Russia Is Launching a Floating Nuclear Reactor, Despite Warnings It Could Be 'Chernobyl on Ice'

Russia has launched a controversial floating nuclear reactor, despite warnings from environmentalists the vessel poses a dire safety risk.

The Akademik Lomonosov left the Arctic port of Murmansk on Friday, beginning its 3,000-mile journey to Russia's remote Siberian region in the northeast of the country, AFP reported.

State nuclear agency Rosatom has lauded the project, claiming that the Akademik Lomonosov will provide energy to isolated communities without needing to construct a permanent power plant on ground that remains frozen year-round. Rosatom plans to sell the technology to other nations that are unable or unwilling to build their own permanent nuclear facilities.

But environmental groups have branded the reactor "Chernobyl on ice" and a "nuclear Titanic," warning that accidents could occur due to collisions with other vessels or storms, irradiating the Arctic environment.

Rashid Alimov—the head of the energy sector of Greenpeace Russia—told AFP the inherent risks associated with any nuclear reactor are multiplied by the fact that the 472-foot Akademik Lomonosov is a floating facility.

"Akademik Lomonosov is additionally vulnerable to storms," he explained. The reactor will be towed into position by other ships, meaning that in a storm there is a risk that the Akademik Lomonosov could collide with its escort.

It will store its spent nuclear fuel aboard, which means that any accident could "have a serious impact on the fragile environment of the Arctic," Alimov added. Such an incident in the remote Arctic could be especially serious given the lack of infrastructure to facilitate any clean-up effort, he warned.

The 21,000-ton reactor's trip is due to last for between four and six weeks. This will depend on the weather conditions during the voyage and the amount of ice it has to travel through to reach Pevek, a 5,000-person town in the Siberian region of Chukotka.

The Akademik Lomonosov is set to replace an existing local nuclear and coal plant, which has already been closed. It will mostly be responsible for providing power to regional oil platforms as Moscow seeks to increase hydrocarbon extraction in the Arctic region.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, Rosatom suggested that the concerns raised by Greenpeace were unfounded. "Instead of seeing the Akademik Lomonosov as an opportunity for clean, green, and stable energy supplies in harsh and remote conditions, it scaremongers," a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that the floating reactor "is built to the highest standards of resilience and is able to safely withstand a full spectrum of negative scenarios including man-made and natural disasters. Nuclear icebreakers have been a feature of the Arctic for many years, and the Akademik Lomonosov's high level of safety is one of the features that makes it so well suited to this environment."

Russia's nuclear power record is currently under scrutiny following a deadly explosion at a military testing site earlier this month, believed to have been related to a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The incident caused a 16-fold local spike in radioactivity around the Nyonoksa test range in Russia's Arctic region and killed at least five workers.

This article has been updated to include a statement from Rosatom.

Russia, nuclear reactor, floating, chernobyl, ice, Siberia
The Akademik Lomonosov is pictured being towed to Atomflot moorage of the Russian northern port city of Murmansk on May 19, 2018. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images/Getty