Nukes on a Boat

Sounds a bit like “Snakes on a Plane” but it’s not a movie, it’s for real*:

The Akademik Lomonosov will be the first vessel of a proposed fleet of floating plants with small pressurized water reactor units that can provide, energy, heat, and desalinated water to remote and arid areas of the country.

I’ve always thought that instead of decommissioning nuclear subs or aircraft carriers they should be docked or beached and used to power coastal communities. You’d need one hell of a set of jumper cables, but I suspect the electrical geniuses could figure it out. Turns out my nutty idea isn’t so far-fetched:

It will be the first floating nuclear station to be built and deployed since the MH-1A, also known as the Sturgis, in the US in 1967. The Sturgis was towed to the Panama Canal Zone that it supplied 10 MW of electricity from October 1968 to 1975.

If you are worried about the Russians, with their nuclear record, building a fleet of nukes-on-a-boat, remember they got the idea from us! One megawatt can supply the instantaneous electrical demand of roughly 500-1000 homes. The power plant at Shasta Dam, for comparison, is rated at 676 MW. So a floating power station is a small-scale operation, designed to deploy in remote areas.

A nuclear reactor solves the problem of intermittency that you get with renewables (like solar and wind) and works in any environment. You can supply it with enough fuel to last many months, perhaps years. That solves the problem presented by a fossil fuel generator. And people are not as squeamish about nuclear power when it is out of sight or far away. The United States Navy has dozens of nuclear-powered vessels (mostly carriers and submarines) that prowl the sea lanes of the world 24/7. Imagine if they were nuclear-powered trucks instead and zipped around our interstates: the nation would collectively shit a brick.

After Chernobyl and Fukushima I doubt we’ll see much enthusiasm for large-scale nuclear power plants. The future will likely bring more small-scale applications, and companies like this one in Oregon are anticipating that potential market. The burst of solar and wind power installations will pick up some of the slack as coal is phased out in favor of natural gas (cheaper, cleaner-burning), and new technologies like fuel cells will also come on-line to meet our growing energy demands. Improvements in efficiency will mean we’ll meet some conservation goals, but our needs will still grow and we will still need low-cost (in both economic and environmental terms), reliable power.

The Industrial Revolution sowed the seeds of its own destruction by improving living conditions and thus spurring population growth. When you can grow more food, house and clothe more people as well as keep them warmer, safer, and cleaner, then their babies will live and prosper. Subsistence farmers have lots of children as they are an economic necessity. Urban professionals have fewer children and invest more resources in them. If you want to get a handle on human overpopulation then you have to spread the wealth. Poverty creates overpopulation, reducing poverty slows population growth.

Capitalism generates wealth by exploiting natural resources. You can’t do that without capital and technology. If you borrow to build, you expect your future earnings to pay off your debts. If you loan or invest, you expect future repayment. Thus you have to keep growing in order to spread wealth. And you have to have energy to grow. One thing I expect we’ll see are more micro-grids, local solar-and-storage installations that will power a village for example, or a hospital. That will provide resiliency if the macro-grid has reliability issues, and will also provide for areas outside of the macro-grid’s reach.

It will be relatively easy to de-carbonize electricity, what will be hard to de-carbonize are transport fuels. Cars and trucks and ships work on internal combustion engines that need hydrocarbon fuels. Hybrid technologies will certainly make an impact, but a fully electrified transportation network is likely unrealistic. Certainly short-range hauling and public transit systems can be converted, but long-range, air, and ocean hauling will require either improved existing technologies or breakthroughs in what are now fringe technologies.

Like our search for a super-food that will nourish us as well as protect us from cancer, we are driven to find the perfect form of energy. Fusion power is still the Holy Grail, we’d truly be harnessing the sun’s power by recreating it on earth. That dream is probably still decades away, but you never know. I’m sure even fusion will have some unique, interesting, and unforeseen ecological impact but I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to find out.

In the mean time we’ll have Nukes on a Boat. The fear of traditional nuclear power plants in the wake of events like Three Mile Island will result, it seems, in a greater dispersion of nuclear material. What originally was conceived as a centralized power source supplying a regional or national grid may evolve into something very different. We already use nukes in space, radioisotope thermoelectric generators have been powering deep space satellites and other spacecraft for decades.

Like GMOs, nukes are one of those evil-scientist creations we’ll have to learn to live with. Neither will deliver on its promises—what technology does?—but both will certainly provide bridges to future innovations that will do a better job. And I think we can also assume that both technologies will find themselves in places no one envisioned when they were first imagined.



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