.

“Then there was news that they were going to build a floating nuclear plant. . . Huge capital investment has begun to flow into the town, the town has begun to grow”.

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