Interest grows in floating nuclear power plants

Interest is growing in installing small modular reactors (SMRs) on floating barges or platforms to decarbonise offshore oil and gas or mining activities, according to the International Atomic Energy Assoication.

At an IAEA symposium on floating nuclear power plants that took place recently in Vienna, legal experts, nuclear and maritime regulators, as well as industry leaders, discussed the benefits and challenges of FNPPs and exactly what role they could play in the fight against climate change and the transition to Net Zero.

Opening the meeting, IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi (pic) said that in many countries “there is active consideration of floating nuclear power plants”. However, as part of discussions about their viability and potential applications, the Director General said that safeguards and the international legal and regulatory implications needed to be thoroughly analysed.

Nuclear energy has already been in use for about 60 years in naval ships and icebreakers propulsion. However, FNPPs are different since they will produce low-carbon power and heat for different applications, including district heating, desalination and hydrogen production.

Floating NPPs can be built in a factory, assembled in a shipyard and transported to a site, all of which may help to speed up construction and keep costs down. Canada, China, Denmark, South Korea, Russia and the USA are each working on marine small modular reactor designs, some are in advanced development, and Russia even has one FNPP, the Akademik Lomonosov, in commercial operation in the far east of the country. The Akademik Lomonosov FNPP has been in operation, producing electricity and district heating, since 2020. It has replaced the shut down Bilibino NPP and the aging Chaunsk coal power plant.

However, it is the very mobility of these FNPPs that raises new questions according to the IAEA, particularly when they move across international borders or operate in international, rather than territorial, waters. For example, how does the licensing and regulation process work when a FNPP is built and fuelled in one country’s jurisdiction, and then transported to another jurisdiction?

“The IAEA is working with our Member States to determine what further guidance and standards might be needed to ensure the safety of floating nuclear power plants”, IAEA deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, Lydie Evrard, added. 

“The IAEA’s safety standards serve as the global reference for protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation. There are also considerable legal and regulatory challenges that must be addressed if a truly international floating nuclear power market is to emerge,” she said.

Topan Setiadipura, co-chair of the Symposium and head of the Research Centre for Nuclear Reactor Technology (BRIN) in Indonesia, added: “To some extent, floating NPPs are an interesting option for Indonesia as many power or utilities companies have floating diesel power plants or floating gas power plants.”  

However, acquiring more information and knowledge is essential to understanding whether embarking countries like Indonesia could use FNPPs in the future to replace fossil-fuelled floating power plants, he said.